Tony Brooks looks back

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SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO, the chance of a British car winning a World Championship Grand Prix was unlikely, the prospect of that state of affairs changing looked remarkably dim. With Mercedes-Benz and Maserati having a virtual stranglehold on the World Championship series, British efforts in no way matched up to the Continental opposition. BRM’s effort usually resulted in a few fleeting moments of sheer speed which ended when the 2 1/2-litre motor fell apart or the chassis played evil tricks on its driver and sent him off the road. But the Guildford based Connaught organisation could at least be relied upon to field a car which handled well, even though the pre-war Alta motor just wasn’t capable of staying with the more sophisticated power units from Italy and Germany. Yet it was in one of these cars that an unknown name in Formula One put British cars on the post-war racing map by heating the works Maseratis in the non-championship Syracuse Grand Prix at the very end of the 1955 season.

The man who pulled off this historic win was a quiet, unassuming dental student from Surrey, Charles Antony Standish Brooks, and it was to Brooks’ modern Lancia and Fiat dealership in rural byfleet that we went to talk to him about the successful Grand Prix career into which he was virtually pitched as a result of that “outside” victory. Brooks has retired front Formula One racing for 12 years, an honest decision made after honest self-appraisal at the early age of 29, “after a season driving the works BRMs, which were forced to rely on Coventry-Climax 4-cylinder motors since the V8 unit never materialised, quite frankly, the whole thing was rather unsatisfactory and this encouraged me to hasten retirement to the motor business which I’d originally established in 1959”.

In any event, Brooks was openly disillusioned about the World Championship points system which, he felt, showed up in a very poor light in 1958. “Stirling Moss won three races for Vanwall, plus another in Rob Walker’s Cooper-Climax, I won three for Vanwall and Mike Hawthorn won two for Ferrari. It was then I realised that you could go on chasing the World Championship until you were 50 and still get no nearer to winning it. I thought, boy, if Moss won four, I won three and the World Champion won two, then forget it.” From many of today’s highly-paid F1 “heroes” such talk would be dismissed as “sour grapes”, but Brooks’ modest self appraisal lends sincerity to such a view. In fact, he talks about his arrival into top line racing in an almost apologetic fashion. In 1954 and 55 his prowess at the wheel of an old Frazer Nash at Goodwood marked him out as a youngster with above-average capability and this led him into the works Aston-Martin team as an occasional member when the Feltham organisation ran three cars. “But generally I found myself left out when just two cars were running, so I was very much a ‘part-timer’.”

Nevertheless, Brooks’ prowess was sufficiently great to earn him a place in the works team for the 1955 Le Mans race where he partnered wealthy amateur John Riseley-Pritchard at the wheel of the third entry. They didn’t finish but the effect of the terrible accident involving Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes-Benz which cost the lives of over eighty spectators brought family pressure to bear on Riseley-Pritchard to give up motor racing. He succumbed to his family’s insistence, thus leaving his Formula Two Connaught available, and he immediately recruited Brooks to handle it for the rest of the year.

Then in October came the non-championship Formula One event scheduled for the road circuit at Syracuse on the very southeast tip of Sicily. It wasn’t really much more than a glorified club affair, but the entry contained the Maserati team with Luigi Musso and Luigi Villoresi. The old London Transport coaches which the Connaught team used to transport their team of cars round in made the trip to Sicily and designer Rodney Clarke opted to give Brooks his chance at the wheel of one of their 2 1/2-litre cars. The young Englishman had to interrupt his dentistry studies at Manchester University to make the nine-hour ‘plane journey to Sicily, still reluctant to acknowledge that he might have any racing talent.

“Quite honestly I still felt that dentistry was the way to go. I wanted a secure career behind me while I went motor racing; in retrospect I feel that I should have put my profession on one side, gone racing and returned to it later on. But that is hindsight; quite honestly, I felt they picked me for Syracuse simply because there wasn’t anyone else available. As far as I was concerned it was study all the way down on the aeroplane and study all the way back. The race was what you might call a bit of light relief between studies.” By the time the official practice sessions ended. Brooks had planted the Connaught on the outside of the front row of the grid alongside the two Maseratis. The fact that he’d managed this feat simply didn’t register with him as he admits he was more preoccupied trying to observe the Alta engine’s strictly imposed rev-limit and “doing my best not to ‘jigger-up’ the pre-selector gearbox”. At the start of the race the Connaught was slow away but slowly and surely made up ground on the leading Maseratis, passed them, and started to pull away. For the driver of the green car “taught that red cars shouldn’t get bigger, they should get smaller in front of you”, the whole situation was rather beyond his appreciation. He stayed ahead and won.

Immediately after the race the young Englishman was mobbed by hundreds of enthusiastic Sicilians. Brooks recalled that he ran to climb onto his motor-scooter in order to escape their attentions—”I wasn’t as European in my thinking as I hope I am now; it really was quite a frightening experience”— and tried to tighten the protective handkerchief which he had tied round his sore palms by means of grasping it in his teeth.

“The crown on my front tooth promptly fell to the ground, amongst the feet of all these mad Sicilians! But fortunately I had a spare crown, which I fixed for the prize-giving. But if my smiles looked a little stilted, that’s the reason why!”

Immediately a difficult situation faced Brooks. Should he stay with the Connaught team, as Rodney Clarke wished him to, or move to BRM where the Stuart Tresilian/Peter Berthon 4-cylinder engine was proving intensely competitive (while it kept running!). The Connaught had a beautifully handling chassis, but a sadly uncompetitive engine, while vice versa was true of the British Racing Motor. After much serious thought, Brooks decided it was in his interest to sign for the BRM team. He stayed for just one season, but he’d proved to himself that the 2 1/2-litre BRM was a particularly nasty car to drive. “The BRM had the sheer speed, but it wouldn’t go round corners. In fact, Mike Hawthorn and I led the British Grand Prix in 1956 with ease for the first three laps until everyone also suddenly woke up. Then we had to race the cars; you had to corner the things like bicycles, they were absolutely hopeless. As I’ve said before, the Connaught had a competitive chassis with an uncompetitive engine while the BRM had a competitive engine and diabolical chassis . . and I mean diabolical. It was an absolute danger.”

Brooks’ relationship with BRM came to an unfortunate head when the car turned over at Abbey Curve during the British GP after the throttle stuck open. “It threw me out, somersaulted a couple of times and then set itself on fire, which was about the best possible thing that could happen to that motor car. It did the only decent thing, committed ‘hari-kari’.” [I remember giving Brooks a lift back to the Paddock immediately afterwards.—ED] At the end of the season, he left to join Stirling Moss and Stuart Lewis-Evans in Tony Vandervell’s Vanwall team.

The Vanwall era is well-chronicled and needs no detailed history here, but Moss and Brooks shared the winning car, in the 1957 British Grand Prix at Aintree and then went on to win the Constructors’ Championship for Vanwall in 1958 with victories in the Belgian, Portuguese, Dutch, German, Italian and Moroccan Grands Prix. Out of this impressive tally, Brooks took the Vanwall to first place at Spa-Francorchamps, Nürburgring and Monza and took third place in the World Championship with 24 points to Hawthorn’s 42 and Moss’ 41.

“But by this time I was fed up with sports cars and had made my mind up that I didn’t want to drive at Le Mans again.” Things now looked set for Brooks to stay with the Aston-Martin sports-car team for 1959, but the shock news that Tony Vandervell was withdrawing his Vanwalls at the end of 1958 shed a new light onto the situation. Mike Hawthorn’s retirement as World Champion, followed by his tragic death in a road accident, meant that the Ferrari team had a vacant spot for a team leader. Brooks took up the offer “but I insisted that I wasn’t going to drive at Le Mans, a condition which Ferrari agreed to. I suppose that this was something of a precedent, because Ferrari doesn’t usually permit his drivers to opt out of sports car commitments. But I’d raced there four times and got precisely nowhere and I thought if I ever drive in that race again, well, I’ll want my head seeing to Brooks frankly admits that by this time his interest in racing was confined to the “purest” category: Formula One.

The 1959 season held much the same fortunes for Brooks as the previous year, further emphasising his opinion that the World Championship wasn’t something one should hang one’s racing ambitions on, to the exclusion of all else. The front-engined Ferrari was pitted against the agile rear-engined Cooper-Climax of Jack Brabham and the Australian came out World Champion with 31 points to Brooks’ 27. However, Brooks points out that Ferrari missed the British Grand Prix owing to industrial strikes in Italy and he was forced to make do with an uncompetitive interim Vanwall, especially made ready for the occasion, while the Belgian event was cancelled “which was a pity, for I’ve always gone well at Spa and the Ferrari would have been at less of a disadvantage than anywhere else”. Nonetheless, “the name of the game is winning”, and Brooks had won six Grands Prix in the space of eighteen months, “which pleased me, at least to think that I could keep up with the best”. By this time, Brooks’ thoughts had turned towards retirement and the establishment of his garage business in Byfleet, within sight of the old Brooklands banking. [But I don’t think he realised the historic site his premises occupied.—ED] He fully realised that Ferrari was working on a brand new V6 engine which would be the engine to beat when the 1 1/2-litre formula came into being in 1961, but he also wanted to be based in England so that he could supervise his business. “I felt that it was being unrealistic to run a proper business in Britain whilst driving for a team baked in Italy.”

Thus Brooks came to an agreement that he would drive in a single-car Vanwall team with a new rear-engined chassis that Vandervell’s organisation had produced. “This arrangement suited the dawn to the ground, hut, unfortunately, the car didn’t materialise. I was rather annoyed about this, as I held, myself available to Tony Vandervell without any written contract in view of our previous association and, when it became clear that the car wasn’t available, all the good drives had been snapped up. Really, after Lewis-Evans’ death after Casablanca, I don’t think Vandervell sustained any enthusiasm for racing at all. It’s just a feeling I have, but I haven’t any proof.”

So Tony Brooks was “doomed” to drive an uncompetitive Cooper-Climax for the private Yeoman-Credit team. “Frankly, the less said about this, the better, as one just couldn’t hope to keep up using last year’s equipment.” But things looked rather brighter for 1961 with an offer to rejoin BRM with Graham Hill and the promise of the powerful new V8. Sadly, things were to be little better and the BRMs were forced to rely on outdated Climax V8s while development of the new motor lagged behind. “It was ridiculous”, he remembers, “with just 130 b.h.p., you drove the things just like go-karts. It was disappointing and frustrating, particularly as the Ferraris were running quite as quickly as expected. For me it was particularly galling, knowing that could have been driving one.” Tony Brooks made his last racing appearance in a works BRM-Climax in the 1961 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, finishing third behind the Lotus CIimax of Innes Ireland and the Porsche flat-8 of Dan Gurney. His mind finally made up, at the comparatively early age of 29 he retired from active motor racing immediately, knowing he was still competitive. “There were offers for me to stay at BRM with Graham Hill, and I could have returned to Ferrari, but you’ve got to take the decision some time. I’d just completed two disappointing seasons and felt that this was the right time to do it.”

The subject of retirements is something about which Brooks holds very strong views, feeling that a professional driver should know when to stop and withdraw from active participation at a time when he is still being approached with new contracts. “I don’t consider Fangio to have had any alternative at the age of 48, neither Stirling after such a dreadful crash. I do wish that people would realise that a good gambler quits while he’s ahead, as I feel they have a responsibility to their public as well as themselves.” Brooks still had irons in the fire right up until the end of his career, even though he was casting an eye to future retirement around 1960.

Having started it as a sideline, Brooks never felt that racing owed him a living in the manner that so many of today’s top pilots feel. The break was hard to make for he fully realised that there were few other occupations where one could combine a stimulating sport with world-wide travel in order to carry out one’s enjoyable “work”. That the current crop of Formula One drivers seem to moan continually about money and circuit safety just leaves a puzzled and unsympathetic expression on Brooks’ face. He enjoyed racing and to him the challenge of a demanding road circuit was simply something to savour, so he has no time for those who, in his own words, are out “prostituting the name of Grand Prix racing”.

It’s simply no good for today’s so-called experts to dismiss Brooks as an elderly eccentric with dim memories of racing at Brooklands to back up his idealistic thoughts. Now a well groomed 41, he has a clear power of recall over some of the most formative years for Britain in the field of Grand Prix racing. He thought about his performance in the cockpit of a Grand Prix car, became one of the very first real technical drivers who fully understood precisely what his car was doing is well as what it was capable of doing and coupled ability behind the wheel with a genuine lack of conceit which earned him many friends and fans all over Europe.—A.H.

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