The Syracuse Grand Prix of 1955
|by Peter Lewis|
In October 1955, with nearly ten years of motor racing completed since the war, enthusiasts in this country were beginning to wonder whether a British racing car would ever win a major event. For two seasons the World Championship had been dominated by Fangio and Mercedes-Benz; previously to that it had been the red cars of Italy. Admittedly, Mike Hawthorn and Stirling Moss, driving foreign cars, had, won races but when was a British G.P. car driven by a Briton going to achieve success. One Sunday afternoon on the island of Sicily - with only a handful of Britons amongst a crowd of 40,000 to see it happen twenty-three year old C.A.S. Brooks, and Connaught, gave us the answer.
The quiet young man - who had only a few days earlier been wearing the white coat of a dental student at Manchester Dental Hospital - was the least worried of the Connaught team. It was a Friday afternoon and the first practice session for the 1955 Syracuse Grand Prix was well under way, but there was no sign of the transporters that had left England for Sicily a week earlier with two Connaught racing cars - one for Brooks and the other for Les Leston. By using borrowed Vespas the two British drivers had been able to make a brief reconnaissance of the 3.4 - mile Sicilian road circuit, but it is doubtful whether they learned very much other than how to ride a Vespa at speed.
As the 'works' Maseratis of the Italian ace drivers Musso and Villoresi lapped at an average speed of nearly one hundred miles an hour, one or two people in the pit area - and a handful of spectators in the grandstand watching the practice session - wondered vaguely about the young Connaught driver who was going to pit his skill against Musso and that master of the art Villoresi. Certainly he did not look like a racing driver - nothing hard - bitten or tough about him, just a young man enjoying himself.
Tony Brooks first went motor racing in 1952 when he entered a second - hand Healey-Silverstone sports car in a club meeting of the British Automobile Racing Club at Goodwood. His debut was not a sensational one - he finished eighth in one race and sixth in another - but he found, in his own words, that 'motor racing is a most enjoyable and exhilarating experience'.
At Goodwood, later in the season, Tony and his father met D. Hely, another Healey-Silverstone owner, who also raced a Le Mans replica Frazer-Nash. Would young Brooks like to try the Frazer - Nash? Tony was not slow to accept the invitation and his polished handling of the Frazer-Nash when he drove it for the first time in 1953 at Goodwood is still a talking point with members of the B.A.R.C.
Brooks raced the Frazer - Nash for the remainder of 1953 and most of 1954 to such effect that in November 1954 he was approached by John Wyer, team manager of Aston - Martin. Wyer had spotted the potential of Brooks and wanted him in his team.
Brooks passed his tests for Aston-Martin with flying colours and was soon given his first assignment. With John Riseley-Prichard he drove for Aston-Martin in the Le Mans 24 - Hour Race - a frightening introduction to championship sports - car racing for this was the year of that ghastly accident opposite the pits when more than eighty spectators lost their lives. The Brooks/Riseley-Prichard Aston-Martin retired before half distance with a broken dynamo belt.
It was Riseley-Prichard who enabled Brooks to take the next step, from a sports car to a racing car. After Le Mans, Riseley-Prichard gave up motor racing and asked Tony to try his four-year-old 2-litre Connaught. Tony took to the Connaught like a duck to water and it was his handling of the car in a number of races during the season, as well as a fine drive for Connaught at Aintree in one of their 'works' sports cars, that prompted Rodney Clark, the designer and Managing Director of Connaught, to offer Brooks a drive at Syracuse.
Although it interfered with his studies, Brooks accepted the invitation but no one, least of all Brooks, thought for one moment that the Connaught had the remotest chance of winning. Brooks knew only too well that he would be driving a modern Formula 1 racing car for the first time, on a circuit he had never seen, against several top - flight drivers and in a major continental event.
The knowledgeable enthusiasts at Syracuse were equally dubious about the chances of Connaught and showed very little interest in the British cars when they eventually arrived on the Saturday. However, they could not fail to be impressed by the enthusiasm of the Connaught mechanics who, after five days of non-stop driving across Europe, immediately prepared the cars for practice.
The second practice session commenced soon after 3 p.m. and both Musso and Villoresi were slower than on the Friday - partly because they were confident of victory and more than satisfied with their Friday practice times, and partly because a resurfaced section of the road on the last corner before the pits had tended to break up on the Friday, making the corner rather slippery. This did not seem to worry Brooks who went out in the Connaught and after a few laps started motoring in earnest. To the surprise of officials and team personnel he appeared quite at home on a fast and rather bumpy circuit that is by no means an easy one.
Situated on the outskirts of Syracuse, the 3.4 mile circuit on public roads is in the shape of a triangle, with two slowish corners, an acute hairpin, and concrete walls bordering the fairly wide road for practically the entire distance and demanding maximum concentration.
There is no real straight, but the three sides of the triangle each have fast, gentle curves. It is, in fact, what is known as a 'driver's circuit', leaving no margin for the slightest error, and the type of circuit that has always appealed to Brooks. As he himself said at the time: 'At Syracuse there is none of this business of using a foot of grass, as on an English airfield circuit, then bobbing back'.
Musso's best lap on Friday, in his 'works' Maserati, had been 2 min. 5 sec. and Brooks was very soon within striking distance of this time. He got down to 2 min. 8 sec., then 2 min. 7 sec., and finally 2 min. 6 sec., driving in such a relaxed yet forceful manner that the spectators had no idea he had put up such a fast time until the loud - speakers crackled: 'Brooks, No. 22 - fastest lap of the session.'
There was consternation in the Maserati pit, jubilation in the Connaught pit, and incredulous disbelief on the faces of the bystanders. The Maserati engines burst into life and away went Musso and Villoresi, both trying all they knew to better their Friday times just in case the young Englishman managed to get the green car round in less than 2 min. 5 sec. Musso, making a maximum effort, got down to 2 min. 3.6 sec., an average speed of 99 - 36 m.p.h., whilst Villoresi clocked 2 min. 4.7 sec. Brooks - when he went out again - was only a second slower. The Sicilians were impressed but scoffed at the suggestion that a British car could keep going for seventy laps, about 243 miles.
The day of the race, Sunday October 23rd, was perfect and crowds filled the grandstands opposite the pits as the cars were pushed out on to the grid. As Musso had recorded the best time of the two practice sessions, it was he who occupied pole position on the front row, with Villoresi next to him. Brooks, in the green Connaught, occupied the third position on the front row, a most encouraging sight.
Brooks, Leston and the rest of the Connaught team were under no illusions about the opposition. Although it did not include the all - conquering Mercedes-Benz team - for this was not an event counting towards the World Championship of drivers - it was a very tough nut indeed to crack. There were five 'works' Maseratis, two of which were the very latest type for Musso and Villoresi, as well as two Ferraris and two French Gordinis: a formidable array.
With the engines running and the starting area clear of mechanics and officials, the starter raised his flag. Down it slashed and, almost as one, the two Maseratis streaked into the lead, showing a clean pair of heels to the Connaught. This was to be expected for there had been no time for Brooks to practice a racing start with the Connaught.
The seconds ticked by - sixty, ninety, one hundred, one hundred and twenty - and then the leaders hurtled into view. Three red cars, then two green cars, swept by the pits in a blare of sound. Musso led, followed by Villoresi, then Harry Schell, then Brooks and Leston. This was the order for three laps and then to the delight of the Connaught pit staff Brooks passed Schell and went after Villoresi. Relentlessly, second by second, the young Englishman closed the gap until he was right on the tail of Villoresi's car, then level, then away and out in front. The Italian veteran was naturally and understandably shaken. With ten laps of the race completed the order was Musso, Brooks, Villoresi and Schell. Poor Leston had spun on the fifth lap and dropped right back.
Unperturbed, Brooks closed on Musso, passed him and led the astonished Italian past the pits. Musso fought hack and the red car was out in front on the next lap - but not for long. The young Englishman was driving like a veteran, and next time round it was the Connaught again. Musso tried every trick of the trade to regain the lead and practically rode astride the tail of the Connaught. Three times the lap record was raised to more than 100 m.p.h. - twice by Musso and once by Brooks.
For a while it was real cut-and-thrust motor racing. Musso found that by delaying his braking as the two cars approached the hairpin he was able to pass the Connaught as they entered the hairpin. However, on the exit from the hairpin, Brooks turned the tables by out - accelerating the Italian car. Brooks in any case knew that the disc brakes on his Connaught would last longer than the conventional drum brakes fitted to Musso's car.
It was plain to the Italian spectators - painfully plain - that Brooks was almost playing with Musso. He was keeping the Connaught well within its limits and driving in a relaxed, easy fashion whilst Musso was having to work like a Trojan to stay with the British car. Brooks was easily able to hold the Maserati on the fastest section of the circuit, where both cars were travelling at 150 m.p.h., and this really shook Musso.
Eventually, Brooks drew away and by half distance the Connaught had widened the gap to forty seconds and Musso could do nothing about it. On his fifty-fifth lap, with fifteen still to go, Brooks turned in a shattering time of 2 min. 00.2 sec., an average speed of 102.36 m.p.h. and a new Syracuse circuit record. It suddenly dawned on the handful of British spectators, and the jubilant mechanics in the Connaught pit, that if the green car could keep going it would be the first British victory in a major Grand Prix since 1924 when Segrave's 2-litre, supercharged Sunbeam won the San Sebastian Grand Prix in Spain.
Tensely the pit staff ticked off the remaining laps on the lap chart, slowing Brooks when it became apparent that Musso could not close the gap. When the Italian pulled out all the stops and got to within thirty-two seconds of the Connaught, the Englishman's reply was to open up the gap again to nearly a mile, and Musso finally crossed the finish line 50.5 seconds after Brooks had taken the chequered flag.
For nearly two and a half hours the green Connaught, powered by its Alta engine, a twin-cam four designed, and produced by Geoffrey Taylor, had streaked round the Syracuse circuit at an average speed of 99.05 m.p.h., nearly four miles an hour faster than the previous race average. 'The fastest lap by Brooks was three miles an hotel' quicker than the old record.
Villoresi came in third - six miles behind Brooks. As the Sicilian crowd swarmed over the track, Connaught No. 22 was pushed away so that on the invitation of representatives of the Federation Internationale Automobile, the governing body of motor sport, the incredulous Maserati team manager could have the engine of the Connaught stripped down and its capacity checked. For Mike Oliver, Connaught's engine development expert and team manager, and the jubilant Connaught mechanics, it was a brilliant and well-deserved British victory.
One of the first to congratulate the quietly spoken, unassuming youngster - who was persuaded with some difficulty to attend the prize - giving - was Musso, genuinely impressed by the way Brooks had out driven him.
And what of Brooks? Never one to seek publicity either then or in later years lie quietly edged away so that he could change out of his overalls and not be recognized. And on the flight back to London, the first British driver in the history of the sport to win a ranking Grand Prix in a car designed, developed and built in this country (unlike Segrave's Sunbeam which won the 1923 French G.P. and, the 1924 San Sebastian G.P.) became a dental Student again, quietly studying his text books.