Sunday drive in the Eifel

Tony Brooks is one of the all-time greats and a master of understatement – the headline is his. It refers to his epic win for Aston Martin alongside Noel Cunningham-Reid in the 1957 Nurburgring 1000km. Motor Sport is delighted that, after some cajoling, he agreed to write about that momentous victory

On paper, we didn’t stand a chance, a 3-litre Aston Martin driven by two relative rookies versus Juan Fangio and Stirling Moss in a 4.5-litre Maserati over 1000 kilometres of the awesome Nurburgring. Denis Jenkinson (DSJ) thought the same and commented that, although there was opposition from Aston Martin, Ferrarijaguar and Porsche, none seemed likely to challenge Scuderia Maserati. It was the 1957 1000 Kilometres and no bookie would argue about the odds-on favourite. There were five Maseratis: two 4.5-litre 400bhp cars driven by Fangio/Moss and Harry Schell/Hans Herrmann, an experimental V12 3.5-litre, a 300S 3-litre and a standard 3-litre, with drivers Jo Bonnier, Giorgio Scarlatti, Francisco Godia and Horace Gould.

Then there was the problem presented by the works Ferraris: 4.1-litre and 3.8-litre V12s driven by Mike Hawthorn, Peter Collins, Wolfgang von Trips, Maurice Trintingnant, Olivier Gendebien and Masten Gregory. There were also two private Ferraris: a 3-litre Monza and the Testa Rossa prototype.

Four D-type Jaguars were entered: three by Ecurie Ecosse, with nominated drivers Ron Flockhart, Ninian Sanderson, Jock Lawrence, Jack Fairman, Ivor Bueb and Richard Steed, and a private one to be driven by Henry Taylor and Archie Scott Brown. Our Aston Martin team consisted of two DBR1/300s, with 240bhp under the bonnet, a private DB3S to overcome fuel/oil contract problems, and a works standard DB3S, which had been driven from Dunkirk, for practice and as a spare.

All three cars ran as an official team and the drivers were Tony Brooks/Noel Cunningham-Reid, Roy Salvadori/Les Leston and the Whitehead brothers, Peter and Graham with their own car. This was Aston Martin’s first world championship event of the year, and only the second race for the DBR1/300 which had made its debut two weeks earlier in an international sportscar race at Spa, where I had managed to win after a temporary gearbox problem; Salvadori was second. King Baudouin had apparently been impressed by the cars at Spa and requested that a DBR1 be taken to the palace for demonstration. If a sale was made, neitherRoy nor I received any commission — but with a season’s signing-on fee of £50.we didn’t even bother to enquire.

The cars were garaged and serviced in Brussels between the two events, which included work on the undertrays as the drivers had been soaked in the wet Spa race, and the problem ‘box was sent back to England for examination.

If the car was relatively untried, so too was I. This was my first proper Formula One season (the 1956 BRM raced rarely) and I had had my first continental world championship grand prix at Monaco the previous weekend: I finished second for Vanwall behind Fangio’s Maserati 250F. This was also only my second trip to the Nurburgring so, overall, I considered myself a rookie compared to the opposition. I’d shared an Aston DB3S with Peter Collins the previous year, finishing fifth, and have since confessed that this race was the start of an all-consuming passion for the ‘Ring, a gladiatorial arena where one mistake could be your last. Just to do well on it provided a unique sense of satisfaction.

The 14.5-mile circuit gave the driver a fantastic roller-coaster ride with its 170 corners, many of them blind, and innumerable dips, with g forces that thrust your guts to the depths of the abdomen. It created a tremendous sensation of speed too, as it was little more than a hedged lane at the time, weaving through the pine forests of the Eifel mountains.

Groups of comers come in rapid succession with compromises on line having to be made to achieve the quickest time through any given series. The DBR1 was superb in such circumstances, responding to the need to swing quickly from left to right-hand drifts with no more than a caress of the accelerator and the steering wheel, which was held loosely to absorb the kickback from the rather rough surface.

The process was complicated further by the organisers’ insistence on mixing relatively slow production GTs and saloons with the works sports-racing cars, which meant mobile chicanes were hiding around blind corners or in the dips. A 70-car entry (66 started the race) meant there could be no let up in concentration.

On Thursday, the first day of practice, the circuit was shrouded in mist and this strengthened the initial sense of mystery and awe I had experienced the previous year. This arena, dominated by the castle which appeared, slowly and menacingly, as the fog lifted, was where all my pre-war heroes had done battle.

Noel and Les had never driven on the ‘Ring before so the practice DB3S was worked very hard. Noel, who was originally paired with Salvadori, achieved a remarkable llmin 3.3sec on only his second lap in a DBR1, after just five in the DB3S. I went round in 10min 16.5sec and Stirling, who was clearly only warming up the 4.5-litre Maserati, did a 10min 32.5sec.

Noel’s impressive progress continued on Friday. He did two more laps in the practice DB3S and then recorded a 10min 23sec, just 6sec slower than Salvadori, in Roy’s DBR1. I managed a 9min 48.2sec, but the Maserati drivers had started to flex their muscles, Fangio recording 9nain 43.6sec. Ferrari also joined in the fun. Trintignant was credited with 9min 576sec in the 3.8-litre, although it was generally believed that Mike Hawthorn was at the wheel; Mike was officially credited with 10min 2sec in the 4.1-litre.

Reg Parnell, Aston’s team manager, informed me that my time (86.73mph) was 38 seconds better than the best I had achieved with the DB3S the previous year, some measure of the brilliance of the DBR1 ‘s designer, Ted Cutting, who has never received the credit due for creating one of the all-time great sportscars. Technical progress was also marked by the fact that the lap was apparently lmph faster thanl3emd Rosemeyer’s fastest in the 1937 German Grand Prix on the same Nordschleife circuit His time required 600bhp from his 6-litre supercharged Auto Union, and Bemd would have driven much harder, probably on the ragged edge.

Aston only used the DB3S for the Saturday morning practice, and it was then that Reg Parnell decided to pair Noel with me — after he had completed just 11 official practice laps.

The start was a Le Mans-type run-and-jump, the order for which was: Maserati (Schell/Herrmann), Maserati (Moss/Fangio) — although DSJ maintained both cars had been qualified by Fangio — our Aston, Ferrari (Hawthom/Trintignant), Ferrari (Collins! Gendebien), Ferrari (Gregory/Olinto Morelli), Maserati (Bonnier/ Gould), and then Roy and Les in the second DBR1. The new Ferrari pairings were prompted by von Trips’ crash on Saturday.

Noel was to do the middle of the three stints at the wheel. I knew I had to try to beat the big boys to the first corner, the Sudkurve, because it would be extremely difficult to pass them on the sections where I thought I was gaining some time. What’s more, they would blow me away on the three-kilometre straight, so I not only needed to get the lead, I had to build it up sufficiently on the back of the course to still hold it into the south turn after the straight and the pits. John Wyer, Aston’s racing director, was a stickler for ensuring his drivers practiced Le Mans starts which we did assiduously every year. It’s amazing how many mistakes can be made, from overrunning the door, to putting afoot through the steering wheel, to mistaking the next car’s engine roar for one’s own. That last scenario happened to Mike Hawthorn on this occasion — but he made up for it by passing 52 cars in the first two laps.

The race started at 9am on Sunday, in warm and dry conditions. Fortunately, Stirling also uncharacteristically made a poor start, and I was first into the south turn. Now I needed that buffer and drove at ‘eight-tenths’, bearing in mind there’d been no warm-up lap (formation lap for F1 buffs) and conditions could have changed significantly since my last practice session on Friday. My standing-start lap was completed in 10min 9sec, which was just fast enough to give me the gap I needed — I led Schell past the pits by 1.3sec. He was followed by Collins, Salvadori and Moss. Now I knew the condition of the circuit I stepped up the pace to ninetenths, and steadily pulled away from Schell. I was lapping the tail-enders by the third lap, and had built up a lead of 23sec by the end of the fifth. I found that by taking many of the faster corners in a gear higher than I initially thought was right was actually quicker as the engine had good torque and it saved one upward gearchange.

I also believed I was making time on the tricky run down to Adenau Bridge where the Aston was nimble and there is a natural tendency to be less forceful on such an incline where gravity makes it more difficult to recover from a mistake. Stirling had also stepped up his pace and was second by the end of the sixth lap. With pit signals available only every 10 minutes, driver information was limited and frequently out of date. If the timekeeper and signaller were really quick, they could hang out your board from the back of the pits — where the road double-backed on itself from Sudkurve to the Nordkurve – in a bid to provide more current info than that given from the front.

I was surprised not to see Stirling in my rear-view sooner, but on lap eight a red car seemed to be very slowly gaining on me, the vibrating mirror and occasional split-second glances making judgment and recognition difficult. I thought it unlikely that Schell had suddenly found an extra gear — and sure enough Stirling blew by me on the long straight, where I was flat out at 6000rpm in fifth (152mph) to lead me across the start-finish line by a couple of seconds. Subsequently, I learned that Stirling then put in what would be the fastest lap of the race, a time of 9min 49.9sec (86.4 mph), so it was not surprising that my 9min 53.5sec could not prevent the Maserati from slowly edging ahead. I consoled myself with the thoughts that the race was over 44 laps and the 400bhp Maserati consumed tyres, necessitating longer pit stops. I resolved to keep up the pressure. On the 10th lap, I was surprised to see black tyre marks at the Schwalbenschwanz bridge. The Maserati had spun but appeared to be undamaged, so I knew Stirling was all right. Apparently, it had broken a rear hub-shaft and shed its left-rear wheel. Stirling was powerless to control the three-wheeler and was very lucky; that the car stayed on the road. Schell brought the remaining 450S into the pits a lap later and handed over to Fangio instead of Herrmann, which let Collins and Hawthorn into second and third places respectively — lmin 15sec and 2min 4sec behind me.

I had lapped all the Jaguars by lap 14, by which time the pits were a hive of activity, the game of musical chairs being played to the tune best suited to each team, making it difficult to establish which second driver was in which car. We made our move on lap 16; I stopped to hand Noel a two-minute lead. The rear wheels were changed and the oil topped up in lmin 28sec, and Noel rejoined the race still in the lead, followed by Trintignant (Ferrari), Fangio, whose Maserati was shortly to stop due to an oil tank which had come adrift, and Gendebien (Ferrari).

Maserati required two laps to fix the oil tank and $firling, who had somehow hitched a lift back to the pits, took the car over but brought it in after only one lap, the repair having proved unsuccessful. He hates being out of work, so Maserati called in the only roadworthy Maserati, driven by Gould, and in 10th at the time; the Bonnier/Scarlatti car, although still circulating, had broken a rear shock absorber. Stirling set off with his usual total commitment to see what could be done.

Although the two DBRls were identical, Noel had not driven mine in practice, and he must have still been learning the circuit in the race, yet he drove brilliantly for 13 laps, modestly explaining afterwards that the lead cushion had enabled him to relax and drive in a smooth style which produced consistently fast lap times. He handed the car back to me in very good order and with a 4-minute lead over Gendebien and Trintignant on lap 29. Noel’s polished performance meant new tyres were not required, but refuelling with cans and topping up the oil took 44sec. Several teams pitted at the same time and! rejoined the race chased by Collins and Hawthorn’s Ferraris, two of the three cars still on the same lap.

Stirling had carved his way through the field and was hounding Roy, who was suffering a repeat of the problem I had experienced at Spa, except that on this occasion the lever was permanently stuck in fourth. Stirling passed him on the 35th lap. The Maserati then had to stop for fuel and tyres, letting the Aston regain its position, but Fangio took over and caught and passed Roy.

I had a lead of more than 5min by lap 33, ahead of the Collins! Trintignant Ferrari and began to ease back from an average of 86mph. This is a potentially dangerous situation as concentration can lapse and careless mistakes creep in. I’ve always believed that it is the car that should be given the easier time in such circumstances, not the driver, by changing up earlier, conserving the brakes and tyres, but otherwise driving as hard as ever because this maintains your essential focus.

After 7hr 33min 38.2sec, averaging 82.4 mph, we ran out the unlikely winners by over four minutes from the Collins! Gendebien and Hawthorn/Trintignant V12 Ferraris, with the Salvadori/Leston DBR1 in sixth and the Whitehead DB3S in ninth, a combined effort which won the manufacturers’ team prize for Aston Martin. The DBR1 was the first British car to win a major international race at the ‘Ring, and Fangio and Moss were among the first to congratulate us.

It might, though, have turned out very differently. After the race the offside front trailing link bearing carrier was found to be broken around the stud mounting bosses on our car, and the chassis frame was also broken around the bearing mounting. It was a very rugged car and we could only imagine the state of some of the other 42 cars that finished the most gruelling sportscar race on the calendar. This was only the second world championship victory for Aston Martin after an interval of four years and was greatly appreciated by a proud David Brown who had enthusiastically supported the team for so many years. It might also have pleased him to know that the grand total cost of the team’s travel and accommodation for the event was £1318

“Tony won that race; I just kept my end up,” says Noel modestly. “He knocked the hell out of them at the start, and I was thinking, ‘I don’t need this.’ I didn’t really know the circuit, but was told not to drop below 10-minute laps.”

The pressure was immense. Rivals were rubbing their hands when the rookie climbed aboard. But 13 laps later, he handed it back with a lead doubled to four minutes. “I kept it smooth, and because the others were playing catch-up, they were wrecking their cars. The relief was tremendous.”

Now he was in demand. He was flattered. But not persuaded. He retired at the season’s end. Business commitments, marriage, family pressures, all played a part: “But the real reason was that I believed you should always know your limits. I was fast, safe, but was never going to be the best.”

He’d seen 16 friends die in three years. He’d seen enough and walked away with the calm assurance he’d displayed that time at the ‘Ring.