Sixty years on: The untimely death of Britain's first world champion, Mike Hawthorn

Mike Hawthorn was the first British world champion, beating Stirling Moss to the title in 1958. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It was a typical January day 60 years ago when Mike Hawthorn set off from his home in Surrey and headed for a lunchtime function in London. As Britain's first world champion, Hawthorn was much in demand.

It mattered little that he had won just a single grand prix in 1958, consistency giving him the title by a single point over Stirling Moss (who had won four races). Neither was it particularly relevant that he had done it at the wheel of a Ferrari (as opposed to Moss in the very British Vanwall). Hawthorn, with his dashing looks, flaxen hair, bow tie and penchant for a pint of bitter, was the archetypal stiff-upper-lip British sportsman, an all-round good chap.

Six weeks before, Hawthorn had announced his retirement at the age of 29. It was a surprise to some, but those close to the Englishman knew such a personal decision had been prompted by circumstance, not least witnessing his close friend Peter Collins crash fatally during the German Grand Prix. As an awful example of motorsports' fickle extremes, this had happened on the Nürburgring Nordschleife a few weeks after a brilliant win for Collins at Silverstone and less than a month following the loss of Ferrari teammate Luigi Musso at Reims.

Then at the final round in Casablanca, Hawthorn's pleasure at claiming the championship had been crushed by the outcome of a fiery accident involving Stewart Lewis-Evans. Hawthorn had accompanied Lewis-Evans back from Morocco in a chartered aircraft and was deeply upset when the promising Englishman (managed by Bernie Ecclestone) succumbed to his injuries six days later. Lewis-Evans was 28, married with two small children.

Hawthorn, never short on the company of women, had maintained a bachelor existence. In retirement, his focus would be on enjoying life in between running the garage business founded by his late father in Farnham and playing an ambassadorial role within the sport and the motor industry.

On Jan. 22, 1959, he was on just such a mission to judge a competition in aid of the Invalid Tricycle Association. Travelling along the Hog's Back, a fast stretch of road running on a ridge between Farnham and Guildford, Hawthorn overtook a Mercedes 300 SL driven by Rob Walker and gave his friend (and F1 team owner) a mischievous two-fingered gesture as he went. Hawthorn knew this road extremely well, and even though the downhill sweep on what had become the A3 towards Guildford was wet, Walker thought nothing of it as he watched the rear of the Jaguar 3.4 step out of line. But when the British Racing Green car continued to slide and then clipped a kerb, Walker realised this had gone beyond the driver's quick reactions.

The Jaguar spun backwards across the road, careered onto a verge and smashed sideways into a tree, uprooting it and almost bending the car double in the process. Walker stopped and ran back to find that Hawthorn had been flung onto the back seat. A doctor on the scene said death must have been instantaneous.

It was one of those instances in which motor racing people can recall exactly where they were when the shocking news came through. I was in the school playground when one of the boys, who had been home for lunch, returned to say he had heard word on the radio. Coming on a Thursday, in January, this was completely unexpected.

The general consensus seemed to be that stiffened suspension, the Jaguar's infamous low-geared steering, special tyres (very good up to a critical point in the dry; unpredictable in the wet) and sheer bad luck had added to an official inquest declaring that the accident had been caused by high speed on a wet road.

Forty years later, I joined a small group of Hawthorn's friends and followers to witness the planting of a tree -- appropriately, a hawthorn -- in his memory at the scene of the accident. The surrounding area may have become heavily populated and industrialised since 1959, with the A3 having expanded to a dual carriageway, but fortuitously, the land directly behind the accident site has been designated an arboretum.

A further 20 years on, this remains a small oasis despite the throbbing rumble of traffic climbing the hill. The passage of time and an understandable desire to let nature have its way means the hawthorn has become lost among many trees and shrubs. But the memory of a profoundly British champion endures despite his untimely end at this small but classic piece of English landscape.