Friday, 9 March 2012

Mike Hailwood's real comeback

Parochial fans too often talk about the 1978 TT as Mike Hailwood’s comeback. The familiar story goes that he returned after years away from racing, his Isle of Man victory made even sweeter by unexpectedly choosing to ride a Ducati rather than returning to Honda. Some people even gild the lily with tales of Hailwood arriving on the Island and having to come to terms with a left-foot gear change and a big Desmo twin when he’d last raced a right foot-changing 500 multi. Yet like so much of the received wisdom on Mike’s comeback, it’s all wrong. After the Nürburgring crash that mangled his right leg and ended his F1 career, Mike might have moved to New Zealand, but he certainly didn’t give up on bikes. The story of his real comeback to racing, and his journey to the Isle of Man was via the race tracks of Australia. The truth involved racing a Ducati 750SS in the Castrol Six Hour Race at Amaroo Park, a properly scary, knarled little race track where rock faces and concrete walls count as run off. Spookily prescient of Mike's return to the TT, his first attempt in 1977 went very well; third in the 750 class, and sixth overall. But like Mike's 1979 TT with Ducati, the following year just about everything went against him. Didn't stop him trying though.Mike followed this up by racing a Yamaha TZ750 at the legendary Bathurst circuit months before his 1978 TT win.

But how could the history books have such a huge gap in them? Simple: Australia’s a long way from Europe and the US, and racing there’s easy to overlook when you discover the way news was reported by even the mainstream press back then. Think: no internet, faxes or even reliable international telephone lines. A journalist would have to fly there and back, writing copy on the flight home. Once back in his home country that copy needs typing up, typically by calling into the office from a public telephone at your home airport. For the big US races that were seen as important to Europeans budgets would get busted, but the Australian market was seen as self-contained: you win in Australia, you tell the Australians. The rest of the world doesn’t need to know. Until now. In researching it I’m indebted to many Australians and particularly ace snapper Phil Aynsley who took the photograph and Mike's fellow Ducati racer (at both Amaroo park and the 1978 TT) Jim Scaysbrook, who went on to be a famed writer and these days edits Old Bike Australasia The full story's in issue #007 of Benzina

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