Mike Hailwood and the Sports Motorcycles Ducati

In 1978, at the age of 38, Mike Hailwood made his comeback to motorcycle racing.  He had started racing in 1957, was world champion several times, riding for Honda through the 1960s.  He later switched to cars, eventually retiring to New Zealand in the 1970s.  He was always a very popular figure; you can still see his trademark helmet colours, a wide gold stripe edged with red on a white helmet, on bikers today.

Hailwood made his comeback on an 860cc. Ducati prepared by Steve Wynne of Sports Motorcycles.  This was not the obvious bike with which to go up against Hondas and Kawasakis, but perhaps Hailwood still had bad memories of the Honda 500 he had raced.  This was more camel than bike, and at one demonstration to Honda executives in Japan Hailwood is said to have stopped in front of them, unbolted one of the rear dampers, and demonstratively hurled it into a lake.  Well into the 1980s, Japanese bikes were generally thought to be indifferent when it came to steering and stopping, compared with British bikes, and especially when compared with Italian bikes.

Hailwood raced the Ducati in the Isle of Man and won Formula 1.  At the international follow-up race at Mallory Park he showed how he had done this on a very different circuit to the Island’s public roads.  He was never a showy rider, but a thoughtful one.  You can see this in this video, since Mallory is a small circuit and it is easy to follow almost every moment of the race.  His style is old school: at one with the bike, not moving around it, biding his time.  As the commentator says, one blink of an eye and you lose a fifth of a second; coming from the 37 miles of road in the Island, Hailwood masters Mallory’s short circuit too.

As you can see from the video, Mallory is a very simple track.  The start is followed by a 190 degree constant-radius bend whose end you cannot see until it is well past the time to be exiting.  There is a short straight, then a right through the Esses and up to a hairpin.  Likewise when you enter this you cannot see the exit.  There is a fast downhill left-hand sweep, the Devil’s Elbow, and you are back to the starting grid.  That is all.  I have ridden on the Oulton Park track and Mallory, and I really enjoyed Mallory.  It is simple, but its simplicity means that you have to get everything exactly right, every time.  This is what you can see Hailwood doing in this video.

Ducati first developed their V-twin racer from a 750cc. road bike.  Paul Smart track-tested the machine at Modena in 1972, having just got off a flight from Atlanta.  He had been racing Kawasakis in the USA, was short of money, and his wife fixed up a deal for him to ride for Ducati; he went because they sent him a plane ticket and promised to pay him £500.  He was unused to the broad powerband of the Ducati and its rather slow steering, since the big V twin motor dictated a fairly long wheelbase.  But a 90 degree V twin in line is the ideal layout for a motorcycle: the width of a single, the power of a twin, without the vibration of a single or a parallel twin.  Jet-lagged at Modena, at the end of the session Smart noticed that the mechanics in the pit were very lively.  It turned out that on his first outing on an unfamiliar bike he had broken Agostini’s lap record.  He went on to win the Imola 200 on the bike.

This was the original version of the bike Steve Wynne prepared for Hailwood.  He came back from retirement, won in the Island and at Mallory, then settled near Birmingham and started up the dealership where I later bought my own Ducati.  He was killed with his daughter in 1981 in a road traffic accident.  A truck U-turned on a dual carriageway and ran into Hailwood’s Rover while he was on the way to the local fish and chip shop.

The race lasts a little under 18 minutes.  To fully appreciate the reason for Hailwood’s success you will have to be patient, as he was.  He does not take the lead until about two-thirds through the race.  Then he just rides away from them all.

One thought on “Mike Hailwood and the Sports Motorcycles Ducati

  1. simon

    Impressive stuff!
    Love the commentary around 8.08: “Mike living now with his wife and family in New Zealand, and I suspect it was boredom rather than anything else that prompted him to return…”


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