Success and scandals, fun and tragedies, genius and loose living: for Mike Hawthorn, British driver class of 1929 and icon of classic motor racing, life always had two symmetrical and diverging sides, exactly like those bow ties that he loved to wear during the races to reaffirm his British origins with pride.
A natural motor racing talent and roguish gentleman driver, Mike Hawthorn inherited his passion for racing from his father Leslie, a passionate motorcyclist and owner of a garage for high performance brands among which Jaguar and Ferrari. For Mike it was inevitable that he would succumb to their appeal: he was only nine years old when he decided that he wanted to become a racing driver.
Leslie was a fundamental figure for the entire existence and career of Mike, so much so that his premature death due to a road accident in 1954 was a shock that the champion never really recovered from. And it was a dark omen of what was to come: all those most dear to Mike, and in the end he himself at only 29 years old, died in cars.
Nicknamed by the French “Le Papillon” (the bow tie) for his habit of wearing the bow tie even under his jumpsuit but also for his reputation for loving wine and women as much as he loved racing, Mike Hawthorn suffered from a serious kidney disease. He knew he didn’t have a long future ahead of him, and for this reason he lived in the present with an uncommon intensity and zest for life. On the race track he was merciless and bold to the point of being naive: they say he liked to make fun of his adversaries and some remember his contemptuous “bye byes” after overtaking, aimed at his opponents with an agile hand unfailingly dressed in elegant driving gloves.
The first podium place in F1 he attained at the British Grand Prix, in 1953. A finish that was worth much more than just a trophy: his excellent performance attracted the attention of Enzo Ferrari, who signed him up for the rest of the season. In a Ferrari 500, Hawthorn gained victory in the French Gran Prix of 1953 keeping up with the legendary Fangio during one of the most famous racing battles of all time, lasting all 60 laps (over 500 km) of the Reims circuit.
The entire life of this British champion was a short circuit of joys and pains: his most epic feat – the victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans on the 11th of June 1955, at the wheel of a Jaguar D-Type – remains carved in the darkest page of motor racing history. A tragic accident, with 84 victims and 120 injured, for which Hawthorn was unwittingly responsible, and which tormented him for the rest of his days.
A short life, but lived at high speed: Mike Hawthorn died in the January of 1959, just a few months after having become the first British racing driver to win a championship title in the world of Formula 1. A record which came after a tremendous season of challenges metre for metre with Stirling Moss, who Mike beat by just one point. Something which to this day still kindles the hearts of enthusiasts.
Despite the final triumph, Mike’s championship had already taken a tragic turn. In fact in that year he saw both his team mates die: Luigi Musso, came off the road on the Curva del Calvaire of the French Gran Prix, and Peter Collins, his dearest friend, who lost his life on the notorious German circuit of Nurburgring. The death of his friend left Hawthorn devastated and demotivated, so much so that it was difficult for him to finish the season.
At the end of his last race, in that same year, he announced his official retirement from the racing world. He was in love with the stupendous Jean Howarth, he wanted to start a tranquil life working in the garage which he had inherited from his father. With a stratospheric title record of 45 GPs competed in, 1 World championship, 3 victories, 4 pole positions, 6 best laps, 18 podium places in only 7 seasons, he could say that he was satisfied with his racing career and start a new life.
But destiny, as is well known, is a joker. Just one month after his retirement, Mike Hawthorn lost control of his Jaguar and ended up, as one journalist wrote at the time, up a tree of the same name as his: an hawthorn. A romantic end for one of the most elegant and winning Gentleman Drivers in history.
- “Collins Fangio and Hawthorn podium Nurburgring 1957” by Willy Pragher is licensed under CC BY 3.0
- “Hawthorn and Collins Ferraris Nurburgring 1957” by Willy Pragher is licensed under CC BY 3.0
- “Le Mans Memorial” by Stevingtonian is licensed under CC BY 3.0
- “Mike Hawthorn | Stirling Moss (1954)” by F1-history is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
- “Mike Hawthorn | Peter Collins (Silverstone 1958)” by F1-history is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
I don’t come from a ‘motor racing ’family as such. my father was an avid fan of racing travelling all over the country to watch and photograph his passion. and was a huge fan of Mike’s, but for the fact his brother was named Michael I as his first born would probably have been named ‘Mike’, I ended up being named after another of my dad’s heroes Graham Hill.
Living in Sussex a stones throw from Goodwood dad visited the circuit many times, he followed Mike’s career from start to finish. Dad was always pleased to see photos I’d taken from the modern Goodwood events Dad always maintained that although his hero Mike had won the title, he had much admiration for Stirling Moss who would most probably have won the drivers title had it not been for his intervention on Mike’s behalf when Mike was threatened with a penalty for reversing on the track during the Portuguese GP. Thanks largely to Moss’s defence Hawthorn kept the six points for second and went on to beat Moss to the title by a point despite only winning one race to Moss’ four that year… Different times, different people.
I read this story out loud to my parents, 80 and 78. My father used to race in the 50’s and my mother-who met Stirling Moss when he cane into the office she worked in when her father was the general manager of Lubin (heavy equipment replacement parts) and he was racing for him. My parents remember both of these men well and this story brought out many memories. I myself drive an M6 highly modified. History is never far from us.