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Why a Tribute to Mike the Bike?

Image - Why a Tribute to Mike the Bike?

Why create a very exclusive watch in homage to Mike Hailwood for the Pecqueur Motorists Club? Read the incredible story of the day when, 11 years after his retirement as the greatest motorcycle champion of all time, Mike Hailwood returned to competition, on the most dangerous race in the world. 

Mike Hailwood had everything to lose: the race, his honour, his pride, the money – perhaps even his life. On that day in June 1978 when he showed up for the start of the Formula One race, the flagship event of the TT Races, with his Ducati 900SS, he was full of doubt. Was it the right decision? Or had he made a terrible mistake by coming today?

Obviously, he was there to win – as he always had been. Twelve times previously, he had triumphed in the Tourist Trophy on the hair-raising roads of the Isle of Man, nestled between the UK and Ireland in the Irish Sea. But the British rider, with nine World Championship titles to his name, had retired from motorcycle racing in 1967, 11 years earlier.

Mike Hailwood on 4 wheels, pictured here in 1970 with the Formula 5000 Lola T190.

Since then, he had devoted himself to car racing: Formula 2 European Champion in 1972, podium places and victory in Endurance, and 50 Formula 1 competitions between 1963 and the day in 1974 when, in the green hell of the Nürburgring’s Nordschleife and the forests of the Eifel, a serious accident put what he thought would be a definitive end to his racing career. His right leg was badly broken, leaving him with an ankle injury from which he never fully recovered. He left the automobile racing world without any great regrets. In any case, he preferred the world of motorcycles, which he felt was more fun, more spontaneous, more exciting. Car racing, and Formula 1 in particular, were too calculating, too serious. Although Mike Hailwood was a hard worker, what he really wanted was to have fun.

Bare heads and fun with friends, Mike Hailwood and James Hunt at Brands Hatch in 1964.

And in motorcycling he had a lot of fun, for a solid decade between 1957 and 1967. He won everything, in every category, with humility and infectious enthusiasm. He managed to win virtually every event he started, despite never having the very best equipment on the field. It was the man, not the machine, that made the difference. But all that was before – over a decade before the 1978 TT Race.

The sunny smile and enthusiasm of youth. Mike at Oulton Park in February 1967.

Mike Hailwood no longer cut quite the same dashing figure as he had in his glory years, when he was sharp as a Sheffield blade, slender, lively and effortlessly elegant. His flirtatious smile and teasing demeanour were a magnet to women, and he played the role of playboy with boyish enthusiasm. After retiring to New Zealand, Mike had filled out a little. Anyone who hadn’t seen him on a motorcycle circuit for 11 years might have had trouble recognising him, with his receding hairline compensated by locks halfway down his neck. And then there was the visible discomfort when he walked. Mike was 38 years old. Not old for ordinary mortals, but that was the point: if, in his first life as a biker, Mike was neither ordinary nor, it seems, mortal, what was he like now?

An insane race

Now, he was feeling the hopes and fears of all his fans. The Isle of Man TT Race, created in 1907, is probably the world’s most exciting motorcycle race, and certainly the most dangerous (267 motorcyclists have lost their lives over the course of 102 events). At the end of the 1970s, in the TT Formula One, the six laps of the 60 km course, with its 264 turns – 360 km and 1584 turns in total! – were completed at an average speed of over 170 km/h. Constant concentration required. Granted, the protective equipment was a little more effective than when he had last raced there: the suits were slightly thicker, and the goggles and bowl helmet combo had been replaced by full-face helmets.

Mike at the 1958 TT Races. Lift-off at Ballaugh Bridge

But the Tourist Trophy takes place on a natural circuit: country roads and village streets, with their inevitable kerbs, telephone booths, trees, stone walls and unforgiving house corners, all navigated with the throttle grip stuck open to the max. Everything is raw, sharp, threatening, deadly. Drivers hit top speeds of 230 km/h as they pass into the shadows thrown by sinister tree trunks, blinding sunlight strobing through the leaves. In places, the bike is airborne – at Ballaugh Bridge, for instance, where touchdown is followed by an immediate right turn between the houses of the village. It’s a biker thing. As Giacomo Agostini said, here you must forget about danger and death. In fact, it’s so dangerous that in 1976 the TT was withdrawn from the World Motorcycle Speed Championship, which now features closed circuits only. But the most insane circuit of them all continues to attract the most insane riders.

Believe in miracles

Crowds pack the roadsides, here to see Mike the Bike. For the British, he’s a local hero. For the rest of the world, he’s a legend. Here on the Isle of Man, Mike is on home turf, but he’s also a global superstar. In addition to his victories on the island, he has also racked up 76 Grand Prix wins for 152 starts, an incredible record of 50% of races won, 112 podiums, 79 pole positions and 105 lap records! His nickname, “Mike the Bike”, is not just a lucky alliteration – it’s a statement of fact. Never has there been such symbiosis between a man and his machine. Mike represents the essence of motorcycle racing, the highest expression of balance, finesse and precision (“on a motorcycle, I never slip!”), aggression, pugnacity, audacity and courage.

At home with the elder Mrs Hailwood. Mike was only 19 years old in 1959 but his trophy shelves were already full to bursting.

White Martini bucket hats bearing his nickname in red letters abound. Everyone is rooting for him to win. Obviously, nothing could be less likely; it would be a miracle, but we all like to believe in miracles. Just this once. As in previous editions, and like many other drivers, Mike has entered several other categories besides Formula One: Senior, Junior and Classic TT. The results aren’t great. On his Yamahas, he finishes 28th and 12th. But the Formula One is the race to win – on his Ducati.

All Mike knows is that he has prepared carefully. He’s done all he can. However, as he revealed in an interview, “I felt the island would continue to be kind to me”. He knows that, if he had to force himself to race a whole Grand Prix season, he would have no chance. But this race is unique. So he purchased his 900SS from the Ducati shop in Manchester, had it prepared in England, with a little help from the factory (Italian pragmatism – they weren’t convinced his comeback would be successful, but you never know…), and embarked upon some serious testing. “We did tests on loads of tracks all over England, for days and days and days. But of course, riding on small circuits is not quite the same as riding on the Isle of Man.”

The bike was hard to handle, but Mike had carefully prepared his Ducati 900SS.

Mike knows every one of the route’s twists and turns by heart. He’s figured out what to do. The 88 hp Ducati engine? Generous: you need maximum torque and power to deploy on the widest possible range of revs to ease up the ride. The chassis? Lighter and, to accommodate the new slicks supplied by Dunlop, slightly wider at the rear end. But the main tweak: to avoid being handicapped by a right ankle which no longer has the power, endurance or agility of yesteryear, the gear change is installed on the left side. And it seems to be working. In the Formula One tests, Mike smashes his own record from 1967, set at an average of 172 km/h aboard a 500 cc Honda. The 178.6 km/h record he set in 1978 makes people dare to believe he could do something amazing in this race, with his red and green machine stamped with the number 12.

In the name of the father

Legend has it that between 1967 and 1978 Mike never once got behind the handlebars of a motorcycle in competition. That’s not strictly true. To assess his level, he took part in a few races, notably in Australia, before returning to the Isle of Man. But that’s not the point of this story.

For Mike, another momentous event marked the start of the year: less than three months before the Tourist Trophy his father Stan died at the age of 75. Stan was a huge part of Mike’s life and career. A millionaire who had made a fortune in a variety of businesses, including motorbike sales, he devoted his life to ensuring his son had everything he needed to race under the best possible conditions. In fact, his nickname was “The Wallet”, suggesting that Mike owed his career to his father’s deep pockets. But Stan insisted that every penny he invested in his son’s motorcycles and career had to be profitable.

Fortunately, Stan was standing by to help Mike carry two more modest trophies, for the 125cc and 250cc categories at the 1961 TT Races.

Mike never rejected his father’s help, or kept it secret. He made the most of it, while at the same time building a reputation on the track through his talent, his hard work and the empathy he showed in his relationships with fans and fellow competitors.

In photos from his racing years, between 1957 and 1967, we often see Stan standing near his son before or after the race: well-tailored suit, carefully clipped white moustache, hat “as big as a sombrero” (according to one particularly hyperbolic report from the time).

Another hat falls victim to paternal pride as Mike crosses the finish line to win the 1961 TT!

Now, Mike had to stand alone, without the support of his father, his benefactor and mentor. Stan would no longer be there at the finish line, waiting to tap his son on the shoulder and give him a well-earned hug.

Now, on the starting line, Mike thoughtfully contemplates the crowd and tells himself he has no right to disappoint these people who had come to cheer him on, just like his father used to.

Comeback king

Mike Hailwood and Phil Read in June 1978.

And then they’re off. Sixty-three competitors set off in the TT Formula One category. Mike’s biggest rival is Phil Read, “the Prince of Speed”, with seven world championship titles and 8 TT victories to his credit. A handsome, lively chap with a full head of hair, Phil is a year and three months older than Mike, but he looks younger. He’s determined to make the returning retiree eat his dust. Phil had never stopped racing, in fact he won the Senior and Formula One categories the previous year. He wasn’t going to let that old has-been show him up.

A blast from the past: Mike setting off on his MV Agusta in the 60s. He remains in side-saddle position until he’s sure the bike has built up enough speed.

The last time Mike raced the TT, riders had started two at a time, pushing their motorcycles off and perching side-saddle, before mounting like jockeys once they had picked up some speed. Now, the racers still started in pairs, but they rode off from the starting line. Mike started 50 seconds after Phil Read and his Honda four. Immediately, Mike was literally flying down the road in his signature no-nonsense style. At the end of the first lap he was already leading the race, 9 seconds (corrected time) ahead of his closest pursuer, and 20 seconds faster than Phil Read. On the third of six laps, Mike overtook Read on the road and started to build a comfortable lead. On the 5th lap, Read was forced to come to terms with his humiliation: visibly outclassed, pushed to his limit, he dropped out of the race after his engine finally gave up the ghost.

By the third lap, Mike has gained 50 seconds and overtaken Phil Read, who from that point on will see only his rear wheel, his back, and then no Mike at all.

Hailwood breezes over the finish line, intoxicated by the delirious cries of the crowd. The spectators gesticulate frantically as he passes, waving their programmes in the air, screaming so loudly that he can even hear them under his helmet in the slower sections of the track: “Crazy! I’ve never seen anything like it!” he comments after the finish.

The podium of the 1978 TT: Mike Hailwood stands between John Williams and Ian Richards

On the podium, Mike waves his yellow Dunlop cap and treats himself to a long swig of champagne straight from the jeroboam. John Williams, red bucket hat screwed on his head, who came second on his Honda, hands him the bottle, content to have been beaten by the greatest of them all. He takes a pull on the cigarette he holds between thumb and index finger, then applauds the champion. The ceremony is less solemn than it is today, but it’s sincere, a mark of honest admiration. Mike squeezes out a furtive tear. His father is not in the crowd to cheer him on, but he savours the moment anyway.  He has proved that, at the age of 38, he’s still got what it takes.

The legend

This was Mike Hailwood’s 13th victory in the Isle of Man TT Race, the world’s craziest motorbike race. This was the win that elevated him to the rank of absolute legend. He’d come back from nowhere, after 10 years, immediately reclaiming his position in the top ranks of the sport. In fact, Mike won another TT race the following year, in the Senior category, riding a Suzuki RG500. Over the course of his career, he rode 70 different motorcycle models, from 50 to 1000 cc, from around 15 different brands, and he led almost all of them to victory. But if we were to single out just one machine from this incredible collection, it would be the Ducati 900SS from the 1978 TT Race. So let’s only remember the legend.

Even in full attack mode Mike Hailwood rode with astonishing fluidity, as if his victories were merely the conclusion of a gentle Sunday outing.

All this happened 46 years ago. And that’s why only 46 copies of the Club Pecqueur Motorists “Tribute to Mike the Bike” watch are being produced. It features subtle touches recalling the Italian livery of the Ducati 900SS, which was predominantly red with a green lower fairing, separated by a white trellis frame. Even the back of the watch, which will be worn next to the skin, holds some surprises: the case features a number “12” – the motorcycle’s race number – in authentic Ducati typography, while the reverse of the bracelet comes with stitching in a complementary colour, either red or green. This highly exclusive watch is as unique and as legendary as the man and the insane exploit it was designed to commemorate.