Tony Brooks was taking a weekend off from his final year of dental school in Manchester when, in October 1955, he became the first British driver to win a post-war Grand Prix in a British car.
The Gran Premio di Siracusa was not a world championship race, and the field was not of the highest quality, but beating the Italian teams – and in particular the mighty Maseratis – on their home turf with his humble Connaught was a remarkable feat, especially since he had never driven a Formula 1 car before the test session the day before.
Brooks, who died aged 90, was as surprised as anyone by the result he achieved on the Sicilian roads, but he enjoyed a distinguished career at the highest level. He went on to win six world championship grands prix – and in 1959, while driving for Enzo Ferrari’s team, he came close to winning the drivers’ championship himself.
That he didn’t win it – and was widely criticized in Italy for it – is down to circumspection. He had traveled to the final race of the season, the United States Grand Prix at Sebring, vying for the title with Jack Brabham and Stirling Moss. To beat Brabham, Brooks needed to win and take the extra point awarded for fastest lap, with the Aussie finishing no higher than third. To beat Moss he had to win with his fellow Englishman no higher than second and without taking the extra point.
On the first lap of the race, however, Brooks was accidentally rammed from the rear by his young teammate Wolfgang von Trips, sparking a promise to himself – following two big crashes earlier in his career caused by mechanical problems – never to race in a potentially dangerous machine again. Now, fearing his rear suspension had been damaged in the crash, he called to the pits and asked his mechanics to investigate. Their examination revealed nothing out of the ordinary and he was able to resume, but could only finish third, leaving Brabham to take the title. Enzo Ferrari was not the happiest.
Brooks was an extremely fast and polite driver who may have acquired some caution but was by no means lacking in courage. He particularly enjoyed the challenge of road circuits, then still very widespread, with their natural dangers and the almost total absence of safety measures, but had no difficulty in defending his refusal to take additional risks with suspicious machines. “I survived the dangerous 1950s when far too many of my racing colleagues didn’t,” he said, adding that all of his greatest victories had come after taking this approach.
He was born in Dukinfield, Cheshire, the son of a dentist, Charles Brooks, and his wife, Irene, who both loved fast cars. Educated as a boarder at Barlborough Hall and the Jesuit-run Mount St Mary’s College in Derbyshire, where he distinguished himself on the rugby pitch, he enrolled in 1950 at the University Dental School from Manchester. Two years later, just after his 20th birthday, he competed in his mother’s Healey Silverstone sports car for the first time, finishing fifth in a five-lap race at Goodwood.
For 1953 he switched to a much faster Frazer Nash owned by a family friend. Throughout that year and the following season he made a good impression, and in September 1954 he was invited to drive a works Frazer Nash of a more modern type at the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod, Co. Antrim, his first overseas event.
A few weeks later John Wyer, Aston Martin’s team manager, asked him to take part in a series of tests at an airfield in Oxfordshire, which led to an invitation to join them for 1955. Accepting the Offered a £50 deposit and a share of the prize money and other bonuses, he made his debut with the team at Le Mans, co-driving with John Riseley-Prichard, an insurance broker, in the 24 hour race. When Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes crashed into the crowd in front of the main stand, killing 81 spectators and the driver, Brooks was just seconds behind and had to brake hard before pushing his way through the strewn rubble on the track.
Several strong finishes driving Riseley-Prichard’s Formula Two Connaught led to the offer of the factory entry in the grand prix car at Syracuse. The result put Brooks’ name in the headlines, although he could not save the small Surrey-based team from possible bankruptcy. An offer from the BRM team for 1956 looked promising, but the car’s mechanical unreliability came to a head when the throttle stuck during the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. He was ejected as the car somersaulted; had he been restrained by modern seat belts, he would likely have died when the gas tank exploded as the car came to rest upside down.
A few days before the accident, at a sports car meeting in Rouen, he had met Pina Resegotti, an elegant young woman from Pavia, near Milan, who was going to London as part of the study course for his doctorate in foreign languages. . Their relationship deepened as he flipped through a copy of Teach Yourself Italian to converse with his family, and they were married in 1958.
Brooks had continued his formal dentistry education and graduated in December 1956, by which time he had left BRM to join the Vanwall team, owned by millionaire ball bearing manufacturer Tony Vandervell, his basic retainer jumping to £2,000 per year. At Aintree in the summer of 1957, he and Moss made history when they shared the first World Championship victory for a British car, the triumph coming while he was still recovering from cuts and bruises suffered at Le Mans a month earlier when his Aston Martin’s gearbox jammed and the car ended up on its back in a sandbar.
Knowing he wouldn’t be strong enough to go the full distance, he agreed to keep the car as high up in order as possible in case one of his teammates pulled out and could take over, like the rules. allowed it then. When Moss’ Vanwall started to misfire, they swapped cars and Moss rode Brooks’ sound machine to a famous win.
Moss was the team’s No.1 driver, with the right to choose the best gear, and he took wins at Pescara and Monza that year, while Brooks had to settle for a win for Aston Martin in the 1000 km of the Nürburgring, co-driver with Noël Cunningham-Reid. In 1958, however, he scored Grand Prix victories at Spa, the Nürburgring and Monza, three classic circuits that offered drivers great challenges, such as Moss’ victories at Buenos Aires, Porto and Casablanca. Both Vanwall drivers were beaten to the title by fellow countryman Mike Hawthorn, who racked up more points despite driving his Ferrari to just one victory.
Scuderia Ferrari would be Brooks’ next step, with mixed results, although wins at Reims and the banked AVUS track in Berlin saw him finish the 1959 season second in the drivers’ standings. He considered retiring when Pina gave birth to the first of their children that fall, but continued for two years, the first in a Cooper-Climax entered by the Yeoman Credit team and the second in a BRM. The results were almost uniformly disappointing, although he finished the last race of his career, the 1961 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, New York, in third place behind Innes Ireland’s Lotus and the Dan Gurney’s Porsche.
In 1959, he had invested part of his earnings in a gas station. Over the years, as his family grew up in St George’s Hill, Weybridge, Surrey, he developed the business into a successful dealership, first for Austin and Rover cars, then Lancia and Fiat, and finally Ford, before to sell the business and retire in 1993.
He had maintained his interest in the sport, spending 10 years as the Observer’s automotive correspondent. In 2008 he was honored with a special tribute at the Goodwood Revival meeting, where he returned to the cockpit of a Vanwall, wearing his familiar brown Herbert Johnson crash helmet.
A man of quiet dignity, courtesy and understated elegance, he was especially admired by those who knew how close he came to immortality and recognized the grace with which he accepted this frustration.
Her great consolation was a life with Pina and their children, Caroline, David, Michèle, Julia and Stephanie.