Mike Hawthorn (1929 - 1958)

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Mike Hawthorn (1929 - 1958)

Mike Hawthorn

John Michael Hawthorn

Mike Hawthorn was not a clinical driver in the Fangio and Moss mould, arguably a little inconsistent, but when he was on song he was almost unbeatable. John Michael Hawthorn was born on 10 April 1929 at Mexborough, Yorkshire (UK), but in 1931 his father Leslie Hawthorn went into partnership in a garage business at Farnham, in Surrey. Hawthorn senior was a keen racing motor cyclist and the major reason for the move was to be near the Brooklands track at Weybridge.

Naturally, the young Hawthorn was taken to Brooklands and he was soon being steeped in the traditions of motor racing. Like so many racing drivers Hawthorn soon got behind the wheel of a car - unfortunately it was a customer's Jowett which the eight-year old Hawthorn managed to drive around a field behind the family's TT Garage at Farnharn.

Schooling took place at Ardingly College in Sussex during the war years. While his father was away working as a ferry pilot, and while he was still at school, Hawthorn purchased his first motor cycle. A succession of bikes followed and he took up trials riding and scrambling on a competitive basis, winning several events.

Dennis Brothers of Guildford

After leaving school he was apprenticed to Dennis Brothers of Guildford, the commercial vehicle builders, and then he went on to Kingston Technical College and the College of Automobile Engineering at Chelsea. His father wanted him to get a good grounding in engineering theory and practice but the only practice the young Hawthorn wanted was to drive cars as fast as possible, His father gave him a Fiat 500, but youthful exuberance was a little too much for the tiny Italian car which broke frequently under high cornering stresses, so an indulgent father replaced it with a decrepit Riley 9 which served well until a Lancia Aprilia took its place.

The Brighton Speed Trials

The Aprilia impressed Hawthorn and reinforced his desire to become a racing driver. Leslie Hawthorn encouraged his son in this ambition and in 1950 he bought a Riley Ulster Imp, a pre-war 1100cc machine which was still impressively fast. It was completely rebuilt and Mike Hawthorn took part in his first motoring competition, the Brighton Speed Trials, where he won his class. His second and last ever speed trial was at Gosport soon afterwards when he finished second in class. For the 1951 season the Imp and a 1.5-litre TT Riley Sprite were prepared for racing and Hawthorn began notching up wins in club races around England; he took part in the 10-lap handicap race which preceded the Ulster Grand Prix at Dundrod, and with a favourable handicap he won the race with ease, then followed up by winning the Leinster Trophy at Wicklow.

Hawthorn knew that he would have to get into single seaters if he was to progress much further in motor racing and he had test drives in Formula Two Connaughts and HWMs. He spun the Connaught at Goodwood and HWM selected Peter Collins, but a family friend, Bob Chase, offered to buy a Cooper-Bristol if Leslie Hawthorn would prepare and run it for Hawthorn Junior. The Hawthorns accepted immediately and they rushed to get the. car ready for the Easter Monday meeting at Goodwood. Hawthorn justified Bob Chase's choice by running away with his first race in the car. Later in the day he came up against the great Fangio, who was also in a Cooper Bristol, but Hawthorn ran away from the great man and won again.

The Belgian Grand Prix

In the third race of the day Hawthorn was up against Froilan Gonzales in the Thin Wall Special 4.5-litre Ferrari, a combination which proved unbeatable, but he finished second and the press went mad about the new English hope. For the rest of the season Hawthorn captured headlines with his driving of the Cooper, as he invariably won or led the race until the car broke down. He won a heat of the International Trophy at Silverstone against top opposition but broke down in the second heat. His first continental race was in the Belgian Grand Prix at the difficult Spa circuit, where he finished fourth after various dramas. He followed up with another fourth at the Dutch Grand Prix, against the might of the works Ferraris and after this race he was invited to test a Ferrari later in the season.

Before that he had finished third in the British GP, had won a Coupe des Alpes in the Alpine Rally and had won the Turnberry F2 race in a works Connaught. He tried the Ferrari at Modena and found it a very fast and pleasant car to drive, but after testing the Ferrari he went out in his own Cooper-Bristol to compare it, crashed into some straw bales and was put in hospital for several weeks. Despite this, Ferrari signed him on for the 1953 season which proved to be pretty successful for Hawthorn. In the F2 Ferrari he won the races at Pescara, the Ulster Trophy, the Daily Express Trophy and the French Grand Prix at Reims which he won after a race-long duel with Fangio, beating the maestro to the line by a few yards. The victory was a turning point for British motor racing because it showed that British drivers were able to mix it with the accepted masters and win.

The Spa 24-Hour

As well as his French GP win, Hawthorn finished third in the German and Swiss GPs, co-drove to victory with Giuseppe Farina in the Spa 24-Hour race and picked up other good places. Hawthorn stayed with Ferrari for the 1954 season but it was much less successfuL At the start of the year he was attacked by the Press and many MPs for not doing his National Service, although kidney trouble prevented him joining up anyway, and then in April he crashed in the Syracuse GP and was badly burned when the car caught fire. He was out of racing until June, but then his father was killed in a road crash and he had to assume control of the family business. However, he returned to racing with a fourth place at Spa, then finished second in the British GP, second at the Nurburgring, second at the Italian GP and wound up the season with a win at the Spanish GP.

But the new 2.5-litre Squalo Ferrari was not a good handling car and the Ferrari drivers merely hoped that the Mercedes would retire, which they seldom did. His only other major victory of 1954 was to win the Supercortemaggiore GP in a Monza Ferrari with Maglioli, but he and Trintignant finished second in the TT at Dundrod. With the need to spend more time in England to look after his garage business, Hawthorn signed for the Van wall team in Formula One and Jaguar in sports cars for 1955. Unfortunately the Vanwall was not yet raceworthy and Hawthorn resigned from the team and rejoined Ferrari in mid season, but the Ferrari was no more competitive than the previous year and he was seldom placed.

Tragedy at Le Mans

He did win Le Mans in a D-type Jaguar with Ivor Bueb but there was little happiness in it for Hawthorn because he was blamed by many people for the crash which killed 80 spectators. He also won the Sebring 12-Hour race in a D-type and fought a tremendous race in a D-type against the works Jaguars at the TT on the Dundrod circuit and was leading them until the crankshaft broke. He wanted to continue with Ferrari in Formula One in 1956 and stay with Jaguar in sports cars, but Ferrari would not agree, so he signed for BRM in Formula One. However, the new rear-engined 2.5-litre BRMs were having a poor season and Hawthorn suffered a number of expensive blow ups and spectacular accidents. His season with Jaguar was little better, his only placing of consequence being a second in the Reims 12 Hours.

Although Hawthorn was intensely patriotic and wanted to beat the foreign cars in a British machine he knew that the British manufacturers were still finding their feet so he returned to Ferrari for 1957 to handle the V8 Lancia-Ferrari. These were difficult cars to drive well and Hawthorn needed to be fully confident in a car to give his best, so he contented himself with several good placings, such as fourth at the French GP, third at the European GP held at Aintree, second at the German GP, and sixth at the Italian GP. He also finished third at Sebring in a D-type Jaguar and took in various saloon car races with a 3.4 Jaguar, winning the production car race at the Daily Express Silverstone meeting.

For 1958 Hawthorn again stayed with Ferrari who had introduced a new Formula One car, the Dino V6 which was a much better car. Hawthorn was always well placed during 1958 and although he couldn't always match the speed of Brooks and Moss in Vanwalls he picked up many high placings, finishing third in the Argentine GP, fifth in the Dutch GP, second in the European GP at Spa, second in the British GP, second in the Portuguese GP, second in the Italian and second in the Moroccan. He also won the French GP for the second time at Reims.

Mike Hawthorn and the Vanwall at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1955Mike Hawthorn and the Vanwall at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1955.

Mike Hawthorn at the 1958 British Grand Prix
Mike Hawthorn at the 1958 British Grand Prix. He finished second to Peter Collins.

World Champion

Although both Brooks and Moss had won more races than him, Hawthorn became World Champion because of his consistency. In sports car racing he had finished third in the Targa Florio and second ip the Nurburgring 1000 km. He had become the first British driver to win the World Championship and as such he was widely feted both in Britain and on the European Continent, where he had become very popular. But his triumph was tinged with sadness - it was during that season he had lost team mates Luigi Musso and Peter Collins (who was one of Hawthorn's best mates) and Stuart Lewis-Evans. Racing had always been fun to Mike Hawthorn and with the deaths of so many friends the fun had gone, so he announced his retirement from racing.

Hawthorn spent the winter of 1958 rebuilding his old Riley Sprite and a 2.3-litre Alfa Romeo as well as attending to the now prosperous Jaguar dealership in Farnham. But one day in January he had some business in London, so he set off across the Hog's Back and down the Guildford by-pass in his 3.8 Jaguar. On the way he passed ex-racing driver Rob Walker in a 300SL Mercedes who acknowledged him as he passed. No one knows whether Hawthorn decided to show a clean pair of heels to the Mercedes but halfway down the steep hill into Guildford, the Jaguar suddenly shot across the dual-carriageway and smashed into a tree. By the time Walker had stopped and run across to the spot, the World Champion was already dead.

Challenge Me The Race

After the accident there was considerable speculation as to why Hawthorn, such an accomplished driver, would be involved in an accident that would take his life. Those close to him knew that he had lost a kidney to infection and began suffering problems with his remaining kidney in as early as 1955. He was expected at the time to live only a few more years. One of the side-effects, or so it was reported, was that Hawthorn would suffer an occasional blackout due to his medical condition. To this day, nobody knows the real reason, although competitiveness seems likely. Hawthorn's Jaguar was nicknamed "the Merceater", and was heavily modified for high power and speed.

"No Kraut car could overtake or outaccelerate" Hawthorn's Jaguar (these are the words in his biography Challenge Me The Race) - a close relation had been killed in the war, hence his dislike of Germans. There is now evidence that Hawthorn had recently become subject to blackouts, perhaps because of kidney failure, that might well have caused the accident. In Farnham, the town where he lived up to the time of his death, there is a street named Mike Hawthorn Drive (off Dogflud Way). It was also in this town that Hawthorn ran The Tourist Trophy Garage. Jaguars, Rileys, Fiats, and Ferraris were serviced and sold from there. There is a corner named after him at the Croft racing circuit, at Croft on Tees in North Yorkshire.

Rivalry with Luigi Musso

Many years after the death of Mike Hawthorn, Fiamma Breschi, Luigi Musso's girlfriend at the time of his death, revealed the nature of Musso's rivalry with fellow Ferrari drivers Mike Hawthorn and Collins in a television documentary, The Secret Life of Enzo Ferrari. Breschi recalled that the antagonism between Musso and the two English drivers, encouraged all three to take more risks: "The Englishmen (Hawthorn and Collins) had an agreement," she says. "Whichever of them won, they would share the winnings equally. It was the two of them against Luigi, who was not part of the agreement. Strength comes in numbers, and they were united against him. This antagonism was actually favourable rather than damaging to Ferrari. The faster the drivers went, the more likely it was that a Ferrari would win." Breschi related that Musso was in debt at the time of his death, and the money for winning the 1958 French Grand Prix (traditionally the largest monetary prize of the season), was all-important to him.

After visiting the mortally-wounded Musso in hospital, Breschi returned to her hotel, where she and the rest of the Ferrari team were informed by the team manager that afternoon that Musso had died. By the end of that year Collins and Hawthorn were also dead, and Breschi could not suppress a feeling of release. "I had hated them both," she said, "first because I was aware of certain facts that were not right, and also because when I came out of the hospital and went back to the hotel, I found them in the square outside the hotel, laughing and playing a game of football with an empty beer can. So when they died, too, it was liberating for me. Otherwise I would have had unpleasant feelings towards them forever. This way I could find a sense of peace."
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