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F1 2023

On This Day: Britain's first World Champion is killed

After the dominance of Nino Farina, Juan Manuel Fangio and Alberto Ascari, the first Briton to claim the F1 World Drivers' title was killed on this day, months after claiming the title.

Ferrari Hawthorn
To news overview © Ferrari

Ask anyone of a certain vintage who was the first British driver to win a Formula 1 World Championship Grand Prix and the answer will usually be Sir Stirling Moss.

After all, Mr Motor Racing himself came to define Britain's interest in these fledging days of the all new championship.

However, it was not Moss, but fellow Briton Mike Hawthorn who would claim this particular honour in the 1953 French Grand Prix.

Five years later, Hawthorn would pip Moss to the World Championship, winning in the Morocco finale on 11 October 1958. Tragically, by 22 January 1959, Hawthorn would be dead.

Hawthorn decides to quit

Hawthorn was fortunate to the win the title with just a single Grand Prix win in 1958 compared to Moss' haul of four, but some sportsmanship on the latter's behalf saw the former's second place in Portugal reinstated after the Ferrari had been disqualified for a push start.

It is impossible to think of Max Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton doing that today to help their main title rival, but as Moss later recalled, it was the right thing to do as Hawthorn had not been in a dangerous position.

Immediately after winning the title, Hawthorn retired from F1, a decision perhaps influenced by two deaths in the season.

Hawthorn's 'Mon Amie Mate' Peter Collins was killed at the Nurburgring, weeks after Luigi Musso died in France.

Also a factor in Hawthorn's decision to quit was the fact that he had been diagnosed with kidney disease and, in the days before transplants, knew his condition was soon to become terminal.

So, Hawthorn would become the first reigning World Champion not to defend their title, something the likes of Jackie Stewart, Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost would later emulate.

Hawthorn is killed

Upon his retirement, Hawthorn took control of the business he inherited from his father, based in Fareham, Surrey.

On the morning of 22 January 1959, he was travelling up to London when Rob Walker – he of privateer entry fame – appeared going in the same direction.

Driving a Jaguar 3.4 litre Mark 1, Hawthorn set off after Walker, catching as they approached Guildford.

On a wet day, for some undetermined reason, Hawthorn lost control of the Jaguar, clipped a lorry and hit a tree by the roadside, the only one on that side of the carriageway.

He was found dead in the wreckage from head injuries, with driver error, mechanical failure or a blackout all proposed as reasons for what had caused the World Champion to lose control.

Hawthorn was the second F1 World Champion to die, following Ascari's death in a 1955 testing accident at Monza.

The youngest of all to die, at just 29 years old, Hawthorn also holds a joint record for the fewest number of race wins – three – for a World Champion, sharing it with 1961 victor Phil Hill.

In his memory, the Mike Hawthorn Memorial Trophy was founded, awarded to the British or Commonwealth driver who finished highest in the previous season's championship.

Hamilton has won it 11 times, with Jenson Button, David Coulthard, Mansell and Stewart also recipients, and George Russell is set to receive it for finishing fourth in the 2022 season.

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