Story by Denise McCLuggage
Photos and captions by Graham Gauld
The late Marquis de Portago was once passing judgment on various Grand Prix drivers and marking the ones he thought most likely to succeed to Fangio’s throne. One famous name he dismissed with a shrug:“He’s too hard to classify. He’s erratic. He seldom finishes. He never takes care of himself”.
If Portago had lived until 1959, he would have seen the driver he named least-likely-to-succeed become the 1958 driving champion of the world. But he would be no more surprised than the tall, tow-headed wearer of the crown — Mike Hawthorn — himself.
Not that Hawthorn had not aspired to the championship. All drivers do. He had just never been particularly identified with the aspiration. Not like his countryman Stirling Moss was. Moss was called “The Crown Prince of Motor Racing”, the obvious successor to Juan Manuel Fangio to whom he was three-times runner-up. With Fangio’s retirement, 1958 looked to be Stirling’s year. But it did not work out that way. And thus to the son of a Farnham garage-owner goes the honor of being the first World Champion from Great Britain.
“I’m glad to see Old Mike pull this off”, said a British enthusiast. “He goes at this motor racing as it should be done. He doesn’t give a damn”. Which indeed is the outward impression given by the big, square-jawed Brit. But whether under that indifferent surface lurks a will-to-win which would frighten even the most serious followers of the circuit is anybody’s guess, because Mike Hawthorn is not a simple man.
Louise Collins, the American wife of Peter Collins, said in Rheims a month before her husband’s death: “Peter and I probably know Mike better than anybody else and yet we are constantly surprised by new moods and new faces. If you meet Mike in one mood, he will charm you. You’ll absolutely love him. But if you meet him in another mood, you can hate him”.
This moodiness, the many faces, are manifested in Hawthorn’s driving. At one extreme he is capable of being mediocre, of being brutal to fine machinery. At the other extreme he is brilliant. There are those who say that at Mike’s most inspired not even Fangio can touch him. And Fangio, that modest man, may well agree. Early on, the Champion from Argentina recognized the exceptional talent of the Englisher. He said that of all the drivers Hawthorn was the one he feared. Perhaps he was recalling the fabled 1953 Grand Prix of France at Rheims and the taut three-hours of wheel-to-wheel combat with Hawthorn winning by inches.
Yet those who say “Hawthorn is great when he wants to be” do not say it all. Hawthorn has no control over his “wanting to be”. Hans Tanner drove with Mike during practice for the 1953 Millie Miglia. “There are two levels to Mike’s driving”, Hans said. “On one level he is – well — good. Very good. Always better than competent. But on that other level, he transcends himself. He merges with the car. He almost goes into a trance. And it has nothing to do with what he consciously wants. On certain days, he simply ‘has it’ and that’s all there is to it. If you have ridden with him on one of those second-level days, you know you have ridden with genius”.
When Hawthorn does not like a certain race, a circuit, a car or when he is not “on”, he would just as soon be out of it altogether. Very often the car obligingly breaks. Not that Mike consciously sets about sabotaging it, but a car is an extension of the driver and when the driver is not “on” he is at odds with his machine as well as himself. A shift can be missed, a clutch slipped, a car damaged all too easily.
Mike did not like the Mille Miglia. Not a bit. He had not gone far before one of the master cylinders on the Ferrari brake system gave out and he was left with only front brakes. He was far from unhappy about retiring early. (And then the rear-end broke on the way back to Modena). No one could induce Mike to try the Mille Miglia again.
He felt much the same about the Targa Florio, that race around 48 miles of Sicilian roads, which he did for the first time in 1958. And shortly thereafter the 500 Miglia di Monza on the banked oval. (Which saw American Indy cars and assorted European cars in a two-worlds’ competition.) “Well, that’s two things I’ve tried this year that I will never do again”, he said flatly after Monza.
His first time out in practice at Monza in the 4.1 liter Ferrari that had been specially whipped together for this odd race, Mike came in trembling like a leaf. “Did I break the lap record”, he gasped, only half-facetiously. (Hadn’t been near it). “Why are you trembling? Are you cold?”, he was asked. “Hell, no. I’m frightened”.
And he believed it. As it turned it was muscle tremors from the unfamiliar effort of holding the Ferrari straight. Its chassis was ill-suited to the bumpy oval. The trembling disappeared after Mike stopped fighting the car’s every twitch and dart and let it have its way. But he didn’t like it and was delighted when “Uncle Phil”, as he calls Phil Hill, took over the lion’s share of the driving chores along with an assist from Luigi Musso.
Mike plainly prefers Grand Prix driving to any other kind. Long sports car races don’t bring out the best in him, although he has won both Sebring and Le Mans with Jaguar (both in 1955). He seldom finishes them anymore. At Le Mans, when he shared a car with “mon ami mate’, which is what he and his friend and teammate Peter Collins called each other, Mike damaged the clutch at the start, a common failing of his, and the car soon was well behind the leaders after a long pit stop.
The weather was wet and miserable, too. “I cahn’t se-ee-ee!”, Mike complained after his first stint (even stopping a lap early) pulling his mouth down in a wide grimace that makes him look like a fish after a well-baited hook.
Mike likes his comforts. Eschewing the limited facilities at the Le Mans circuit Mike dashed back to the hotel in town for a bath and a bit of rest when Peter took over the driving chores for the second time. When Mike returned, fresh and little-boy looking, he exclaimed in mock horror to Louise: “You mean to tell me Peter is still going around out there in this RAIN! The idiot!”. At that moment, Peter returned to the pits on foot having deserted the now completely clutch-less Ferrari on the circuit. “Well, mon ami mate, that’s more like it”. They congratulated each other on relieving themselves of a wet and hopeless task in time to get back to England by morning. Off they went.
Their apparent delight at having “broken” a car did not sit well with the powers of Maranello when it was reported back to the Ferrari factory. The “fairhaired” Englishers were not so fair of hair for a while. But the congratulatory scene in the pits was misunderstood. It is ridiculous to think that the pair had conspired to damage the car and leave the race early. Both Hawthorn and Collins liked winning. Very much. But neither was of the “Press-0n-Regardless” school. Not like their teammate, Phil Hill, who last season at the Targa Florio changed tires and literally moved a mountain just to finish. If winning or finishing well is out of the question that mystical switch in Mike that turns him “on” snaps to “off”.
But getting back to Portago and his run-down on Mike — he was right. Mike is hard to classify both in a car and out. First, Central Casting would never send him on a call for a racing driver. His flaxen hair and pink choir-boy cheeks would obviously be inappropriate. And then the technical director would throw him back as “too big”. Mike himself has found his six-foot-two length a problem when it comes to telescoping into a racing cockpit. His early cars were particularly small for him and he attributes his present hunched-over, scrooched-down driving position to efforts to turtle into them out of the wind stream.
Many identifying features are quickly identifiable as “strictly Hawthorn”: sketch a bow tie as a starter, then a blue helmet with a plastic rain visor (worn in the wet and dry) and you have sketched Mike. Put a four-spoke steering wheel in a racing car, and build in a minuscule amount of understeer and it could well be Mike’s. Take pictures of a driver in action whose mouth is constantly distorted as if in torture (the fish-after-bait look) and you have photographed Mike.
Off the course change the Kelly-green battle jacket to a heavy tweed, slant-pocketed sports coat, change the dark-blue helmet to a chewing-gum-colored corduroy cap bent until it’s peaked like a rooftop, leave the bow tie and set the figure talking to a crowd of ever-present, ever-admiring and admirable females and that’s undoubtedly Mike. Sprawl an apparently disinterested driver behind the pits, nose in a paperback Western, while out front mechanics and team manager fly into dithers over his ailing machine, and that is often Mike. Fill a room with a laugh that starts from the floor, free and loud, then breaks a wide face even wider and makes others turn from their conversations to smile, and that is Mike. Watch a man with a strong face grown grave and distant, holding in his hands the crushed helmet of a friend who is about to die and that, too, is Mike.
Mike Hawthorn is a unique and interesting person, as changeable as the fortunes of a race. And sometimes calmly zany. After Sebring last year — his car had retired — he had a head start on celebrating the victory of “Uncle Phil” and “mon ami mate”. (“He never takes care of himself”, Portago had said. And it’s true he seldom tries.) Anyway a liquid-fortified Mike decided to take a bath in the Collins’ motel. Which was perfectly all right except he chose to do it fully dressed. Shoes and all. There he was found, singing lustily in the tub as he gaily lathered his clothes.
The text of this article originally appeared in the January 1959 issue of “Sports Cars Illustrated” and is reprinted here with permission of the author and “Car and Driver” magazine.