Profile: Tony Brise

Nationality British
Date of Birth 28th March 1952
Date of Death 29th November 1975
Teams Frank Williams Racing Cars,
Embassy Hill (1975)
Races Entered 10
Points 1
Best Result 6th (Sweden 1975)

The Embassy Hill mechanics were weary. After a long week’s testing in late November at the Paul Ricard circuit, the team clambered aboard Graham Hill’s personal Piper Aztec at the Marseille-Marignane airport, ready for the trip back home to Britain.

Minutes away from the tiny Elstree Airport in Hertfordshire, Hill hit thick fog and, with visibility poor, fatally clipped a set of trees at the well-to-do Arkley Golf Course. The subsequent crash was horrific. All of the passengers tragically perished within the wreckage, Hill among them.  Engineers Ray Brimble, Andy Smallman, Terry Richards and Tony Halcock were also casualties, along with a promising young driver named Tony Brise. That evening, a terrific talent was lost to the world.

Anthony Brise’s life began in Dartford, a town in South-East London overlooking the River Thames and precariously sitting within the county of Kent. His upbringing was atypical of the charmed lifestyles of many racing drivers; instead of silver-spoon pacifiers, Tony’s formative years were spent living on his father John’s pig farm.  John was a handy racer in his own right, and dabbled in both stock cars and Formula 3 racing, winning three World Stock Car championships in the 1950s and 60s.

Naturally, the motorsport bug bit Tony from a very young age, and John decided to support both Tony and younger son Tim in go-karts.

Young Tony’s first taste of racing competition came at just eight years of age, and he was immediately hooked. His father put aside his own racing career to support his son through the karting ranks, helping Tony become the British national karting champion in 1969. He made the step up to cars in the latter stages of the following year, piloting a geriatric Elden machine in the BOC Formula Ford 1600 championship with little success. Brise’s first full season was a lot better; getting his hands on a vastly more competitive Merlyn, he grabbed an impressive second overall in the championship.

Brise (#26) battles with Roger Williamson (#25) at La Châtre.

Brise (#26) battles with Roger Williamson (#25) at La Châtre in 1972, during the two’s Formula 3 days.

These noteworthy performances brought Brise to the attention of a Mr. Bernard Charles Ecclestone, a diminutive but hard-nosed “wheeler-dealer” who had recently purchased the Brabham concern. Ecclestone offered Brise a seat with his F3 team, which he duly accepted.

After a few races, it became clear that the Brabham BT28 wasn’t exactly up to scratch with Brise wisely deciding to trade it for a GRD 372, which looked competitive in the hands of rival Roger Williamson. His fortunes improved, and GRD owner Mike Warner offered Brise the departing Williamson’s seat for 1973.

Brise enjoyed his most successful season so far, and won both the John Player and the Lombard F3 championships; beating the likes of Alan Jones and Jacques Laffite to the former, the latter’s honours were shared between Brise and Richard Robarts. The well-funded Robarts flashed enough cash to make an immediate step up to F1 in 1974 but, despite his successes, Brise couldn’t even find enough for an F2 drive.

Scraping together enough to buy a Formula Atlantic-spec March 733, he made his first appearance in the third round, held at Silverstone. Surprisingly, against the newer equipment of his rivals, Brise won. Then, only a week later at Snetterton, Brise wrote off the car he’d only just been able to afford; as ever, fortune in motorsport can change in the blink of an eye.

Helpfully, his luck changed again. Impressed by the young Brit, a man named Teddy Savory called Brise and offered him a seat in his Modus team for the rest of the Formula Atlantic season. After a steady start with Modus, Brise began to get into his stride and secured comfortable wins at Mondello Park and Brands Hatch in the final stages of the season. Savory knew that he had a brilliant talent on his hands, and offered Brise an extension of his contract into 1975.

With no Formula 1 drives forthcoming at the start of the year, Brise accepted, and took six wins en route to the John Player Formula Atlantic championship title.

Brise pilots a Modus in the 1975 British Formula Atlantic championship.

Brise pilots a Modus in the 1975 British Formula Atlantic championship.

Although he’d started the year without an F1 drive in his pocket, Brise finally got his long-awaited call-up to the big time in late April, courtesy of Frank Williams. Williams needed a short-notice replacement for former F3 rival Jacques Laffite, who decided to pursue his European F2 title ambitions at the Nurburgring rather than attend the clashing Spanish Grand Prix. Brise saw this as his best chance to put himself in the shop window and duly accepted, joining the Williams team for the Montjuïc Park round.

It was a tough weekend for Brise to join the F1 circus, and began inauspiciously as the GPDA briefly went on strike over the incorrectly assembled Armco barriers. The marshals and various team mechanics worked overnight to make sure the barriers were bolted together properly; even Ken Tyrrell had fetched a spanner from the garage to help out.

Although he had no experience of the undulating Barcelona street course, Brise hustled his FW03 to an impressive 18th place on the grid, just ahead of Roelof Wunderink’s Ensign and the Hesketh of Alan Jones. The race itself was a melancholy affair. Characterised by an abundance of attrition in the early stages of the grand prix, Rolf Stommelen’s rear wing broke on lap 26 and sent the Embassy Hill driver into the barrier, rebounding over the fence on the opposite side of the circuit. Tragically, five people died.

Brise managed to stay clear of the chaos, and rose to an impressive seventh before the race was stopped on lap 29 on safety grounds. Although he handled the circumstances admirably, Brise handed the keys back to Laffite for the Monaco Grand Prix, where events would conspire to bring the Brit back into the F1 fold shortly after.

Brise dragged the Williams FW04 to a fine seventh at Montjuïc Park.

Brise dragged the Williams FW04 to a fine seventh at Montjuïc Park, before the race was aborted after a tragic accident.

Forever Formula 1’s jewel-in-the-crown, the glitzy backdrop of the French Riviera brings the Monaco Grand Prix to life, along with raucous boat parties and affluent, well-dressed spectators. Among the frivolity was Graham Hill – “Mr. Monaco” – the victor of five grands prix at the Monte-Carlo circuit. Hill had set up his own F1 team a couple of years before to keep his own racing career alive, but the two-time champion was washed-up, and was treading water against the younger talents on the grid.

Failing to qualify in Monte-Carlo, Hill called time on his racing career to focus on team management. Remembering his Montjuic performance, as well as a largely impressive showing in the Monaco F3 support race – although a collision with Alex Ribeiro ended his hopes of victory – Hill offered the now-vacant drive to Brise, to partner Australian Vern Schuppan at the team.

Brise’s first race with the Embassy Hill team was at the Zolder Circuit in Belgium, and the young Brit immediately repaid Hill’s faith by securing an excellent seventh on the grid, outqualifying the likes of Emerson Fittipaldi and Jody Scheckter. The Hill-Ford package didn’t quite possess the pace to keep pace with the front-runners, and nor did it have the reliability; the Cosworth DFV engine let go in the first quarter of the race and put paid to any chance of a good result.

Nonetheless, Brise made up for it in the next race at Anderstorp. Starting from a relatively lowly 17th, he set about carving through the field and swashbuckled his way up to fourth position before reliability issues struck. Brise became stuck in fourth gear, which stymied any further progress and forced the Hill driver to let Mario Andretti and Mark Donohue trickle past. Regardless, Brise crossed the line in an excellent sixth position to score his first world championship point, albeit a lap down on winner Niki Lauda.

He continued to mark himself as a star of the future, securing a brace of seventh-place finishes at Zandvoort and Paul Ricard ahead of some tough competition, although perhaps a little shine had come off of his season towards the end as rookie errors started to set in.

Despite outpacing new team-mate Alan Jones, his old F3 adversary, Brise was involved in a couple of accidents and was unable to add to his 1975 points tally. An amazing sixth on the grid at Monza delighted the Embassy Hill team as Brise outqualified the likes of Reutemann, Hunt and Pace, but a spin at the chicane on the second lap brought an abrupt end to Brise’s day.

Even though the year petered out somewhat, the Hill team – especially Graham – were mightily impressed with Brise. The team had gone through its growing pains as a new entrant and had begun to gel; everyone was looking forward to 1976, Hill’s first full season as a constructor.

Brise behind the wheel of the Lola-based Hill, resplendent in Embassy colours.

Brise behind the wheel of the Lola-based Hill, resplendent in Embassy colours.

Former mechanic Ian Flux, in an interview with Motorsport.com, recalled: “Tony was all about natural talent and Graham saw that, which is why he looked after him so well. Graham loved Tony, and he was like a grown-up son to him.

“He really believed in Tony.”

The Embassy Hill family set to work on putting its plans in motion for ’76. In Brise, the team had a driver on which it could build around. Andy Smallman was in charge of penning the new Hill GH2, another development of the Lola T370 commissioned by the team in 1974. Eschewing the glum British weather, Hill began its winter testing program at the Paul Ricard circuit in the south of France, and progress was looking good.

With plenty of seat-time in the GH2, Brise started to feel much more at home, and by the end of the week was brimming with confidence in the new car. Flux recalls: “The last [telegram from Brise] was ‘car now brilliant – test ended – see you Monday morning’.”

That Monday morning never came. On the 30th November, 1975, the world woke up to the shocking news that Hill, Brise and the team of engineers and mechanics all died in the plane crash at Elstree. Brise, at just 23 years old, had his life tragically cut short. A young and talented driver, what Tony Brise could have achieved in Formula 1 will forever be unknown.

f1-1975-tony-brise-and-graham-hill

Sources: 8w.forix.com, motorsport.com, historicracing.com