Mike Hailwood, the return of the legend to the Tourist Trophy

HISTORY: A whisky the night before practice. The gearchange on the left. His return to motorcycle racing after his time on four wheels. It was the first year in which the TT was not valid for the world championship and, of course, he won


John Brown, a ruddy-faced and nice English journalist who was my Virgil on the Isle of Man, picked me up way back in June 1978 at that airport in Ballasalla.

The reference to Dante was not exaggerated: the first stop was on a stretch of road surrounded by trees.

"Why have you stopped in the road, John?", I asked.

"Hello!" said John, looking first to the left and then to the right. And immediately after a very brief silence, as if explaining something obvious to a child.

“You say it as well, Paolo. We have to say hello to the fairies. If you want to come back to the island you have to be their friends and then say goodbye. We are on their island"

I understood then where I was, because of course I knew the legend. So, I repeated "Hello!".

John had not added that that ‘come back’ should have been followed by the word, ‘alive’, but I only realized this a little later.

That stretch of road was obviously a bridge, or rather ‘the’ bridge: Fairy Bridge. And I was there because the great Marcello Sabbatini, then director of the newly founded Italian weekly magazine Motosprint, an offshoot of Autosprint, decided to send me as soon as he heard of Mike Hailwood's return to racing.

As a fan, obviously I knew everything about Mike the Bike, but I had never found myself face to face with him, I had never seen him race in person, unlike Agostini, one of his great rivals. I had also heard of the TT, but that very year it had lost its world championship validity, due to the ‘war’ waged against it especially by Barry Sheene and Ago, following the death of Gilberto Parlotti. For this reason, it was the first time that I had ever been to the Isle of Man.

For someone like me, who had only started following Grand Prix road racing the year before, at Silverstone, the 11th and final round of the world championship (on August 14th!), an unwitting  replacement for Motosprint’s correspondent, Giancarlo Galavotti, who had had an accident, everything was totally new, so I wasn't particularly excited. No more excited than a student who has arrived at university to get to know all the subjects he will have to face. I simply absorbed all the information.

I was in that phase of my life where everything, or at least most of what I was going through, was new. I was moving, at the age of 24, from books and magazines to the reality of a world championship that in those years was still the 'Continental Circus'.

The rest of the short drive was not short on other discoveries. Everywhere there were signs that read: "Mike Hailwood, the best rider, and Ted Macauley, the best writer". Ted, who I met later, was an elegant journalist, manager and friend of Mike, who every day wrote a newspaper column, I think it was in The Sun, about ‘Mike the Bike’. And then there was the horse-drawn tram on the Douglas seafront and thousands and thousands of motorcycles, on the road or parked neatly.

I was met by someone who looked like an old-fashioned butler from the Casino Palace where I was staying. I regret not remembering his name because during my stay he was an inexhaustible mine of Tourist Trophy-themed anecdotes, of course. He knew all the riders, and since the hotel was the best one on the island, he had a certain confidence with all the champions.

That evening I was invited by Franco Farné who was Fabio Taglioni's right hand, after dinner, to the bar, where I met Hailwood for the first time. He alternated English with Italian. In fact, I think he spoke our language more often because the mechanics at the time were not particularly multilingual.

I don't remember which drink I had in my hands, but Mike was sipping whisky from a glass. It was two in the morning and, collapsing with exhaustion after the trip, I took my leave of the company: the practice sessions were very early in the morning.

I didn't wake up in time, and when I arrived in the pit lane, "Mike the Bike" was already on the bike practising. When he stopped, Farné saw that I was going around admiring the Ducati that was hot as a racehorse after it had been out for a gallop. He saw me surprised to find that the gearchange was on the left - the Italian motorcycles had it on the right - and explained to me that after his car crash Hailwood wasn't able to use that foot very well, so they moved it to the other side. And since he also had very little sensitivity and was worried about keeping the rear brake on, they had also removed the brake pad!

Then, finally, the day of the race arrived: I went to Governor's Bridge, because at the time a motorcycle journalist was above all a photojournalist and as soon as I heard the rumbling of the Borgo Panigale bomb, I took that image which then ended up on a Ducati poster that sometime later I saw hanging on a wall of the NCR workshop of Nepoti and Caracchi, at that time the ‘armed wing’ of the Bologna manufacturer.

Mike Hailwood of course won with the fastest lap and the track record. He beat Phil Read, riding a factory Honda in what he described as "my easiest TT win".

I returned to the Tourist Trophy the following year, and on that occasion, Mike the Bike won the senior TT, this time riding a Suzuki 500 RG that obviously in his heyday he had never ridden.

I never saw him race again.

Two years later he left us, in a car accident, together with his daughter Michelle, but it was not his fault. He would have been 80 years old today, the anniversary of his death.

If you want to hear Giacomo Agostini talk about Mike Hailwood, CLICK HERE

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