Story by Denise McCluggage
Photos and captions by Graham Gauld
On top of the Le Mans crash of 1955 that killed eight score or more and for which many Germans, mostly in the press, blamed Mike Hawthorn as a key instrument, he was having his darkest season in Grand Prix racing. He collected not a point toward the championship. Nothing. He was driving for Tony Vandervell and the Vanwalls were still suffering from birth pangs. Vanwall, like Mike, still had three full years to go to its world championship.
The next season, 1956, Hawthorn did scarcely better earning only four points. It was another year of experimentation and development for Vanwall and for B.R.M. And he had three incidents while driving the latter which could have been very serious. One time the hood flew off during a test and dealt Mike a terrific blow on the head. Had it struck at a slightly different angle he would likely have been decapitated. He also rolled a Lotus this unhappy year. Mike strove to make up for the frustrations on the circuits by taking to the air and earning a pilot’s license. He flies himself to many of the races now.
Back home again with Ferrari in 1957, Mike fared much better finishing fourth in the championship, but by no means coming near his 1953 season. Ferrari was in transition from the last legs of the Lancia-Ferraris to the fantastic new Dino Ferrari which was still many months off.
The older cars just weren’t up to the best of Maserati and Vanwall. At the Grand Prix of Rheims for instance, the Ferraris could not even equal their times of a year before. “That’s what I call progress,” Peter Collins grumbled as he grabbed a paperback Western and retired to his station wagon, “A year of improvement and we’re two seconds slower.” Mike agreed as he unfolded out of his race car: “As far as I’m concerned, they can b-u-r-r-r-n them.” He grabbed another Western and joined Peter.
The high point of that year was a defeat. It came at the Nurburgring and made history. Collins and Hawthorn were well in the lead playing at racing each other after Fangio had stopped his Maserati at the pits and then — suddenly – their own pit signals let them know that the Old Man was back in the race. And he wasn’t dawdling. And try as they might, Fangio kept cutting great chunks from their lead and great chunks from the record, too. Fangio was driving the race of his career. On he charged around the mountain circuit catching the two Ferraris and beating Hawthorn under the flag by three seconds. Perhaps in his mind evening up the score of a game begun several years earlier at Rheims (when the fledging Hawthorn had nipped Fangio at the finish).
In Mike’s championship year of 1958 Portago’s charge of “erratic” could scarcely hold. Mike has been dully consistent if anything. He scored points in all the Grande Epreuves entered except for one. He finished all but Germany and Monaco. He had fastest lap four times. He was second five times. He was first once (France). And it was not an easy year to be consistent. Mike witnessed the fatal accidents of two teammates—Luigi Musso at Rheims and his “mon ami mate,” Peter Collins at the ‘Ring.
Compare Mike’s record that year with Stirling’s. Moss finished only five races, but he won four of them and was second once. He, too, had fastest lap four times. With the best six races counting, Mike put together a score of 42. Stirling mustered 41. Apart from the fact that Stirling just plain did not finish enough races the fastest laps – which counted for one point — told the story. Particularly the one at Portugal.
Moss won Portugal. Hawthorn was second. And, it appeared, had the fastest lap. During the race Moss thought that the fastest lap was his and a misunderstanding of signals from the pits might have kept that from being true. A sign shown to him read: “Haw. Rec.” meaning Hawthorn had just made a record lap. But Moss read it: “Haw. Reg.” That meant Mike was “regular” — not gaining time, not losing it. If Stirling had not misread the sign and if he had then cranked on a fast one and if …But as they say over there: “With ‘if’ you can put Paris in a bottle.”
That sign Stirling thought he saw — “Haw. Reg.” – summed up Mike’s season. Hawthorn was regular. And Portago’s “erratic” driver who “seldom finishes” had finished, and finished, and finished. And finally he finished as the Champion of the World.