Nearly forty years after his untimely death, Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood is still considered by many to be the greatest motorcycle racer of all time, someone who could win on any bike at any track at any age, and do so with both natural talent and flair in abundance.
Hailwood won his first world title at the age of 21 and by the time he retired in 1967, aged just 27, he had amassed eight more titles and 76 Grand Prix victories, the latter a figure that even today is the fifth-highest all time. His record of 14 TT victories is also the fifth highest in solo wins around the Mountain Course.
It’s true that Hailwood’s early career was funded by his millionaire father Stan, but it was “Mike the Bike,” as he was affectionately known, who turned on the throttle and money only got him so far, it was his skills and talent the rest.
He fought with and beat some of the biggest names in the sport, including Giacomo Agostini, Phil Read, Jim Redman, Bill Ivy and Gary Hocking, and while picking ten of the greatest achievements is no easy task given his glittering resume, here are some of his career highlights.
1959 British Championship
Hailwood emerged on the scene in 1957 as a fresh-faced 17-year-old, his first race coming at Oulton Park on a 125cc MV. He made his TT debut the following year, finishing a brilliant third in the 250cc race held at the 10.97-mile Clypse Course, and by now he was already dominating the short track scene.
Hailwood won the 125cc, 250cc and 350cc British Championships in 1958, but then went one better in 1959 when he also won the 500cc title to make it a clean sweep of the British Solo Championships. He repeated the feat in 1960 when, still only 20 years old, he also became a firm contender in the World Championships.
1959 125cc Ulster Grand Prix – first Grand Prix win.
As seen in the British Championships, Hailwood’s versatility was already evident and in 1959 he also contested all four solo World Championship classes on a variety of machines including a 125cc Ducati, a 250cc Mondial, a 350cc AJS and a 500cc Manx Norton.
Fifth place was taken on the Mondial in the 250cc World Championship, but despite his lanky body, it was the 125cc Ducati that gave him his best results that year, finishing a good third overall in the World Championship.
The crowning moment came at the Ulster Grand Prix when he went head to head with the MZ of Gary Hocking. It was so close that the two were credited with an identical time on the second lap, but Mike eventually prevailed on the ninth of 10 laps. With his head down, he built a winning margin of 7 seconds over Hocking, giving him his first of 76 Grand Prix victories.
1961 Isle of Man TT – first hat trick
Throughout 1960, Hailwood’s career continued to build and he arrived at the 1961 Isle of Man TT as one of the main contenders for honors, particularly in the smaller categories where he had secured factory Honda bikes for the 125cc and 250cc races. All of the classes are now back on the 37.73-mile Mountain Course.
Although Hailwood completed only one practice lap on the 125cc machine, he broke the lap record on the first lap, did the same on the second, and his first TT win duly came by a margin of 7.4 seconds over another Honda rider, Luigi Taveri.
The 250cc race followed later in the day and it looked like Mike would have to give second best to fellow Honda rider Bob McIntyre, who broke the lap record and led by over 30 seconds going into the final lap. However, his engine stalled at Sulby, which put Mike in the lead, and he emerged the clear winner to complete the double.
Hailwood had set his sights on winning four TTs, but those dreams ended cruelly in the Junior when his AJS expired on the final lap when he led by more than two minutes. Victory number three came in Senior, however, when he took the lead after Hocking had problems with the MV Agusta, becoming the first man ever to win three TTs in a week.
1962 – first 500cc World Championship
After the success of the 1961 TT, Hailwood took three more 250cc Grand Prix victories to win the first of his nine world titles, and his enthusiasm and skills drew the attention of Count Domenico Agusta, who offered him 350cc and 500cc MV Agusta for the Italian Grand Prix of Monza. Mike won the 500cc race and finished second behind Hocking in the 350cc race. Based on the results, he secured a contract with one of the best racing factories in the world.
Hocking would remain the leading rider and Mike found it difficult at first, finding the complicated four-cylinder MVs more difficult and temperamental than the simpler singles he had ridden before. The TT proved to be a turning point, however, after he edged out teammate Hocking by just 5.6 seconds in a thrilling junior race.
Hocking abruptly retired from racing after the TT, leaving Mike with the responsibility of winning races for MV Agusta, but he did not disappoint. He immediately made it five wins in a row to win his first ever 500cc World Championship, and also finished third in the 350cc standings. The MV Agusta was undoubtedly the bike to have, and Mike would win four 500cc titles in a row between 1962 and 1965.
1965 Senior TT
Mike and the MV Agusta dominated the 500cc World Championship and won Grand Prix races throughout Europe during those four years, but one race that stands out is the 1965 Senior TT; In fact, it is still considered by many to be his most outstanding ride.
The combination of Mike and the MV was expected to win the 1965 Senior, especially with new teammate Giacomo Agostini making his TT debut and viewing it very much as a learning year. Conditions for the six-lap race were far from perfect, with rain at various points on the track and Agostini failing at Sarah’s Cottage, giving Mike a lead of more than two minutes over Derek Woodman at the end of the second lap.
However, on the third lap, Mike also crashed at Sarah’s Cottage, the MV suffering a broken windshield, damaged exhaust and bent handlebars, while Mike himself suffered numerous cuts and bruises. Undeterred, he picked up the bike and launched it down the hill with a bumper start before making a U-turn in the middle of the road and rejoining the race, which, remarkably, he continued to lead.
A long pit stop got rider and machine back in order as best they could, but Mike still led, and despite having to pit again at the end of lap five with a broken throttle cable, he fought on to win one of his best TT and Grand to win a prize.
1966-67 – the Honda years
Count Agusta wanted Hailwood to stay with MV for a fifth consecutive season in 1966, but Honda was keen to sign him and bolster its already impressive team of Jim Redman, Luigi Taveri and Ralph Bryans. Mike subsequently signed for the Japanese giant with the plan that Redman would go all out for the 500 cc title on Honda’s new machine and Hailwood would compete in the 250 cc and 350 cc World Championships.
Redman won the first two 500cc races, but then crashed in Belgium, breaking his arm and retiring from the race shortly after. Mike took over the 500cc ride and competed in the 250cc, 350cc and 500cc races at every Grand Prix for the next two seasons. With all races lasting longer than an hour, it was a remarkable achievement.
In his two years with Honda in 1966 and 1967, Mike won an astonishing 35 Grand Prix races in the three categories despite stiff competition, taking the 250cc and 350cc titles each year, with the 1967 250cc championship arguably the hardest fought as he tied points with Phil Read at the end of the year, both riders having the same number of wins and second places. He also tied points with Agostini for that year’s 500cc crown, but while the 250cc title went in his favour, after the combined Grands Prix times were set, the two riders did not finish the 500cc and Hailwood and Honda both had to give up year to Agostini and MV.
1967 Senior TT
One of Hailwood’s 35 wins in 1966 and 1967 came during the 1967 Senior TT after a titanic battle with Agostini, still considered by many to be one of the greatest TT races of all time.
The Honda was fast but handled poorly, making riding on the Mountain Course a tough job, but Hailwood literally grabbed it by the scruff of the neck as he led the fight against Agostini’s far handier MV.
The Italian set a new all-time lap record on the first lap and led Mike by 12 seconds, but the tide was turned the second time around when Mike went even faster at 108.77 mph – a lap record that stood for eight years – to close the gap to eight seconds. The gap had shrunk to two seconds when both drivers pitted at the end of lap three, Mike grabbing a hammer to knock a loose twist grip back into place.
Agostini extended his lead to 12 seconds again on the fourth lap, but as Mike sped past the grandstand to start his sixth and final lap, there was no sign of Ago – the chain had come loose at Windy Corner and his race was over. Mike raced to his 12th TT win and his second hat trick, but when Honda pulled out at the end of the season, Mike’s full-time racing career came to an end.
1978 Formula One TT
If the 1967 Senior was one of the greatest races of all time, then the 1978 Formula One TT was one of Mike’s greatest rides of all time as he returned to the TT after 11 years of retirement to defy all odds and win the Mountain Course once again. During those 11 years, Mike occasionally competed in motorcycle races such as the Daytona 200, but focused primarily on four wheels, where he competed in 29 Formula One Grand Prix and finished on the podium twice.
Bikes remained his love, however, and he hatched a plan to return to the TT in 1978 despite a long layoff and problems with a badly broken leg suffered at the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. The island was full for Hailwood’s return, but few really believed he would be competitive after so long, while his Ducati 900SS was also not considered the best bike for Formula One racing.
However, the now 38-year-old was more than competitive and led by nine seconds over Tom Herron at the end of the first lap. Aided by his first-ever lap at over 180 km/h on the Mountain Course, he steadily extended his lead and the fairytale return was completed when he took his 13th TT win by almost two minutes from John Williams. It was perhaps his most remarkable TT victory and one that many will remember forever.
1979 Senior TT
Having fully regained the TT bug, Hailwood returned a year later armed with a new Ducati and a 500cc RG Suzuki, the two-stroke a far cry from anything he had ridden before.
The Ducati was not as competitive as the year before and Mike had to settle for fifth place, but the factory Suzuki, similar to the one Barry Sheene rode in the 500cc World Championship this year, was certainly up to the task at hand.
Mick Grant led the first lap despite riding with a broken pelvis suffered in the previous North West 200, with Mike upping his pace on third and second around Hailwood, and his first sub-20-minute lap on the Mountain Course gave him the lead.
Mike picked up the pace again on lap three at 114.02 mph and his lead over Alex George was now 13 seconds. Both Grant and George subsequently retired and Mike took his 14th – and what would be his last – TT win by more than two minutes with Tony Rutter second and Dennis Ireland third.
Classic TT of 1979
Mike had one more shot at a TT win, and that would be the 1979 Classic TT, which would prove to be his last TT race once and for all. The combination of Mike and the 500cc Suzuki was up against a horde of challenges, including the similarly mounted Mick Grant and Honda’s Alex George of Britain, who had won the Formula One race earlier in the week.
It would once again prove to be one of the greatest TT races of all time, and the Classic certainly lived up to its title. George on the bigger 1000cc Honda led by nine seconds at the end of the first lap, but Mike halved the gap the second time around to put himself well in contention.
Amazingly, the duo posted identical 184.14 mph laps on the third lap to maintain the status quo, but by the end of the fourth lap, Mike had narrowed the gap to 3.4 seconds. He further reduced the gap on the fifth lap and at Ramsey, he led by 1.4 seconds, although George reduced that to 0.8 seconds as they started their sixth and final lap.
At Ballaugh, halfway around the lap, Mike had pulled away slightly and led by two seconds, but George responded and at Ramsey, there were only 0.4 seconds between them. The higher-displacement Honda had the edge, however, and George took the lead in the bungalow, eventually winning by 3.4 seconds.
Amazingly, it was the first time Mike had finished second in a TT race and he announced afterwards that his TT career was definitely over this time and that he had retired from racing for good. Hailwood’s career brought him 76 Grand Prix wins, 112 Grand Prix podium finishes, 14 Isle of Man TT wins and ten World Championships.
Sadly, Mike and his daughter Michelle were killed in a road accident less than two years later after a truck made an illegal U-turn and collided with their car. Shortly after his death, part of the TT Mountain Course was named after him, Hailwood’s Rise led to Hailwood’s Height, and the FIM named him a Grand Prix Legend in 2000.