Thirty-one years ago, Mike “The Bike” Hailwood stunned the motorcycling world when he emerged from 11 years of self-imposed retirement to win the Formula One TT at the Isle of Man on a specially prepared 883cc Ducati V-twin. A week later he rode to victory at Mallory Park, firmly cementing his reputation as one of the greatest riders of all time. Thanks to Alan Cathcart, we have the inside story on the Ducati that carried Hailwood to victory and the man who put it all together, Steve Wynne.
Steve Wynne is the man responsible for providing Mike the Bike with the means of making his victorious TT comeback in 1978, which has become the stuff of motorcycle racing legend. Wynne himself raced Ducatis successfully in the mid-'70s, but in his own judgment was better qualified to work on the bikes rather than ride them - especially with the pressures of building his Manchester-based company, Sports Motorcycles, into one of Britain's top sportbike dealers taking up so much of his time. But winning an Isle of Man TT remained an especially burning goal, and so to do so Wynne took a back seat as a rider and starting working towards TT success with hired hands.
First time out for the Sports Ducati team in the Island in 1976 almost brought a fairytale debut victory, when Roger Nicholls and Steve Tonkin built up a substantial lead in the 10-lap Production TT on Wynne's 750SS, only to suffer a broken piston just one lap from the end. The following year, 1977, saw the inauguration of the TT Formula 1 class, allowing a greater degree of engine tuning than the old Production rules as well as, especially, complete freedom of chassis design - aimed, so the cynics held, at allowing the Japanese factories to be competitive on a real-world road course, where their powerful but ill-handling streetbikes had yet to prove themselves. To relate the two categories to modern classes, Production racing was essentially the same as Supersport, whereas TT F1 was Superbike racing without the need to use stock frames and silhouette bodywork - only a highly modified production street engine.
Steve Wynne's efforts in the '76 Production TT had persuaded the Ducati factory to sell him an ex-works 900SS-based NCR-built Endurance racer for the TT F1 race, which duly arrived at the last minute in totally unprepared guise, fresh from completing its last long-distance marathon. In spite of this, careful preparation by the Sports Motorcycles team permitted Roger Nicholls to have the beating of the works Honda ridden by former world champion Phil Read, before the race was controversially cut short in circumstances that gifted Honda a victory - and a world title - which even they could scarcely have felt they deserved. "The biggest disappointment of my life," admits Steve Wynne candidly today - but better was yet to come, and revenge would be doubly sweet. Let Steve Wynne himself explain how it happened:
"A couple of months after the '77 TT, we went to Silverstone for Roger Nicholls to ride in the TT F1 support race at the British GP. In the paddock there I was introduced to Mike Hailwood, who was visiting Britain from New Zealand, where he'd been living since retiring from Formula 1 car racing after his 1974 smash at the Nürburgring. He sees the Ducati, slings his leg over it, and says "This is the kind of old fashioned bike I understand - wouldn't mind doing another TT on this!" Half-jokingly, I say "Why don't you?!" - and with just a few words and a hand shake, the deal is done, for a paltry, completely nominal rider's fee of £1000 - I used to think it was even less, but I just discovered our single-sheet contract, complete with Mike's witticisms scrawled on it, in a drawer! But essentially Mike just wanted to have an enjoyable ride back in the Island he loved racing in - his plan was originally to ride under an assumed name, thinking nobody would realize it was him. Some hope!
"There were ten months to go before the TT, but I immediately contacted Ducati and told this time there had to be no cock-up with last minute arrivals - it must be two brand-new bikes, not a single worn-out Endurance racer with no spares. It was agreed however that I must pay for the bikes, one up front and the other at the end of the year, and they arrived painted in NCR colors of red and silver in plenty of time, before the end of 1977. In fact, there were three - one each for Hailwood and Roger Nicholls, who after his efforts in the previous two races I must admit was our best hope for victory, since you must remember Mike hadn't raced a bike at top level for seven years, and a third for Mike's Australian mate Jim Scaysbrook, who was mainly responsible for persuading him to take up bike racing again. This bike was bought and paid for by the Aussies, and went Down Under after the race, where it still is. We however painted the two Sports bikes red and green, a color scheme I designed from a can of Castrol oil, who were Mike's main sponsors - it had nothing at all to do with the Italian tricolore, which was just a happy coincidence, even if the people at Ducati preferred to think otherwise! I do know, however, that when they launched the Mike Hailwood Replica 900SS streetbike the following year, neither Mike nor I were paid any royalties on it, even though this was the model whose commercial success was such [over 7000 were built and sold over a seven-year period - AC] that it bailed the state-owned factory out of near-certain bankruptcy - in Castrol colors!
"Having got the bikes early meant I could prepare them very carefully, reworking the heads with larger valves and changing pistons, ignition, clutch and most importantly the gear cluster, which was the real Achilles heel of a racing Ducati at that time. This was achieved courtesy of a contact of Mike's from his F1 car days, Hewland Gears, who made all the gearboxes for the British F1 teams. But whereas this service would normally have commanded a five-figure fee, such was the esteem Hailwood was held in by car people as well as bikers that Mike Hewland redesigned and manufactured the new gear ratios free of charge, and the information was passed on to Ducati equally gratis, for them to incorporate much of the design into future road models.
"During pre-race testing and TT practice our Sports-tuned engine proved fast and reliable - Mike topped the TT F1 leader board with a new lap record at 111 mph, yet was convinced he'd only done 105 mph or so because the Ducati felt so easy and relaxing to ride. Two race engineers had turned up from the Ducati factory to observe and help out, Franco Farne and Giuliano Pedretti. Farne became concerned over the high mileage this engine had done in practice, so persuaded me to fit a new one they had brought over with them, which Mike did a solitary lap with on Friday night, the day before the race. In the event, though good enough to win the race, this proved much slower than our motor, and blew up when the bottom bevel gear on the rear cylinder disintegrated just as Mike shut off to cross the finish line and win! I didn't even know this till I got the bike home, because under FIM pressure there was a strict noise control at the TT that year, and all the finishers were supposed to be tested at the end of the race. There was some doubt whether the Ducati would pass, even with the Triumph silencers we'd grafted on to the Lafranconi exhaust meggas, but the noise meter man didn't fancy being lynched for being the one to disqualify Hailwood after his famous TT comeback win, so as I pushed the bike back to the parc ferme I was greeted with the rhetorical question that "the engine won't start, will it?!" to which I was happy to agree - except that, had I but known it then, it was quite true!
"I've never considered myself to be superstitious, but this was one occasion that makes me wonder. Though it was a dream come true to win a TT, and especially with Mike Hailwood riding my bike, the pressure and responsibility were immense. I had many hundreds of letters before the race from Hailwood fans, many threatening to hold me personally responsible if Mike were to be killed or injured - honestly! Motor Cycle News printed a photo of the bike back to front without the bodywork on, which gave the mistaken impression the sump plug was wired up the wrong way, and this caused 40 or 50 people - not just two or three! - to write or phone telling me of the apparent error. The atmosphere throughout practice was electric, because Honda were going all out to retain their title, and besides Phil Read had the likes of Tom Herron, Tony Rutter, John Williams and Helmut Dähne on works bikes or dealer entries, with only our Ducatis and Chas Mortimer on a Suzuki to stop them. But there was some good natured banter between Read and Hailwood, and just before the start of the race, Phil came over to wish Mike and myself good luck, and in typical cheeky form suggested I ought to support him by wearing a Phil Read T-shirt! I did in fact take off my Sports Motorcycles/Hailwood T-shirt and spent the whole of the race in the pits apparently supporting our greatest rival, till at the end of the last lap, Mike's light came on at Signpost Corner miles in the lead, to tell us we were almost home and dry. Only then, realizing I still had the Phil Read T-shirt on, did I start to take it off to don our own team colors, ready to welcome Mike as the victor. But Giuliano Pedretti, the Ducati works mechanic, stopped me as I did so: "Keep it on," he said, "or it may cause bad luck." I wonder to this day, if I'd removed the T-shirt, would the timing gear have broken at Governor's Bridge just a few hundred yards from the finish, instead of just on the line?! Am I superstitious now? Maybe just a little ...
"The following weekend we went from the world's longest race circuit to one of the shortest, Mallory Park. We refitted the original Sports engine that Mike had practiced with in the Island for him to ride the bike in the Post-TT meeting's TT Formula 1 British title round, in which he beat future British champion John Cowie on the P&M Kawasaki, as well as Read and all his TT rivals once again. In some ways I regard this as an even greater feat than the TT win, because the Japanese bikes were nimbler and had better acceleration than the lusty, long-wheelbase Ducati, which made them better suited to such a short, frantic circuit - but Mike's brilliance made the difference. We did two more British TT F1 races together that year, at Donington where he crashed in the lead and wrote off the fairing - the crowd reacted like locusts, swarming all over the machine to pick up pieces of the broken bodywork to keep as souvenirs! - and the other at Silverstone in the British GP support race, where Cowie got his revenge and Mike finished an out powered third on such an outright speed circuit.
"At the end of 1978 the Hailwood Ducati was sold unrestored and as used - complete with Donington crash scrapes - to a Japanese collector. This was the same engine and chassis - both bearing nos. 088238 - that Mike had used at Mallory, Donington and Silverstone, and therefore the same chassis he won the TT with, too - and in my book, it's the chassis that determines a bike's identity. Mike Hailwood sat in that seat to win the TT, and nobody else ever did so on a race track after that Silverstone meeting, until you came to ride it here at Mallory today. The second bike that Roger Nicholls rode in the TT, when he retired with a broken oil level inspection window, of all things, was purchased from the factory by the then British Ducati importers Coburn & Hughes, who then refused to sell it on to me as my original deal with Ducati had been, but instead turned it into the first ‘Hailwood TT-winner' forgery. They later sold it to a German enthusiast together with a letter certifying it was the Hailwood bike, which it most assuredly never was - Mike never even rode even a single practice lap on the bike, and anyway the importers had no involvement whatsoever with our race effort, so they couldn't have known which bike was which.
"I still owned not only the blown-up TT-winning engine, but also the disastrous full-works 950F1 bike ridden to fifth place in the 1979 TT by Mike, which I'd been too disgusted with to dispose of! In 1982, I decided to enter myself in the Daytona BoTT race, using the 1979 chassis which Ron Williams of Maxton had by now transformed from a camel into a thoroughbred handling-wise, in which I installed the 1978 engine that I'd heavily modified while rebuilding it, in search of more power. The blow-up had meant that timing gears, crank, big bore pistons and cylinders, valves, gearbox etc. were all replacements, which basically only meant the crankcases and head castings were original Hailwood TT items, even if modified inside. However, I'd overdone the tuning, and at Daytona the crankcases split, which being special sandcast units were irreplaceable, and unrepairable. So for a second time the engine was hidden away under a bench!
"A year or so later the next confidence trickster appeared on the scene, contacting me from the USA purporting to be the world's biggest Hailwood fan. Did I even have just a nut or bolt off the original Hailwood bike lying around which he could have to worship? Being a gullible type, I informed him that I still had the TT-winning engine, even though it was scrap and heavily modified, plus a spare wheel and a damaged fork slider that apart from the trashed fairing was the only casualty of the Donington crash. I sold him the stuff for just a few pounds - then a year or so later I find 'The Original TT-Winning Mike Hailwood Ducati' has gone up for sale in the USA, completely cloned from just a cracked crankcase and a broken fork leg! After correspondence between myself and the buyer of this fake, the purchaser then sued the man who created it, and the bike itself ended up in the hands of a third party, who broke it up and offered the cracked crankcases and other modified parts for sale!
"Meanwhile, the genuine bike reappeared from Japan in 1996, and was sold at auction in Los Angeles to the present owners Larry and Mark Aurtiana, who generously insisted it be returned to the race track this year [1998 - AC], to honor the 20th anniversary of Mike's victories. You're doing the honoring here at Mallory Park, while Phil Read will ride it in the TT Parade Lap - and I can assure everyone who sees the bike or reads this article that this is indeed the genuine Hailwood Ducati, and as the idiot who sold to Japan for £5000 in 1978 and tried unsuccessfully to buy it back at auction in 1996 with a failed bid of £80,000, I have absolutely no axe to grind about its authenticity! In fact, of all people involved, I'd be very unlikely to try to put up that much money to buy a forgery! The original engine with matching numbers that came with the bike when new is still installed in it - the one which Mike used in practice at the TT and won the race with at Mallory - together with every nut, bolt and washer that he raced with during the 1978 season. Odd bits do exist elsewhere which were used at some stage by Mike, but that's the nature of racing's wear and tear. This motorcycle is history on wheels, and to see it being used in something approaching anger here today, at the scene of its last race victory, has been very moving - as well as a vivid reminder of how much of a loss it is that Mike can't be with us himself at the TT to commemorate what is arguably his most famous victory."
Written May 1998
Go here to read Alan Cathcart's riding review of Hailwood's TT-winning Ducati - the only journalist to ever ride the actual bike! To read Robert Smith's story on the bike it inspired, Ducati's iconic Mike Hailwood Replica, go here.