STM: Hailwood’s 1978 Formula One TT

May 30, 2012
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

The 1978 Formula One TT – A Fairy Tale for Grown Ups

In the depths of a miserable British winter, with the rain lashing down and the temperatures hovering just above freezing merely thinking about the immortal Mike Hailwood has lifted my spirits.

Regarded as one of the top athletes to grace the sport of motorcycle racing,
Mike Hailwood marked a legendary comeback in the 1978 Formula TT.

There will always be arguments regarding who is the greatest racing motorcyclist of all time and, in many ways, the question is irrelevant because every era is so much different from the one which went before it.

To my mind, Valentino Rossi is the greatest rider of all time because of the sheer range of his ability both in terms of racing, development skills and team leadership. But Rossi is not a rider to whom I can warm. Businessman, media star, race God – but never one of us. Never one of the club racers who pay our entry fees and ride our bikes for the sheer love of the sport.

By contrast, Hailwood was a true racing deity – while still being just like us. Hailwood was disorganized like us; Hailwood treated racing as hobby just like us and Hailwood was vastly more interested in riding bikes than in developing them.

Where he differed was his prodigious talent. Mike the Bike could win on any bike, of any type and of any capacity – and beat any rider in the world in the process. Just imagine a rider who would race a four-cylinder, four-stroke machine and a two-stroke in the same day – and be on the podium in both races.

Hailwood needed no practice, no machine set-up and no experience of the machine he was riding. He simply got on anything with two wheels and won.

He was also modest, kind, generous and incredibly brave. In fact, for us club racers, scratching around at the bottom of the motorcycle racing hierarchy, he was our hero.

Here is the story of Mike’s legendary come back ride in the 1978 Formula TT, by the man who made it happen. It is a wonderful window on Hailwood’s character – and his unique talents.

The Story Behind the Hailwood Win – as told by Steve Wynne – the Man Who Built the Winning Ducati

In the mid-1970s, Steve Wynne owned Sports Motorcycles in Manchester. It was an idea way ahead of its time with a large, well-lit showroom and highly professional staff – all right in the center of Britain’s second biggest city. There were

Steve Wynne: To be honest  it was just another TT. You were always late for the TT and you always wanted another week to prepare but there was no sense of history being made because Mike [Hailwood] was the most laid back  relaxed person in the world.
Steve Wynne: “To be honest, it was just another TT. You were always late for the TT and you always wanted another week to prepare but there was no sense of history being made because [Hailwood] was the most laid back, relaxed person in the world.”

hundreds of bikes on display and courteous, switched on sales staff: in fact, state of the art for 2012.

What was more impressive was that this took place at a time when most bike dealerships were still stuck in an era where the owner wore oily overalls, dangled a cigarette from his mouth and the bikes were piled up in a corner inaccessible to customers.

Steve was not anti-Japanese. Rather, he was just pro something else, preferring to go his own way. Following the demise of the British bike industry, he turned to the Italians to provide sales. And he really did sell some bikes. The British Ducati importers brought 120 examples of the first 750 Ducati Twin into the country – and Sports Motorcycles sold 60 of them.

Steve was heavily involved in racing and in 1977, with his rider Roger Nicholls, had come within seconds of winning the first ever Formula One TT when the race was stopped on the third lap because of appalling weather.

Steve said: “The weather had improved since the start of the race but Honda feared their bike would not last the race and so they lobbied the ACU (who were the governing body for the race) that it was too dangerous to continue.

“In my opinion, stopping the race was not legitimate but only Honda knew what was happening. So, whilst our team took a careful, thorough pit stop based on three more laps of racing, Honda rushed out Phil Read knowing that the race would be over at the end of the next lap.”

Steve was not happy at the way the race had been stopped, with only Honda aware of the organizer’s decision, and felt that he had been robbed of a rightful win – even if the letter of the regulations had been followed.

At the British GP, held in August of that year at Silverstone, he was introduced to Mike Hailwood who, completely out of character, was extremely unhappy. Mike had approached Honda for a ride for the 1978 season and was told that he was too old and past competing at the top level.

Hailwood experienced unprecedented success with MV Agusta and Honda throughout the 1960s.
Hailwood experienced unprecedented success with MV Agusta and Honda throughout the 1960s. Despite his immaculate record, however, he was turned down by Honda when he approached them for a ride in 1978.
Despite his immaculate record  Hailwood was turned down by Honda when he approached them for a ride during the 1978 season.

Steve explains: “It was a meeting of two upset parties: us because we felt that we had been cheated – and Mike because he felt slighted.”

Mike agreed to ride for Sports Motorcycles for the whole season for $1500. That’s not a misprint. Even this was a pay rise because originally Hailwood had offered to ride for free and enter anonymously under the nom-de-guerre of “Edgar Jessop” asking only for a bike.

It was only later, when Mike’s friend and manager Ted McCauley talked him into making the comeback public, that it was felt necessary to formalize the contract between Mike and Sports Motorcycles.

Steve said: “I wrote the contract, not a lawyer, on a single sheet of paper and the sum was very nominal for a rider of his immense status. To emphasise this point, the following year Honda offered to buy out Mike’s contract from me, for a package deal amounting to around $150,000.”

Steve ordered three Formula One bikes from Ducati. One was to be for Mike; the second one for Roger Nicholls and the third, paid for by Mike’s friend Jim Scaysbrook from Australia.

NCR was, de facto, the official Ducati race machine supplier – although an independent company based virtually next to Ducati in Bologna.

The bikes arrived, absolutely on time, in October 1977 – and this in itself was a shock to Steve who was well used to relaxed Italian delivery schedules. Steve takes up the story:

“The bikes were absolutely beautiful. Milled levers, drilled sprockets – the full works. But unfortunately, most of it was polish and show.

“I said to them: ‘Look, you know that if you shot peened parts they would be ten times stronger than polishing.’ And they said to me: ‘Steve you don’t understand the customers’ minds. They want to show all their friends what they have paid for – and polishing shows but shot peening doesn’t look nearly so good!’

“But the bikes were basically right and better still, I knew how to get them absolutely right.

“Cook Neilson sent me some really trick pistons from America but I wasn’t 100% happy with them, so I got Fred Hadley at Omega Pistons, in Halesowen, to make me some.

Mike Hailwood was so eager to compete that season he signed a contract with Sports Motorcycles for a sum of just  1500.
Mike Hailwood was so eager to return to racing that he signed a contract with Sports Motorcycles for a sum of just $1500.

“The gearbox on all the Ducati race bikes was notoriously fragile so I got a set of unhardened, and un-machined, pinions from Ducati and Mike Hewland, who owned Hewland Gearboxes, machined and hardened them to my specification.

“This was where the Hailwood connection was useful. Mike Hewland made all the F1 car gearboxes and he was a mate of Mike’s from when Hailwood raced cars.

“Things were going well but I had to take the bikes out of Sports Motorcycle’s workshop and to my garage at home because they were distracting my mechanics from their normal jobs – and they needed to work on customers’ bikes to pay the wages. I built the Hailwood bike on my own – and outside works time too.

“I had a huge amount of help from my Sales Director, John Sears, who took a lot of the strain in dealing with the press and public interest. This freed me to get on with bike. John also had valuable experience of the Isle of Man as a Manx GP rider himself so he really understood the needs of the media.

The first shakedown test at the Oulton Park circuit, which was quite near to the Sports Motorcycle Shop in Manchester, went very well. Hailwood was happy enough with the bike but it was the performance of the Dunlop tires which really had Mike ecstatic. In the 11 years he had been away from bike racing, tire technology had undergone exponential progress and this really fired Hailwood up.

At this point, it is important to realize just how amateurish the Sports Motorcycles’ effort was in some ways. Steve set off for the TT as Chief Mechanic, Team Manager and pickup driver. Three race bikes went on the trailer – and another three in the pickup along with all the tools and spares.

Steve again: “To be honest, it was just another TT. You were always late for the TT and you always wanted another week to prepare but there was no sense of history being made because Mike was the most laid back, relaxed person in the world.

“His attitude spread to the whole team and we were able to smile at his terrible development skills – and they were shocking.

“The truth is that Mike was so good incredibly good that he could just ride round problems as if they didn’t exist. He could ride anything very fast. It didn’t matter if the bike was good, bad or indifferent he could just get on the bike and be faster than anyone else.

Mike Hailwood was a true racer at heat but struggled when it came to the development of a competitive motorcycle.
Mike Hailwood was a true racer at heart but struggled when it came to the development of a competitive motorcycle.
Regarded as one of the top athletes to grace the sport of motorcycle racing  Mike Hailwoods legendary comeback in the 1978 Formula TT was truly an awe-inspiring event.

“What he didn’t have, were the skills to help to suggest what improvements could be made to a bike – and he didn’t have the interest either.

“As an example, he never knew how many gears the Ducati had until the Post-TT meeting at Mallory Park. For the whole of the TT he thought the bike had a four speed ‘box, instead of the five it really had, because he could never be bothered to remember what gear he was in.

“He really was incredibly laid back and easy to please. In practice for the TT he commented that the suspension was too hard until we realized that, in fact, it was too soft and Mike was bottoming the Girling units out everywhere. But he was a complete and utter genius on the bike and understood racing perfectly. In practice he said: ‘Steve, this is really easy. I am only cruising and I know I can beat Phil (Read) on the Honda (which was a full factory entry).’

“There was a huge amount of attention on Mike but as far as we were concerned everything was just so relaxed and happy. He was the easiest rider in the world to work with.

“Everything was going really well but I was receiving a lot of hostile comments from Hailwood fans for providing a bike on which he was risking his reputation and his life. I received mail and ‘phone calls from people who thought I shouldn’t be giving a bike to Hailwood so that he could kill himself. This was a problem in having a rider who was literally loved by his fans.

“I was really confident – but I did sometimes think about what could go wrong. And at the TT there are plenty of opportunities for a real disaster.

“I’m also useless at providing what sponsors want. If a sponsor gave me £100 then I wanted to spend £99 on the bike and £1 on the corporate hospitality, rather than the other way round, which sponsors rightly expect. I thought that sponsorship was to enable us to do a better job racing instead of spending most of the money on champagne and all the other peripheral bits and pieces which sponsors want. So, I just got on with the bike and let Mike do the talking on the circuit.

“We did have factory personnel from Ducati with us but they never touched the bike. I paid for their hotel because I thought that I would get some first class technical help from Ducati the following year – I never did – and later in the week, they nearly brought the whole show down.

After catching and eventually passing Phil Read during the famed race  Hailwoods bevel gear broke just as he crossed the finish line of the 226-mile contest.
After catching and eventually passing Phil Read during the famed TT race, Hailwood’s bevel gear broke just as he crossed the finish line of the 226-mile contest.

“I also had some help from Pat Slyn of Coburn and Hughes, the British Ducati importer, and this was useful for doing the little jobs which take so much time at a race meeting. But mainly it was me and Mike: club racing really.

“Our main opposition was from Read and Honda. Whenever Mike came out, everyone would cheer and when Phil appeared they would boo. Phil didn’t help matters by facing the crowd down and giving them the “v” whenever he could – but we were having a great time. In fact, I admire Phil as a real motorcycle racer. He isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but he never did me any harm and I wore a Phil Read t-shirt during the Formula One race.

“We only had one problem during practice with an ignition box which failed but otherwise everything was great and I didn’t feel under any pressure – until the night before the race. There were all the factory blokes, and Coburn and Hughes’ staff, and the Ducati people were getting really worried that the engine in the bike had done too many miles. They had been breaking engines in endurance racing and with Mike going so well they were nervous wrecks over the motor I had built.

“In the end, I cracked and gave in and I put a spare motor in the bike that they had shipped in at the last minute from Italy. It was nearly the worst thing I ever did.

“The race went perfectly with Mike leading from the start and chasing Phil down until the Honda engine gave up. Mike crossed the line and then parked the bike up at the end of the pit lane. Everyone was going mad and I went to get the bike.

“The Chief Scrutineer came to me and said: ‘The bike won’t start will it?’ I told him of course it would and he looked me in the eyes and said: ‘Look I’m certain it won’t start, got it?’

Steve Wynne eventually sold Hailwoods Ducati 900SS for  7500. In 1998 the Duc once again traded hands  this time selling for more than  150 000.
Steve Wynne eventually sold Hailwood’s Ducati 900SS for $7500. In 1998 the Duc once again traded hands, this time selling for more than $150,000.

“We had been having trouble with getting the bike under 115db all week and the scrutineer knew that if he noise tested the bike, as he was supposed to do, it would be around 120db and he would have been the man who had to exclude Hailwood, and there was no way that he was going to do this – no way!

“But the big shock came when we got the bike back to Manchester. As Mike crossed the line, the bevel gear broke, which was quite common on the 860 race engines. You have to remember that this was a 226-mile race and had it given up 100 yards earlier this would have been one of the great failures in motorcycling history – and 100 yards is not much in such a long race.

“It was only afterwards that I realized what had been achieved and that is why I had so little in the way of memorabilia. We’d just gone to the TT to win a race with a good rider and that was as far as it went.

“At the end of the season, I sold the bike to a Japanese collector for $7500, which I thought was a good price because we’d used the bike all season and I’d got my money back. It was great.

“In 1998, I was the under bidder when the bike came up for sale in Los Angeles. I gave up at $150,000 so maybe $7500 wasn’t such a good price after all.

“Now the bike is owned by Laurance Auriana, an Italian car and bike collector, but I still look after it and whenever the bike is run part of the contract for it appearing is that I have to be with the bike – and I can’t ask for more than that.”