Tony Brise, Britain's lost champion

Dear Nigel,

I have recently been thinking a lot about the lost generation of British drivers from the 1970s. I was born in 1980 and so have no memories of Roger Williamson, Tony Brise and Tom Pryce as such, beyond what I have seen and read of them. Nevertheless, I grow increasingly aware of the esteem in which their talents were held during their, alas, brief careers.

I would be very interested to read your thoughts on just how much you think Williamson, Brise and Pryce could have gone on to achieve, particularly in comparison to the achievements of their contemporary, James Hunt?

Regards,

Edward Carter

Dear Edward,

In a matter of four years, between 1973 and ’77, we lost three young British racing drivers, any one of whom could have become World Champion, as James Hunt did in ‘1976. Roger Williamson and Tom Pryce both died horribly in Grand Prix accidents, and Tony Brise was lost in the plane crash that also took from us Graham Hill and four other members of his team.

If I think of Pryce as perhaps the most naturally talented of the three, I suspect that Brise was the man who might have gone furthest in his career, and Tony was also the one I knew best, for at that time I was working for Hill’s F1 team.

Indeed, I can still recall so clearly that freezing November night in 1975 when I heard on the TV news that ‘a light aircraft had crashed in fog while en route from Marseille to Elstree’. To anyone in racing, those words meant, ‘en route from Paul Ricard back home’, and I knew that the Hill team had been due to finish Ricard testing that day.

A few minutes later the phone rang. It was Chris Amon. “Did you hear the news? I think it’s Graham...”

The following week I went to Hill’s funeral, and also to that of Brise, his young star driver. It was sad, but inevitable, that in all the huge coverage of the loss of Graham, that of Tony was somewhat overlooked. If Hill had been a world champion, I’d come to believe that Brise was going to win the title one day.

I confess I didn’t much take to Tony at first: he seemed rather too pleased with himself. But through that ’75 season, secure in an F1 team, he matured remarkably, never losing that innate confidence in his ability yet also developing the ability sometimes to laugh at himself. He had talent to throw away, and knew it, but he quickly came to see that he was at base camp, and no more.

I have several tapes recorded with Brise, and you don’t need to get far into them to realise again how much the nature of F1 has changed. On one, Tony was about to go off to the German Grand Prix at the ‘old’ Nürburgring: “I can’t wait to get there,” he said. “For me, the Nürburgring is God’s gift to racing drivers...”

Although only 23, he had expected to make it to F1 much earlier, having shown himself more than ordinarily promising through several seasons in the lower formulae. And here, you appreciate, is an unchanging aspect of the business.

“There you are,” Tony said, “plodding your way through Formula Ford and F3, with everyone saying you’re doing it the right way. And someone comes along, turns in the right drive at the right time – and suddenly he’s the man of the moment, getting offers from all over the place…”

By his own admission, that was exactly how it panned out for Brise. “I came into F1 from Formula Atlantic, and I’m sure there are loads of people in F2 who feel resentful about that, who reckon they’ve made it higher up the ladder than I have, yet not been given an F1 opportunity. And I can’t really say I blame them.”

Back then there wasn’t the need for quite such an ascetic way of life as the drivers follow now. “I decided,” Brise said, “that 1975 was going to be my make-or-break year. You can’t go motor racing forever – if you’re not successful, all you do is drag around the place, conning money from people here and there, and generally becoming a bum.

“I decided to change my approach. I resolved, for example, not to touch a drink for 24 hours before a race – or go out late the night before a race...”

From the beginning of his Grand Prix career, Tony showed himself to be a man of natural pace; his style had that ease apparent in all real talents, and there was no doubting, either, the presence of a real racer’s mentality. In the early laps of the British Grand Prix, at Silverstone in ‘75, he dealt with such as Reutemann and Andretti, then proceeded, until problems intervened, to take a second a lap from a bunch – including Fittipaldi, Scheckter, Hunt and Lauda – which was contesting second place.

At Zandvoort he was astonishing. Before the start of the race he had never once driven an F1 car in the wet, yet before long was urgently signalling team-mate Alan Jones to get out of his way – so he could lap him...

Perhaps, though, the race in which Brise made the strongest impression was the inaugural Long Beach Grand Prix, for Formula 5000. It had a remarkable entry, but the likely winners were Mario Andretti and Al Unser Sr, in Viceroy Lola-Chevrolets, and Brian Redman in Carl Haas’s similar car. They were not expecting to be led by Brise.

The race was run in two heats and a final, and Tony won the first, from Andretti, muscling by the great man at the end of Shoreline Drive. Mario was surprised, to say the least. Years later, he remembered that race vividly: “Jeez, that guy Brise... he was something special...”

A week afterwards, back in England now, Tony was still high on the moment. “How,” I asked him, “did you dare sit it out with Andretti at a place like that?” He giggled. “Well, you might not believe this, but I thought it was Unser! If I’d realised it was Mario, I might not have tried it...”

A lost generation, Edward, as you say.

For more from Nigel Roebuck, click here.

For more on Formula 1, click here.

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