Mike Hailwood retired from top competition motorcycling on the same day that Honda left racing at the end of 1967. Soichiro Honda was so interested in preserving the British legacy with the company (35 Grands Prix and 4 World Championships) that he paid him 50.000 pounds (almost 1 million pounds today) to be retired.
Hailwood made occasional non-championship appearances in subsequent years before signing with John Surtees to drive Formula 1 and Formula 2. He retired after a serious accident in a McLaren in 1974 and emigrated to New Zealand, where he grew bored and lost hair. slowly. Bald, overweight and still limping from the 1974 accident, Hailwood visited the Isle of Man in 1977 and signed a large contract with the organizers to compete in some events at the 1978 TT.
Cynics said he was doing it solely for the money. After all, he hadn't raced in the TT since 1967. Had his divine abilities faded?
Hailwood, as always, was indifferent to everything. "I'm not making a comeback, I'm just coming back after 11 years," he joked. "I've always loved driving around the island, I think I'm going to be competitive."
His plans soon came to fruition. The 38-year-old wanted to drive a Ducati in the Formula 1 category (Senior category at the time) and a two-stroke Yamaha in the Junior, Senior and Classic categories, all equipped with Dunlop tires. He prepared for his return by racing some races in Australia, where he was surprised by the advances in technology during the time he had been away.
"The most modern motorcycles have tremendous grip and fantastic stopping power, so not only do I have to relearn the TT circuit, but I also have to relearn how to ride," he said. "Do not expect miracles ...".
Then the training began. Mechanic Pat Slinn remembers Hailwood returning to the box after his first session with the 900cc Ducati, prepared by the brand for the occasion in Manchester. “He arrived, gave the bike to Franco (Farni, Ducati's Chief Mechanic), took off his helmet and commented:“ I haven't forgotten anything, every pothole is still there ”. When he smashed the track record a few sessions later, Farni thought his timer had been broken. He can not believe it."
Until that lap record in practice, the favorite in the class was last year's winner Phil Read, one of Hailwood's biggest rivals in the previous decade. Read had been driving since the late 50s and although he had given up on a few Grands Prix, he was still a serious contender, especially with his Honda specifically tuned for the TT.
As the current champion, Read started first. Hailwood escaped behind him just as the starting order ended, heading down the hill 50 seconds later. His Ducati had a rear Dunlop slick and a front tread tire, as the TT layout did not generate enough heat in the front tire to make the slicks viable.
"I decided to drive just 90 percent and see how things were going when I got to the signaling station at the Gooseneck." Hailwood's confidence belied his speed, and the news as the “Gooseneck” passed, 22 miles in the first of its 6 laps (37 miles and three-quarters each), was good. He had already overtaken the Honda of Northern Irishman Tom Herron and had completed the first lap at 109.87 miles per hour. A minute and a half faster than Read's previous record!
Midway through the 226-mile race, Hailwood caught up with Read as they were both ascending the Mountain. The two old workhorses together again. As one reporter noted: “For Read it must have been like a nightmare. He was being chased up the mountain in the dark, knowing that sooner or later they were going to catch up with him. "
When Herron pulled out - both of his rear suspension mounts were fractured - and Read's Honda began to emit disturbing smoke, the result was beyond doubt. Hailwood finished the final two laps to the roar of tens of thousands of shirtless fans, bathed in the sun and cheerfully waving their programs. The fairy tale had come true, with a return to the paddock in which grown men, and for whom "Mike the Bike" was an idol of their childhood, cried really emotional.
Hailwood won the race more than 2 minutes ahead of Merseyside driver John Williams, who lost his life two months later in another street race, the Ulster Grand Prix.
He even confessed that it had been too much even for him: "I have to admit that I got a bit excited when I got off the bike," he said. Later, he lost his romanticism again and regained his usual dryness. “I'm glad it's all over. The piloting was the least complicated part. In fact, it was the only time I was able to relax and enjoy myself. The rest was a bit irritating, I had to give a million interviews and I couldn't step outside the hotel without attracting attention ... Basically it was a damn foolish idea that turned out reasonably well. "
However, he returned one last time in 1979 when he won again, this time in the Senior category with a Suzuki RG500 two-stroke. In the classic category he was defeated with the same bike, for only two seconds. "This is the first time I have finished second in the TT," he cheerfully commented.
Article made by Mat oxley for Dunlop's #GreatFightbacks campaign on the ten greatest feats of motorsport.
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