Hailwood's heroic TT comeback

2011-03-25 08:48

"All the threes, 33," vocal bingo callers shout out across the world… but it’s hard to believe it’s also been 33 years since Mike "The Bike" Hailwood rode that fairy-tale race at the 1978 TT - 11 years after he so vociferously claimed: "That’s it, I’m never going to race on the Island [Isle of Man] again!"

In sports parlance successful comebacks are extremely rare - unless your name’s Muhammad Ali or Mike Hailwood, that is. Hailwood’s plan was to ride under an assumed name on a non-factory prepared bike… fat chance!


Enter one Steve Wynne, a fairly successful Ducati motorcycle racer and the team owner of Sports Ducati, an ourfit based in Manchester, northern England.

In 1977 a chance remark when the two met in the paddock at Silverstone had Hailwood slinging his leg over one of Wynne’s machines and saying: "I’d love to ride one of these old-fashioned bikes, a bike I can truly relate to… perhaps one I can ride at the TT." To which Wynne replied: "Well, why don’t you?"

A handshake, a few words and an undertaking that Wynne would pick up Mike’s entrance fee was all that was required… the deal was done!

Three 883cc bikes were ordered from the Ducati factory - one for Hailwood, another for Wynne’s team rider Roger Nicholls and a third for Australian Jim Scaysbrook, the man most believe was responsible for talking Mike into "racing the island" once again.

Wynne was also the man responsible for painting the bikes in their signature red and green coachwork - an idea he got from holding up a can of Castrol motor oil and deciding on that particular paint scheme (it had nothing to do with the Italian tricolore or patriotism)... well, that and the fact that Mike’s main sponsor was Castrol …


As June 3, 1978 came around for the Formula 1 TT race the race favourite was undoubtedly Phil Read on a factory Honda but there were plenty of other stars in Honda colours - Tom Herron, John Williams and Suzuki-mounted Chas Mortimer was also a real threat to take the challenge to the leaders.

The night before the race Mike’s bike needed a new engine and he managed just one practice lap to run it in; the scene was set. He needn’t have worried... he led from start to finish. The king had returned and stunned his rivals with a record average speed of 108.51mph (174.6km/h), along with a lap record of 110.62mph (178km/h).

Second-placed Williams (Read’s machine had blown up, spewing oil over rider and bike, forcing a retirement) was almost two minutes behind - also on a factory-backed Honda. Hailwood had completed six laps of the 37.5-mile circuit in just two hours, five minutes, 10.2 seconds, surely his greatest of race victories and, of course, TT win number 13.

Surely Hailwood could sit back and soak up the adulation? Not a bit of it! Seven days later, on the same bike, he repeated the feat at Mallory Park in a race that Wynne reckons was even sweeter than the TT victory. "The Jap (Japanese) bikes were nimbler and had better acceleration than the lusty, long-wheelbase Ducati - but it was Mike’s sheer riding skill that made all the difference."


You might be wondering what happened to that particular bike?. Well, it was sold unrestored and as is to a Japanese enthusiast at the end of 1978 for £5000 - about R10 000 then. In 1996 Wynne tried to buy it back but needed £80 000 to do so!  Alas, it went to America and is still there, as far as I know.

Those Ducati replicas that were sold worldwide, a few of them making it to SA, in red and green livery remain to this day a very desirable piece of kit — the factory produced more than 7000 of them and were regarded as a factor in pulling the factory through some of the leanest times ever.

Did Hailwood hang up his boots after all that glory? No, he certainly did not, agreeing to take part in the 1979 TT races, this time on a RG500 Suzuki, which gave him TT win number 14.

Was it the rider or the machine? You decide!