Tony Brooks on Stirling Moss — 'The best team-mate I ever had'

Tony Brooks had a host of exceptional team-mates, but to him one stood out. In the first of a new series, Brooks talks about his Vanwall team leader Stirling Moss – the best of a brilliant bunch 

Although his career as a professional racing driver lasted just six seasons, Tony Brooks amassed a dazzling array of team-mates from which to pick his best. Mike Hawthorn, Jack Brabham and Phil Hill all became world champions, while many feel Peter Collins and Dan Gurney were denied by bad luck alone. But Brooks, a fit 75-year-old, as lean today as he was 50 years ago, does not hesitate. “It simply has to be Stirling.”

Together at Vanwall at grand prix level and at Aston Martin for sports car racing, Brooks’ appreciation of Moss says perhaps as much about Stirling’s proponent as it does his subject. Analytical, intelligent and unsentimental, Brooks’ perspective is not only that of someone who was there and saw it all first hand, but also that of one of a handful of people able to keep up with the Boy Wonder. Affectionate but not uncritical, appreciative but not slavish, what follows are the views of a man who won at Spa, Monza, the Nürburgring and Avus, otherwise known as the most frightening, dangerous and difficult places you could race a car.

“If there is one aspect that made Stirling Moss the best team-mate I ever had, it was his sheer, unadulterated competitiveness. He was always flat out. While someone like Fangio – the only driver I saw with a talent that exceeded Stirling’s – would deliberately keep something in reserve on the early laps until he found out what the track conditions were like, Stirling was gone. He loved to lead, loved to build a gap to the next man so discouraging he might feel it not worth pursuing. It didn’t matter what car he was in, Stirling was always fast, always competitive, always aggressive in an entirely constructive sense. I subscribe to Fangio’s philosophy.

“Even though I never asked Stirling for any advice and he never offered any, I learned a huge amount just because my team-mate was the best and therefore offered the ultimate benchmark. When I joined Vanwall in 1957, I had no idea where I was relative to the competition. Although I’d won in Syracuse in 1955, my first season in a major team was 1956 with BRM and Hawthorn as my team-mate and that ended in a fire at Silverstone when my throttle stuck open at Abbey Curve. So when I got to Vanwall it was really my first full season at the top level. Realising that on my day I could give Stirling a run for his money gave me a great deal of confidence.

“That said, we went about our driving in very different ways. I preferred to be smooth at all times whereas Stirling perhaps fought the car a little more. He was also a very late braker and doubtless pulled out some time over me in this area, which perhaps helps explain why he preferred and was absolutely at his best on slow- and medium-speed circuits like Monaco and the Nürburgring, while my best performances were often on the quicker tracks. He also appreciated the time gained changing gear quickly. Formula 1 teams today spend millions trying to shave fractions off their change times, but half a century ago I’d change gear pretty normally. And while I believe Stirling changed gear more quickly than me, at Spa in 1958 he missed a gear on the first lap and blew the engine.

“However, I think the real essence of Stirling’s approach, and where it was so different from mine, was that he was happy to live in that little area right on the outside of the envelope and I never was. He’d examine tracks in great detail, working out where he could get away with it if it went wrong, I believe. I’d never do that. I also believe he was one of those drivers who’d force themselves to do things they perhaps didn’t really want to because he was driven by this massive competitive spirit. By contrast I knew absolutely the limit of my natural ability and never felt the need to push beyond it. Given the way he drove, there is perhaps no greater tribute to Stirling’s talent than the fact he had so few accidents other than those caused by mechanical failure. Others who pushed that hard but did not have Stirling’s skill ended up paying an unacceptable price.

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“That said, Stirling never won the World Championship when other team-mates of mine did and, oddly enough, I think his rampant competitiveness was instrumental in denying him.

“He was never content with simply being the best driver. He had to have the best machinery too and, as number one driver, he could pick and choose. Unlike today, two seemingly identical grand prix cars could be very different under the skin and he’d try my engine in his chassis, his engine in my chassis, fiddling with this, fiddling with that. It was his right as the top driver in the team but, even if you have the most skilled mechanics, the more often you pull a car apart and rebuild it, the more likely it is that something will go back in not quite right. It was his perfectionism that drove it and it was that which explains, at least in part, why he was never champion.

“Also, while Stirling never gave less than 100 per cent of himself to any race, so he also expected the same of his machinery. I’m not saying he was a car-breaker or mechanically unsympathetic, but his policy of going flat out from the flag meant that if there was a weakness somewhere, he’d increase his chances of finding it compared to some others.

“Another reason he never won the World Championship was his punctilious sportsmanship. When Mike Hawthorn spun in Portugal in 1958 and they were going to disqualify him for driving against the flow of traffic, it was Stirling who spoke up in his defence and got him reinstated. Mike earned seven points for second place that day and beat Stirling to the title by one… But that was pure Stirling – he could have so easily said nothing, but it would have been the wrong thing to do.

“He was the same on the track. Because I was his number two and I would never commit the cardinal sin of taking off my team-mate, I never got into a wheel-to-wheel battle with him in a Vanwall, but I watched him a lot and raced hard against him in other years and never saw him do anything that wasn’t completely correct, nor did I hear anyone else complain. He was tough, for sure, but absolutely fair.

“Stirling was the kind of racer who would never give up and I have often wondered what would have happened to him had his accident at Goodwood in 1962 not forced him to retire. I believe it saved his life. The cars were getting no safer. He’d have kept going until, one day sooner or later, the law of averages caught up with him. When I retired at the end of 1961, I took the literal definition of retirement, whereby you cease to do that which you have been doing. I started a family and while I hugely enjoyed my time in racing, it was not worth risking my life any more. For Stirling, racing was life and I think it still is. He’s still buzzing all over the world racing this and that and while I admire him for it, it’s not for me at all.”

And there the tape ends. We talk a little more about life outside the paddock. Brooks and Moss always got on well, but they were never close buddies, not like Moss and Collins, who shared an equal interest in all aspects of grand prix racing, up to and including the extra-curricular. There was and remains a huge mutual respect between the two greatest British racing drivers never to be world champion and they still meet regularly, though never to talk about the old times.

It is time to go. Tomorrow Tony is heading to California for six weeks, to see his daughter, and there’s packing to be done. But as I rise and turn for the door, something is clearly on his mind. He looks at me, gently takes my arm and says: “Do you know, Andrew, Stirling and I first became team-mates 50 years ago. And in all that time, we’ve never had a single argument. How many team-mates can say that?” All too few, I suspect.