A delightful chat with the legendary Tony Brooks…
By James Edmonds. Images by Pedro Dermaux
“Open wide!” is a phrase that would have been heard by many a patient had Tony Brooks taken his original career path as a dentist. Thank goodness then, that throngs of eager race fans were instead treated to his effortless style at circuits around the world… mouths still wide open of course, but this time agog at his uncanny speed and car control.
I have been lucky over the years to be able to talk to various interesting personalities in the business of motor sport, but it’s hard to compare the distinct pleasure I was recently afforded when invited to speak with Tony Brooks whose autobiography Poetry In Motion is now available. As a driver of the golden era who notably drove for Aston Martin and Ferrari in sports cars, he was also one of the elite drivers in single seaters. Although he narrowly missed out on a Formula One championship, he had a glittering career and carries the distinction of winning a Grand Prix at his first attempt.
If you are reading this, it is likely that you own a high performance car (or aspire to) and along with that distinction comes the inevitable love of high performance driving and possibly more than a passing interest in racing. You will have maybe taken part in a track day or perhaps a driving school. For most of us – even those who can pedal a car with relative competence – we have to be satisfied with the thrill and accept that although we are budding F1 stars in our own minds, the reality is a little different. Nowadays, talent is not enough. Big money, sponsors, a certain self-centredness and a good PR officer are required to even have a sniff at the top. Sportsmanship? Manners? Camaraderie? Pah! They are sadly lacking today.
Back in the ‘50s it could never be described as an easier time, indeed in many ways completely to the contrary, but at least if you had an innate talent and the fortitude to pursue your goal you had the chance to move ahead. Tony was one of those whose natural talent was God given and although he honed his craft with care and attention, it was that natural talent and seat-of-the-pants oneness with his machine that made him so successful.
Born as Charles Anthony Standish Brooks in 1932 to a loving and supportive Cheshire family, it was his original plan to follow in the footsteps of his father as a dental surgeon. Serendipity plays a part in many people’s lives, and for Tony it was fortuitous that both his parents were ‘car people’. His mum’s MG TC was a source of pride and that his dad ran variously a Lagonda, a Wolseley drophead, an MG saloon and even an Allard meant that Tony’s love of cars was well catered to. A day trip to the Prescott hill-climb at age 14 sealed his fate as he met one of his heroes, Prince ‘Bira’ Birabongse of Siam and was so intoxicated by the sights, sounds and smells of the furious machines taking part that there could be no turning back. It would be impossible today – how he did it then is hard to fathom – but Tony was able to not only continue his dental studies at university with the aid of a lenient and understanding professor, but actually graduate and earn his BDS while still racing around Europe!
“I got a letter saying that, ‘… we’re going to be using you in one or two races this year’. This year being 1955.”
His time with the David Brown Aston Martin Racing equipe was the centre of our conversation and Tony fascinated me with details of life as a racing driver in an era that I can only dream about. This chapter of Tony’s career all started one icy cold day in Oxfordshire: “I got an invitation for a trial run with Aston Martin at Chalgrove in December ’54. The weather was so bad that they actually had to cancel it after I had only done a few laps. I was invited to go back for another test a few weeks later and that went very well. On that occasion there were three other drivers, so there was certainly a lot of competition which one had to cope with.
The team manager John Wyer had an assistant Peter Miller, and the two of them were completely stony faced and I didn’t know if they were pleased or displeased! I obviously waited anxiously for the post for a week or two after that to see whether I was going to be accepted, and I got a letter saying that, ‘… we’re going to be using you in one or two races this year’. This year being 1955.” Tony’s first race with Astons was Le Mans that year. 1955 of course was the year when the words ‘racing’ and ‘safety’ became inextricably linked as the Le Mans disaster and loss of life changed the sport forever. “It wasn’t a good start to one’s motor racing career with a professional team because the Aston Martin drive was of course the first proper works drive that I got.”
Throughout the history of the sport, much has been documented about the mindset of drivers who have had to learn how to deal with the loss of life. Not so much today, but certainly throughout his career drivers all had to deal with the sometimes regular loss of their friends’ lives. To be able to shake hands with your mates at the next meeting knowing that it could be the last time is something most of us cannot comprehend. Did the Le Mans tragedy affect Brooks adversely or change his views on racing? “No it didn’t because my policy had been to always drive up to the limit of my natural ability which I had been fortunate to be gifted with and not to try and push myself beyond that limit by psyching myself up and saying, ‘Well I’m not sure about this but I’ll have a real go and push myself’. I didn’t believe in that sort of thing because motor racing was dangerous enough in those days without pushing yourself beyond what you felt was your actual ability.
“Obviously it was a great tragedy and had a tremendous effect on motor racing and many races were cancelled that year. But personally it didn’t affect my philosophy, because although there were a lot of factors outside your control that could involve you in a serious accident, I had confidence in my ability to stay within my own natural limitations. It didn’t affect my own confidence in my driving but it did emphasize I suppose how dangerous the sport was and how many factors there were outside your control. The only good thing that came out of it from a personal point of view was that my co-driver at Le Mans was John Riseley-Prichard, and he had a two litre single seater Connaught. Because of the repercussions of the accident his family brought a lot of pressure to bear on him and he had to give up motor racing, so he said, ‘Would you like to try my Connaught?’ which was of course a major step forward. It was the first single seater car I had driven and I drove it in three national races and from that I was invited by Connaught to drive their works car at Syracuse in October ’55.”
To make it into Formula One – in any era – puts one into pretty select company. To score a points finish on your maiden run elevates you into rarified air. To win a Formula One race at your first attempt puts you in the pantheon of the greats. The circumstances in which Tony won his first Grand Prix make his accomplishment unique: “I only sat in a Formula One car for the first time on the Saturday before the race on the Sunday. It was quite a surprise for everybody including myself!”
“With respect, a lot of drivers I could nominate who are pretty middle-of-the-road drivers, have several Le Mans victories to their names!”
The risks involved in the sport have been made abundantly clear, although Tony used his strong personal discipline to do all that he could to avoid the inevitable shunts. The reliability – or rather the lack thereof – afforded by the machinery of the period meant that despite his ethos, circumstances occasionally got in the way of his pragmatism. “My accident in the British Grand Prix in the BRM at Silverstone in 1956 was pretty frightening when the accelerator stuck and I went off the circuit and got thrown out. Not a recommended racing procedure.”
At Le Mans, Tony was forced into a life threatening situation at the hands of the DBR1’s notoriously recalcitrant gearbox. Attempting to force the transmission out of gear, he overshot his braking point and rolled the car as it veered wide onto the sand bank. “My accident at Le Mans in 1957 when the gear lever was stuck in fourth gear was particularly frightening because I was conscious underneath the car. The car was passed the apex of Tertre Rouge and I knew that the next car around would not be aware of the Aston Martin upside down beside the edge of the road with me trapped underneath it.” It is scary to think what would go through your mind as you lay there waiting for the inevitable and Tony continues the thought: “I had time to consider the consequences of an impact with one of cars still racing. Whether I finished up as a straight crushing job or being cremated…the petrol tanks were not as secure as they are these days!”
Fortunately for Tony and all concerned, the Porsche of Umberto Maglioli was the next car around, and intentionally or not, he struck the Aston in such a way that it was knocked off the hapless Brooks who was able to make a quick escape and wound up in the arms of a track worker who was just as surprised as Tony! “Both of those accidents were not driver error as such – they were stupidity. I shouldn’t have been driving the BRM with a sticking throttle and I shouldn’t have been trying to concentrate on getting a gear lever out of fourth gear and missing my braking point.” These were valuable lessons and he vowed never again to press on and risk his life in a car that was not race worthy, no matter the pressure from the team manager to continue. Enjoying his cup of tea after a race fraught with danger was risk enough, without tempting fate unnecessarily. It was this mental discipline that in part cost him one of his biggest career disappointments.
Imbued with an enviable reputation having garnered success at many important races in both Grand Prix and sports cars, Tony failed to clinch the Formula One World Championship title at Sebring in 1959. By a mere four points. After being rammed from behind on the opening lap and being forced up an escape road, Tony had to decide whether to press on and try to get valuable points along with risk of personal injury, or stop to have the rear of the car checked and certainly lose the points. With his two major crashes weighing heavy on his mind, he decided on this occasion, that although he would almost certainly be giving up his chance of being Formula One Champion, that discretion was the better part of valour. That he survived the era where so many of his friends did not, is due in no small part to the mental toughness he displayed throughout his career.
“…driving a Formula One car is like riding a race horse and driving a sports car is like riding a cart horse.”
Like many drivers before and since, it is not always the best driver or the one with the most wins who takes the title. There are many factors above and beyond driver ability that have to be calculated, not least of which is a little luck – good or bad – and of course the factors outside the drivers’ control. It was some of these that could easily have tipped the scales in Tony’s favour. He remains philosophical but of course with so much at stake, he remembers the circumstances vividly . “Ferrari really lost the championship by not attending the British Grand Prix at Aintree due to a factory strike, so I had to drive a Vanwall which was just not a competitive car for a one off race. Behra and I had been first and second with Ferrari at the Aintree ‘200’ a few weeks before hand, so there should have been a few points there. They cancelled Spa which would have been suited to the Ferrari which of course was a front engine car and the other competitors were rear engined; much more mobile and maneuverable and easier to drive. The Lotuses and Coopers were much faster on the slow to medium speed circuits, but Spa would have been good for the Ferrari and I’d won every time I’d been to Spa: three times, so there was a fair chance that we would have had some points there.
“At the Italian Grand Prix I was a tenth of a second shy of Stirling who was on pole, and they changed the clutch overnight on my car. (At the start of the race) I travelled exactly 100 metres before the clutch burned out. Of course they shouldn’t have changed that clutch. Either it was faulty of they didn’t fit it properly. So those are the three occasions really when we should have had four points and more which would have given us the Championship. While one focuses on Sebring, there were many opportunities before that when we should have had those four points. I’m not complaining, but it was obviously disappointing to come so close and then lose it under the circumstances that prevailed.”
When asked about his contemporaries, no article discussing this period of the sport would be complete without mention of Stirling Moss. “He was one of the all time great racing drivers, although you can’t compare drivers of different generations. For example, in our time because we were driving on ordinary roads or roads that resembled ordinary roads, any one mistake could be your last. You could wind up overturned in a ditch or against a telegraph pole or a brick wall – you were in the lap of the gods, so that’s obviously a much tougher challenge than today where the worst that you can do is bend the car and have some embarrassment. Because of the strength of the cars and the huge run off areas, you have a 180 mph accident, the driver gets out and all he worries about is can he drive at the next race next weekend?
“The example I give of how dramatic a difference the realization of danger is to a driver, is to take Senna in 1994. Ratzenberger was killed in practice and Senna had a tremendous reaction to that. He was a great friend of Sid Watkins, a father figure to Senna and a highly respected surgeon. Senna suddenly awoke to this danger and somebody that really knew him very very well said that in his view Senna should not race tomorrow and he should seriously consider if he should race again, so dramatic was his reaction to the realization that what he’d been doing for so many years was so dangerous.” Senna famously did race the next day and did so to his death. “The point that I am making is that the effect of knowing that any one mistake could be your last is a very different challenge to knowing that I may be a bit embarrassed by bending a million pounds worth of racing car. Don’t misunderstand – I am happy that it is safer – it’s just that it’s a different sport. It’s not Grand prix motor racing anymore; it’s F1 which is a sports spectacular. But to go back, Stirling was one of the all time greats, but you cannot put them in order for the reasons I hope I’ve explained.”
Along with the ever present risks inherent in the business of racing cars, there of course came – quite naturally – frivolity and high jinks as team mates let off steam. “There was a strong sense of camaraderie in the Aston Martin team and many funny moments. One year the team was flying to America for Sebring. We were all flying together as a team in the same aircraft and the flights were quite long back then. Roy Salvadori was always up for a joke and he invited me to have the first turn in the bunk which planes had in those days. This was great I thought, so I camped down in the bunk and had three or so hours of sleep. An air hostess came up and gave me a little shake and said, ‘I think you’re in the wrong bunk.’ So I got up and went back to Salvadori who was sitting in an ordinary seat and he creased himself laughing because Aston Martin had not paid for any of the bunks. What he’d done was find an empty one and suggested I take it. The joke backfired on him though, because I’d had three hours of sleep in the bunk as the man who should have been in it had fallen asleep in his chair!”
Le Mans, although huge in prestige for any manufacturer meant very little to Tony, and he even had its omission from his own calendar of required events written into his Ferrari contract! Asked whether he would trade any of his other wins for a Le Mans title, he has strong views on the topic. “Absolutely not! Le Mans wasn’t a motor race, it was a high speed tour and a test of the car. As far as the driver was concerned, it was a test of his ability to resist boredom. Obviously that was the most prestigious sports car race but I wasn’t interested in prestige, I was interested in satisfaction. Nobody will ever convince me that there is anything better in sports cars than winning the 1000 kilometers of the Nurburgring.” Being a gentleman, Tony is careful to choose his words when he chuckles and says, “With respect, a lot of drivers I could nominate who are pretty middle-of-the-road drivers, have several Le Mans victories to their names!”
Talking about favourite tracks, I can’t help but ask him about his favourite cars and what type of car he preferred to drive. “The DBR1 was a finely balanced car and a better road holder but the Ferrari (Testrossa) engine and gearbox was much superior – If you’d have put them in the DBR1 you would have had a car that was absolutely unbeatable! On a fast course like Le Mans the Ferrari would always take the cake, but on circuits like Goodwood where the emphasis is on road holding the Aston Martin was supreme. It was one of the reasons that we were unable to win the Tourist Trophy in 1959 with the Ferrari. Aston Martin were on home territory and highly suited to that circuit.”
Sports cars or Formula One cars? “The analogy I make is that driving a Formula One car is like riding a race horse and driving a sports car is like riding a cart horse. Chalk and cheese really. There is no comparison. A race horse is so delicate; so receptive; so reactive to the rider – in this case the driver – whereas a cart horse is a really strong animal that… (pauses)…if you give it a kick in the groin, it’s not going to suddenly veer to the left or right! The responses are so much slower with a cart horse, so I think the analogy is a valid comparison between them.”
After racing for almost a decade, Tony was now married to the love of his life, Pina and had started a family. The time felt right to walk away and to start a new chapter in his life. Still in the motor trade, he purchased a small garage near Brooklands and went on to develop it into a thriving Ford dealer with industry leading customer service techniques.
Included in Tony Brooks’ fabulous book, Poetry in Motion, are many of the stories he regaled me with here, but in vivid detail plus many many more. For any fan of the golden age of racing or in the history of Aston Martin racing, his book is a gem and a must-read.
I will end with a quote from the book that may sum it up: “A racing driver has a glamorous life, enjoying many luxuries with first-class travel, staying in lovely hotels in beautiful places, meeting and mixing with all sorts of people, from Royalty to fascinating characters in all walks of life, and that is before considering the irreplaceable thrill of racing itself, of Poetry in Motion, dancing through corners like Burnenville at 135mph . It had all the attractions of a top entertainment star’s life plus the thrill of racing and I wonder if their performances provide as great a kick?”
I must thank Mr. Brooks, ever the thoroughbred race horse for taking his time to speak with this cart horse. It was indeed an honour Sir.
We visited the Hotel de France at La Chartre in 2013 and you can find that story here
Read our book review of Tony Brooks’ autobiography Poetry in Motion here