An English Sportsman
Though he had a short career from first race to World Champion in six seasons and died young, Mike Hawthorn is still remembered as one of the greatest racing drivers.
After Stirling (later Sir Stirling) Moss showed promise at the Dundrod TT in 1950 driving Tom Wisdom’s XK120, William Lyons asked him to lead a Jaguar Works Team in 1951. Consequently, Moss, Duncan Hamilton, Tony Rolt, Peter Whitehead and Peter Walker championed Jaguars at events in the UK and Europe. However, when Stirling Moss left Jaguar to join Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar signed Mike Hawthorn to lead the Works Team for the 1955-56 season.
John Michael Hawthorn was born in Mexborough, Yorkshire on 10 April 1929. His father, Leslie, had trained as an automobile engineer and tuned and raced motorcycles in Yorkshire, before moving to Farnham in Surrey in 1931 and opening a garage, in partnership with T.T. Rider Paddy Johnstone. After leaving Ardingly School in 1946, Mike Hawthorn began an apprenticeship with Dennis Brothers in Guildford; he travelled to and from work on a 1939 250 cc Triumph motorcycle which his father had rebuilt and tuned. Mike later competed in motorcycle trials with a 350 cc BSA, but his father thought his son would be better on four rather than two wheels.
Hawthorn was a good natural driver and was coached by his father into becoming a great driver. Hawthorn junior attended Kingston Technical College and later the College of Automobile Engineering at Chelsea but he really preferred to be in the driving seat rather than under a bonnet.
Father and son entered the 1950 Brighton Speed Trials together, with Mike driving an ex-works 1100 cc Riley Ulster Imp and Leslie a 1.5-litre Riley T.T. Sprite. Mike won his class while father finished second in his. During the 1950-51 season the Hawthorns entered several races; with Mike winning at Dundrod and Goodwood. Out of 16 races in 1951, Hawthorn claimed nine 1st places, three 2nd and two 3rd places only failing to finish in one race.
However, for 1952 Leslie announced that he would retire from racing and devote his time to managing Mike’s career. Bob Chase, a family friend, bought a Formula 2 Cooper-Bristol for Hawthorn to race in 1952 and he finished fourth equal in the Drivers’ World Championship. Enzo Ferrari noticed Hawthorn and invited him to join the works team; in 1953 he won the French Grand Prix and the following year he won the Spanish Grand Prix and finished third in the Drivers’ Championship.
During a non-championship race at Syracuse, Hawthorn was injured in a crash and suffered serious burns to his legs; before he could return to Britain he heard the news that his father had been killed in a car crash while driving home from Goodwood. Hawthorn flew back to Britain for the funeral and considered giving up motor racing to run the family business but his mother persuaded him to continue his career. For 1955, Hawthorn left Ferrari and joined the Vanwall Formula One and the Jaguar sports car teams.
Jaguar prepared a 1954 D-type (chassis XKD406) for the Sebring 12 Hours held on 13 March 1955, and loaned the car to Briggs Cunningham, who was racing Jaguars that season. At Sebring, Hawthorn was partnered by Phil Walters and the D-type led almost from the start building up a good lead. Though they had mechanical problems and lost ground in the closing stages, the Jaguar won the race.
In May the Jaguar team contested two races at the International Trophy meeting at Silverstone. Hawthorn drove D-type XKC404 and built up a lead of ten seconds ahead of Reg Parnell’s Aston Martin DB3S but a burst top hose meant he finished fourth behind two Aston Martins and Tony Rolt’s works D-type. Later in the day, he drove a works Jaguar Mark VII (LWK 343) saloon in the Touring Car race to win ahead of other Mark VIIs driven by Jimmy Stewart and Desmond Titterington.
1955 Le Mans, Reims & Dundrod
For the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours race Jaguar prepared three new ‘long-nose’ D-types; Hawthorn was partnered by Ivor Bueb who substituted for an injured Jimmy Stewart. The other D-types were driven by Tony Rolt/Duncan Hamilton and Don Beauman/Norman Dewis, but both cars retired. The main opposition came from a team of Mercedes-Benz 300 SLRs and during the first couple of hours of the race there was a fierce battle for the lead between Hawthorn and Fangio, who was co-driving a Mercedes with Moss. After two hours’ racing Hawthorn had set a new lap record (4 min 6.6 sec) at over 122 mph (196 km/hr) and was leading Fangio.
With just under three hours of the race gone, Hawthorn was called in to refuel; he overtook Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz and also Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey, pulled to the right of the track and braked heavily to enter the pits.
Hawthorn described the incident in his book: Challenge me the Race.
‘As I came up alongside (Macklin) I worked out whether there was room to pass him and then pull into the pits. In my view there was, so I kept on and then as the pits drew nearer, I put up my hand, put the brakes on and pulled in. I was nearly there, when out of the corner of my eye I saw something flying through the air. It was Levegh’s Mercedes which went cartwheeling over the safety barrier, bounced once and disintegrated with the force of an exploding bomb. Simultaneously Macklin’s Austin-Healey came past spinning round backwards, then slewed across in front of me towards the pits.’
Macklin had pulled the Healey to the left to avoid the Jaguar and was hit by Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz, which crashed and broke up. The engine, front suspension and brakes were launched into a spectator enclosure, causing carnage. This was the world’s worst motor racing accident and killed over 80 spectators and injured hundreds more. No one person was to blame and in recent years careful study, frame-by-frame, of the news camera footage shows clearly that Mike Hawthorn was not in the wrong. He was cleared of any wrong-doing at the official enquiry.
With difficulty, Jaguar Team Manager Lofty England persuaded him to continue the race. Meanwhile Bueb was lapping with the D-type but was losing ground.
Hawthorn took over the wheel and at 1.45 am on the Sunday morning, just before the remaining two 300 SLRs were withdrawn from the race, Fangio/Moss led by two laps from Hawthorn/Bueb with the other Mercedes in third place.
After the withdrawal of the German cars the D-type led the Maserati of Musso/Valenzano by five laps. During the remaining 14 hours of the race the Jaguar was unchallenged and carried on through heavy rain and winds on the Sunday morning to achieve a hollow victory.
That year the Reims 12 Hours race, which Jaguar had won in 1953-54, was cancelled following the Le Mans disaster. Hawthorn then entered (with XKD506, the car that Rolt/Hamilton had driven at Le Mans) the sports car race at the British Grand Prix at Aintree and, though he led initially, he fell back to finish fifth.
For the Tourist Trophy on the Dundrod circuit on 22 September, Hawthorn and Titterington drove XKD506. XKD505 was the intended race car and was fitted with a prototype de Dion rear suspension system, but this proved troublesome in practice and the ‘spare’ car XKD506 was substituted for the race. For Jaguar it was a momentous task fielding only a single car to take on the entire Mercedes team. It had not been possible to run a full team due to lack of resource back at the factory resulting from the workload required to support the build up and launch the following month of the new 2.4 litre saloon. Although Mercedes-Benz dominated, the Jaguar drivers put up a tremendous fight; Hawthorn battled for and held second place from Fangio, while Titterington took the lead on a wet track and kept Kling, Fangio’s co-driver, at bay. That Hawthorn and Titterington held the lead for more than half the race was a superb effort and they richly deserved to take the second place at the end, but it was not to be as two laps from the finish the Jaguar’s engine seized up. The actual engine failure was the result of a broken crankshaft, the only reported failure of this component experienced by any XK racing engine.
It is also worthy of note that during the first hour or so of the race Hawthorn fought a furious battle for the lead with Fangio’s Mercedes, during which he set a new circuit record of 94.67 mph (152.36 km/h), which stands to this day, as no car racing has been allowed in Northern Ireland since that time.
Having left Vanwall during 1955, Hawthorn signed up to drive the unsuccessful BRM P25 Grand Prix cars for 1956. This meant that he was free to lead the Jaguar works team in their last season. At Sebring, Jaguar and Briggs Cunningham ran a joint team of four D-types in US colours. Hawthorn partnered by Titterington drove D-type XKD601 but the race was not a success for Jaguar, as the cars were plagued by problems with the disc brakes. Hawthorn and Titterington led for the first four hours before retiring. Ferraris took the first two places ahead of the private D-type of Sweikert/Ensley.
In the 25-lap unlimited-capacity sports car race at Silverstone in May, Hawthorn, Titterington and Jack Fairman drove works D-types. Hawthorn set a new sports car lap record of 98.48 mph (166.72 km/hr) but had to retire with steering problems. Fairman also retired and the first Jaguar to finish was the private D-type of Bob Berry, third behind Roy Salvadori and Stirling Moss in Aston Martins.
Also at Silverstone, Hawthorn drove the new Jaguar 2.4 saloon in the Touring Car race, but his engine failed after two laps. Jaguar now made the rather odd decision to run D-types, which were totally unsuitable, in the Nürburgring 1,000 km race on 27 May. Only two D-types ran in the race; Paul Frère, who crashed in practice, shared a replacement car with Duncan Hamilton, but retired with gearbox failure. Hawthorn and Titterington shared the other D-type but retired on the last lap when a drive-shaft broke and the car shed a rear wheel. A better result was at the Reims 12 Hours race on 30 June; the D-types took the first three places. Duncan Hamilton and Ivor Bueb took first place, with Mike Hawthorn and Paul Frère in second place.
That year the Le Mans 24 Hours race was postponed until the end of July while the track was revised following the events of 1955. The front stretch and pit lane were redesigned in order to enhance driver and spectator safety. This involved a change to the layout of the Dunlop curve, shortening the overall length of the track by 31 meters.
Two of the Jaguar works D-types were eliminated in second-lap accidents and Hawthorn/Bueb lost 21 laps in the pits because of fuel-injection trouble. After seven hours, with the D-type constantly in and out of the pits, the trouble was traced to a tiny crack in a fuel line that allowed the pressure to drop. Problem fixed, Hawthorn and Bueb resumed the race, driving flat-out to finish sixth. They also set fastest lap of 115.818 mph (186.385 km/hr), which was a record for the new circuit. The race was won by the Ecurie Ecosse D-type driven by Ron Flockhart and Ninian Sanderson.
Jaguar withdrew from racing at the end of 1956 and for 1957 Hawthorn rejoined Ferrari to drive Formula One and sports cars. In 1957 the International Trophy meeting at Silverstone was postponed until September and Jaguar fielded three of their new 3.4 saloons in the Touring Car race and Hawthorn won the race at 82.19 mph (132 km/hr) from other 3.4 saloons driven by Bueb and Hamilton. By the end of that season, Hawthorn was fourth in the drivers’ World Championship.
Race Results – Jaguar Related
Car / Co-driver
Entrant / Team
|1950||2 September||Brighton Speed Trials
His first race
|1st||Riley Ulster Imp|
|1955||13 March||Sebring, Florida International Twelve Hour Grand Prix of Endurance||3rd||Jaguar D-type XKD406 with Phil Walters||B. S. Cunningham|
|7 May||Silverstone, International Trophy||4th||Jaguar D-type XKC404||Jaguar Cars Ltd|
|7 May||Silverstone, Touring Car Race||1st||Jaguar Mark VII LWK 343||Jaguar Cars Ltd|
|12 June||Le Mans 24 hours||1st||Jaguar D-type XKD505 with
|Jaguar Cars Ltd|
|16 July||Aintree, British Grand Prix||5th||Jaguar D-type XKD506||Jaguar Cars Ltd|
|22 September||Tourist Trophy, Dundrod, Northern Ireland||DNF||Jaguar D-type XKD506 with
|Jaguar Cars Ltd|
|1956||24 March||Sebring 12 hours, Florida, USA||DNF||Jaguar D-type XKD601 with
|Jaguar of New York Distributors|
|5 May||Silverstone, Sports Cars – Unlimited Capacity||DNF||Jaguar D-type||Jaguar Cars Ltd|
|5 May||Silverstone, Daily Express Trophy Meeting||1st||Jaguar Mark VII||Jaguar Cars Ltd|
|27 May||Nurburgring, 1,000 kms||DNF||Jaguar D-type XKD601 with
|Jaguar Cars Ltd|
|30 June||Reims, France, 12 hours||2nd||Jaguar D-type XKD601 with
|Jaguar Cars Ltd|
|29 July||Le Mans 24 hours||6th||Jaguar D-type with
|Jaguar Cars Ltd|
|1957||23 March||Sebring 12 hours, Florida, USA||3rd||Jaguar D-type with
|Jaguar Cars North America|
|14 September||Silverstone, Touring Cars||1st||Jaguar 3.4 litre||Jaguar Cars Ltd|
As the 1958 Grand Prix season unfolded, it was clear that the Championship would be between two British drivers, Stirling Moss (Vanwall) and Mike Hawthorn (Ferrari). At the last Grand Prix (Morocco), Hawthorn came second to Moss but he was one point ahead in the Drivers’ World Championship and thus became the first British driver to be crowned World Drivers’ Champion. However, Hawthorn was devastated by the recent deaths of several of his racing colleagues, Archie Scott-Brown, Luigi Musso and Peter Collins and decided that he would retire at the end of the season.
On 22 January 1959, the BBC announced that Britain’s newly-crowned motor racing champion had been killed on the Guildford by-pass, aged 29. The accident occurred on a notoriously dangerous section of the road, the scene of 15 serious accidents (two fatal) in the previous two years; the road was also wet at the time. Rob Walker was driving his Mercedes-Benz 300SL when a dark green Jaguar 3.4-litre saloon overtook him at speed; Walker recognised Hawthorn and gave chase along the A3. Suddenly, Hawthorn lost control, the Jaguar hit a traffic island, glanced off a lorry coming from the opposite direction, spun across the road and crashed into a tree at about 80 mph (129 km/hr). The Jaguar was almost cut in half by the impact and Hawthorn was killed instantaneously from a fractured skull.
There was speculation that Hawthorn and Walker had been racing each other and Walker refused to estimate the speed of his own car at the inquest. In an interview with motor racing journalist Eoin Young and writer Eric Dymock in 1988, Walker admitted he had indeed been racing Hawthorn, but had been advised by a police officer investigating the accident to make no further mention of it lest he incriminate himself. Possible causes of the accident include driver error, a blackout, or mechanical failure, although examination of the wreck revealed no obvious fault. There is evidence that Hawthorn had recently suffered blackouts, perhaps because of kidney failure. By 1955, Hawthorn had already lost one kidney to infection, and had begun suffering problems with the other; he was expected at the time to live only three more years.
The jury at the Coroner’s Inquest returned a verdict of accidental death.
Hawthorn was buried in West Street Cemetery in his home town of Farnham.
Lofty England paid tribute at the time:
“To me, as to everyone, it was a great blow. Mike, whom I had known since he first started his motor racing career, had become a very close friend during the period he raced Jaguar cars and as the years went by we became even closer. He was a most worthy World Champion. The world has indeed lost a colourful personality and I a good friend.”
Talking to the late Sir Stirling Moss about racing and drivers, he said this about Hawthorn:
“We were friends off the track and rivals on the track. The press always tried to make it seem that we were enemies, this was quite untrue. Mike was different in his approach to racing and to life from me, but he was certainly one of the better drivers, he had a lot of skill but his performance was a bit variable. Mike was quick and took chances. I was very sorry when he was killed in a car accident, a great loss and just when he was going on to other things. Damn shame.”
The late Sir Jack Brabham once told this writer that:
“Mike was one of the best and he could have become one of the greats of all time, because he had all the attributes to make a great racing driver.”
Those that knew Hawthorn speak fondly of a man who enjoyed life and was an exceptional driver.
Postscript (1) – Hawthorn Memorial Trophy
The Hawthorn Memorial Trophy has been awarded to the most successful British or Commonwealth Formula 1 driver every year since 1959. Nigel Mansell and Lewis Hamilton have won the award the most times, taking the trophy on seven occasions each. The current holder (at time of writing – August 2020) is Lewis Hamilton, the 2019 World Champion.
Postscript (2) – Apprentice Prize
After his death, Mike Hawthorn’s mother kept in contact with people at Jaguar and in 1960 she donated Mike’s drawing instruments and board, from his own college days, to be given as a prize to one of the Jaguar apprentices.
On 25 January 1961 at the Apprentices Prize Giving ceremony Mrs Hawthorn presented these as a ‘Special Prize’ to apprentice Peter D Wilson who went on to work in the Competition Department from 1961 to 1966.
Peter Wilson still treasures the drawing instruments to this day!
Following his Jaguar career, Peter Wilson went on to write a number of books about his time at Jaguar, including:
- Cat out of the Bag!
- XJ13 – The definitive story of the Jaguar Le Mans Car
Postscript (3) – Statue at Goodwood
Lofty England became great friends with Mike Hawthorn while he drove for Jaguar Cars and Mike was guest speaker at a Jaguar Apprentices’ function at the end of 1956, at which he was presented with a D-type steering wheel by Lofty.
Ten years after Lofty’s death in 1995 a sculpture was unveiled at Goodwood, as a tribute to both of them, with Lofty carrying a D-type steering wheel. This was the work of Sculptor David Annard and was unveiled on 17 September 2005. It cost around £70,000 which had been raised by private subscription. Jaguar Cars had supplied an X-Type which was raffled off, the money going into the fund.
Inscribed on plinth, side 1: MAY THEIR NAME LIVE FOREVER. David Annand Sculptor
Inscribed on plinth, side 2: Mike Hawthorn 1929 – 1959 ‘Lofty’ England 1911 – 1995
First British World Champion 1958 Jaguar Competition Manager 1949 – 56
Inscribed on plinth, side 3: Supporters R Alcock, J Butterworth, Members of the J.D.C. XK Register, E-type Register, J.L.C, Jaguar Club of Denmark
Inscribed on plinth, side 4: Appeal Benefactors. Ron Lea, John Pearson, Nigel Webb. Benefactors: Jaguar Cars Ltd. Lucas Huni. Ole Sommer. Clive Brandon. The Earl of March.
Author: François Prins and Tony Merrygold
Race results from www.RacingSportsCars.com
© Text and Images – Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust