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Goodbye Malachi Mitchell-Thomas, but it's not right

The death of the 20-year old at the North West 200 reopens the debate. His father: "I'll scatter his ashes at the TT"

Goodbye Malachi Mitchell-Thomas, but it's not right

There was a fatal accident at the North West 200, the road race that has taken place in Northern Ireland ever since 1929. 20-year old Malachi Mitchell-Thomas was killed in a crash at Black Hill while competing in the Supertwin race. It was lap three. Malachi was battling for a place on the podium and at the time of the incident he was lying second.

I first went to the TT in 1978. The race had only recently been cut from the world championship calendar, leaving the name of its last winner, Tom Herron * in the history books, and the previous year the English Grand Prix had been run at Silverstone and won by Pat Hennen. **

This was my first Grand Prix, I stayed in a tent and finished the experience by writing my first article as a correspondent for Motosprint.

Giacomo Agostini and Tepi Lansivuori were still racing, Barry Sheene was at the peak of his career, so when Mike Hailwood announced that he would make a comeback, after an eleven-year absence, at the Tourist Trophy, I decided that it was an event not to be missed.

I’d never seen him race up close, just like I’d never seen Jarno Saarinen race, so I too wanted to be there. The former director of Motosprint, the great Marcello Sabbatini, approved my trip and I left. I still remember the landing at the small airport of Ballasalla where expert colleague John Brown was waiting for me. A kind, happy soul, rotund and already almost bald, like he’d just stepped out of Pickwick. Thanks to John I learned to greet the spirits of Fairy Bridge and I almost had to pinch myself to believe I was really there that evening when, along with Franco Farné, legendary Ducati chief mechanic, I found myself talking to Mike The Bike at the Casino Palace.

Mike Hailwood al TT sulla Ducati"

"Hailwood, the best rider and Macauley, the best writer", proclaimed hundreds of posters throughout Douglas and now Mike was there, drinking whisky the night before the practice, alongside his friend, journalist Ted Macauley. For a young bike fan, as I was, it was a fantastic experience.

Still now I remember Hailwood darting along the undulated straight down Creg Ny Baa. I had him in my lens but froze for a second when I saw him take his hand of the half handlebar to wave to the crowd. I forget to take the picture, and found myself standing, like everyone else, to applaud him, behind the sand bags that protected the photographers.

I had fallen desperately in love with the island and wanted to return the next year too, to follow the feats of this legendary man. I was rewarded with his win in the Senior TT, riding a Suzuki 500, and an epic battle between him and Alex George in the Unlimited Classic. For the entire six laps, Mike, riding the RG500 and Alex, on a Honda 1100, were separated by a matter of seconds, with George making it across the line first.

It was the last time I saw a big race at the Mountain. Sure, there were others and several years ago I returned to the Mountain for a celebration, but the magic had gone. In the meantime, I had lost many rider friends at some of the safest racetracks in the world and something had cracked inside me. You can’t eat a sandwich and sleep in a caravan together with someone else and then pretend nothing’s going on when he careers into a guardrail. And then, maybe, that evening you’re organising his things because the track, like Polyphemus, didn’t allow him to leave alive.

At the time they still raced at Imatra, at Francorchamps, and the safety was relative but I was at Spa in 1979 when Barry led the revolt together with Roberts, Uncini and Ferrari.
Scared guys? Far from it. But if risk was a part of their lives, they didn’t need to die because of a mistake.

For that reason, they were fighting to have just a few dozen extra hay bales, and to get rid of the walls, or at least increase the minimum run off areas they had at the time, with that same dogged determination with which they demanded more money from the organisers, and rightly so.

None of them thought the risks could be eliminated altogether, but they all strongly believed that there should be a limit, and that the Reaper shouldn’t just have free reign. Not completely, at least.

And this is what I still think now. Then I watch and listen to the video, in which Malachi’s father speaks, and I ask myself what is the right thing to do.
Because the sirens are still singing, but in order to hear them Ulysses had himself tied to the mast of his ship and filled the ears of his crew members with wax.

* Tom Herron lost his life at the North West 200 on 26 May 1979

** Pat Hennen was the first American to win a GP in 500,in '76 at Imatra. He retired in 1978 after surviving an accident at Bishop Court, at the TT.

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