Nigel Roebuck's Legends

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In November 1975 motorsport lost one of its leading lights. But the ‘plane crash that claimed Graham Hill also extinguished the life of a likely World Champion of the future: Tony Brise

Appropriately, it is November 29 as I write, and — just as in 1975 — there is a thick crust of frost on the windscreen of my car. That evening, 30 years ago, there was an item on the late news about a light-aircraft accident. According to reports, the aeroplane had been en route from Marseille to Elstree, and that resonated with anyone in motor racing, for it meant en routefrom Paul Ricard back home’.

My ‘phone rang almost immediately. It was Chris Amon. “I think it’s Graham…” he said softly, and I had had the same thought. Hill’s team had been testing the new GH2 at Ricard that week, and was due back on Saturday night. Soon there was confirmation: in thick fog the ‘plane had come down on a golf course near the strip at Elstree. No one aboard had survived.

On subsequent bulletins this became the first item, and the following morning it was every front-page lead. Just occasionally there comes a racing driver whose public personality transcends the confines of his job, and Graham Hill was one such. Folk who cared little for the sport felt he was part of the tapestry of England, like Henry Cooper or Bobby Charlton. They had seen him often on television, remembered the wolfish expression perfected for the cameras, the sense of risqué humour that worked more often than not. Very much a public figure, Graham.

On and off I had worked for the Embassy Hill team that season, but even before I had any involvement in Formula One Graham Hill had been important in my life, for so long intrinsic to my sport.

At the time of his death, though, what most frequently came back to me was an interview he had given to the BBC in 1968 after Jimmy Clark had lost his life at Hockenheim; it was extremely moving, not least because this was a man very different from the laid-back character we knew so well. It was a shock to hear his voice, always so firm, now light and quavery; the affection for Clark came through in every word.

How could this have happened to Jimmy, the greatest driver of his generation? It seemed clear that, whatever else, something on the car had failed, but Graham trod gently: “We don’t know what happened, but the indications are it may not have been his fault…” A month later — to the day — Mike Spence, too, was dead. In the aftermath of Clark’s death, Spence had been drafted in to partner Hill and Joe Leonard in the Lotus turbine cars at Indianapolis, and he crashed at Turn 1 during testing. Colin Chapman, devastated by the loss of Clark, was overwhelmed by this new tragedy and briefly retreated altogether from racing.

Three days after Spence’s death, Hill was at Jarama to begin practice for the Spanish Grand Prix, the only representative of Team Lotus. After qualifying sixth, he passed Bruce McLaren, John Surtees and Denny Hulme; and when Pedro Rodriguez crashed his BRM and Amon’s Ferrari retired, Graham went on to a victory as crucial and timely as any man ever scored for his team. A fortnight later he won at Monaco too, and by now Chapman was back, Lotus people beginning to see a point to the thing once more.

Through that season Graham was in a fight for the World Championship with Jackie Stewart, and in Mexico he clinched it gloriously with victory in the deciding race. Not even Stewart was too unhappy about it.

Personally, I thought Hill went on racing too long, but then fans invariably react that way when they see a man being beaten by those he would once have flicked aside. When I asked him about it, he didn’t — to my surprise! — bite my head off. “I know people say I’m humiliating myself,” he said, “but what they mean is that I’m humiliating them! They’ve supported me for years and now it embarrasses them I’m not winning any more.

“All right, I last won a grand prix in 1969 — but I won a non-championship F1 race [at Silverstone] in ’71, and an F2 race and Le Mans in ’72, which is only a couple of years ago, and I haven’t turned into a complete wanker since! I know bloody well I’m not going to win another grand prix, but I still love driving and I think it’s up to me what I do. That’s the great thing about having your own team — you can sign yourself up for as long as you want!”

Most poignant of all, it has to be said, was his failure in 1975 to qualify at Monte Carlo, where he had won five times. This proved to be his last appearance in an F1 car. At Silverstone he took the big step, announced he would race no more. From now on all his concentration would be on running the team, for whom the brilliant young Tony Brise was the star turn.

I didn’t much like Brise at first. He seemed rather too pleased with himself. But through that season of 1975, his first in F1, he matured astonishingly, never losing his huge self-belief but also developing the confidence to laugh at himself. He had talent to throw away and knew it, but quickly came to see he was at base camp and no more. How could you fail to warm to someone who couldn’t wait to get to the (old) Nürburgring: “For me, it’s God’s gift to racing drivers…”

At Zandvoort Tony was astonishing. Before the start of the race he had never once driven an F1 car in the wet, yet before long was angrily signalling new team-mate Alan Jones to get out of his way— so he could lap him.

I remember too Brise’s huge enthusiasm at Monza. It was his first visit and he fell in love: “This place is wonderful! The two Lesmo corners: you can really get your teeth into them.” He qualified sixth, in a car assuredly not the best, but was mortified to be involved in a multiple shunt at the chicane on lap two.

Perhaps, though, the race in which Brise made the strongest impression was the inaugural Long Beach Grand Prix for Formula 5000 cars. There was a remarkable entry from both sides of the Atlantic, with the likely winners Mario Andretti or Al Unser in Viceroy Lola-Chevys, or Brian Redman in Carl Haas’s similar car. They were not anticipating competition from a 23-year-old Englishman.

The race was run in two heats and a final, and Tony won the first heat from Andretti, muscling by him at the end of Shoreline Drive. Years later Mario remembered that race vividly: “Jeez, that guy Brise: he was something else!”

A week later, now back in England, Tony was still high on the moment. “How,” I asked him, “did you dare sit it out with Andretti at a place like that?” He giggled: “Well, you might not believe this but I thought it was Unser! If I’d realised it was Mario I might not have tried it…” He had led the final too until the car broke, handing over the victory to Redman.

Brise was full of optimism that autumn, and so was his boss. They had a new contract for 1976, and Tony was sure he would be winning grands prix before long.

“I’m regarded as fairly brave,” he said one day, “but I was apprehensive about how life might be in Formula One. I’d come to hate the way some people went racing in Formula Three — you’d get alongside them, and they’d drive right at you, try and have you off the road. In my book that’s got absolutely nothing to do with real motor racing — this is supposed to be a matter of skill, not lack of imagination.

“Since I’ve been in Formula One, though,” Brise continued, “I’ve been delighted to find the other drivers think the same way. There is no nerfing or interlocking wheels, or anything like that. If somebody outbrakes you it’s done quickly and cleanly. I’m going to like this, I can tell.”

As it was, everything finished that awful night in November when several team members died, along with Graham and Tony. We lost a past World Champion, and also, I have absolutely no doubt, one of the future.