Mike Hawthorn: Britain’s first champion

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Mike Hawthon

F1 Fanatic guest writer Andrew Tsvyk looks back on the career of Britain’s first world champion.

When Lewis Hamilton snatched the world championship last year he became the ninth British driver to claim the title.

Britain has produced more world champions than any other country. The first man to bring the world championship to Britain, Mike Hawthorn, would have turned 80 today, but was killed in a road accident just a few months after his crowning success.

Hawthorn won three Grands Prix during his seven years of competition in the world championship – a small total by the standards of modern world champions, Jenson Button having just won his third last weekend.

In the closely fought 1958 season, when the title battle went down to the wire, Hawthorn upstaged his rival, Stirling Moss, by just a single point. He also became the youngest F1 world champion at that time, aged 29.

Discovering racing

Born on April 10, 1929 in Mexborough, Yorkshire, England, Michael John Hawthorn was destined to become a racing driver.

In 1931 his father, Leslie, bought a small garage in the vicinity of Brooklands and the young Hawthorn spent his childhood tinkering with engines and transmissions. Leslie was a racing enthusiast who worked on various race cars (mostly Rileys) that raced at the nearby Brooklands track. When Mr Hawthorn took his son for a ride in a two-litre Riley around Brooklands, Mike caught the racing bug.

A few years later Hawthorn, aged 17, would decide to leave school in order to dedicate more time to cars and racing. Having saved enough money, working for Dennis Bros Ltd, the future world champion bought a BSA trial bike. However, competing in trails was not what Mike was after and he soon turned his attention to cars. But before dedicating all his mind and resources to racing cars, Hawthorn tried to study engineering at the university, albeit with little success. This persuaded Leslie Hawthorn to think about his son’s racing ambitions more seriously. After all, Mike did show some promise racing bikes?���?�

The youngster started racing Rileys before getting his hands on a Sprite TT and an Ulster Imp. Mike was among the leaders almost every time the green flag dropped, signalling to the racing community that he was a star in the making.

As a result, Hawthorn soon found himself at the wheel of a Formula Two Cooper-Bristol. About a year later Hawthorn would attract Lofty England’s attention, who was Jaguar’s motorsport chief at that time. The two met a few days after a wet race in Boreham, during which Hawthorn impressed the onlookers by passing Luigi Villoresi’s 4-litre Ferrari.

Joining Jaguar

A test in a C-type Jag followed, during which the native of Mexborough was immediately up to speed, getting inside the lap record after just five laps in the car. As a result, Lofty England offered Mike to join the sports car team. But while it took some time before Jaguar’s line-up was sorted, it turned out that Hawthorn was unable to compete because of a bad crash he had while testing his Cooper-Bristol. Nevertheless, Mike did have something to smile about, as it emerged that Lofty England was not the only one interested in Hawthorn’s services.

The youngster’s progress through the junior ranks was closely followed by Enzo Ferrari. Hawthorn’s sheer speed and determination left the great Italian team owner so impressed that he decided to sign the young Briton to drive for his Scuderia.

Hawthorn had already had his first taste of Formula 1. In 1952, the Briton made 4 world championship starts at the wheel of a Cooper T20, which was entered by his father on most of the occasions. Nevertheless, Leslie was not left disappointed as his son scored a point in his first-ever world championship start, at the notoriously challenging Spa-Francorchamps circuit, in Belgium. And while the following Grand Prix in France resulted into a retirement for Mike, the race in Great Britain instantly turned Hawthorn from zero to hero.

Eighth on lap one, Hawthorn moved past such drivers as Thompson, Manzon and Parnell climbing up to fifth spot. Nevertheless, Mike was hungry for more and in the laps that followed the Briton charged ahead of ex-world champion Nino Farina and Dennis Poore. As a result, Hawthorn brought his Cooper home in third, behind the dominant Ferraris of Alberto Ascari and Piero Taruffi that proved to be untouchable in 1952. Who knows, maybe it was Mike’s performance at Silverstone that caught the eye of Enzo Ferrari.

Racing for Ferrari

Whatever the case, Hawthorn did get a chance to race behind the wheel of a scarlet car in 1953. He did not disappoint, winning the French Grand Prix at Reims after a spectacular battle with Juan Manuel Fangio in the closing stages of the race. The Briton also impressed the team with his consistency, scoring points in each race of the season, which put him fourth in the final world championship standings.

While 1953 was a good year for Hawthorn, 1954 proved to be even better. Despite a slow start to the season, which resulted in a disqualification for Mike in Argentina, the Briton managed to reverse his fortunes in the following races, finishing second on three occasions. However, Mike’s finest hour came at Spain’s Pedralbes circuit, which hosted the final round of the world championship.

Having started from third spot, Mike had to battle with the likes of Schell, Ascari and Trintingnant. But while the Briton had a trouble-free run, his opponents were forced to drop out, leaving Hawthorn in the lead of the race. Nevertheless, Mike still had to push his car to the limit, as the silver Mercedes of Juan Manuel Fangio was getting closer lap after lap. The Argentinian managed to cut Hawthorn’s lead by seven seconds and the crowd was probably getting ready for the repeat of the French GP from the previous year.

But while the 1953 race at Reims saw a wheel-to-wheel duel between Fangio and Hawthorn, the 1954 Spanish GP would witness none of that, as the great Argentinian had to give up his hopes of catching the Briton due to an overheating engine and dropped down to third. As a result, Hawthorn crossed the finish-line in first for the second time in his short F1 career, ending the season in style.

Unfortunately, despite all the success on race tracks, 1954 was not a good year for Mike in many ways. First of all, his father Leslie was killed in a road accident and Mike himself spent time in hospital with kidney disease. And to make matters worse, the Briton barely had enough money to make ends meet?���?�

Disaster at Le Mans

Subsequently, Mike decided not to renew his contract with Enzo Ferrari’s Scuderia, accepting Lofty England’s offer to help Jaguar’s D-type conquer the endurance racing world. The Briton immediately hit the headlines by winning the Sebring 12 Hours race together with Phil Walters. The Jags would also prove a force to be reckoned with when the time came for the Le Mans 24 Hour classic.

Hawthorn did not have the best getaway, but managed to work his way up the field, catching Fangio’s Mercedes. The two spent almost two hours racing wheel-to-wheel and smashing lap records to smithereens. To the onlookers this fierce battle looked more like a Grand Prix rather then an endurance race, while for the drivers it was a thrilling experience. Unfortunately, at about the two hour mark it all went horribly wrong.

Exiting the last corner, Mike Hawthorn dived into the pit-lane for fuel. That caught Lance Macklin, whom Hawthorn had just lapped, by surprise, and the Austin-Healy driver swerved to the left only to find himself in the way of Pierre Levegh’s charging Mercedes. The collision that followed sent the Silver Arrow into the crowd, killing over 80 people including Levegh. Mercedes withdrew their remaining cars, effectively handing victory to Hawthorn and Bueb amid the carnage.

Hawthorn was blamed by some for the accident. Lofty England, however, did not share this opinion and maintained that the crash was just a racing accident. The officials agreed, claiming that it was not right to blame Hawthorn for what had happened.

Winning the championship

Nevertheless, the consequences did affect Mike and he even thought about retiring from the spot. But the Jaguar boss persuaded Hawthorn to keep going. As a result, the Briton decided to concentrate on Grand Prix racing, returning to the Ferrari fold for the 1957 season.

Mike did not have the best start to his 1957 campaign, retiring in Argentina and Monaco, the first two rounds of the world championship. The Briton, however, managed to reverse his fortunes at his home event at Silverstone, proving to be a match for the protagonists of the day.

A fortnight later in Germany, Mike found himself yet again at the sharp end of the leader board, battling for supremacy with Fangio’s Maserati and fellow Briton Peter Collins in another Ferrari. The Argentinian shot into the lead at the beginning of the race, building up a significant gap to the chasing Ferraris. But by the mid-way point the Ferraris hit the front, as Fangio went into the pits for fuel.

For a moment it seemed that Hawthorn and Collins would battle it out for the win. Unlike Fangio, the two took enough fuel onboard to last the distance and therefore, did not need to make a pit-stop. To make matters worse, the pit-stop lasted longer than expected, as the crew had difficulties replacing one of the wheels. This left Fangio some 50 seconds behind Hawthorn and Collins, the new leaders. But while the two Brits were battling for supremacy, Juan Manuel managed to catch up with them, breaking the lap record seven times in a row. The Argentinean had a breath-taking battle with Collins, before getting by on lap 20.

A thrilling duel with Hawthorn followed, which kept the fans on the edge of their seats till the very end of the race. Fangio was literally flying, while Hawthorn was unwilling to relinquish the lead of the race. Nevertheless, despite Mike’s best efforts, Juan Manuel crossed the finish-line by some 3.5 seconds ahead of the Englishman, having overtaken Mike on the penultimate lap.
The 1957 German Grand Prix proved to be Fangio’s 24th and last Grand Prix win. Having clinched the drivers’ championship for the unprecedented fifth time, the Argentinian decided to hang up his helmet, making only two starts in the 1958 world championship.

Fangio’s retirement left F1 without its king, and there were many contenders to ascend the throne. Ultimately, it went down to a classic showdown between Stirling Moss and Mike Hawthorn. On the one hand, Moss had every right to claim that he was Fangio’s successor. He had been the closest challenger for several years and proved to be a match for the great Argentinian on more than one occasion.

Moss led the field with four wins, while Hawthorn finished first just once. Nevertheless, Hawthorn’s consistency throughout the season put him in the lead of the championship coming into the final race in Morocco. To win the title, Stirling Moss had to win and get a bonus point for setting the fastest lap with Hawthorn finishing not higher than third. It seemed that Mike’s chances were good, but after the practice session they looked even better, as the native of Mexborough put his scarlet Ferrari on pole, less than 0.1 of a second ahead of Moss’s Vanwall.

But while there was nothing between the two title contenders in practice, the race proved to be a different affair, with Moss storming into the lead as soon as the green flag dropped. Stirling was untouchable, putting on another faultless performance. Meanwhile Hawthorn was not having the race he had hoped for, as the Ferrari driver could hardly hold his own among the leaders. Nevertheless young American driver Phil Hill, in only his fourth world championship start moved over and let Hawthorn through into second position, guaranteeing his team mate the title.

While there is no doubt that Ferrari’s team work contributed greatly to Mike’s championship success, there is no denying the fact that he deserved it. The native of Mexborough scored points in eight of the ten races (not counting the Indianapolis 500), getting onto the podium on six occasions. His only win of the year, in the French Grand Prix, was marred by Luiggi Musso’s fatal crash on lap nine.

Retirment – and tragedy

The final races of 1958 claimed the lives of two more drivers. Peter Collins lost his life at the N?�??rburgirng having crashed his Ferrari at Pflanzgarten. At the season finale in Morocco Vanwall driver Stuart Lewis-Evans suffered severe burns, from which he died six days later.

While all of these tragedies had a profound impact on Hawthorn, Collins’s death affected Hawthorn the most. The two became great friends in 1957, when Mike returned to the Ferrari fold, hanging together off the track and looking for ways to amuse themselves. It was hardly surprising that Hawthorn chose to retire at the end of the 1958 season, resisting a generous offer put forward by Ferrari to keep him racing.

The Farnham Flyer had plans to run his garage business and marry his beautiful girlfriend, Jean Howarth. Unfortunately, it was not to be. On January 22, 1959 Mike was killed at the wheel of a heavily modified Mark 1 Jaguar on the A3 Guildford bypass in Surrey, England. He was 29 years old.

Many theories about what caused the crash have been put forward, including sugestions he suffered a blackout, and claims he was racing another car. Several of these have been debunked in a new book on Hawthorn’s life, “Mike Hawthorn, Golden Boy”.

Earlier this year the 50th anniversary of his death was marked with a parade of cars through his home town of Guidlford. Last year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed also commemorated his achievement, adopting the theme “From Hawthorn to Hamilton: Britain’s love affair with world motor sport”.

Mike Hawthorn picture by Dariya

19 comments on “Mike Hawthorn: Britain’s first champion”

  1. Enjoyable article

  2. Sush Meerkat
    10th April 2009, 13:46

    very well written, i’m so glad I found this site, excellent article Andrew.

  3. Yes i agree it was a very enjoyable read. Thankyou Andrew.

  4. Excellent article.
    I highly recommend reading Mon Ami Mate for those interested in Hawthorn.

  5. KingHamilton
    10th April 2009, 18:36

    ‘He also became the youngest F1 world champion at that time, aged 29.’
    My my how times have changed………….

    Hawthorn started the ball rolling for a frenzy of british is best in the 60s, thanks to him. Such an untimely death to a such a great man.

    Shame he denied the great Stirling Moss of winning a world championship, The fairest most sportsman-like and one of the fastest F1 drivers ever deserved at least one world title, but it was right for good old stirling to take defeat in the finest of manors.

    But Hawthorn and Moss, the first true British racing driving legends. and still two of the greatest……….

    1. I don’t know that I agree Hawthorn was the man who started the ball rolling for the British-dominated 1960s. Sure, he was the first Brit to win a world championship-status Grand Prix, but he did it in a Ferrari, and his 1953 victory didn’t really lead to anything special.

      The seeds of the 1960s were laid in 1956, when somebody suggested to Tony Vandervell that he should hire an up-and-coming engineer named Colin Chapman to make a lightweight chassis for the Vanwall…

      1. Many in the mid 1950’s thought Colin Chapman could have been a great driver, one of the best. Both Hawthorn and Chapman had one off drives with Vanwall in the 1956 Grand prix at Rheims. Mike suggested Collin follow him round to learn the circuit. After about ten laps, Mike showed the speed thru a couple of difficult corners which only really Fangio ever achieved at Rheims. Chapman went off, if he had been a fraction slower on the brakes, and stopped ten inches furthur he would probably have been dead. Colin was very good, but not in Mike’s class and I suggest got the message that Hawthorn would not tolerate such a rival in F1. A Hawthorn brake test in a way, if you were a genuis you lived.
        In terms of the guilford bypass, the verdict was accidental death and the cause speed.
        While one witness said the speed was 80mph the coroner said their were many opinion even among the interviewed and witnesses and it was impossible to make any conclusion. But most said after Hawthorn passed the 300Sl in the rain and fog, he was going faster and faster.
        Moss said Mike was good, he was good. On his rare day he was definitely faster than Collins.
        Moss concluded, Mike would never have died on the track. And could anyone have been faster than the Peter Collins at Rouen in 57 and Silverstone in 58. I doubt it.
        I suspect this hells angel may even have been faster than Senna and Rodriquez.

  6. Very good ! please lets continue enjoying these flashbacks regularly !
    Thanks and cheers —

  7. Thanks for an interesting read about something I am glad to now know something about!

  8. Why do more than half of Britain’s world champions have surnames beginning with H?

    (Hawthorn, (Graham) Hill, Hunt, (Damon) Hill and Hamilton)

  9. thanks!

  10. Mike was a gutsy racer and we must never question the right of any champion to hold his title. Stirling Moss won a different title tyhat season “Greatest Sportsman that ever sat in a racing car”. Mike had been up for disqualification in the Portugese Grand Prix for bump starting the Ferrari in reverse after a spin. Moss gave evidence that Mike was on the pavement not on the road at the time (picture it, next to the lampposts) so Mike’s points stood and he became champion. So Moss won Four, Brooks won three, Mike won one and the championship. The appalling vibration of the four cylinder Vanwall engine caused metal fatigue which crystillised the standards supporting the throttle linkages so the Vanwalls only finished when that did not happen.

  11. Thankyou Andrew.

  12. BBC4 (in the UK) are showing a series of programs on Saturday nights about past F1 champions, put together by Mark Stewart (Jackie’s son).

    The one on Jackie was shown last night (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00jw9gn) and one on Jim Clarke will be on next week, on the 18th (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00jw9cw).

  13. Thank you for the info, Alex!

  14. Great Article Andrew….Please continue to share information on other great divers to grace the sport.

    Just to make it perfect…
    Please change spot to sport..

    Winning the championship subtitle Line No.2…

  15. speaking of former world champions what do you think about Tobey Maguire playing phil hill the First American to Win F1 Title in his new moive “limit” i dont know alot about the glory days of f1 and cant wait to see a big screen f1 movie

    1. robert dronfield
      14th August 2012, 1:35

      have recently read TH4E LIMIT BY michael cannell very good read page 200-201 is quite different from other reports onhis death

  16. It’s a shame that Stirling Moss missed the championship because of a misunderstanding with his team in Portugal. His team showed a sign that Hawthorn got the fastest lap, while Moss thought that the sign meant that Hawthorn slowed down and Moss had the fastest lap.

    This misunderestanding cost him the championship.

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