A Heuer Carrera was sold by Bonhams last year, making over £56,000, once the property of Mike Hailwood, arguably the greatest motorcycle road racer of all time. That’s Valentino Rossi saying it, not me by the way. The inscription on the 18ct caseback from watch boss Jack Heuer reads `For a Successful 1973,’ and the story of that roller-coaster season is a tale worth telling.
Mike The Bike was an amazing racer and could well have been F1 champion too, but for a terrible crash in 1974 at the Nurburgring, which saw one of his legs damaged badly, effectively ending his driving career – although he famously made a bike racing return in 1978 at the IOM TT.
But the season before he was driving a Surtees in F1 and not having a great time in the underfunded team. John Surtees was a bike racing rival of Mike’s from the 60s, who had gone on to become the first man to ever win the top title on two wheels and four. Both Mike Hailwood and John Surtees respective fathers had been rivals back in the 1930s too, so there was friendly rivalry, even though Mike was employed by John Surtees. Deep down, Hailwood wanted to win the F1 title and perhaps a Le Mans 24 hours into the bargain, just to go one better.
In 1972 Mike Hailwood had secured a fourth place at Monza in the Surtees, demonstrating that his early attempts at car racing between 1969-71 didn’t do his talent justice. He was on the pace – when the car could handle the pace.
That 1973 season was a shocker for Surtees as the car proved to be unreliable, to the point where Mike would carry a paperback book inside the cockpit, in case he needed to spend an hour or so reading, rather than hiking all the way back to the pits on the longer circuits, like the Nurburgring. Hailwood had to retire from 10 of the GP races that year, due to the Surtees car breaking down, which of course begs the question, why did Jack Heuer congratulate Mike on a successful year?
The answer is that Hailwood was awarded the George Medal for his heroic attempts to free Clay Reggazoni from his burning car at Kyalami in South Africa, after a collision on the opening lap. Mike’s legs and hands caught fire as petrol engulfed the car, and he arrived back at the pits with burn markings on his driving kit. His widow Pauline later recollected;
“Mike came into the pits stony faced, he didn’t mention the rescue of Clay, he just got the motorbike we used for transport and we went back to Paddy Driver’s house. I only found out what happened when I read the papers the next day.”
Although incredibly modest, Hailwood accepted the George Medal for his brave actions that day at Kayalami and that was also the reason Jack Heuer gave Mike the solid gold Carrera watch.
It was a a kind of Legion d’Honneur medal from a sponsor to a driver who was willing to risk his life in every race, because that’s how dangerous F1 was back then. Roger Williamson and Francois Cevert both died in that 1973 season and a multi-car pile-up at the start of the British GP also highlighted how risky the sport was and how little had been accomplished in terms of car or track safety.
Jack Heuer wanted to acknowledge Mike’s personal courage on that day in South Africa and salute the camaraderie of the track; the spirit of racing for its own sake and the brotherhood that F1 drivers shared.
It’s more than just a watch.