Mike Hawthorn was Britain's first F1 World Champion taking the title in 1958 by one point from Stirling Moss. In 1955 Hawthorn won the 24 hours of Le Mans race, despite being involved in the terrible crash that killed 80 spectators.
Educated at Public School he served an apprenticeship with a commercial vehicle manufacturer to prepare him for a career at his fathers garage in Farnham. His father, Leslie, encouraged Mike's interest in motorsport, firstly with motorcycles and then cars, starting with a Riley. Leslie Hawthorne had moved the family from Yorkshire to Farnham to be near the Brooklands circuit in 1931 and raced motorcyles there before WWII.
A renouned hellraiser, he started competing in and winning local races in 1950. Just three years later he was in Formula One. His big break came at Goodwood in a Formula Two race in 1952. It was his first competition in a single seater, a borrowed Formula Two Cooper-Bristol. He won the race from pole position beating Juan-Manuel Fangio and Froilan Gonzalez.
In 1950 he began winning races in a small Riley sportscar bought for him by his father. Three years later the 'Farnham Flyer' was driving a Formula One car for Enzo Ferrari. At the same meeting he also finished won the Formula Libre race and was second in the feature race for Formula One cars. Mike raced in white overalls and his trademark bow tie.
Mike and his father then entered the rest of a 1952 Formula One season with the Cooper. He came fourth in Belgium, a third in Britain and fourth again in Holland to finish fourth overall in the final standings.
Impressed with his performance in 1952, Enzo Ferrari hired him for 1953. In the French Grand Prix at Reims that year, his Ferrari crossed the finish line jsu informat of Fangio's Maserati.
1954 was a difficult year for him. Early in the year his arms and legs were badly burned in a crash in the Syracuse GP, a non-championship race in Sicily. Then his father was killed in a road accident. He did take a win in the Spanish Grand Prix but just before Christmas, encouraged with the Vanwall Special that he had driven in two end-of-season drives, taking seconds at Goodwood and Aintree, he announced that he had signed to drive for Vanwall in 1955. Financially it was a good deal as well.
Early in April 1955 Hawthorn tested the new Vanwall in private at Odiham airfield, just outside of Alton in Hampshire and close to Farnham. The test was beset with problems and his entry for Goodwood was scratched. More testing followed at Silverstone before the International Trophy race. Hawthorn was on pole but went out with an oil leak early on. At Monaco the Vanwall's engine stopped on lap 23 when he was running in the middle of the field. More problems followed at the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps. At which point Hawthorn and Vanwall parted company.
In June he raced at Le Mans. It was a tragic race. After just over two hours of racing at approximately 6:26pm local time, Mike was in the lead D type Jaguar. He had just passed Lance Macklin's Austin-Healey 100 when Hawthorn slowed to make a pit stop. Hawthorn's car had discs and stopped quicker that many of the other cars and so Macklin had to move to the right to pass the Jag. Unfortunately both Pierre Levegh and Juan Manuel Fangio in Mercedes 300 SLRs were approaching at speed with Fangio, in second place, about to lap Levegh.
Levegh had no time to react and hit Macklin's Austin-Healey from behind. His car was launched into the air coming down on an earth bank intended to protect spectators. Unfortunately because of the angle at which the car hit, it was launched into a series of somersaults with parts of the car flying off into the crowd. Levegh was thrown out and died on impact.
The fuel tanks then ruptured and caught fire as did the magnesium components. Rescue workers used water on the magnesium fire which only increased the inferno. The car burned for several hours, 80 spectators were killed by flying debris or fire.
The race was not stopped and during the night the official order came for the two remaining Mercedes cars to immediately withdraw from the race even though the were in the lead.
Hawthorn went on to win, driving with Ivor Bueb. An official inquiry ruled that Jaguar was not responsible, and that it was a racing incident. The death of the spectators was blamed on inadequete safety standards for track design, leading for a ban on motorsports in France, Switzerland, Germany, and other nations until tracks could be brought up to a satisfactory standard. Switzerland's ban on racing was never lifted.
After an unsuccessful stint with BRM he returned to Ferrari in 1957 as team mate to Peter Collins. They became very good friends, calling each other "Mon Ami Mate" and racing as hard as they played.
In 1958 Moss was quicker, but Hawthorn drove sensibly, avoiding mistakes to take full advantage of points scoring system. But his year was blighted. In Germany, after taking a brilliant win in the previous round, the British Grand Prix, Collins crashed his Ferrari Dino 246 with fatal results on the unforgiving 14 mile Nurburgring. HIs death left Mike devastated and disillusioned and he only reluctantly completed the season. Further tragedy followed at the season ending Grand Prix in Casablanca. Hawthorn secured the title but Stuart Lewis-Evans crashed his Vanwall and thought he team flew him back to England in a chartered Viscount, he died a few days later. Amongst the mourners was his close friend and adviser, Bernie Ecclestone.
He finished the season one point ahead of Stirling Moss to become the first British World Champion. Engaged to Jean Howarth, a fashion model, he announced his retirement.
However on the 22nd of January 1959, Hawthorn was killed after losing control of his Jaguar whilst driving along the A3 near Guildford. He had seen Rob Walker driving a Mercedes-Benz 300SL ahead of him and had accelerated past the Mercedes at over 100 MPH on a wet and narrow road. On a right hand bend, the rear end broke away, clipped the kerb and spun the car which then hit a traffic island and a tree.