on the German Grand Prix

Whenever I go to the Nurburgring, the first person I think of is always Mike Hailwood. For those few of you who have not instantly recognised the hallowed name of motorcycle racing's greatest treasure, Stanley Michael Bailey Hailwood won a grand total of 14 TT races, 76 championship GPs and 10 bike world titles. Son of a prosperous motorcycle dealer in Oxford who had done a bit of racing himself and later funded his son's early two-wheeled career, this was a man who performed miracles when he had his leg over a bike. He was one of the very few who managed to tame Honda's notoriously unruly early machines, and unlike so many of his contemporaries, he survived. When not beating the odds, he also liked a drink, a laugh and a couple of laps with the ladies. Of course, toffs tend not to impress men on Manx Nortons and at first the fans didn't quite know what to make of the well-educated bloke with all that money behind him, but before long they took him to their hearts. He was only 22 when he started to dabble in car racing, and he competed in F1, on and off, between 1963 and 1974. It was after a huge crash at the Nurburgring in 1974 that he eventually returned to two wheels, with a fairytale result.

Fate dealt most cruelly with Mike when he had retired. In March 1981, on the way home after driving to his local chip shop with his two children to get them a fish supper, a truck cut across the path of their car without warning as its driver tried to make a U-turn. In the ensuing collision, Mike and his daughter Michelle were both killed. The truck driver was fined £100.

My colleague Eoin Young, who once shared a flat with the great man, has brilliantly described Hailwood as a motorcycle racer who, in four-wheel terms, was like Stirling Moss, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart all rolled into one. He was an elegant stylist, a ruthless competitor and faster then any of his competitors could ever aspire to be, while at the same time proving himself to be a big-hearted human being whose fans adored him. He also never had an off day. Although he was a nifty car racer, not all of those qualities transferred intact from biking to his alter ego as an F1 driver, probably (according to Young) because of an inferiority complex. He seems to have felt that the four-wheeled brigade looked down on bikers as greasy oiks who didn't have to think much further than the next corner.

Paradoxically, Mike's most celebrated moment in Formula 1 came when he wasn't even in his car. On the second lap of the 1973 South African GP, his F1 Surtees had been barged off the track by Clay Regazzoni. Mike climbed out unhurt, but Regazzoni - who had been knocked unconscious in the impact - was trapped in his BRM when it caught fire. Helped by a marshal with a fire extinguisher, Mike got Regazzoni's belts undone and pulled him out. The incident was captured on TV and Mike's bravery went on display around the world. After recovering from his burns, he was awarded the George Medal, his country's second highest award for civilian gallantry.

Back to the Nurburgring. Like the other top racing drivers of his era, Mike was always given a room in the old Sporthotel, overlooking the start-finish line. One year he arrived in a Citroen-Maserati SM, that curious confection of pneumatically-suspended French limousine and an Italian V6 engine with a built-in suicide wish. The cars were built in a shed, as I remember, by one of the companies in Guy Ligier's ramshackle business empire. If all that sounds like a recipe for disaster, it certainly didn't disappoint in Mike's case, and on the night after he arrived he was in the bar, cursing French engineering. Something in the SM's clockwork had gone wrong on the way to Germany and he'd only just managed to limp the thing into the hotel car park, where it was slumped down on its dodgy air springs. Presumably he didn't own it, because it was still there a year later, draped in grime and greenery. It was certainly no advertisement for Citron, a marque which deservedly went bust in 1975 and seems to have escaped my cheque book throughout a motoring career that spans five decades.

Mike's car racing career ended during the 1974 German GP when he landed badly over one of the Nurburgring's crests and smashed his McLaren into a steel barrier. Although he sustained serious injuries to both legs and his right foot, the German surgeons successfully patched him up and arranged to send him back for further treatment in England, where he was admitted to St Thomas's Hospital on London's South Bank.

It may have seemed a good idea at the time to put Mike in a private room in a London hospital. The accessibility of St Thomas's, and the endless list of mates who wanted to visit, meant that he got no peace at all. When I showed up one evening, in time for regular authorised visiting, I had to queue to get in. The room was chock full of people, some of them distinctly the worse for wear and many of them cheerfully puffing cigarettes. An ad hoc bar was operating in a corner and I clearly remember the champagne, half a dozen cases of it, stacked under the bed. Presumably Mike had worked his charm on the senior matron, but the 24 hour party surely put his recovery back by several months.

At the age of 34, it looked as though Mike's racing days were over. He'd already fallen out with his mentor John Surtees and it was unlikely that he would ever again be offered a car as competitive as the works-run Yardley McLaren M23 he'd been driving at the 'Ring. However, the connections he'd made at McLaren had brought him close to team manager Phil Kerr, a Kiwi, who was about to return to his homeland. Mike decided that New Zealand sounded like a good place to be. He just packed up and took his family to the other side of the world with a vague idea of helping to run Kerr's boat company. If he was looking for a bit of peace and quiet, however, he found rather too much of it down under. After barely two years, he moved back to England.

I was fortunate to get on exceptionally well with Mike. We were almost exactly a year apart, born under the same birth sign, and we liked the same sort of music (he was an accomplished piano player). He even seemed to be aware of the fact that I didn't always hunt with the rest of the racing press pack. After his return from NZ in 1977, on several occasions when the forecasters promised a sunny summer's day, he phoned out of the blue to invite me out to his house for barbecue lunches with his missus Pauline and a group of his mates. We usually talked more about wine - a subject which fascinated us both - than about racing. New Zealand wine was a bad joke at the time, but Mike was full of enthusiasm for the vinous revolution just starting out there. He told me that its Sauvignon Blanc in particular was a winner. He couldn't have been more right about that, could he?

On those lunch dates I always took a tape recorder with me, and more often than not he would give me an interview which he knew would find its way into Motor Cycle News, the bikers' bible. He was clearly getting bored on civvy street and his friends sensed that he was already thinking of making a racing return. Perhaps those interviews in MCN were his way of staying in touch with his real fans, even though he had deserted them in favour of four wheels back in 1967.

In 1978, at the age of 38, "Mike the Bike" made his two-wheel racing comeback. Not for him the safer circuits of the world championship events, though. Riding a vee-twin Ducati 900SS, fully 11 years after his last two-wheeled event, he returned to the Isle of Man. So much had changed in those 11 years - full-face helmets, flashy coloured leathers, etc - but the Hailwood talent was unimpaired. His overwhelming victory stunned a new generation of fans and had grown men crying into their beer. He even returned a year later, this time on a two-stroke Suzuki, and won another TT.

To satisfy the many thousands who had missed him on The Island, Mike was quickly persuaded to enter the Ducati in a 'Formula 1' event (since renamed 'Superbike') race at Silverstone, where the long straights should have given the Japanese multi-cylinder opposition a big advantage. But Mike somehow held them off to win, leaning over at such preposterous angles that his right boot wore through to the flesh. As he limped on to the podium, I called to him asking for the boot, whereupon he shouted back that it was mine. I never got it, though, because someone else asked him to donate it for auction at a charity event. That holy Hailwood relic is surely worth a lot more now than it cost at the auction, such is the respect in which Mike is held today.

I am not the only person who misses the unforgettable Mike Hailwood.

The original Nurburgring was built to provide employment for men thrown out of work by the post-Great War economic depression. It opened for business in 1927, and anyone who stayed awake through Murray Walker's lengthy autobiography will also know that his father, Graeme Walker, won the first-ever bike race at the 'Ring at that first meeting 82 years ago, riding a Rudge-Whitworth. The date of that first race pre-dates the Nazi era and rather spoils the theory put about by Australian hard man Frank Gardner that the 'Ring was built by Adolf Hitler for Jewish racing drivers.

Political correctness never sat comfortably with Frank, of course, so he can defend himself. Nevertheless, I must be very careful here to avoid falling into the same trap as Bernie Ecclestone, who offended some Jewish people this week with some remarks which appear to have suggested that he (Bernie) was somehow sympathetic towards the unspeakably wicked Fuhrer. In order to correct this impression, Bernie gave an interview to the Jewish Chronicle in which he is quoted as saying, "I'm just sorry that I was an idiot. I sincerely, genuinely apologise." Well done, the JC, not only for getting Mr E to describe himself in terms that many of us would never have dreamed we would see him using but for printing the words where anyone can read them.

Interestingly, there are signs that the mediation between Bernie and the Jewish Chronicle was conducted by none other than Lord Mandelson of Foy and Hartlepool, a politician who obviously has big gaps in his day when not supervising 10 of the nation's most important ministries and pulling the strings that give the impression there is still life in our shambling excuse for a Prime Minister. Would that his lordship had offered his help to Silverstone in its hour of need rather than scratching out a handful of suspiciously humble - not to mention uncharacteristic - words of contrition for a hugely wealthy businessman who has never before demonstrated the need for any form of PR. Or is it possible that Bernie really never did bother to bank the Labour party's cheque in repayment of his £1 million donation in 1997 and Mandy has been told to help get him out of his own mess?

Whatever your views, I commend that article in the Jewish Chronicle to all our readers. It's certainly controversial stuff. Apart from repeating some of the slurs about the President of the FIA which got the News of the World into serious legal difficulties, the JC reporter offers a stereotypically laboured remark about Jews and fast cars, not to mention trying to make a seriously unfunny joke about how a job in a gasworks would not have appealed to a Jewish boy in 1946. By comparison, how could Frank Gardner's comment offend anybody? Oh, and the JC concludes that Bernie is probably six percent Jewish. As if that mattered.

I seem to have got rather a long way without saying anything about the "new" Nurburgring, which has now been in operation for 25 years. By modern standards it's not a bad circuit, and I can recall a few good races there, but at the same time it doesn't qualify in my mind as a great or even an interesting circuit. The best thing about it was that in less straitened times it gave our chums at Mercedes-Benz the opportunity to regale a bunch of international pressmen with bits of history about the original Nurburgring. On one memorable occasion we were privileged to be given driving lessons on sections of the circuit.

Then, three or four years ago, my dear friend Steve Nally, who used to employ me as the F1 correspondent of an Australian motoring weekly, rocked up at the 'Ring on the day after the Grand Prix. Steve had been on an industry trip, which had meant missing the race itself, but he was determined to do a quickish lap of the Nordschleife in his rental BMW 1-series.

Having enjoyed a day's worth of lessons with Mercedes, and knowing what awaited the innocent around every corner, I thought this was an ambitious idea, especially from someone who had never been to Germany in his life. As soon as we set off, however, I could see that Steve knew what he was doing. He even knew where the rumble strips were, and made the appropriate noises at exactly the right places.

"Are you sure you've never been here before," I asked.

"Not exactly," he said, "but I've done several hundred laps on the Playstation."

As you do, if you're a generation younger than I am.