Archive: How a shy dental student became a British F1 hero

The late Tony Brooks never won the Formula 1 world championship, but came close in the 1959 season that went to Jack Brabham. In the 25 December 1959 issue of Autosport magazine, the widely-admired Briton opened up on his remarkable career to Christopher Nixon

Archive: How a shy dental student became a British F1 hero

Success can bring about many changes in people. Some become big-headed and obnoxious – others mature and become even more likeable and interesting than they were before – and a very few change not at all. Tony Brooks, to my mind, falls into the second category.

Here is a young man who took up motor racing purely for fun, without any thought of joining the ‘big league’. But, to his surprise and satisfaction, he now finds himself looked upon as one of the greatest racing drivers in the world. How then, has this unsought state of affairs affected him?

Tony first hit the headlines in 1955 with his brilliant victory at Syracuse in the Connaught. After the race he slipped away from the pits, changed out of his overalls into his everyday clothes, and returned to mingle, unnoticed, with the excited crowd.

When the press finally cornered him, they were surprised, to say the least. Instead of the exuberant, colourful personality that racing drivers are apparently expected to be, they found a shy, unassuming and rather serious young man, wondering what all the fuss was about and wanting to get home as soon as he could, so that he could continue studying for his finals. What was he studying? Dentistry! Here indeed was the story journalists dream about, and they made the most of it.

The newspapers next day told of the shy young Manchester dental student, who had come up from nowhere to defeat the crack Italian Maserati racing team on their own ground, a young man who had no time for the pretty girls and bright lights because he was studying to be a dentist.

All this was very true, and most of it is still true today. He is very nearly five years older, of course, and he is no longer a student. He does have time for pretty girls, but only two, one being his wife, Pina, and the other their five-week-old daughter, Caroline!

Brooks began racing for fun, and parlayed sportscar outings with Frazer-Nash - pictured here at the back of a train of cars in the 1954 RAC Tourist Trophy at Dundrod - into Formula 1 opportunities

Brooks began racing for fun, and parlayed sportscar outings with Frazer-Nash - pictured here at the back of a train of cars in the 1954 RAC Tourist Trophy at Dundrod - into Formula 1 opportunities

Photo by: Motorsport Images

But these changes are not due to the success that has been thrust upon him. The real difference between the Tony Brooks of 1955 and the Tony Brooks of 1959 is that he has now, perforce, lost his shyness, and has thus become a personality in his own right, and a most likeable and forthright personality, at that.

Tony was born in Dukinfield, Cheshire, on 25 February 1932. He went to Mount St Mary’s College, near Chesterfield, where he studied the classics. He was a keen and able sportsman, playing squash, rugby, cricket, tennis, and doing a bit of ice-skating and boxing as well.

After a while he got a bit fed up with the classics and decided to change to science, in spite of the fact that GCE was looming up. With this in mind he went to a tutor college and eventually passed his exams. He then enrolled at Manchester University for a six-year course in dental surgery.

In 1952 he decided that driving motor cars fast appealed to him. He also had the good sense to realise that if he did this on the roads he was very likely to kill someone, and probably himself. So he thought he would try his hand at motor racing. He told his father of his plans and obtained his blessing of the project. To state the obvious, you cannot go motor racing without a car. Well, Tony’s mother had a TC MG…

All this time his progress was being watched with interest by quite a few people, notably one John Wyer, then team manager for Aston Martin. Wyer was obviously impressed, for at the end of the year Tony was invited to try an Aston

Now, before you rush out and pinch mum’s car, stop, and think, as Tony did, and ask yourself, “Am I doing the right thing?” You may well be forced to admit, as was Tony, that you are not. But be not downhearted – why not do (again) what Tony did – and swap it for something more powerful?

In part exchange for the MG, Tony got a Healey Silverstone, and on 22 March 1952, he went to Goodwood for his first race meeting. He entered a scratch race and then a handicap. “I came nowhere in the first and sixth in the handicap.” He competed in about seven meetings altogether that year, and then at the end of the season he met a Mr Hely, who had a Healey and a Frazer-Nash. He offered to let Tony try the ’Nash at a practice day at Goodwood early the next year. Tony had a go and Mr Hely then asked him to drive it for him during the season.

So 1953 saw him competing regularly in the Frazer-Nash and occasionally in his own Healey. He did well with the ’Nash, so well in fact that he was offered a place in the works team for 1954. He jumped at this offer and proceeded to put up some very fine performances during the year.

His performances with Frazer-Nash impressed John Wyer, who signed Brooks to the Aston Martin sportscar team for 1955

His performances with Frazer-Nash impressed John Wyer, who signed Brooks to the Aston Martin sportscar team for 1955

Photo by: Motorsport Images

All this time his progress was being watched with interest by quite a few people, notably one John Wyer, then team manager for Aston Martin. Wyer was obviously impressed, for at the end of the year Tony was invited to try an Aston. So one bleak winter’s day he went to an airfield somewhere for his try-out. In his own words, “That went all right”, and a few weeks later he received a letter asking him to travel to Feltham to arrange a contract for 1955.

Next he met John Riseley-Prichard, who had a 1.5-litre Connaught. Shortly after their meeting, John had to retire from racing for personal reasons, and he asked Tony if he would drive his car for him. This Tony did and competed in national meetings at such places as Castle Combe, Crystal Palace, Snetterton and Prescott. “Oh heavens, hillclimbs. Never again!” Then came Syracuse.

“In October of that year Connaughts, who wanted to go to Syracuse, found themselves rather short of drivers and so they asked me to drive. I agreed, thinking nothing would come of it, but to my surprise the thing went through, although I’d never driven a Formula 1 car before, and I didn’t drive one until we got to the circuit. We took two cars, one was a streamliner, Les Leston drove that, and we could only do a very few practice laps because we didn’t want to wear them out.

“I found both the car and the circuit to my liking. The latter was terrific, with nice brick walls and everything, leaving no room for mistakes.

“In the race, after a frightful start, I finally got into the swing of things and eventually passed the Maserati boys. It was a fairly comfortable ride. After the first third of the race I eased up, keeping the revs a thousand below the set limit. The car never missed a beat.

“It turned out afterwards that it was the first time that a British car had won an international GP in 30 years, or something, and everybody got most excited over it. At the time I was studying hard for my finals. In fact, I was reading all the way over on the ’plane and all the way back, so I didn’t have time to think about my win. It never occurred to me that I’d done anything special.”

This, then, is the way in which Tony Brooks described his historic drive. “It never occurred to me that I’d done anything special…”

Brooks joined the BRM Formula 1 team in 1956, but aside from a second place at Aintree the association was a disappointment

Brooks joined the BRM Formula 1 team in 1956, but aside from a second place at Aintree the association was a disappointment

Photo by: Motorsport Images

In 1956 he signed with Astons for three years and, “Oh, yes. I joined BRM.” Also in the team was Mike Hawthorn, but the association with the Bourne team proved an unfortunate one for both of them.

Tony became the first person to finish a race in the new 2.5-litre car, coming in second at Aintree, in spite of the fact that he had no brakes at all. Then came two serious prangs. At Goodwood Mike flipped and was thrown out, luckily without serious injury. Then at Silverstone it was Tony’s turn.

“During the race the throttle broke. I came into the pits and had it lashed up but then it began to stick open. Nine times out of 10 I was taking Abbey Curve flat out, but by this time there was a lot of rubber on the track, and so I lifted off. Nothing happened. The car went half on to the grass. Most other cars would still have been controllable but I ‘lost’ the BRM. It hit the earth bank and I turned over. I was flung out and broke my jaw, and the car caught fire.

“BRM then withdrew from racing till the end of the season. I tested the cars at Monza during the winter and we were faster than Castellotti in a Ferrari, who was also testing there, but I had lost confidence in the car, and so I left the team.”

Superbly backed up by Noel Cunningham-Reid, he routed the Maserati and Ferrari teams, who were considerably upset to see Brooks run away from their number one drivers

In 1957 Astons brought out the new DBR1/300. It was first raced at Spa, where Tony and Roy Salvadori came first and second. (“Incidentally, I’ve only been to Spa on three occasions and I won each time. I think they’re getting a bit fed up with me!”) From Spa the team went to the ’Ring, very pleased with the new cars. “We knew they were very good but at the ’Ring they surpassed our expectations. They were superb.”

Here Tony notched up another brilliant victory. Superbly backed up by Noel Cunningham-Reid, he routed the Maserati and Ferrari teams, who were considerably upset to see Brooks run away from their number one drivers. But this was only half of it, for Noel, with a mere two seasons of racing behind him, ran away from all their number two drivers, which practically reduced the Italians to tears!

This effort, coupled with his superb second place, behind Fangio, in the Monaco GP a few weeks earlier, set the seal on Tony’s success and from then on he was recognised as one of the fastest boys in the business.

After winning on the debut for the Aston Martin DBR1 at Spa in 1957, Brooks combined with Noel Cunningham-Reid to win the Nurburgring round of the world sportscar championship

After winning on the debut for the Aston Martin DBR1 at Spa in 1957, Brooks combined with Noel Cunningham-Reid to win the Nurburgring round of the world sportscar championship

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Tony now lives in Kingston-on-Thames and he has recently bought St Georges Service Station at Weybridge, overlooking Brooklands. You may read what you like into this. Rumours of his impending retirement are flying thick and fast just now, and his acquisition of the garage has added fuel to the fire, so to speak. He will tell you that he has made no decision yet, and he will probably make public his plans early in the new year. Should he decide to continue (as we all hope he does) I don’t think we shall see him in the Ferrari team next year…

He is a tall, rather thin, man, who talks quietly and with confidence. A very modest and unassuming person, he will never say that anything he has done was even well done. It just “went all right”. But if the modesty is still there the shyness isn’t.

As a top-line GP driver, he is constantly being called upon to make speeches at club dinners and other similar functions, and this has undoubtedly increased his confidence and made him easier to approach. He is passionately interested in racing and the welfare of the sport, and will talk for hours on the subject, as he did to me recently. We finally packed up after midnight, and he left me with my head buzzing with his ideas and views.

He is a keen sportsman but has very little time for anything now except squash, which he plays as often as he can. A deeply religious man, he is a regular churchgoer. He doesn’t smoke and drinks only wine, which he likes occasionally with meals. He gives Pina no trouble as regards food. “I’m not fussy. I just like it to be cooked properly.”

Contrary to what you might have read elsewhere, Tony first met Pina, a lovely, auburn-haired Italian girl, in Rouen, in 1956. They were married in Italy, on 22 October last year.

Tony reckons that his most satisfying race was the German GP last year, where he won in the Vanwall. But his elation there was short lived. “I felt very happy. Then we heard of Peter’s accident and the whole thing evaporated.”

His most disappointing event was at Monza, this year, when the clutch burnt out on his Ferrari after half a lap. “I was looking forward to that race, I like Monza and I was really going to have a go. As it happened, I hardly left the starting grid.”

Brooks cited his early retirement at Monza in 1959, where Ferrari was expected to show well, as one of his greatest disappointments

Brooks cited his early retirement at Monza in 1959, where Ferrari was expected to show well, as one of his greatest disappointments

Photo by: Motorsport Images

He has strong, and I think, controversial views on the championship and the new formula. Of the former he says that the number of points awarded should be bigger. The new formula is, he thinks, “absolute nonsense. It pleases nobody as far as I can see.”

This, of course, is not all, but to give his views in full would take up far too much space, so I asked Tony to put them in print himself. He jumped at this offer and we hope to publish his article in the near future.

“A funny thing happened to me on my way to Sebring the other day.” This variation on an old theme is as good a way as any, I think, of beginning one of the many amusing incidents that have happened to Tony during his career. Actually, it wasn’t the other day – it was three years ago, but never mind. As he says, “You can’t be in a team like Astons without being involved in some silly incident or other. Feltham had a fantastic team when I first joined, what with Reg, Roy and the two Peters, Collins and Walker. I was very definitely the ‘baby’ of the team.

"You can’t be in a team like Astons without being involved in some silly incident or other" Tony Brooks

“We were flying to Sebring in 1956. When we’d been up about an hour it was time for lights out. (It was a night flight.) Collins and Salvadori told me that Astons had hired one bunk for the lot of us – we were to take it in turns. Anyway, I fell for this, climbed in and dozed off. Then the air hostess came up and said, ‘What are you doing in there? This bunk is reserved, and anyway, it costs £20 extra.’ Collins and Salvadori had heard all this and were killing themselves with laughter, thinking that perhaps I’d get stung for the 20 quid.

“However, the hostess said that the man might not want the bunk and that I might as well stay there meanwhile. Pete and Roy got very worried at this, for it seemed as though I might get away with it. Eventually, the fellow came along and claimed his bunk, so I had to climb down.

“I got my own back – on Roy anyway – when we got to Sebring. We had double rooms in our hotel. I shared one with Reg, Roy and Pete had another, and the four of us had to share one bathroom. This was between our rooms and had connecting doors.

“One day, Roy had just run a bath and was standing on the mat, testing the water with his big toe. When I knew he was in there, I rang through to his room. Pete answered the phone and I asked for Mr Salvadori. Pete called Roy into the bedroom and as soon as he got to the phone, I gave the signal to Reg, who rushed into the bathroom, locked himself in (and Roy out) and enjoyed Salvadori’s bath!”

Brooks (far left) had numerous amusing anecdotes of times at Aston Martin with Roy Salvadori, Carroll Shelby and Stirling Moss, pictured in 1958 at Sebring

Brooks (far left) had numerous amusing anecdotes of times at Aston Martin with Roy Salvadori, Carroll Shelby and Stirling Moss, pictured in 1958 at Sebring

Photo by: Motorsport Images

There are many more stories like that, but unfortunately there is no room for them here.

Well, the 1959 season is over and Tony has finished runner-up in the World Championship. Where does he go from here – on to greater feats in the sport which is, to him, strictly a hobby – or will he give it all up for the more hum-drum, but secure, life of a dentist and garage proprietor? He alone knows the answer.

He cannot be blamed if he decides to retire, for he has been racing for eight years now, and has played his part in helping Britain to achieve her present supremacy in the sport he loves. His brilliant successes have ensured him a place among the all-time greats of motor racing.

But whichever way he decides, you can be sure that this charming and very popular young man will be around the circuits next year – either at the wheel of a racing car – or just watching from the side lines. One way or the other, his hobby will keep him occupied for many years to come.

Brooks finished third in the 1959 Sebring finale, but it wasn't enough to clinch the title

Brooks finished third in the 1959 Sebring finale, but it wasn't enough to clinch the title

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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