Mike Hawthorn,
a champion out of time

Mike Hawthorn would have been 91 years old on April 10. But in reality, he didn’t even manage to make 30: he died on 22 January 1959 as the result of a banal road accident, the circumstances of which were never quite clear. Just 95 days had passed since he claimed his one and only F1 world title.

He was tall, blonde, of aristocratic bearing, and unmistakeably English. A man very much of his era, the epitome of what it meant to be a racing driver back then. He wore his overalls with raffish charm, often under a tweed jacket and usually with a spotted bow tie: his characteristic trademark. He loved to live his life to the full, almost as if he knew it wouldn’t be a long one. And he often even said that, explaining away his love of parties and the good life as much as driving cars. Carpe diem.

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His father owned a garage that specialised in top end sports cars, so Hawthorn’s career as a driver was almost a natural consequence. He made his world championship debut in 1952, in a Cooper T20 run by his own private team, and at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone he drove it to an excellent third place behind the dominant Ferraris of Alberto Ascari and Piero Taruffi. That didn’t escape the attention of Enzo Ferrari, who signed Mike for 1953. The English won the French Grand Prix at Reims by fending off Juan Manuel Fangio in a Mercedes, but Fangio (who had begun the season in a Maserati) would go on to win the title that year. Hawthorn stayed at Ferrari in 1954, claiming a grand prix win in Portugal and third place in the championship.

The 1955 season was a pivotal one for the Englishman: not so much because of F1 (he raced for Vanwall and Ferrari but ended up with zero points) but because of the Le Mans tragedy that year. A sudden move from Hawthorn in his Jaguar provoked the chain of events that led to Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes somersaulting in flames into the grandstand on the pit straight, causing the deadliest accident in motorsport history. A total of 83 spectators perished, along with Levegh himself. Mike won the race, but would become embroiled in controversy and recriminations afterwards, nonetheless completing that year’s Formula 1 season. The following year, 1956, was similarly lacking in results: Mike raced in just five grands prix, failing to qualify twice and scoring only four points.

But Ferrari kept faith with Hawthorn and called him back for 1957. Experience had made him a faster yet more mature driver. His team mates at Maranello were Luigi Musso and Peter Collins. In his fellow Englishman he found a kindred spirit, and the two even holidayed together, cementing a friendship so close that they even shared prize money. In effect, this meant that they formed a powerful alliance whose principal rival was their team mate Musso.

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The 1958 season was when it finally all came right for Mike. It got underway with a third place in Argentina. The fuel pump broke in Monaco while he was dominating the race, but he was fifth in Holland and second in Spa-Francorchamps. He won again at Reims, ahead of the Vanwall of Stirling Moss: his principal title rival. A string of second places then allowed him to clinch the championship at the final race in Morocco, beating Moss by just one point. He was helped to the title by the other Ferrari of Phil Hill, who feigned a technical problem to let Mike past. As soon as he had been crowned champion, Hawthorn announced his retirement from racing, despite having already having a Ferrari contract for 1959 in his pocket. The death of his dear friend Peter Collins in an accident at the German Grand Prix had hit him hard. But Mike Hawthorn had still become Britain’s first Formula 1 world champion and the last to clinch the title in a front-engined car: the Ferrari D246. From the following year, rear-engined cars – which had already been competing for two seasons – would dominate.

Back then, there was no social media or internet, so comparatively little was heard of Hawthorn following his sudden retirement. Until on January 23, some news came in from Guildford – a small town to the southwest of London ¬– about an accident that had taken place the previous afternoon. Mike had lost control of his Jaguar (a modified car with which he had won a touring car race at Silverstone) in wet conditions and slammed into a tree, which almost certainly killed him instantly.

There was a strong suggestion that he had been racing, as Rob Walker – the well-known team owner and heir to the Johnnie Walker whisky empire – was behind him in a Mercedes and saw the whole thing happen. But there was also talk of a blackout or illness: Hawthorn had suffered from continual kidney problems, and only a few months earlier, doctors had diagnosed that he had only three years or so more to live…

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MIKE HAWTHORN: April 10 1929 to January 22 1959
Races: 45
Pole positions: 4
Wins: 3
Titles: 1 (1958)

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