Last week, on Thursday April 2 to be precise, a small family group journeyed to a lovely old church in Tanworth in Arden in remembrance of their father and grandfather. It was the 80th birthday of Mike Hailwood, regarded by many as the greatest rider of all time, killed together with his daughter Michelle in a road accident in 1981.
Mike the Bike was revered by racing fans all over the world but particularly those in love with the TT where the great man made his famous comeback, after ten years out of the sport, in 1978.
But those ten years are hardly remembered at all. And yet they were years in which Hailwood established himself as a very good driver, winning the F2 championship for John Surtees with a second at Le Mans and a seat in top F1 teams including McLaren.
It is ironic that Hailwood enjoyed most success driving for Surtees. Many bike racers attempted four wheels but, with one or two notable exceptions, few reached the level they had achieved on two wheels.
Surtees made history by winning world championships on two wheels and four. And had it not been for a career-ending crash at Nurburgring in 1974 while driving for Mclaren who knows what Hailwood might have achieved.
He had dabbled with four wheels, while still riding for MV, in 1963 and ‘64 driving for Reg Parnell Racing and had mixed success in championship and non-championship classes driving cars which were hardly competitive.
Hailwood did, however, get a sixth place at Monaco in 1965 driving a Lotus 25 with a BRM V8 engine. The potential was there but not the machinery and he didn’t like it very much. In no hurry to quit bikes, and with only three races that year he decided to concentrate on two wheels.
Surtees entry into four wheels was much more clear cut. After dominating the world championships, with team mate John Hartle being his only real opposition, he fell out with Count Domenica Agusta who decreed that for 1960 he stop riding Nortons in British events to concentrate fully on MV.
Surtees went along with this having, in the meantime been tapped up by Tony Vandervel who sent a couple of Vanwalls, as driven by Tony Brooks and Stirling Moss, to Goodwood for him to test.
His times were sensational, he went straight to F1 finishing second to the likes of Jim Clark and at the end of 1960 he quit MV. He later joined Ferrari and in 1964 won the F1 World Championship.
With a Honda contract under his belt, Hailwood went on to compete against his old factory MV, now led by a new superstar Giacomo Agostini, with a new three cylinder 500 which was infinitely better than the powerful but mishandling Honda. And Yamaha whose four cylinder 250 two strokes ridden by Phil Read and Bill Ivy were more than a match for the six cylinder Honda.
Taking a beating in the premier class was not to Hailwood’s liking and his efforts to get it to handle better with experts like Ken Sprayson of Reynold not being welcomed by Honda caused him to consider his future.
But a shock announcement by Honda that they were quitting at the end of 1967 made up his mind for him. Honda paid him the equivalent of a year’s salary not to sign for a competitive team and also gave him his bikes, allowing him to compete privately in races thereby earning a lot of start money, particularly around Rimini on the Adriatic coast.
But returning to car racing was now front of mind and he was not short of offers. He and codriver David Hobbs took the John Wyer Ford GT 40 to third place in the Le Mans 24-Hour and he finished third in the European Formula 5000 championship, winning at Brands Hatch. The following year he finished second to Aussie Frank Gardner in a Lola one-two.
Surtees, now a successful racing car manufacturer and team owner, saw real potential in the man he had competed with on Nortons ten years earlier although they were completely different characters.
He gave Hailwood an entry into the 1971 Italian Grand Prix at Monza alongside himself in Surtees Fords. It turned out to be one of the best races ever in an F1 Grand Prix.
Hailwood finished an undistinguished 17th in qualifying - the two fastest being Chris Amon (Matra Simca) and Jacky Ickx (Ferrari) - and had a change of engine after the warm up.
It seemed to change everything and during a race of seven different leaders, Mike being one of them, it came down down to the Parabolica on the last of 55 laps. Four cars crossed the line with 0.180s between them.
A great friend of Mike’s Peter Gethin just got it followed by Ronnie Peterson and Francois Cevert with Mike fourth. The average speed was 150.74mph, the fastest ever GP for at least 30 years.
The following year Surtees entered cars in F1 and F2 . There were great hopes for Hailwood and his team-mate Aussie Tim Schenken in FL. And it was Hailwood who in South Africa nearly pulled off his first victory after overtaking Emerson Fittipaldi and harrying leader Jackie Stewart.
But with two laps left his rear suspension broke. And at Monza later on he was leading the race when an air box flew off. That’s how it was for the season.
It was different in F2. After a poor start to the season his fortune changed and, competing with the likes of Nike Lauda, Jody Scheckter, Emerson Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni he gained enough points to win the F2 championship.
In the final race at Monza, where he finished second, seven of those who finished in the top ten would go on to win four world championships and 50 Grands Prix between them.
Regazzoni was to feature in his life again. At Kyalami the following year he was involved in a multiple crash involving several drivers including Hailwood. The Ferrari burst into flames, Hailwood climbed out of his own car and went into the inferno attempting to pull out the trapped Argentinian and catching fire himself in the process.
Helped by Ickx he staunched his own flames and then went back to the still burning Ferrari and hauled Regazzoni out. He was awarded the George Medal, the highest civilian honour for bravery, something which he typically dismissed saying ‘It’s what anybody would have done’.
The following year he was signed by McLaren alongside Denny Holme and Emerson Fittipaldi. It was a promising start to the season with some points racked up but at Nurburgring he had the crash which ended his racing career.
Injuries to both ankles and a bad fracture to the right leg caused him to re-assess his future. His proposal of marriage to Pauline took her completely by surprise as did his idea of going to New Zealand.
Little did either of them even dream then that in four years time he would be back in a sport he really loved – making the greatest comeback of all time.