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Mike Hawthorn

Mike Hawthorn: A True Yorkshire Terrier
by Jeremy McMullen
 In the early morning hours of January 22nd, 1959, with the wind howling, Mike Hawthorn would finally come up against a challenger that would end up being more than his equal. And in those early morning hours along the A3 near Guildford, the British people would lose its first-ever World Champion.

Born in Mexborough, Yorkshire in 1929, John Michael Hawthorn would certainly have a lot in common with the small breed of dog. Some would say he was arrogant. He would also be very independent and rather difficult. But he would also do and say a lot of things that would make him no stranger to controversy.

As a young boy, Mike would be introduced to motor racing by observing races at the famed Brooklands motor racing circuit during the days before World War II. Although born in Mexborough, Mike would still be surrounded with tuned motorbikes and cars as a result of his father Leslie who was a trained engineer and raced and tuned cars and motorbikes on the side.

Then, in the early 1930s, Leslie would take his family and would move to Farnham in Surrey. There, with partner Paddy Johnstone, Leslie would open the Tourist Trophy Garage. By the later-‘30s Mike would be at his father's garage each and every day. Despite being less than 10 years of age Mike would still be seen helping his father around the garage.

If Mike wasn't at the garage he would be at Brooklands watching the intense action. Speaking about this experience Hawthorn would relate:

'The first motor races I ever saw were at Brooklands. I was only a very small boy, but to me it was heaven to watch the cars thundering round those towering cliffs of concrete where the banking curved under the Members' Bridge, to wander along the lines of brightly coloured cars in their stalls in the paddock, to jump as an exhaust snarled suddenly and to sniff the aroma of castor oil.'

It was clear that Hawthorn's greatest education would be in the field of motor racing. And after Leslie took Mike around Brooklands in a 2.0-liter Riley, Mike determined from that moment on that he would become a racing driver. This would never show up more vividly than in school where he would be never more than an average student. It was clear that athletics and sports were of greater importance to the boy.

By the time Mike was ten years of age the Second World War was just heating up and many a man would be called into service of his country in order to stem the German advance. Meanwhile, Mike would be still more concerned with motor racing than with conquering nations.

After war's end, Hawthorn would go to work at Dennis Bros of Guildford. Dennis Bros of Guildford would actually employ another man by the name of Alan Brown. Brown would also be a regular competitor in grand prix racing during the early 1950s and would actually earn Cooper their first World Championship points. Hawthorn and Brown would compete against each other regularly and would even drive the same type of chassis.

But that would still be a few years away. In the meantime, Hawthorn would work as an apprentice. In order to get to work, Mike would drive a 1939 Triumph his father had had rebuilt for him.

But while Mike would become well known for his talents on four wheels, his first success would actually come on two. In 1947 he would have enough money to buy a BSA trial bike and would soon decide to start racing. In his first-ever event, a novice cup race, Mike would take the victory. This would be the encouragement Mike would need to focus on becoming an engineering student in order to prepare race cars and motorbikes, and even to go racing. However, there was one big problem—studies.

Every son needs a father, and it was time for Leslie to step into the situation and provide his son some guidance. Realizing that his son's talents lay in driving and not in engineering, Leslie would provide the means for his son to go racing. And in 1950, Mike would be successfully competing in Rileys, Ulster Imps and a Sprite. It was clear, just I during the 1950 season that Mike was a natural racer and deserved to graduate into the higher formulas.

But then conditions would open the door for the big blonde racing driver. At the end of the 1951 Formula One World Championship season Alfa Romeo would withdraw from the series leaving only Ferrari as the main factory effort. The World Championship needed to reduce costs and increase competition. It needed time to come up with a winning formula. And in the meantime, Formula 2 had just what the World Championship would need. This would open a door of opportunity to Mike that likely would have been at least a year further off.

Heading into the 1952 season, Mike would drive for Robert Chase. Chase would purchase a Cooper-Bristol T20 for Hawthorn to use and the exceptional abilities of the then 23 year old would go on full display.

With the help of his father preparing the car, Mike would make his World Championship debut at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1952. And in the rain, he would manage to come through to score an incredible 4th place result. Just a few months later Hawthorn would score an incredible podium result in his home grand prix. The 3rd place result Alberto Ascari and Piero Taruffi would gain a lot of attention. But it would be the Daily Mail Trophy race at Boreham that would draw the attention of more than one team manager.

In the wet conditions of the Daily Mail Trophy race Mike would wield his Formula 2 Cooper-Bristol around the circuit passing the Formula One Ferrari 375 piloted by Luigi Villoresi. He would hold onto the lead until the rain stopped and the track dried. Once dry, the full power of the Ferrari 375 would be more than Hawthorn could contend and he would end up finishing 3rd. But it would be the race that would really set his racing career in motion.
After the performance at Boreham, he would be approached by Jaguar's Lofty England. England had witnessed the performance and would later comment, 'I saw him drive at Boreham, and it rained like hell in the afternoon. He passed and led Villoresi…in the wet—in his little Cooper-Bristol. I thought, ‘this is my boy.''

Within a matter of days Mike would be testing in a specially-prepared C-Type. And within a few laps would be under the lap record. But Lofty wouldn't be the only one that would be impressed by Hawthorn's performance. Enzo Ferrari would end up offering Hawthorn a contract to drive for Ferrari in 1953. Hawthorn would take the opportunity and would become the first British driver to be signed by a major manufacturer from Europe since Dick Seaman.

The move to Ferrari would place Hawthorn amongst a whole lineup of great grand prix talents. But in a year that Alberto Ascari would go on to win his second-straight World Championship, it would be Hawthorn that would provide a performance for the ages.

Mike's talents at the wheel of a race car were certainly undeniable, especially after the 1952 season. However, in spite of his incredible performances it was also becoming quite clear those performances came as a result of him actually being interested in going racing. Otherwise, there was a tendency to be rather unspectacular.

However, at the French Grand Prix in 1953, Hawthorn would be very interested in the race that day and would be a part of one of the greatest grand prix ever. The first half of the race would see him as a mere part of an incredible performance put together by the race's front-runners. Lap after lap, the top six would race wheel-to-wheel and would never be more than a few feet apart. It was an incredible sight to behold. It would then be topped off by a second half that would see a titanic battle waged between the aged champion Juan Manuel Fangio and Hawthorn.

It was a beautiful thing to behold; age and youth racing side-by-side lap after lap. Every single lap Hawthorn and Fangio would be seen side-by-side peering at each other, giving each other room, but neither giving in. Incredibly, Hawthorn would never give in to the experience and prowess of Fangio. And on the very last lap of the race, Hawthorn would have the lead and would hold off Fangio to take his first World Championship victory. A driver's first World Championship victory is always a memorable affair, but the fact Hawthorn's first race victory would come in such a great moment in grand prix history would make the victory all the more memorable.

In spite of the victory in the French Grand Prix, Hawthorn would be largely overshadowed throughout the whole of the season. So while the question of his inconsistency was certainly well founded, the following season would see him step into his first bit of controversy.

After losing out on another victory at the Argentine Grand Prix major questions would arise about his failure to report for mandatory National Service. The mandatory service was in response to the Korean War and posed a serious disruption to Hawthorn's time with Ferrari. However, to be called up to service one had to be present. But because he was in South America at the time he would not know that he was called up, nor was he at home to receive the call. Therefore, he would be exempted from service, but not the controversy surrounding it.

Besides the controversy with national service and a victory in the Spanish Grand Prix, the final round of the Formula One World Championship, the 1954 season would be a rather disappointing and painful season

At the Syracuse Grand Prix Mike would crash and would suffer some rather serious burns to his hands and other parts of his body. The time in the hospital would be painful for reasons beyond the pain suffered from the burns. It would be at this time the whole national service controversy would be brewing. It would also be at this time that Mike would learn that his father had passed away in a car accident. The medical bills mounted. What was worse, at the end of the year he would see yet another doctor for a problem he had been experiencing with his kidneys. What earnings he had went to pay them. It would be the first time in his very young career that he would consider retirement.

After two years with Ferrari, Hawthorn would not renew his contract with the team. The aimlessness of the Formula One effort and all of the other issues suffered throughout 1954 would lead Hawthorn to want to look to other interests. And while he would drive for Vanwall in the World Championship in 1955 he would also finally take the opportunity to drive for Lofty England and Jaguar. Unfortunately, this move would result in one of the darkest and controversial moments in all of motor sports history. Unfortunately, Hawthorn would be right in the middle of it, and in many cases, the source.

Driving for Jaguar in the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans, Hawthorn would be in a great duel with Fangio for the outright lead of the race. Hawthorn would overtake Lance Macklin driving an Austin-Healey while Fangio followed behind Pierre Levegh, who was approaching Macklin. As Mike passed Macklin he would see the team wanted him to pit for fuel. In that year, Jaguar would debut the use of disc brakes. That meant there was greater stopping power than on the rest of the cars in the field. Even barely touching his brakes would cause Hawthorn to slow at a greater rate than Macklin. Macklin would swerve to avoid Hawthorn. Unfortunately, Levegh would be too close to Macklin to be able to do anything. He would hit the Austin-Healey and would become airborne at speeds greater than 150 mph. At those speeds parts would be sheered off the car and sent into the immense crowd assembled along the start/finish straight. Even the engine would break loose and would be launched into the crowd.

As Hawthorn drove down the pitlane without so much as a second thought to anything happening, an absolute horror would be enacted directly across from the pits for all to see. The magnesium-bodied car would burn uncontrollably for a number of hours after an unsuspecting worker tried to douse the flames with water. Smoke and fire continued to rise high into the air. The race would go on but more than 80 would be dead and another 100 severely injured.

Even before the end of the race Hawthorn would be the center of controversy. Some media would claim him culpable. Without meaning to do so, Mike would find himself the very embodiment of evil, something that would haunt him for the rest of his life. This perception wouldn't be helped at all when he and Ivor Bueb would go on to take the overall win in the D-Type Jaguar.

Throughout the 1955 and 1956 seasons, Hawthorn would only set foot on the podium one time in a Formula One World Championship race. Then, in 1957, while back driving with Scuderia Ferrari, he would stand on the podium twice. But still, his last victory in the series would be all the way back in 1954 at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Many would suggest the inconsistency was a result of his lack of interest, and this would not be untrue. The usually hard-living, hard-partying Hawthorn would experience great tragedy in 1958 and it was clearly weighing heavily on the usually beaming, blonde-haired gent.

Death and motor racing were regular, and unfortunate, bedfellows during the 1950s. This would lend to a number of drivers, especially Mike Hawthorn and his fellow Brit and friend Peter Collins, to live every day to its fullest. The nature of the sport at the time would also build up a kind of callousness that, when combined with Hawthorn's competiveness, would not endear him to everybody, especially Luigi Musso's girlfriend.

Musso was a third driver for Ferrari during the 1958 season but was not part of the special bond that had formed between the two Brits. This placed incredible pressure on Musso to have to try and outduel Hawthorn and Collins. When Musso was mortally-wounded in the French Grand Prix, his girlfriend would find Hawthorn and Collins laughing and playing as if nothing had happened. This callousness would lead Musso's girlfriend to actually hate the two Brits. But it would certainly seem to be something more akin to a curse as the rest of the year played out.

Despite the jovial mood at the time of Musso's death, the 1958 season would be an extremely depressing year for Hawthorn. Besides Musso's death, Hawthorn would lose his good friend Peter Collins at the German Grand Prix. And despite being in position to win the World Championship, the loss of his good friend would lead Hawthorn, absolutely grief-stricken, to actually begin looking forward to a life outside of motor racing.

But at the same time tragedy filled Hawthorn's life, he would be experiencing his greatest moments of achievement. It was clear Hawthorn was interested, for at least one final season. He would start out the season well with a 3rd place finish in the Argentine Grand Prix. He would then score a 2nd place result at the Belgian Grand Prix. When he took the victory at the French Grand Prix yet again, many believed it was to be his year to finally win the World Championship. And four 2nd place finishes in four of the last five races would certainly seem to ensure the claim.

However, it wouldn't be as straight-forward as it would seem. Out of the ten races on the season, Stirling Moss would win four of them. Then, at the Portuguese Grand Prix, Hawthorn would make a mistake. While he would go on to finish the race in 2nd place the stewards were set to disqualify him for his maneuver to try and rejoin the race. Moss would actually stand up for his fellow Brit and the results would stand. This would make a huge difference heading into the last race of the season, the Moroccan Grand Prox.

Moss's actions at the Portuguese Grand Prix meant he would need a victory and the fastest lap of the race, plus, Hawthorn would need to do finish worse than 3rd. Moss would take the lead and would set an absolutely blistering pace that would earn him the fastest lap in the race. Despite all that Moss would do to give himself the best chance at winning the title, Hawthorn would doggedly stay right in the hunt and would end up finishing the race in 2nd.

He had done it! He had endured one of the most painful seasons in his life and came away as Britain's first World Champion. And with that, it was the right time to walk away. At just 29 years of age, Hawthorn would write a letter to Enzo Ferrari delivered just one week later telling him that he was retiring.

Speaking of that moment in which he would become World Champion Hawthorn would recall, 'I don't know what I did…I was about a 100 yards or so beyond my pit when it dawned on me I hadn't really savoured it to the full, for it was the last time I would drive a grand prix car in a race. I had made up my mind—I would retire.' Clearly, at the height of his success, the great loss and implication he had suffered throughout the years had made it clear that all of the success was truly empty.

Nevertheless, a passion for speed and fast living was very much a part of Hawthorn's life. Besides motor racing, Mike would become a pilot and would own a number of aircraft over the course of his life.

He would actually start his introduction to flying while in Argentina in 1954. Upon returning to England, and after recovering from his burns, he would take flying lessons at Fairoak Flying Club in Surrey. He would then use the aircraft to fly to meetings whenever he had the opportunity. He would even fly to the Monaco race and would later recount how he had spotted a, 'rather large town with a tall tower.' It would take him a little bit but he would soon realize he was flying over Paris.

Hawthorn lived life as though he was always heading out to go die. What many people didn't realize is that he really was a dead man walking. All the way back at the end of the 1954 season Hawthorn would see a doctor for a kidney problem that was terribly bothering. What was not so well known was that Mike had a rare kidney disease and his days on this earth were severely limited already.

But then there was that early morning drive on the 22nd of January in 1959. Mike would race in a number of different types events. However, one of the rarest types of racing events in which Hawthorn would take part would be saloon racing. He would only take part in four races and would eventually win three of them. The final win, which would come in 1958 would be in a 3.4-liter Jaguar MK1. VDU 881 would be used by Hawthorn to win the race in '58 and would be loaned to him for his personal use by Lofty England. He would be driving the same car on that dark day in British motoring history.

Hawthorn knew the route well, but what he wasn't expecting was the howling wind that would take a number of others by surprise driving the same stretch of road at the same time. Intriguingly, one of those out driving that morning was Rob Walker, a team owner that entered sportscar and grand prix races.

Hawthorn had a busy day ahead of himself, despite being retired. It was clear he was travelling at a great rate of speed but he would slow down long enough to pull aside Walker, flash him a grin and take off again. After that, events would unfold that snuff out the life of the golden boy forever.

While not entirely clear to Walker it seemed obvious that the backend of the car stepped out, but not more than Hawthorn could handle. In fact, Walker seemed to think Mike's speed actually increased at the time. But this time he could not hold onto it. It was raining at the time, and travelling at what would be suggested to be around 100 mph, the car would strike a lamp post and a lorry sheering the bumper right off and sending the car across the road, over a small embankment and into a tree. The car would strike the tree with such force that it would actually uproot the tree.

Last seeing Hawthorn's famous grin, Walker would now stop to try and find the man. The car would be so mangled from the impact with the tree that Walker couldn't immediately find him. The car would actually be split in half. Then, Walker would find his body in the back seat of the car. Amazingly, another of Mike's friends, Duncan Hamilton, was also in the area and would hear about the terrible accident. Hamilton would be right there with the rescue people extracting Mike's body from the car. The event would make Hamilton fulfill a promise he undoubtedly never wanted to have to do and that was to do the formal identification of Hawthorn's body.

But even in his death there would be a bit of controversy and conjecture. In the days before the accident Hawthorn apparently began to suffer blackouts as a result of kidney failure. This would lead many to believe this was the actual cause of the crash. Other explanations would be derived from Hawthorn's own autobiography Challenge Me The Race. In the autobiography Hawthorn would tell of a close relative that had been killed during the Second World War. As a result, Mike had a deep dislike of anything German. Interestingly enough, the Jaguar he had been driving that day he called 'the Merceater' and he would claim that it could beat any German car. This would lead many to suggest that upon seeing Walker driving a Mercedes-Benz 300SL, Hawthorn sped up and ended up placing himself in the position that would lead to his death. This wouldn't necessarily fit with Walker's testimony about the accident but it would still be a possible explanation for Hawthorn's actions that rainy morning. But in the end, the reasons were of a moot point.

Newspapers printed that day would have simple headlines stating, 'Mike is dead', or, something similar. Such was Hawthorn's fame and reputation amongst his countrymen that everyone immediately knew who 'Mike' was referencing.

Interestingly, Ivor Bueb, Hawthorn's co-driver and friend in the tragic 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans would also die in a wreck during a non-championship race at Clermont-Ferrand. He would also die in 1959, just like Hawthorn.

In less than a decade, the bright shining star of Mike Hawthorn would be extinguished. And while he would not die on the track, he would be one of a number that would not live out his life to some grand old age. Filled with passions and darkness, the World Championship years would end up taking more of Hawthorn's life than most realized. But while the image of the big blonde gentleman with his bowtie would be missing from the grand prix circuits of the world, his legacy as Britain's first World Champion would not. But perhaps what would last all the more would be the final image Rob Walker would have of the Yorkshire terrier, that of his infectious smile.

'Mike Hawthorn Biography', (http://www.mike-hawthorn.org.uk/bio.php). Mike Hawthorn—A Tribute. http://www.mike-hawthorn.org.uk/bio.php. Retrieved 3 April 2012.

'Mike and National Service', (http://www.mike-hawthorn.org.uk/callup.php). Mike Hawthorn—A Tribute. http://www.mike-hawthorn.org.uk/callup.php. Retrieved 3 April 2012.

'Mike's Fatal Accident A Comprehensive Account Part 1', (http://www.mike-hawthorn.org.uk/finality.php). Mike Hawthorn-A Tribute. http://www.mike-hawthorn.org.uk/finality.php. Retrieved 3 April 2012.

'Mike Hawthorn: History', (http://www.formula1.com/teams_and_drivers/hall_of_fame/471/). Formula 1.com. http://www.formula1.com/teams_and_drivers/hall_of_fame/471/. Retrieved 3 April 2012.

'Drivers: Mike Hawthorn', (http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/drv-hawmik.html). GrandPrix.com. http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/drv-hawmik.html. Retrieved 3 April 2012.

'Britain's First Formula One Champion', (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/motorsport/3216385/Britains-first-Formula-One-champion.html). The Telegraph. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/motorsport/3216385/Britains-first-Formula-One-champion.html. Retrieved 3 April 2012.

Horton, Roger. 'Reflections On Another Age: Mike Hawthorn Remembered', (http://atlasf1.autosport.com/99/jan27/horton.html). Atlas Formula One Journal. http://atlasf1.autosport.com/99/jan27/horton.html. Retrieved 3 April 2012.

'Driver-Entrepreneur that Scored Cooper's First Points', (http://8w.forix.com/brown.html). 8W: The Stories Behind Motor Racing Facts and Fiction. http://8w.forix.com/brown.html. Retrieved 3 April 2012.

Wikipedia contributors, 'Mike Hawthorn', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 21 March 2012, 17:40 UTC, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mike_Hawthorn&oldid=483181073 accessed 3 April 2012
Races47
Championships1
Wins3
Podiums18
Career Points113
Pole Positions4
TeamsLD Hawthorn, AHM Bryde, Ferrari, Vanwall, BRM
BRM  
Ferrari  
Racing SeriesFormula One
Years1952-1958

1952 Formula One Season
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