Wednesday 10 April 2013

Mike Hawthorn: Carnage

In the wildly unlikely event that he'd lived so long, the racing driver Mike Hawthorn would have been 84 today; in fact he died at the age of 29, in a hideous crash on the Guildford bypass, having just overtaken a pal who was driving a Mercedes 300SL (Hawthorn was in a souped-up Jag). Even if that hadn't happened, Hawthorn would probably have been dead of kidney failure within a few years (he was already one kidney down). I remember the newspaper reports of the crash - or at least the pictures of the wreckage - and a highly sanitised pictorial account of Hawthorn's life and career in, I think, the Eagle comic.
 The fatal crash was a fitting end for one of the stars of a sport that was then, back in the1950s - with death-trap cars, no medical back-up and no mandatory helmet or overalls - almost unbelievably dangerous, with a jaw-droppingly high death rate. Hawthorn - a dashing young man with wavy blond hair, who liked to wear a bow tie when driving - won the 1955 Le Mans 24-hour race, in which 83 spectators and a driver died when a disintegrating car hurtled into the crowd. Hawthorn seems to have caused the accident by braking suddenly in front of another driver, but he and his Jaguar team-mates refused to follow the Mercedes team in pulling out of the race, and Hawthorn went on to take the chequered flag.
 In 1958, Hawthorn joined with his friend Peter Collins in a bitter rivalry with the Italian driver Luigi Musso, which culminated in Musso being killed while in second place in the French Grand Prix. Hawthorn won, and shortly afterwards Musso's girlfriend saw him and Collins in the square outside the hotel where she too was staying, having a jolly kickabout with a beer can. Hawthorn went on to win that year's Formula One championship, despite having only this one win against Stirling Moss's four. Moss, ever the gentleman, seems to have been happy to help him on his way to the title. Having taken it, Hawthorn immediately retired. The death that year of his great friend Collins in the German Grand Prix had, apparently, affected him greatly.
 No driver has died in a Formula One Grand Prix since Ayrton Senna in 1994. We should be glad of that - and that the great Stirling Moss is still alive. He recently survived a fall down a lift shaft.  


  1. Good Lord, not your usual subject matter. Reminded me of the words of the grave of the great Tazio Nuvolari -"He will drive even faster along the roads of Heaven.' He did not believe in brakes on cars designed to go fast.

  2. How very Italian. I must admit I hadn't realised quite what a head case Hawthorn was. I thought of racing drivers of that period as decent types, if bonkers.
    Tomorrow: my speedway heroes. Not really.

  3. At least they laughed in the face of death - that of others, admittedly

  4. At least they laughed in the face of death - that of others, admittedly.

    How does one laugh in the face of one's own death?

    (Never mind the churlish, uncomprehending nature of your comment.)

  5. In a book, 30 years ago Nigel Roebuck a noted motor racing scribe,,described Hawthorn as a great patriot capable of motor racing performances beyond the scope of most competitors in GP history. Remembering the war and hating the Nazi's, Hawthorns drive in the 1955 Le Mans and Dunrod TT were among the most ferocious in History and reflect a time when there was great unease in France stemming from the German Occupation which produced inevitably disloyalty and vertical collaboration to the extent that probably 7 million French today are half German and secondly deep fear in Britain that probably 25% of Germans still really supported the Nazi's and that if Germany went neutral to achieve reunification it be the effective end of Nato. The writer Nigel Hilton description of the 1955 Le Mans race as WW3 on the track is not entirely untrue.
    Hawthorn was somewhat unlucky not to win 3 races in his championship year, as at Monaco he was easily leading after Moss retired after a spirited duel and at Monza the clearly superior Dino 246 had him a minute in front of Brooks before the clutch started slipping.
    Moss said of Hawthorn that he was 'good' and would never have died in an accident on the motor racing tracks and that Hawthorn was faster than Collins on the rare occasions he drove hard.
    That there was a dark side of Hawthorn is without question, one book described him as 'devils angel' who after leaving school roamed the encosures with his own band of well dressed wastrel droogs. Roy Salvadori said he could be 'rough' and it is clear motor racing personalities are determined never to talk about many of his aspects.
    Nevertheless at Le Man in 1955 he was touching the double ton on the straight and lapping at average speeds as high as 122mph , 15mph faster than Moss in a D type in 1955.
    It is possible Hawthorn deserved to be regarded in the same pantheon as Guy Gibson and we may never know the truth. Take a look of the film of the 1978 Australian GP a race almost violent as the 1955 TT ( Hawthorns greatest drive- recent Historical interpretations than his co driver Titteritington was the better performer is wrong- they were both immortal). At that Australian GP, Fangio gave his first demonstration at 68 in his 1955 Single Seater Merceded, having watched the ruthless Aussie F5000 with good driversa nd cars virtuallyd decapitated on the track. Fangio was told its just a demo, Juan. Fangio said no I'm going to race , and within three laps is doing 1.20 min around sandown compared with F5000/F1 times of 61-63 secs. In other words at 68 Fangio was still just as good , and that mask of ferocity is what Hawthorn is running against at Le Man and it is Fangio who is barleys staying on the road.