Tony Brooks: making the extremely difficult look ridiculously easy


The natural's natural: But for a cancelled race, Tony Brooks could have retired with an F1 world title. Paul Fearnley looks back at the would-be world champion

Tony Brooks celebrates winning the 1958 German Grand Prix

Brooks celebrates victory in the German GP at the Nürburgring in 1958

Motorsport Images

Tony Brooks turned 88 this week.

My interest in him was piqued by a factoid within Cyril Posthumus’ year-by-year history of the German Grand Prix: that two-time winner Brooks was a son of Dukinfield, Cheshire.

This couldn’t be so. Racing drivers of international repute hailed, at least to my pre-teen mind, from Modena or Sao Paulo. Ostentatious Victorian town hall aside – with sprung dance floor in the adjoining Jubilee Hall – Dukinfield was, well, Dukinfield; and fewer than five miles from where I was sitting reading.

A few years later famille Fearnley moved to within a lump of coal’s throw from the nice house at the top of the hill that had been Brooks’ home until he was “about 28”.

Those 60 years ago he had been considering retiring from motorsport; running a filling station (with space for expansion) making more sense, including financial, than re-signing with Scuderia Ferrari.

Different times.

Had not the 1959 Belgian Grand Prix been cancelled – Brooks excelled at Spa-Francorchamps and its fast sweeps would have suited his front-engined Dino V6 – he might have been considering stopping as the reigning world champion.

Ian Burgess passes Tony Brooks' retired Ferrari in the 1959 Italian Grand Prix

Brooks’ Ferrari at the side of Curva Grande

Motorsport Images

Or had not over-enthusiastic mechanics renewed the clutch as well as the brakes – Brooks had whiffed Ferodo during practice – the night before the Italian GP; he got as far as Curva Grande on the opening lap.

Or had not Cooper privateer Harry Schell been credited with the rogue practice time that demoted Brooks to the second row for the title-decider at Sebring – and thus directly into the firing line of inattentive/impulsive team-mate Wolfgang von Trips.

From the archive

Instead he fell four points shy as the rear-engined British cars put their shoulders to the door.

Not that Enzo Ferrari was overly appreciative in his melodramatic My Terrible Joys memoir of 1962: “Brooks, who has given up racing to be a car salesman or a dentist – I am not sure which – appeared in the limelight as a great stylist and a man who used his brains. Subsequently, although possessing ability and skill, he became far too cautious for himself and others.”

It is undeniable: Brooks did not fit the gung-ho template of Ferrari’s preferred garibaldini; his decision to pit to check if his car had been damaged at Sebring was indicative of that. He had come an injurious cropper twice in compromised cars and vowed never to do so again. He stayed true even when tempted by the sport’s greatest prize.

Stirling Moss – he was his own man, too –would have continued, likely unabated. But who’s to say that stopping wasn’t the braver call? Not I.

Famille Fearnley, an earlier version, was at Aintree the day that Moss and Brooks became inseparable as the first to win a world championship GP in a British car. The former got/gets most of the credit – some winners are more joint than others – but Brooks’ fortitude must never be forgotten. He qualified on the front row despite having a hole in a thigh that “you could put your fist into” – legacy of an Aston Martin/Le Mans cropper – and started the race on the mutual understanding that his Vanwall would become Moss’s should he need it. When the call came the normally lithe Brooks – he had lost a stone that he could ill afford to – had to be helped from the high-sided cockpit. (He is today back at his 1950s racing weight.)

Moss was the puncher who loved a scrap; Brooks was the boxer who picked his shots: witness the 1957 Nürburgring 1000km, the 1958 German GP and the 1959 French GP.

He drove up to his (very high) limit and no further; it mattered not whether a track was delineated by straw bales, woods or brick walls. On perilous road circuits that caused ‘aerodrome chancers’ to huff and to puff, Brooks exuded the right stuff: ‘safe’ in his bubble of skill. He made the extremely difficult look ridiculously easy.

Hence his lukewarm response to the increasing influence of the nimbler rear-engined cars: they symbolised a diminution in all senses. He was quick in them – pole in a Formula 2 Cooper against Formula 1 opposition for the 1957 International Trophy at Silverstone – but they demanded less of him.

Ferrari suited his purpose more. He liked the team’s relaxed atmosphere – Enzo being conspicuous by his absence – spoke the lingo – he had married the lovely Pina – and revelled in its willing engines and slick gearboxes: the Dino was a joy to drive after the quick but quirky Vanwall’s flat-spots and notches.

Yet this was not enough to convince him to stay; even though everybody knew that Enzo’s foundry would put him on pole for 1961’s change of formula: Brooks in a Sharknose. What might have been?

He was, however, convinced to carry by his old boss Tony Vandervell – on the promise of a better-screwed-together Lotus-type fitted with a Vanwall engine. Sadly GAV was on the wane – still reeling from the death in late-1958 of Stuart Lewis-Evans – and his comeback turned out to be a pipe dream.

Committed to continuing nevertheless Brooks signed to drive Yeoman Credit’s year-old Coopers – there was nothing else on the table by that time – and endured a problematic 1960.

The same would be true of BRM in 1961, Brooks’ ‘investment’ in its V8 proving precipitate. By the time it paid dividends – in Graham Hill’s hands in 1962 – he was concentrating full-time on expanding his Weybridge garage business.

He had, however, finished third and set fastest lap in his final GP – at Watkins Glen – having sensationally won on his Formula 1 debut – for Connaught at Syracuse – in 1955.

Tony Brooks in his final world championship grand prix at Watkins Glen in 1961

Brooks bows out at Watkins Glen in 1961

Motorsport Images

He had run second on his world championship debut and finished second – behind Juan Fangio at Monaco in 1957 – in his second such outing. He won his third, and five of the next 19.

He was the natural’s natural.

Who do you think you are? Tony Brooks?

No. But excellent knowledge, officer.