20 April 2021

Motorcycling Landmarks: Hailwood’s Comeback

Many consider Mike Hailwood’s TT comeback in 1978 as the greatest achievement by a rider in the entire history of motorcycle racing. Hailwood took an 11-year break from top-level racing, where he spent most of it in the car world. This break ended in a McLaren F1 car crash that shattered his right ankle, returning to the TT seemed an ill-advised move. With 12 previous Isle of Man TT wins, the last in 1967, Mike certainly had nothing to prove and most observers feared he would only risk tarnishing his reputation.

It was only supposed to be a bit of fun originally but, once word got out about Mike’s plans, the media went into a frenzy; in the weeks leading up to the TT, more column inches were devoted to Hailwood than every other rider combined. He even quipped, “it’s all got a bit too serious. Maybe I should have done it incognito?”

Despite his attempts to play down his chances, Hailwood had certainly chosen the ideal bike for the Formula 1 TT, the NCR Ducati 900 Desmo. With the engine modified to produce a broad spread of power peaking at around 88bhp and extensive modifications to lighten the entire power unit, this was far from a stock production machine. Based on Ducati’s earlier 750 with the right footgear change, Mike’s bike was altered to left foot shifting to accommodate his ankle problems. The frame was a lightweight version of the standard one, widened at the rear to accept the latest slick racing tyres.

Sure enough, record crowds packed onto the Isle of Man that year in anticipation of witnessing history being made. In practice, Hailwood lit up the lap charts with a best lap of over 111mph, well above his 1967 record of 107mph, set on the Grand Prix Honda 500.

Come race day, Mike started 50 seconds behind his main rival, Phil Read, on the more powerful Honda four. By the third lap of six in the 226-mile race, Hailwood was ahead of Read on the road, so great was his time advantage. Phil Read pushed the Honda so hard that its engine gave up the struggle in a cloud of oil smoke on lap five, allowing Hailwood to ease off a little for the final lap. When he crossed the line to win there was a massive outpouring of emotion from the crowded grandstand and all around the course. Mike himself had tears in his eyes as he climbed the winner’s rostrum. What a comeback.

As if to prove that his TT win had not been a freak result based on exceptional course knowledge, Hailwood promptly went to the Post-TT meeting at Mallory Park where he blitzed the best of the UK’s short circuit experts. He even backed up his 78 wins by returning to the Isle of Man in 79 to win the Senior TT on a Grand Prix Suzuki 500 two-stroke, a very different machine to the Ducati, but it’s the 1978 result that fans will always remember most fondly.

Is there a motorcycle racing rider greater than Mike Hailwood? Let us know if we have missed any other motorcycle racing legends in the comments below.

Jarno Saarinen. Brilliant rider cut short before proving himself. Saw him at Mallory, overtaking everyone around the outside of Gerrard. Brilliant.

Mjh, 23/04/2021