Mike Hawthorn: Britain’s first champion

Mike Hawthon

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

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19 comments on Mike Hawthorn: Britain’s first champion

  1. Sasquatsch said on 14th April 2009, 13:28

    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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