He was motor sport’s blue-eyed boy, the debonair British racer whose meteoric rise was mirrored by a precipitous – and tragic – fall. Mike Hawthorn was at the vanguard of a new wave of young English stars who made their mark in Grand Prix racing during the 1950s, and famously became the UK’s first-ever Formula One World Champion in 1958 as a works Ferrari driver.
His title-winning season was a masterclass in consistency, the Yorkshire-born, Sussex-educated ace steering his Ferrari 246 Dino racer to eight points finishes from ten races to beat arch-rival Stirling Moss for honours. He may have won only one World Championship Grand Prix that year, but he placed second in six rounds and third in another. He paced himself brilliantly to beat more fancied runners, only to retire from motor racing at the end of the season.
Sixty years may have passed since Hawthorn entered the record books, but the sense of romantic fascination with this blond-haired charger shows little sign of abating. Barely two years after he embarked on his driving career aboard an 18-year-old Riley, Hawthorn had done enough to attract the attention of Enzo Ferrari, who signed him for the 1953 season. He returned the faith of Il Commendatore with victory in that year’s French Grand Prix at Reims in his 2.0-litre Ferrari 500. It was a bravura performance in what was only his ninth start in a World Championship Formula One race. What’s more, his victory came after a thrilling wheel-to-wheel battle with El Maestro himself, Maserati’s Juan-Manuel Fangio.
That year also saw the 24-year-old excel elsewhere for Scuderia Ferrari, major scalps including the Ulster Trophy at Dundrod, the BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone, and the Spa 24 Hours alongside team-mate Dr Giuseppe Farina.
Hawthorn’s 1954 challenge started badly with a fiery accident at Syracuse, but he was a prolific points-scorer on returning trackside, steering his Scuderia Ferrari 553 to victory in the Spanish Grand Prix season finale. He wouldn’t win another points-paying Formula One race until his 1958 title year, thanks in part to a nomadic existence in the mid ’50s, the only constant being that he invariably returned to Scuderia Ferrari after each sortie with a rival team proved less than satisfactory.
His 1958 season boiled down to a season-long fight with Moss, who predominately drove for Vanwall that year. Hawthorn’s final Grand Prix win came at Reims, the Scuderia’s star also taking three pole positions and five fastest laps en route to the title. Moss may have been the yardstick by which all other drivers were measured, but his countryman wasn’t found lacking.
Having been crowned champion, Hawthorn immediately announced his retirement from motor sport. He had been deeply troubled by the death of his great friend and team-mate Peter Collins during the 1958 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, and was now engaged to be married. He had also taken over responsibilities for running the family garage. Tragically, he died in a road accident in January 1959.
Hawthorn’s star shone only briefly, but the image of this quintessentially English hero aboard a Ferrari – any Ferrari – remains indelible.