His story started in fairy tale style, but that then saw him contractually obligated to play second fiddle to the legendary Stirling Moss when they won races together at Vanwall.
But Charles Anthony Standish Brooks – better known as Tony – the last of the 1950s Grand Prix winners who died aged 90, was embarrassed by the former and much more comfortable with the latter. A naturally calm and fundamentally self-effacing gentleman, he would much rather continue driving Grand Prix cars at astonishing speeds with beautiful economy and artistic precision, than get entangled in the trappings of fame.
The fairy tale came in 1955 when, as a dental student from Dukinfield who tried his hand at motor racing, he went to the non-championship Syracuse Grand Prix as a tyro, and came back a star after having beat established Italian teams with his little Connaught, to become the first British driver since Sir Henry Segrave more than 30 years earlier to win a Grand Prix in a British car. Surprisingly, he had previously driven a Connaught Formula 2 in only a handful of national events and spent most of his free time in Sicily with his nose buried in his dentistry books.
“I was totally absorbed in my studies when Connaught called me, and I was still immersed all the way,” he revealed. “It was probably a blessing, because I didn’t have time to think about what I was doing, going into what was considered the end of the world to drive a car I had never been in, on a circuit I would never have seen – a real road circuit!Luckily, I was more worried about my studies.
Rather than filling his head with dreams, he was one to focus on reality without the distractions of imagery. And even as British motorsport welcomed a new star, he went straight back to his studies – because once you committed to something, you had to get it done.
He didn’t fit the mold of the 1950s, the era of young male cavaliers such as Mike Hawthorn, Peter Collins, Eugenio Castellotti, Luigi Musso and Harry Schell, colorful but doomed swordsmen who danced on the edge of risk as if they were unconsciously aware of how short their lives were meant to be. Never one to willingly risk, let alone give up, control, he was more of a prototype for today’s technocratic generation, especially since he had an old-fashioned understanding and sensitivity for the technical aspects of his cars.
After a barren year with dangerously fragile BRMs in 1956, he joined Stirling Moss in Tony Vandervell’s Vanwall team for 1957. He finished second at Monaco, then when Stirling took his car back to the British GP at Aintree, they became the first Brits of a British Machine to win a pukka world championship GP.
The following year, although he often had to hand over his chassis, engine or gearbox after practice to Stirling who, as number one, had the first choice of equipment, he tied the count from the maestro of three wins for Vandervell; fittingly, they came to Spa-Francorchamps, Nurburgring and Monza, the three fastest and most demanding circuits on the calendar. Ironically, neither of them won the title that year as reliability favored Hawthorn, but while Moss remained a household name, Brooks was very happy to remain a reluctant hero to whom publicity meant nothing.
“I think we felt different from the others,” he said. “I did it, because motor racing was too serious to fool around. I felt you had to be totally fit and totally focused on what you were doing. But I didn’t have the problem. He was the antithesis of Mike, in that he would go to bed early the day before the race and not have pints with the lads in the pub, but he was often criticized, despite being a professional totally committed behind the wheel, to maximize its publicity and marketing. But why not? I think driving, I was just as committed and professional. Either way, you were putting your life on the line, and not being professional at the flying was rolling the dice against you.
“But I like to think I could have fun with the guys after or between races with the best of them, although I was definitely a different character than Mike! Outside of racing I was finishing my education and I had this idea that I would qualify as a dentist, so I was really a dentist, not a professional race car driver. I think I probably felt that way my whole career.
His perception of himself was enlightening. “I just think I was very lucky. I was blessed with natural abilities and found driving at the limit of that to be quite good. Obviously, Syracuse was a fairy tale story and gave me immense satisfaction. But the walls made no difference to me. Walls, barrels of Silverstone, it was the same thing in my mind. In most people’s books, this was a scary circuit. Sicilian roads weren’t great back then. But that didn’t concern me.
His style was economical not just in terms of inputs, but in philosophy. “I just did what came naturally, really,” he said with characteristic distrust. He couldn’t understand why even some of the great drivers claimed to hate Spa or the old Nurburgring, politely suggesting that they might have pushed their limits a bit too far. He would use all the road that was available, but no more, and never force himself to screw up his courage to push harder than he wanted to. He just let it all go.
“When these guys said they hated Spa, they couldn’t have hated the wonderful curves and high-speed drifts that we used to experience there in our day, because they wouldn’t have been the great drivers they were if they hadn’t. I don’t get that kind of kick,” he observed calmly. “They were pushing beyond their natural ability. mine, and luckily for me it was good enough to win a few races, it won six Grands Prix, to be precise.
He joined Ferrari as number one for 1959 and enjoyed that season better than any of his all-too-short years in F1. He won at Reims and Avus – two more demanding venues – and although there was no Belgian GP at Spa, Ferrari did not enter the Brits, and his clutch burned on the line at Monza , he still had a chance to win the World Championship at the last round, the United States GP at Sebring. He qualified on the front row, but the timekeepers missed the fact that French-American Harry Schell cut part of the course to set his best time. Relegated to second place, Brooks’ car was hit at the start by Wolfgang von Trips’ similar model.
He had had a major accident with BRM due to a mechanical breakdown, then at Le Mans just before that 1957 British GP, another serious one in an Aston Martin, from which he was lucky to escape after being distracted by a mechanical problem. And he had promised himself never to take unnecessary risks in an inferior car. So, he felt compelled in the 90 seconds he had to think to make a precautionary pit stop at the end of that opening lap at Sebring.
“Believe me, those must have been the hardest minutes of my life!” he confessed. “If I stopped, the world championship would be over. On the other hand, if I hadn’t, I would have betrayed the solemn promise I had made to myself… Without dramatizing, I had run away twice and so I made this promise to myself. And if I did, could I deserve anything more than pushing the daisies?”
He therefore finished third when he could have won, and lost the title to Jack Brabham.
An intellectual mover and deep thinker who could see the big picture, he was surprisingly only 29 when he decided to retire. He had just finished third for BRM in the 1961 United States GP at Watkins Glen, he had a garage business to develop and the timing seemed right. He didn’t really like 1.5-litre cars, with their excessive grip on power, but his main reason was his growing family.
At the 1998 Goodwood Festival of Speed he reunited with 1957 Aintree winner Vanwall and none other than Mario Andretti reported it to Chris Mears, wife of Indianapolis legend Rick. “That,” said Mario, “is the best of the best of the best…”
The 1978 world champion has always been a pretty good judge of other riders’ skills.
Tony Brooks – 1932-2022