In terms of finding a decent place to stay, Magny-Cours is not the best grand prix venue in the world. Thus, when we discovered, some years ago, a quite exceptional hostelry, we kept it secret to prevent it being block-booked by one of the teams.
Not many racing folk know about the place, therefore, so it was a surprise to spot, at an adjacent restaurant table, Tony Brooks and his wife Pina.
“We’re not here for the race,” he smiled. “We’re on our way to our place in Spain for the annual holiday.”
In the car park was his Mercedes C32, and that was no surprise for he remains a supremely fast and safe driver. I remember watching him at Goodwood a few years ago, drifting an Aston Martin DBR1 through Fordwater just as in his heyday.
“Brooks?” Denis Jenkinson said. “Maybe not quite the equal of Moss, but much better than Hawthorn and Collins. A great driver.” ‘Great’ was a word Jenks used sparingly.
I still recall an item on the BBC’s Sportsview one evening in October 1955. It told of a grand prix victory by a British car, the first such since 1924 — and the win had come not from Moss, Hawthorn or Collins, but from Brooks, in a Connaught, at Syracuse.
Tony was perhaps less impressed than anyone. Winning the race had brought no sweat to his brow, and there were more pressing things on his mind. He was 23, a student at Manchester University, and coming up were his finals. Motor racing — even at grand prix level — was a pleasing diversion.
Brooks came from a ‘dental family’, and was heading into the same profession: “There was never any thought of giving it up to become a professional racing driver, but then there was no need. Even when I joined the Aston Martin factory team in ’55, I had no problems. There were fewer races in those days, and no objections to my racing, so long as I was prepared to work twice as hard to make up for the time I was away.”
One of his first drives for Aston Martin was in the disastrous Le Mans 24 Hours of 1955. Brooks shared a DB3S with John Riseley-Prichard, who afterwards retired from racing and asked Tony if he would like to drive his elderly F2 Connaught. The car, while uncompetitive, provided some single-seater experience.
So to that weekend in Syracuse. Brooks laughs as he remembers the circumstances which led to Britain’s first grand prix win in over 30 years.
“People always have trouble believing this. There I was, swotting away, when a phone call came through from Connaught: would I like to drive one of the cars at Syracuse? Frankly, they couldn’t find anyone else! I had never so much as sat in an F1 car, but I rather absent-mindedly said yes, and put the phone down.
“Perhaps it was fortunate for me that I was so preoccupied with my finals. I worked during the flight, and never gave much thought to the race. When I got there the transporter had not arrived, so we missed the first practice day. I hired a Vespa to learn the circuit in the evening! I managed to get some idea of which way it went, and the following morning I had my first experience of an F1 car.”
Clear favourites were the factory Maserati 250Fs of Luigi Musso, Harry Schell and Luigi Villoresi, which had been comfortably quickest on the first day. It is some indication of Brooks’ natural ability that soon he was lapping as fast as they.
“The Connaught handled beautifully, but was short of power. As well as that, the Alta engine had been developed to its limit — and a bit more — and the team’s reliability record was awful. ‘Don’t do too much practice’, they said, because they were terrified of not getting the starting money. Quite understandable, but it didn’t help me! When the race started, I’d done no more than 12 or 15 laps.”
Musso and Villoresi led the early laps, while Brooks played himself in. “I got into the lead after about 10 laps, I don’t know quite how, and after that my only worry was getting the car to the finish. Once in the lead I cut back by at least 500 revs, but continued to drive very hard through the corners.”
Musso was 51sec behind at the flag, and the crowd was stunned by the result. So, too, was Brooks.
“Obviously I was very pleased, but it didn’t really sink in. Quite honestly, all I could think about was my exams! I remember swotting on the plane all the way back, too.”
Despite the victory, Brooks had doubts about the future of Connaught and regretfully declined the offer of a drive for 1956, going instead to BRM, as number two to Hawthorn. It was to be a calamitous season.
“BRM’s unreliability was almost a legend, but on paper the car was a flier. A good development team could have sorted it out, but that they didn’t have. That car was lethal! You had to corner it geometrically — if you tried to drift, it would just fly off the road. Mike had a long-chassis car, and in that you had at least some control. I had a short-chassis one…”
In that year’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone, Tony crashed heavily and was fortunate to escape with only minor injuries: “The car started to go wide on oil at Abbey, and I lifted off momentarily to get the nose to tuck back in: it made no difference and I came off the corner three or four feet on the grass. Being that car it just went completely out of control, spun into the bank, somersaulted and threw me out. Finally it landed upside down on the track again, and set itself on fire — the only thing it could reasonably do.”
That accident brought about the beginnings of a change in his racing philosophy, and another crash, in an Aston Martin at Le Mans 12 months later, sealed it. Both shunts occurred in cars with mechanical problems of which he was aware, and Brooks, a devout Catholic, vowed he would never again risk his life in a car that was in less than sound condition.
He had fewer qualms when it came to his own condition, however: “I was lucky in the Le Mans shunt in that I didn’t break anything, but I did have very severe abrasions — there was a hole in the side of my thigh I could literally have put my fist into.”
By the Wednesday before the British Grand Prix, Brooks was still in hospital, but he turned up at Aintree the next day to practise his Vanwall, astonishingly qualifying it third behind Moss and Jean Behra’s Maserati.
“I had no problem going quickly, but I couldn’t sustain it because I was weak after that time in hospital. In those days, of course, drivers could take over other team cars if their own retired, and it was agreed that I’d keep going as quickly as I could, and that if Stirling had trouble he would take over my car.”
In the event, that is just what happened. After building up a lead, Moss retired, took over Brooks’ fifth-placed sister car and put in one of history’s legendary drives to come through the field and win.
For 1958 Tony remained with Vanwall, alongside Stirling. Each won three grands prix, and there was virtually nothing to choose between them. It says much for the kind of driver Brooks was that his victories came at the classic circuits: Spa, the Nürburgring and Monza.
“I particularly loved Spa. It seemed to me the essence of a true grand prix circuit: very quick and calling for great precision, with no margin for error.
“Nobody will persuade me there isn’t more of a challenge to the driver if he knows he might hurt himself if he goes off. Brick walls and trees and ditches instil a discipline, believe me! I can remember drivers who were quick on ‘aerodrome circuits’, but no threat at all on true road circuits.”
Brooks’ last season with a competitive car was ’59, when he led the Ferrari team. By now Cooper had swung a lamp over the future and front-engined F1 cars were in their death throes, but Tony won at Reims and Avus, and went to the final race at Sebring as a world championship contender, together with Moss and Jack Brabham.
“After the shunts with the BRM and the Aston, I felt I had a moral responsibility to take reasonable care of my life, and that philosophy may well have cost me the title in ’59.
“On the first lap at Sebring, I was hit by ‘Taffy’ von Trips, my team mate, in the rear wheel, and my natural inclination was to press on — believe me, that would have been the easiest thing to do — but I made myself come in to have the car checked over. I lost half a lap doing that, and still finished third: Stirling retired, and Jack ran out of fuel near the end! Still, in my own mind, I think I did the right thing.”
Thereafter, Brooks drove for two more years, but his thoughts were focused on the future. He was now married, with children, and had never envisaged a long career in racing. At 29, he retired to concentrate on a thriving garage business. He took away with him one of the greatest talents the sport has known.
Today Stirling Moss says that if he were running an F1 team and could have any two drivers from history, they would be Jimmy Clark and Tony Brooks. Can there be higher praise?