Was Mike Hawthorn one of the greats? | Thank Frankel it's Friday

26th January 2024
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

Sixty five years ago this week, on January 22nd 1959 Mike Hawthorn was driving his highly tuned Jaguar Mk1 along the A3 south of London. There he chanced across his old mate, the famed privateer team owner Rob Walker in his beautiful 300SL Mercedes-Benz. What happened next will never be known precisely, but it resulted in Hawthorn losing not just control of the Jaguar but, in the ensuing accident, his life too. In that instant, at the age of just 29 Britain lost not only its first F1 World Champion, but the first to win a World Championship Grand Prix.


It is said by some that his cavalier approach to driving was the result of potentially life-limiting kidney disease, but that in no way lessens the sense of tragedy. He had already retired from racing having achieved his dream of becoming champion, perhaps disillusioned at what even then he saw as the rampant commercialisation of the sport and, clearly, most of all, the loss of his best friend Peter Collins in the previous year’s German Grand Prix.

By then he’d already written his second book ‘Championship Year’ but was killed three days after delivering the manuscript to his publisher and never saw it in print. Not only is the book dedicated to Collins, its only appendix is an extract from Collins’ obituary in The Times. Even though Britain still had Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks at the top of their games, the loss of two such superstars within six months of each other must have been hard for the fans to bear, even when loss of life in car crashes was far more common on both road and track than it is today.

But how good was Hawthorn really? He was the only one of those four drivers to claim his sport’s highest prize so those who judge all by that measure I guess he was the best of them. But I don’t think many who have studied the subject in that era would agree. Famously, for instance, he took the title despite having taken victory in a grand total of one qualifying race that season, as would Keke Rosberg 24 years later. And then only because Moss talked the authorities out of disqualifying him from the Portuguese Grand Prix and winning four races himself.


If you judge a man by the quality of his team-mates, only once in his five years at Maranello did he outscore his team-mates, and then only in the year that his two closest rivals, Collins and Luigi Musso, were killed long before the season’s end.

He also made mistakes, most notably at Le Mans in 1955 when his eagerness to overtake Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey before slamming on the brakes to stop at his pit was the trigger that fired the chain reaction which resulted in the worst disaster in the history of motor racing. To be clear and unlike others I don’t believe he was the sole or even primary cause of the tragedy – the way the circuit was designed back then made it an accident merely waiting to happen – but so too do I understand why many, himself included at least briefly it would seem, thought him culpable.

But he also had days when he was as good as the very best of them, none more so than in his very first World Championship Grand Prix victory. Aged just 24, in only his fourth race for Ferrari, and against the best in the world, he won the 1953 French Grand Prix. There have been battles as intense as the one he fought with Fangio’s Maserati that day, but I know of none that lasted so long.

The race was 60 laps long, and of the last 31 Fangio led 17, Hawthorn 14. Side by side, time after time, they blasted down Reims’ endless straights, hunched in their cockpits, grinning away, each able to read the other’s rev-counter as well as their own. At the last corner of the last lap, Fangio lost a gear and Hawthorn won by a single second. It was the largest gap that existed between the two cars for almost an hour.


Yes, you can point out that Hawthorn’s Ferrari was the class of the field and that it had been over a year since any other constructor had won a race, but his wasn’t the only Ferrari in the race. Soon-to-be double World Champion Alberto Ascari had one too, as did former champion Nino Farina, the formidable Froilán Gonzalez and Luigi Villoresi, and he beat them too.

It is also fair to point out that when he should have been at his peak, through three seasons from 1954-56, he was driving cars that had no chance of mounting a consistent challenge for the title.

On balance however, Britain’s F1 World Champion must rank among the really good of the sport, as opposed to the truly great. Was he unlucky that his time coincided with that of Moss and Fangio, two of the most preternaturally talented drivers the world has ever known? Perhaps, but the fact remains he won fewer Grands Prix in his entire career than did Moss in that single 1958 season. Yet it was Hawthorn who took the title. Make of that what you will.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images

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