Flashback: 1987 Monaco GP with Tony Brooks and John Coombs

For two decades Maurice Hamilton reported from the F1 paddock with pen, notebook and Canon Sure Shot camera. This month we are at the 1987 Monaco GP with Tony Brooks, who died in May, and John Coombs – car dealers with racing pedigree

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I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Brooks more than once. It was impossible not to be struck by a gentleness and humility that gave no indication of his standing as an exceptionally gifted driver. Wins at the Nürburgring Nordschleife and Spa-Francorchamps spoke volumes on their own. I’d be willing to bet, however, that he was not discussing motor racing when this shot was taken at Monaco in 1987.

Brooks is with John Coombs, a motor dealer and former team owner. Disenchanted with a switch from a successful Jaguar concession to BMW, Coombs was on the point of selling his business. Brooks was also in a state of flux in 1987 as he considered changing his agency from Lancia and Fiat to becoming a Ford main dealer. But these two had history that went beyond the motor trade.

Coombs had been regarded as the entrant of immaculate and competitive machinery in sports cars, saloons and Formula 2. In May 1956, however, Brooks would have been excused for thinking otherwise.

Brooks was driving for BRM in F1 and sports cars for Aston Martin. Coombs used his skill as a salesman to persuade his fellow Englishman to race a Lotus Mark IX in a support race at the International Trophy meeting at Silverstone. When the sports car failed to arrive in time for practice, Brooks was allowed four unofficial laps before the start of the race. He found the Lotus was seriously under-geared and understeered massively. Brooks struggled home eighth and questioned the wisdom of racing an untried car.

This personal ethos was advanced considerably during the 1957 Le Mans 24 Hours. At 2.30am, Brooks was driving an Aston Martin which he knew had become stuck in fourth gear. Thinking he could sort the problem while on the move, an attempt to free the transmission resulted in running wide, overturning and being trapped beneath a car brim-full of fuel. Brooks was only freed thanks to the next car inadvertently knocking the DBR1 to one side.

A deep-seated religious belief would heighten his appreciation of the sanctity of life and lead to a pledge never to race a car he knew to be mechanically compromised. This cautious criterion would prompt Brooks to have his Ferrari checked following a bump from behind at the start of the final grand prix in 1959: a race he had to win to become world champion. Making the pitstop was arguably braver than carrying on regardless. It would contribute to one of the world’s greatest drivers moving unnoticed among the Monaco glitterati – not that Tony Brooks minded in the least.