He sounded like an Aussie but liked to be known as a Kiwi. Thirty years ago Mike Thackwell was a teenage sensation.
In the late ’50s, Ray Thackwell went to the UK to race a F2 Cooper. Two decades later his son, Michael, followed the same path. In between times Ray had moved his family to Western Australia, where he raced a Porsche with some success, but before long the family’s motor racing efforts were being directed to Michael.
Born in 1961 in Papakura, Michael was barely 17 when he headed for Britain to race Formula Ford. The results were reasonable for a rookie, and it would have seemed logical to build on that season with more of the same for 1979, but the ambitious Thackwells decided to step up to Formula 3 – with the works March no less. It was an expensive route that had nearly bankrupted Nigel Mansell in 1978.
Right from the start Michael’s raw speed was apparent – mostly in practice and in parts of races, but it took a while to put it all together. He was fourth in round two of the 1979 British F3 Championship in mid-March, but it would take nearly two months for him to get on the podium with a third on the Brands Hatch short circuit. A month later, on the same track, he was a F3 winner for the first time – by the narrowest of margins. A bigger victory came at the end of June in the 21st Gran Premio Della Lotteria at Monza – a round of the European F3 Championship. If he’d been something of a novelty in Britain because of his age, it was this win in Italy that marked him as a serious future Grand Prix winner – perhaps a champion even.
All the while the bills were mounting, and as a financial crisis loomed, assistance came in the form of Alan Jones. Jones knew something about the struggle of making ends meet as an Antipodean in Britain, having walked the same route only half a dozen years earlier. In 1979, Jones had come up the F1 ranks as he spearheaded the new challenge from the Williams team, and he stepped in to help at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. Thackwell repaid the faith by winning the F3 support race that catapulted him to fourth in the title race with 33 points, two points behind fellow Kiwi Brett Riley. He backed it up at Snetterton 30 years ago this month, and by the end of August had risen to third in the title race, a position he would hold until the end.
More wins came – Oulton Park in mid-September and the final round at Thruxton at the end of October. Mike had won five of the 20 rounds, the same as champion Chico Serra, from Brazil, and one less than the Italian runner-up, Andrea de Cesaris. He was 18 and immediately marked as the favourite for the 1980 British F3 title, but with Serra and de Cesaris both moving to Formula 2 the Thackwells decided to move up as well.
However before that he was back to the country of his birth. Mike Thackwell had never raced in New Zealand before, and the opportunity came courtesy of Kiwi journalist turned team owner, Murray Taylor.
Three decades on, Taylor recalls: “Mike was always a free spirit, his own man, and he was reluctant to conform to motor racing conventions. When I first met him he was a fresh-faced teenager, but he had the demeanour of someone much older. He seemed shy and self-conscious, but he had this awesome talent to drive cars fast. Sadly, the Marlboro-backed works March we provided him to race alongside de Cesaris in New Zealand’s Formula Pacific series in 1980 was hopeless.
“It was a modified F2 car – fine when Teo Fabi took the title for our team the previous season in a modified 782 chassis, but overweight and under performing in the March 792 configuration. The 792 had won the European title and we had factory engineers, but it was just doom and gloom as we dragged Andrea from crash to crash, while Mike was typically laid back – ‘The car’s shit, Taylor!’ – and I was bombarded with calls from his father’s British mates in London day and night, from Bay Park to Teretonga.
“Ray Thackwell was a mystery man with a gold mine in Wales reputed to have been the source for Lady Di’s royal wedding ring: and lots of speculative wheeling and dealing in the UK. Mike was this likeable lad but always slightly remote. He was highly regarded by Max Mosley and Robin Herd at March, and then struck a rapport with both Ron Tauranac (Mr Ralt) and Kenny Tyrrell. In the right car he was a winner, but whether he could have conformed to the racing driver stereotype I’m not sure. Mike did things his own way – it would be good to catch up and share some of whatever it is that makes him happy these days.”
Mike Thackwell would be March-BMW mounted in 1980, and as early as round two at Hockenheim he was on the pace, setting fastest lap – an achievement he repeated in the third round on the daunting 22.835-kilometre Nürburgring, no less. He didn’t finish but had been in sensational form in the wet, however, it was at Zandvoort that he marked himself as something more than a mere genuine talent. Despite all the promise his best finish was a third at Silverstone, but there was more Formula 2 to follow. In fact there was so much F2 that he missed the F1 career that in 1979 had looked so certain.
He was the last F2 champion in 1984, started only two F1 Grand Prix and within a decade of arriving in the UK – as that fresh-faced Formula Ford driver with so much promise – he’d disappeared.
Former NZCC staffer, Tim Nevinson, tracked Mike down in England whilst writing his Drivers book, but Tim was never allowed to meet Mike in person. It seems that Mike may have inherited his father’s ‘mystery man’ persona.
By Michael Clark Photos: Terry Marshall