Russell Brookes was a talent ripe for the top level of international rallying, so why was he overlooked? He talks to John Davenport
Not too many British rally drivers can claim that their name qualifies under the definition of ‘household’, but Russell Brookes is certainly one of them. But although he was celebrated in his home country, his international career never took off as it should have done. In some ways he is the Chris Amon of British rallying, well known despite being one of the last victims of the Scandinavian invasions of the 1970s which meant that, just as his career was peaking, preference was given in British teams to Finns and Swedes — at the expense of home-grown talent.
That’s ironic, seeing as Brookes’s first contact with rallying was on a family holiday in Yugoslavia in 1961 — just a whisker after his 16th birthday, when he happened to see the Liège-Sofia-Liège — and his early rallying career took him abroad in preference to home events.
The son of a builder, Brookes was hooked by that chance holiday encounter with the sport. “I didn’t have a technical interest in cars at that stage or an interest in motorsport,” he says. “It was simply a matter of the pleasure to be derived from driving a car fast.” He made his competition debut, still aged 16, on a production car trial driving a Renault Dauphine, and his first proper rally was at the wheel of his father’s Austin A105 Westminster on the BUMC’s Mermaid Rally, where he managed to invert the car on a very snowy event.
With no further family vehicles available, Brookes took to navigating in a Borgward Isabella Estate, but “I was usually car-sick.” Russell’s friend Roger Platt devised a way of rallying on the cheap which involved buying a car from the local car auction for £25 or less on a Thursday, preparing it for the weekend, doing the rally and then selling it back for about the same price the following Thursday: “A Vauxhall Velox was always a good bet. We even rallied an XK120 once but that cost £50.” During the same period he hillclimbed and sprinted a Mini 850 and managed to capture a host of class records at a variety of venues.
Then his father died, and with him the family business. At that time Brookes was studying as a quantity surveyor and worked for his qualifications at a big company in the Midlands. Once qualified he left: “They insisted that I work Saturdays, which interfered with my rallying. I joined a smaller company but they soon found out what I was about and sacked me.” After this he got a job that was less demanding of his spare time, as a technical correspondent with British Leyland: “I was the man who wrote to all the people with broken gearboxes and said, ‘Dear Sir, You have been singularly unfortunate… ‘ whereupon they would write back and say, ‘I have been singularly unfortunate four times already.’
Brookes plunged into his rallying at the deep end with full special stage internationals. He shared the driving in Platt’s Cooper S 1275 on the 1968 Gulf London and went straight from that to entering the RAC Rally that November in his own Mini 850. These outings were non-productive but the following year he did the Welsh, Scottish and RAC Rallies, winning his class in Wales and then taking third and second on the other two. When he won his class again on the 1970 Welsh, Skoda UK offered him a 1000MB for the Scottish: “It must be the worst rally car I have ever driven.”
For 1971 Brookes picked up some sponsorship from Cal Withers, but it involved doing all the Castrol/Motoring News rounds as well as his favourite internationals: “Up to this point I’d really only done international rallies and I had got a bit spoilt. There were always good bonus payments to be picked up in the classes. In fact I was probably running at a profit, but it soon changed when I had to do the MN events as well. They had no bonus schemes and took as much out of the car as an international would. By the time the RAC came around I was practically broke.” Desperate for some way of doing Britain’s premier event, he scraped together everything he had, but then disaster struck — his engine tuner went bust and the receiver impounded Russell’s own engine and gearbox: “I already knew Basil Wales at (Leyland) Special Tuning. He agreed to loan me a unit that was lying around. It was the last works engine to be built and had a full eight-port head plus four Amal carburettors. Not ideal for rallying as they were stuck out in front, where they proved susceptible to icing.” But at least he could do the rally and it turned out to be a key event in his career.
Dotted throughout what turned out to be a very snowy forest rally were a number of tarmac stages. It was here that a certain Cooper S shone by setting times that even in such exalted company could not be ignored. Brookes and co-driver Ian Cooper got the car through all kinds of maladies: “We actually arrived at the Donington Park control out of time. But when we got to the finish we discovered that we were credited with being 66th overall. It wasn’t until 20 years later that Les Needham (secretary of the RAC Rally) confessed that he had shuffled that time card out of the way to allow us to be classified as a finisher.”
As far as Brookes was concerned that was it. He had done his best, spent his all and now he was retired. He even stopped taking Motoring News and was thus not aware that at the beginning of 1972 Ford had launched its Mexico Championship. This was designed to provide low-cost rallying as well as a level playing field on which future works drivers could be identified: “I was at home one night when there was a knock on the door and Mike and Keith Hill of Brooklyn Garages wanted to know if I would drive their Mexico. Apparently they had seen me in the Mini on Epynt and were suitably impressed.” Naturally, the answer was an emphatic yes.
In its first year the Mexico Championship comprised mainly navigation rallies, so a Mini loaned by Tom Seal was brought out for the internationals, finally winning its class on the RAC Rally ahead of all the Skodas. Towards the end of the season the Mexico results started to improve and the Brooklyn car won two events overall, enough to put Russell sixth in the championship. The 1973 season was even better, making Brookes eligible for the first pair of prize drives offered by Ford. These were to be in works RS1600s on national events of the driver’s choice. The first such outing was the Jim Clark Rally where, on his first event in the much more powerful Escort, Brookes kept a similarly mounted Roger Clark in sight, yielding a mere 26 secs to him in the Kielder complex and finishing a good second, despite a roll. This was the turning point: “I suddenly realised I could drive these cars as fast or faster than the rest.”
The petrol crisis meant that the Mexico Championship lost two rounds and Russell his chance to win the Ford works drive on offer for 1974, but at least he won the Welsh Championship. Then he had some good luck: “I sent out a sponsorship letter to everyone I could think of. One such was Derek Hill (Midlands journalist and PR) who knew a company called Andrews Heat for Hire. They had thought of sponsoring a hot-air balloon as being highly appropriate to a company who supplied space heaters, but the pilot was killed in an accident. Derek suggested that perhaps they could achieve publicity for their 10th anniversary through rallying.” At the time no-one had any idea that it was a deal — and a friendship with John Andrews — that would last 17 years.
At the wheel of a new Escort RS2000, Brookes won the Castrol/MN crown, collected the Group One title in the National Championship and finished second in that category in the British series. In 1975, Russell acquired an RS1800 as part of a loan deal from Ford, which supplied the parts to keep it going during the season. He took second on the Scottish, but a greater result came at the end of the year: at the Ford Motorsport press conference, journalist Martin Holmes asked what a British driver had to do to get a full works drive from the Blue Oval; Stuart Turner replied that if any British driver beat a Ford works pilot on an international rally in a straight fight that would do the trick.
So, after winning the Scottish Rally in 1976 from Clark and Ari Vatanen, Brookes became a full works driver in ’77. Somewhat oddly he continued working at British Leyland for the first three months of the year, as BL couldn’t find a replacement to fill the position of assistant product planning manager: “It was brilliant. In my last pay packet from BL I had a pay rise backdated for one year!” He was able to retain his Andrews sponsorship, and the doorway to Europe was opened with ventures to the Arctic, the Tulip and the Tour of Corsica. A win on the Circuit of Ireland and a host of top-three finishes, including the RAC Rally, resulted in Brookes winning the British title.
In 1978 Brookes was runner-up to Hannu Mikkola in the British series, but more importantly he got to do more foreign rallies, winning the Tulip and the Motogard Rally in New Zealand. This event had temporarily lost its WRC status, but none of its difficulty. No British driver would win an international rally of that stature outside the UK until Colin McRae won the very same rally in ’93, 15 years later.
At this point Brookes hoped that he could expect to have a programme for 1979 that included a fair proportion of WRC events, but it was not to be. Firstly Ford was determined to make a full-scale bid for the World Championship: Björn Waldegård became the first-ever World Rally Champion, and if that were not enough Clark, Vatanen and Pentti Airikkala were all driving Fords and being supported either fully or partially. Secondly, Ford Europe under Mike Kranefuss knew that it would be shutting down its competition activities at the end of the season to develop new cars and engines to make Ford competitive in the 1980s. Thus Russell found himself at the peak of his powers but in a limited programme which was ultimately to leave him bereft of a drive altogether.
Proving a point, he won the Manx and Ulster and was second on the RAC ahead of no fewer than four WRC champions-to-be (Timo Salonen, Vatanen, Waldegård and Walter Röhrl), as well as Markku Alén and Airikkala. He finished second in the British Championship to Airikkala by just four points, with Mikkola and Stig Blomqvist behind him. At least he had a good CV, and this was enough to get him an excellent offer from Des O’Dell at Chrysler well before the end of the season: Brookes was to do five WRC events and a British programme in a Sunbeam-Lotus that was just coming of age. But then Chrysler was no more; Talbot was the brand imposed by Peugeot and suddenly the French influence took over. Russell’s 1980 programme became almost 100 per cent UK-based.
With Talbot on a roll it wanted to go for the WRC Manufacturers’ title in 1981, and it was no surprise that this programme was entirely centred on Henri Toivonen and Guy Fréquelin. An approach to Audi UK from Russell had been well received towards the end of 1980: “I even went to Germany and tried the car and everyone seemed to be positive, but then it just dried up.” So it was the UK again for the Andrews Lotus, with Brookes taking fifth in the British Championship and two national wins. With the end of the Sunbeam-Lotus programme — like Ford, Peugeot was starting to develop a new Group B car — a change was in the offing and this time it was to Vauxhall.
The car was the Chevette 2300 HSR run by Bill Blydenstein’s DTV team at Shepreth. Despite being towards the end of its career, Russell found the Chevette and DTV much to his liking: “It was one of the happiest times of my life as a driver. I had spent two years in a car that failed more than it finished and now I spent two years in a car that failed to finish just once in some 30 rallies.” The Chevette was still quick enough to win the Circuit of Ireland in 1983 and put him second overall to Stig Blomqvist’s Quattro in the British Championship, but this was now the era of a new breed of rally cars. For ’84 Russell finally got his hands on a Group B car, the Opel Manta 400, but this was neither turbocharged nor four-wheel drive. Nevertheless, in the four years that he drove for Dealer Opel Team he made it count and in ’85 he won the British Championship again.
In the post-Group B period competitive cars were hard to come by. He persuaded Cesare Fiorio to lend him a Lancia Delta HF 4WD for the ’87 RAC, but “my inexperience of left-hand drive contrived to put us a bit too far to the right on a muddy, three-ply descent in Kielder and the result was that, when I braked, we visited the ditch on a permanent basis.”
There was a dearth of cars and programmes in the late-80s and it was only when Ford came back into the picture with first the two-wheel drive Sierra Cosworth, then the Sierra 4×4 and finally the Sierra RS Cosworth 4×4 that the British scene sprung once again to life. First with Mike Little and then with RED, Brookes drove them all and gave the RS 4×4 its first international win on the 1990 Manx Trophy. But Russell discovered that he was diabetic at the same time that the printing company that he had started back in ’82 was in need of his full attention. Added to that the fact that he was 48 years old and was finding it hard to raise enthusiasm for yet another season of British Championship rallying and it becomes clear why ’92 was his last fling.
Since then Russell has returned on occasions, driving a Porsche 911 in historic events, and is now contemplating becoming an organiser: “I feel that I was lucky, living at a time when you could go rallying for very little money. Now the technical and safety regulations mean that you need a lottery win just to start out. I would like to see someone providing proper entry-level rallying where young talented drivers don’t get eclipsed by old guys like me in WRC cars.” Watch this space…