Races

Our fifth instalment of Unsung Heroes is held by Tony Brooks, the man they called ‘the racing dentist’ and who won his first Formula 1 race while studying for his final exams
Words – Gavin Green

Tony Brooks was the son of a dental surgeon and took up racing in 1952, initially borrowing his mum’s Healey for UK club events.

Known as the ‘racing dentist’ Brooks won his first Formula 1 race while studying for his final exams. He would go on to be Ferrari’s F1 team leader in 1959 and become the fourth most successful Grand Prix driver of the 1950s in terms of victories – after Juan Manuel Fangio, Alberto Ascari and Stirling Moss. 

 

Brooks moved to Ferrari in 1959, spearheading the Scuderia's defence of its 1958 World Championship title

His big break came when the small English Connaught team asked him to race in the non-championship Syracuse Grand Prix in Sicily in October 1955. Brooks had shown promise in Formula 2 and sports car racing but this was still a significant move up: his competitors included established F1 stars such as Luigi Musso and Luigi Villoresi.

He had never driven an F1 car before and didn’t know the circuit, hiring a Vespa to learn it. His final dentistry exams were coming up. ‘I worked during the flight and never gave much thought to the race,’ Brooks would later say. He still saw racing as a pleasing pastime, a diversion from dentistry. The Manchester University dental student ended up beating Musso by 51 seconds, recording the first Grand Prix win by a British driver in a British car since 1924.

Polite to the core, Brooks was known as the racing dentist, who first took up racing in 1952, initially borrowing his mum's Healey for club events 

The F1 world took notice of the 23-year old. He won his first World Championship GP, the British, in 1957 and followed that up with three more wins in 1958. It was sign of Brooks’ skill that those victories came at ‘classic’ circuits renowned for rewarding the truly talented: Spa, the Nürburgring and Monza.

In 1959, he moved to Ferrari, spearheading the Scuderia’s defence of its 1958 World Championship title. Although successful in terms of results, 1958 was a tragic year for Ferrari. Two of its best drivers, Luigi Musso and Peter Collins, were killed. World Champion Mike Hawthorn, shaken by those fatalities, had retired from racing, only to be killed in a road accident early in 1959.

"It was a very dangerous sport, one mistake could be your last." Tony Brooks

Driving the V6-powered 256 F1, Brooks won heroically at Reims in the French Grand Prix and at the high-speed Avus circuit in Berlin, home that year to the German GP. It was a watershed season, the year that rear-mid-engine cars began to dominate Formula 1. Entering the final round of the 1959 season, the US Grand Prix at Sebring, Brooks had a chance of winning the title. His rivals were Australian Jack Brabham in the new mid-rear engine Cooper and Stirling Moss.

On the opening lap, Brooks’ car was hit by his teammate Wolfgang von Trips. He feared damage. Unwilling to risk his life in a damaged car, he pitted to have his Ferrari examined. All was fine and he pressed on, finishing a strong third. His caution possibly cost him the world title, as both Moss and Brabham experienced problems.

Tony Brooks would become the fourth most successful Grand Prix driver of the 1950s in terms of victories, after Manuel Fangio, Alberto Ascari and Stirling Moss (pictured) 

He ended the season second overall to Brabham. Yet he said he had no regrets. He had seen too many deaths to take unnecessary risks. ‘It was a very dangerous sport,’ he later recounted. ‘Three or four top drivers were killed every year through the ’50s. Any one mistake could be your last.’

Brooks never won another Grand Prix after the 1959 season. He drove for two more years and then, acutely aware of the dangers, retired aged 29. He and his Italian wife Pina moved to the UK, where he ran a successful car dealership. Today, he remains the sole surviving Grand Prix winner from the most dangerous decade in motor racing, living quietly in Surrey in southern England aged 89.