'Beneath Tony Brooks’s quiet humility was a core of tempered steel': Doug Nye

A former racing driver pal remarked recently “Many of this new generation of F1 drivers seem to be quite good blokes”. He spoke in wonderment, but the likes of Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris, George Russell, Carlos Sainz and Esteban Ocon (amongst others) do indeed seem like – well – “quite good blokes”.

Now on May 3 we sadly lost not just “a quite good bloke” from motor racing history, but one that I and my generation truly admired as being one of the very, very best – the epitome of the old-English schoolboy’s ideal of a sportsman whose enormous innate talent and racing success were matched by almost obsessive modesty, humility and self-effacing, approachable, good humour. This was the great Tony Brooks who passed away at the age of 90 – 61 years after he had retired from race driving, aged 29, ending what today would be considered a brief nine-year racing career.

Tony was hardly the media epitome of the swashbuckling, devil-may-care 1950s racing star. He was slightly built to the point of being skinny. He was quiet and thoughtful and his later team-mate Stirling Moss once admitted “Tony was really far too intelligent to be a racing driver”. Stirling would also pay real tribute to Tony’s preference for maintaining a low public profile by describing him as “The greatest unknown racing driver of them all”.

In truth the man himself never knew quite how to take that. Beneath his friendly, quiet humility there was a tremendously competitive core of tempered steel which survived his entire life. He had to have that to exercise his immense driving talent as well as he did. That core also just had to have been there since he also battled inner doubts about whether his irresistible urge to race, when it was such a life-endangering activity, was at all compatible with his deeply ingrained religious faith. He would explain that he considered life to be a gift from God which absolutely was not to be risked lightly. Perhaps that made him hold something – just a tiny bit – always in reserve? Yet if that’s what he was doing, he remained just so talented a driver that on his day he could still match and beat anyone else on track, anywhere.

“On his day he could match and beat anyone else on track, anywhere”

The big deal with Tony Brooks’s career is headlined by two great results of immense significance, one being a precursor to the other. In the late-October 1955 non-Championship qualifying Syracuse GP, in Sicily, he became the first British racing driver in a British works-team car for 31 years to win a significant Continental Grand Prix race. Then in July 1957 he shared with team-mate Moss the first all-British car-and-driver victory in a premier-league national Grand Prix for no fewer than 34 years and this time an FIA World Championship existed for which it scored points.

Slimline, low-profile Brooks’s predecessor was in both cases Henry Segrave, driving on these occasions for the Sunbeam team, the first landmark being his win at San Sebastian in 1924, and the second – the more major landmark – his win in the French GP of 1923 at Tours. Thereafter, for long decades, British GP cars were just inadequate.

It’s pretty much standard practice today for new-generation enthusiasts to check driver stats on the internet. The proliferation of frontline GP races since the 1950s not only devalues the currency but falsifies bald statistical comparison. Tony Brooks only won six GPs, huh! One can sense a young lip curling. But what spoke volumes in period was the rare quality of his wins. His 1958 Belgian, German and Italian GPs were the most coveted crowns, contested upon scary Spa-Francorchamps in its long-lap form, the full-fat Nürburgring Nordschleife in all its challenging pomp, and then Italy’s chicane-free Monza, flat-strap, too often yet another killer. Tony Brooks in his racing green Vanwalls still won them all.

In fact super-threatening Spa was his real favourite. When the Belgian GP there was dropped from the 1959 F1 World Championship he was mortified. Then his Ferrari team missed the British GP at Aintree, where he had just followed home team-mate Jean Behra for a Ferrari 1-2 in the BARC ‘200’. The loss of potential points are what really sank his title hopes, though he won the French GP at Reims – another fast venue – and the peculiar two-heat German GP on Berlin’s AVUS speedway.

For some years, Tony used to write most ably for The Observer. Into the 2000s I pushed him relentlessly to write his autobiography. He always refused. “People would say Brooks is blowing his own trumpet!”; that deeply-ingrained modesty? It was no affectation. For him it was instinctive. It took three years to bounce him into doing it, and we (his wife Pina and I) finally found the key when after another blank refusal I retorted “If you don’t, your grandchildren will never know what grandad did!”. Bingo – and Poetry in Motion was published in 2012.

It was all his own work, but I am proud of spurring him on. Tony questioned any assessment that he went “…well on the faster circuits but less well on the slower ones. …I happened to be luckier with my car on the faster circuits… I got pole position at Monaco, with nothing to show for it, and was to record two second places there. However I certainly found increased satisfaction from the greater rhythm and sensation of poetry in motion on the faster circuits, with less emphasis on frenetic braking”.

To his widow Pina and children Caroline, David, Michele, Julia and Stephanie, and their families, we extend our sincere condolences.

Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s