Mike Thackwell – the man who walked away from the highest level of motorsport

23rd January 2020
James Mills

Standing beneath the clock outside Victoria train station, in London, I’m trying to imagine what Mike Thackwell might look like. His train from the south coast, around the corner from Goodwood, is running late, and since walking away from motorsport at the end of 1987, he has been nothing short of a recluse, conducting just one interview, a handful of years ago.


Eventually, a figure approaches me. He’s petite, smaller than I’d imagined. A rucksack is slung over one shoulder and his other hand holds a pipe. His clothes look worn, friendship bracelets dangle from his wrists, a pendant hangs around his neck and his face has aged with the passage of time. He could be on his way to Glastonbury Festival.

As it is, Thackwell is travelling to Australia. He’s going to visit the man who set him on the path to motor racing, his father, Ray Thackwell, who is in ill health. It is likely to be the last time the pair see one another.

Mike has saved all year to be able to afford the air fare. He earns minimum wage, telling me he takes home £80 a week. Not long after turning his back on the glamorous world of Formula 1 and Group C sports car racing, driving for the likes of Tyrell, Kremer, TWR Jaguar and Kouros-Sauber, Thackwell gave away all his material possessions. Today he lives in a 25 by 10 caravan, looks after his mentally handicapped son and spends what little spare time he has surfing during daylight and playing darts with his local pub team in the evening.

Meeting with Thackwell nearly didn’t happen. When we sit down together, he shows me a text message he’d prepared to send to me, which gave a snapshot of where he was in life and why he didn’t want to revisit old times.

Then something changed his mind. Whether it was his sister, Lisa Brabham, or a softening on his part, I don’t know. But here he is, once the youngest bloke to start a Grand Prix, a Formula 2 champion and driver tipped for great things, a driver who quit at the height of his potential, giving up time to share his views on racing today and memories of his era of motorsport – the end of the analogue age.


Thackwell doesn’t need much encouragement to share why he turned his back on racing. Within minutes, he launches into a summary which some might see as something of a diatribe, others as fair comment.

“I'm not vainglorious. I got out of the sport because of the vanity, the greed, self-obsession, the elitism and the lack of humbleness,” he begins before conceding, “but that’s me, you know, it was my problem because I couldn't deal with it. I wasn't good enough to deal with that sort of stuff.”

As a young driver, his influences included Rudolf Caracciola, Stirling Moss and, later, Gilles Villeneuve. Thackwell says there was something more noble about the way they conducted themselves. “Look at the way Moss and Jenks won the Mille Miglia. They crossed the finish line and simply raised a hand. They didn’t jump and do somersaults and beat their chest; I find that really disturbing when there’s no humility in victory, but that’s me, I’m from an older generation.

“The nepotism and narcissism in motorsport is something so profound. I don't blame anyone or feel resentment or envy for anyone in that position, because that's what happens to you. I’ve been privileged, and I didn’t do it on my own. I was good, and I was really good at times, but I wasn't good enough to be that sort of driver because I just wasn't. I wasn't into what you had to be to be a top driver.”

Thackwell driving a Tyrell 010 Ford at the Canadian Grand Prix, 1980.

Thackwell driving a Tyrell 010 Ford at the Canadian Grand Prix, 1980.

Thackwell was raised in New Zealand and Australia. It was in the latter that he fell for surfing, recounting how his mother would take him and his older brother to a beach four hours from their home, and leave them there to surf and camp for days.

“The great thing about growing up in those days was going to the beach with your mates, and the ocean is quite powerful. I was probably given a fish – I call it your inner fish – but there's something quite powerful about sitting by the beach and looking at the man, which is the rat race. It wasn't about the surf. It wasn’t about how good the waves were. Right? It's about hanging out with your mates, on the beach away from the man, away from your family, being on the water with the animals, the fish and the birds, and there's something really powerful about that.”

Thackwell’s father, Ray, a successful speedway rider, had first come to England when he was 16. After running out of money, he had to work on the Panama Canal to earn the fare for the ship back. Born at the side of a railway track, Ray brought himself into a different world, working as a pilot, a car dealer and a gold miner.

Ray encouraged Mike to race, first in motocross then in karts. His sister, Lisa Brabham, says that to this day she still doesn’t know whether the family emigrated to England because of Mike’s potential in motor racing. She had been led to believe she was going on holiday with their mother, Patsy, to visit their grandparents, but it was a one-way ticket. Ray and Mike followed three months later.

Somehow Thackwell passed his driving test when he was 15 “…because nobody asked any questions back then,” before a friend of Ray’s, who built Formula Ford race cars, put Mike in touch with the Scorpion Racing Drivers School, at Thruxton. “That’s where I met gifted drivers like James Weaver, a genuine gentleman who could do just about anything when it came to building and preparing a car.”

There followed Formula Ford, Formula Three, Formula Two and even a dalliance with Formula 1, with touring car stints and Group C sports cars thrown in to the mix, plus enduro motorbike rides at the weekends, with pals from Ralt, the racing car manufacturer.

Thackwell on the top step of the Formula 2 podium, Thruxton, 1984. On his left, Christian Danner, and to his right, Philippe Streiff.

Thackwell on the top step of the Formula 2 podium, Thruxton, 1984. On his left, Christian Danner, and to his right, Philippe Streiff.

It was during the early years, when he was just 18, that influential people started to pay attention to Thackwell. After finishing third in the 1978 British Formula Ford Championship – despite driving a well-used ‘school car’ in his rookie year – he proved highly competitive in the Vandervell British F3 series, taking five wins in a works March 793, beating the likes of Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Kenny Acheson.

He nearly had to drop out of the season, though. Robin Herd, of March Engineering, had offered Thackwell the drive for a fee. His father “blagged it” knowing full well they didn’t have the funds available. Just as the wins started to come, no money had materialised so March threatened to drop Thackwell. At this point, fellow countryman and F1 driver Alan Jones got wind of what was playing out and loaned Thackwell the money. Why?

“It wasn’t just vanity. He’d been through it, he knew how hard it was and he’d seen how quickly I’d beaten more experienced drivers. It was after my win at Brands Hatch, and then the Monza Lottery [F3 Grand Prix, in June], and Jonesy saw me winning races and he put his hand in his pocket, good on him. I did pay him back, eventually.”

The next year he was offered a drive with Ensign, after Clay Regazzoni suffered a jammed throttle at the American Gran Prix at Long Beach, crashed and broke his neck. “I tested with them but ultimately turned it down, which was a mistake. Everyone talked me out of it, reasoning that you’ve got to be in the best cars to win. I shouldn’t have listened – it would have been my break in Formula 1 – but I wasn’t strong, I was too young.”

Instead, he stuck with Formula Two, as part of March Engineering’s works team with BMW. Then came a one-off drive for Arrows; he failed to qualify but his efforts caught the attention of Ken Tyrell, who offered him a third car, driving alongside Jean-Pierre Jarier and Derek Daly. Thackwell put it on the grid, but a startline accident took out his two team-mates, so Ken Tyrell handed Thackwell’s car to Jarier for the restart.

Thackwell driving a Porsche 962 at Fuji, 1987.

Thackwell driving a Porsche 962 at Fuji, 1987.

In 1981, a big crash at Thruxton race track shook him badly. “I was so cocky; I had it coming. I won the first race, went to Thruxton, it was my home circuit and knew it like the back of my hand. Ron [Tauranac] had put me on some hard tyres and hard dampers to test. I saw Geoff [Lees] in the distance, during practice, and thought, ‘He’s an old boy. I’ll catch him no problem’ and I went over the bump and the car bottomed out and I crashed.”

Thackwell was badly knocked about, with a broken leg and concussion, and tells me that his head didn’t feel right for the rest of the season, with continual dizzy spells.

He played second fiddle to Jonathan Palmer in 1983, and won F2 in 1984, then moved to the inaugural year of F3000, taking three wins and racing to the wire for the championship – which he just missed.

Racing in sports cars followed, with TWR and Jaguar and the Kouros Sauber-Mercedes outfits, as well as Kremer and Obermaier in Porsches, with a couple of wins and a good number of podium placings.

It was at this time that Thackwell had something of an epiphany. During a 500km Group C sprint race, for Sauber at the Noris Ring, he decided he’d had enough. “I was running around and the brakes had gone and the seat was playing up, but it wasn't that. I went off in the lead in the Sauber and found myself thinking about whether I wanted to be doing this for the next 20 years while I was driving. I pulled into the pits and said, ‘That’s it.’”

He walked away from racing, and together with Birgit van Ommen, his wife, founded the International School of Monaco. But she was from a motor racing family, [her uncle is Armin Hahne; Mike met Birgit when she was an interpreter for the head of R&D at Ford, which came about after Steve Soper offered him a drive in a Sierra Cosworth touring car] also worked with Bernie and ran the F1 Paddock Club. I couldn’t get away from the sport and eventually our marriage ended.”

Then came a variety of jobs: flying helicopters to the north sea oil rigs, prospecting for gold in Australia with his father, before Thackwell gave away all his material possessions as he searched for a different way of life.

F3000 1986, France. Left to right: Emanuele Pirro, Mike Thackwell and Michel Ferte.

F3000 1986, France. Left to right: Emanuele Pirro, Mike Thackwell and Michel Ferte.

Does he keep in touch with any old faces from his racing days? “I lost touch with most people in motor racing, because I live a different life, and it's uncomfortable for me because I live such a different life.”

That said, he did attend an event run by the Grand Prix Trust, which was established to help those in motorsport during a time of need. The son of Alan Howell, who worked on Thackwell’s Ralt F2 cars and is now in a wheelchair, asked whether Thackwell would take his father to the event.

“Martin [Brundle] walked by and I stepped on his toe and he looked at me and it was great! I hadn't seen Martin for 20 or 30 years but it was like I just left him because I'm a regular bloke. I'm not one of his mates in motorsport who he competes with, I'm not in any hierarchy, I'm not in any teams. The vanity and all the ego which you've got to have to be in that sport to some degree is gone. I don’t give a sh*t and I looked at him and I thought, ‘You're still Martin, at heart’. And JP [Jonathan Palmer; Thackwell’s team mate in F2 in 1983] came over who I knew really well – I got him into flying – and it was same thing when he sat down with me and Alan he was old JP. We started to talk about all the stupid, crazy things we used to do in those days. And that was lovely for me because I haven't had the progression or been in it making money or being an engineer or a manager, and he's gone to great things but he's the same bloke I knew.”

Few knew Thackwell as well as Ron Tauranac, of Ralt. Tauranac understood that he had a free spirit on his hands, so didn’t try to dictate terms and conditions to Thackwell. Even so, when later asked to sum up Thackwell, he said “What Mike needed was a strong manager that he would actually respect and do what he was told. He had particular thoughts in his mind about the way racing drivers were – his heroes were these old ancient drivers that did it by brute force and he never really conceded that the car was really an equal part of the equation.”

Today, Thackwell doesn’t even own a car. He speaks fondly of his family, and cherishes the time they share together. And in those rare moments when he has some free time, he’ll slip on three wetsuits – “it’s the only way to keep the cold out” – paddle out to sea, somewhere on the south coast, and feel that inner glow that comes from looking back and knowing there are no regrets.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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