On this day in history : 10th April 1929 – The birth of British racing driver Mike Hawthorn – who was to become the United Kingdom’s first Formula One World Champion in 1958….

Mike Hawthorn – Fair use

Born in Mexborough, Yorkshire, the only child of Leslie and Winifred Hawthorn, Mike had a privileged upbringing…. He was educated at the prestigious public school, Ardingly College, in West Sussex and then went on to study at Chelsea Technical College – before going into apprenticeship with a commercial vehicle manufacturer…. All in preparation for taking over the business his father owned in Farnham, Surrey – The Tourist Trophy Garage, which supplied and serviced high-end cars such as Jaguar and Ferrari….

Mike Hawthorn began competitive racing in September 1950, at the Brighton Speed Trials, in a 1934 Riley Ulster Imp…. His father, who himself raced motorcycles, encouraged Hawthorn’s interest in motorsport – providing him with first motorcycles and then cars in which to compete….

Some may term Hawthorn as having been spoilt….his parents certainly doted on him…. With his flamboyant nature, boyish good looks and don’t care attitude he was perhaps a larger than life figure – reflected by his 6ft 2” height…. He liked to party hard, enjoyed a pint whilst holding court at his favourite local pub – the Barley Mow in Tilford – and would tear around the countryside in his car – often chasing girls…. Dapper in his attire, he was always recognisable by the bow tie he wore, even when racing….

By 1952 he had switched to single seater racing cars and won his first Formula Two race at Goodwood…. He came to the attention of Enzo Ferrari….and made his Formula One debut in the 1952 Grote Prijis van Belgie, finishing in fourth place…. By the end of the season he had gained his first podium place with a third at the RAC British Grand Prix….

In 1954 he was to be involved in a crash which left him with severe burns…. It was also the year his father was killed in a road accident…. Hawthorn inherited the business and left Ferrari to join Tony Vandervell’s Vanwall team, so he could spend more time at the garage…. However, after just two races he went back to Ferrari….

Hawthorn in his Ferrari in the Gran Premio de la Republica Argentina – Public domain

In January 1955 Hawthorn replaced Stirling Moss on the Jaguar team…. He won the 1955 les 24 Heures du Mans – a race which saw one of the worst ever disasters in the history of motor racing…. Hawthorn had overtaken Lance Macklin in his Healey and had braked suddenly as he saw he had been ordered into the pits…. Macklin swerved into the path of Mercedes driver Pierre Levegh; the Mercedes collided with the Healey and then mounted the embankment and entered the spectator area…. It hit a concrete stairwell and disintegrated, sending debris into the crowd…. Levegh and 84 spectators were killed….

Mercedes withdrew from the race; Jaguar were asked to do the same but opted to continue and went on to win…. There was much scorn from both the public and press – Hawthorn was cleared of all blame following an Inquiry – but the accident was to haunt him….

In 1958 he won the Formula One World Championship, just one point ahead of his rival Stirling Moss…. Immediately after his victory Hawthorn announced his retirement from Formula One….

Image : Dutch National Archives

Just three months into retirement, on the 22nd of January 1959, he was driving his Jaguar down the A3, near to Onslow Village, Guildford, when he lost control at about 80 mph…. It was around midday, the weather was foul with heavy rain and gusting winds…. For years there was speculation as to what actually happened – but it appears he may have been racing at the time….

It seems Hawthorn had been on the forecourt of his garage in Farnham, just before setting off for an appointment in London, when a grey Mercedes drove passed slowly…. The driver was Rob Walker, a rival of Hawthorn’s in the racing world and an associate of Stirling Moss…. Walker flipped a cheeky ‘V’ sign at Hawthorn and sped off in the direction of Guildford…. Hawthorn leapt into his Jaguar and gave chase along the Hog’s Back – the A31 between Farnham and Guildford…. Hawthorn caught the Mercedes up and the two cars joined the A3, with the Jaguar now ahead…. Walker was then to witness with horror as Hawthorn’s car spun out of control, colliding with a lorry heading in the opposite direction, before crossing the grass verge and hitting a tree – ironically, the only tree in the vicinity…. Hawthorn was killed instantly….

A 1959 Jaguar 3.4 Mk 1 – similar to the one Hawthorn was driving at the time of his death. Image credit : Allen Watkin CC BY-SA 2.0

Hawthorn was engaged at the time of his death, to fashion model Jean Howarth…. He had one son after a romantic interlude with a French girl following his win at the French Grand Prix in 1953…. It is also thought Hawthorn was suffering from a terminal kidney disease and had only been given another three years to live…. If this were true then perhaps his death was a more fitting way for him to go….

Hawthorn’s grave, West Street Cemetery, Farnham – Image credit : Jack1956 – own work – CC BY-SA 4.0

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