1955 Syracuse Grand Prix: A Dentist Fills the British Manufacturing Cavity
February 26, 2014 by Jeremy McMullen
Ever since Raymond Mays laid a BRM egg, the promise of British manufacturing in Formula One had been left unfulfilled and there were very few signs of that hole being filled any time soon. British manufacturing appeared disease-riddled. Therefore, it would be no minor miracle Tony Brooks would perform on the 23rd of October in 1955.
Connaught had earned respect and success in Formula 2 with its Lea-Francis-powered car. The tiny firm from Send, outside of Woking, would provide drives for some of the best British drivers of the period, including Mike Hawthorn, Stirling Moss and Roy Salvadori. The constructor would continue to enjoy some success and would even take part in the Formula One World Championship starting in 1952 when the championship was conducted to Formula 2 regulations.
The first foray into the World Championship would be rather successful as the small team would come away with points-scoring results in the 1952 British Grand Prix at the hands of two different drivers. Earning those first points would be Eric Thompson and Dennis Poore. After that, for the next three years, the best Connaught would manage in the World Championship would be a 7th place earned by Prince Bira in the 1953 British Grand Prix.
Connaught would compete in the 1952 and 1953 World Championship with it's A-Type chassis. Unfortunately, new Formula One regulations would come into play in 1954 and the A-Type would be left behind. Connaught needed to upgrade if it wished to continue to compete at the highest level.
In April of 1955, Connaught would debut its latest car, the B-Type. Driven by Tony Rolt in the Glover Trophy race at Goodwood, Rolt would start the race from the second row of the grid but would only manage to complete 8 of the 21 laps before a fuel pump failure brought the debut to an end. This would be just a sign of things to come for the year.
Over the course of the first half of the season, the B-Type was beginning to show signs of pace. Leslie Marr would take a victory in a small non-championship Formula One race at the end of May. Reliability was still a problem, but time was running out for the British manufacturer as a very important championship race was right around the corner.
Connaught would take part in just one Formula One World Championship event over the course of the '55 season. The race would be the British Grand Prix and there would be no less than five B-Types entered in the race. Unfortunately, out of the five B-Types entered, only four would actually start the race and none of the remaining four would finish. Connaught was still struggling mightily.
Heading into the last part of the '55 season, it would be the Vandervell Vanwalls that would begin showing their potential. The B-Types still appeared a long ways away. The organizers for the V Gran Premio di Siracusa would be in a difficult situation themselves.
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To most drivers and teams throughout Europe, Connaught was by no means a major threat to Maserati. In Connaught's case, the draw would be the guaranteed starting money, which the firm badly needed. To maximize the opportunity presented them Connaught prepared two cars. Unfortunately, they needed another driver. Rodney Clarke, the managing director of Connaught had someone in mind that, at the time, seemed to be a foolish pick.
Tony Brooks was a little busy at the time he received the call to come and drive for Connaught in Syracuse. At the time, he was busy studying for exams. He was a studying dentistry at Manchester University and had only been racing in sportscars up to that time. In fact, the man from Dukinfield had barely any experience at the wheel of a single-seater grand prix car when Clarke proposed that he drive for the team. So not only would he not be a full-fledged dentist; he would also not be very adept with a grand prix car either. But though he would study for his exams on the plane, Brooks would nevertheless agree to come and drive for Connaught. It would prove to be a decision that would powerfully affect his career from then on.
Having the cars and the drivers, Connaught was still a long way from being prepared for the race. For one thing, the team had to make it to Sicily first. While Brooks would fly, the team would set off across Europe with two Greenline buses. After paperwork and directional problems, the cars were really no closer to Syracuse than when they had left and the race was just a couple of days away.
While the team's buses encountered problems just trying to get the cars to the race, Brooks and Les Leston, the other Connaught driver, would have problems of their own. The first day of practice would come and go and still there were no signs of Connaught. Brooks and Leston were there, but that was about it. This presented an acute problem for Brooks. Not only had he not driven a Formula One car before, but he had never been around the Syracuse circuit either. The only solution he could come up with, especially since he didn't have the money, was to rent a Vespa scooter and to ride around the 3.48 mile circuit to get a sense of what he would encounter.
The task of arriving had proven daunting; just one of the cars had made it by the time of the second practice on Friday. But now the team would be going up against no less than five factory Maseratis, two of which were the latest evolution of the 250F chassis. And, with the team's limited budget, both men would be limited in their laps.
Luigi Musso and Luigi Villoresi had shown what a tough task Connaught would be facing as they would go out and lap the circuit at an average speed near 100mph. The Italian spectators kind of smiled as the British outfit, especially the young man getting an eyeful of a single-seater for the first time. In the face of such doubt, Brooks was cool and thoroughly enjoying himself, or better yet, still too distracted with his exams. When he did take to the circuit in the B-Type he would shock the Italian fans and the Italian team from Modena as he would quickly set the fastest lap. This just would not do for the proud Trident mark, and so, Villoresi and Musso would be quickly sent back out to regain order.
Because of the need for the starting money, Brooks' incredible lap would have to stand as Connaught wanted to make sure both of its cars made it to the grid on the 23rd. This played into the hands of the factory Maserati effort as Villoresi and Musso would both go faster. Musso would end up on the pole while Villoresi would line up 2nd. Brooks, in his first-ever race in a B-Type, would line up on the front row in 3rd. Heading to the start of his first Formula One race, Brooks had only 11 or 12 laps under his belt.
Even while Brooks would shock more than a few people after his short run in practice, the fact Musso and Villoresi started from the first two positions on the front rank gave the Italians more than enough confidence the red cars would streak to victory. Added to that Connaught's lack of reliability and it seemed certain the British team was really there to fill up space.
Initially, the race distance was to be 80 laps. However, 70 laps would be decided upon as there was a real concern the race would not finish before dark. At the start, Brooks would get bogged down and would lose out on positions. At the end of the first lap it would be Maseratis leading the way with the Connaughts in 4th and 5th place. All seemed right with the world in the Italians' eyes. But then, after just 10 laps, Brooks had managed to claw his way back up the order. He was 2nd, not far behind Musso. No, the factory Maseratis were not in trouble. It was just that this dentist from Dukinfield was proving to be that good in a car that wasn't.
There was really nothing the red cars could do. Despite his lack of running, Brooks was able to lap sometimes up to 2 seconds a lap faster than any of the Maseratis. It seemed impossible then that Brooks would soon be in the lead, playing with Musso.
Brooks would quickly prove his racing acumen as he would quickly realize he had a strength in the Connaught the Maserati lacked. The Connaught was fitted with disc brakes while the Maserati relied on the bigger, heavier and limited drum brakes. As Brooks and Musso became embroiled in a terrific battle for the lead, Musso would realize the Maserati had the speed to catch and pass the Connaught at the end of the straights. Therefore, he would brake late to take the position away from Brooks. Proving his intelligence, Brooks realized his disc brakes could better handle the strain and also knew that by the Maserati braking so late, he could then retake the lost position during acceleration out of the corner. This is exactly what would happen for a number of laps and it would thoroughly delight the crowd, although it would concern them slightly the British car was still able to keep pace.
There were terrific battles back through the field but it would be the battle between Brooks and Musso that would really gather the most attention. The two men would go back and forth. It was clear, however, that it was Musso who had to work the hardest to keep touch. This was nothing short of amazing. It would be all the more amazing given the nature of the circuit in which these two conducted their battle.
Just to the west of the ancient city, amongst the rolling countryside, ran a number of public highways that connected Syracuse to the rest of the island. These public roads would comprise the 3.48 mile Syracuse circuit and it would be fast. But though it would be fast, the circuit would also be very unforgiving. Lined by concrete barriers nearly the whole length of the circuit, there was very little room for error, especially while average speeds climb to record levels over the course of the race.
The calm, quiet Brooks would feel right at home while Musso had to push left and right to try and gain some kind of advantage. However, Musso would soon realize it was a lost cause and would begin to drift slowly backward from the B-Type. Luigi would employ the other tactic he had at his disposal—wait for the Connaught to fail. This was, usually, a full-proof tactic. Nearly all season long the car proved the tactic worked. Therefore, Musso was not giving up. He was just letting the B-Type do what they all knew it did best.
Lap after lap would go by and still the B-Type ran and ran. Musso knew he couldn't let the car get too far out of reach. Therefore, he would pick up the pace. Brooks would be notified of this and would pick up the pace himself. Seemingly at will, Tony could pull out two seconds a lap without really working hard. Still, the Connaught never failed.
Heading into the final ten laps of the race the scene could not have been more dramatic. There were only two green cars in a sea of red. The Connaught of Brooks would lead the red storm. Behind him came no less than six Maserati 250Fs and one Ferrari. Trailing behind that privateer Ferrari would be the B-Type driven by Leston. Leston's position, in the minds of the public seemed right. But that lone green car leading a whole fleet of red was mesmerizing, and was also cause for a little bit of panic.
Nobody had taken the Connaught challenge very seriously, and, with about ten laps remaining in the race, the organizers had to look hard for the British national anthem on record to be played in the ceremonies. It would take a little time but the anthem would be found.
Two hours, twenty-four minutes and fifty-five seconds later, Brooks would come tearing across the finish line having averaged 99mph over the course of 243 miles to take a convincing win of 50 seconds over Musso. Even more demonstrative would be the fact the great Villoresi would finish in 3rd place, a little more than two laps behind.
It would be the remarkable moment nobody thought possible. Anchored by a fastest lap and a victory in a big international grand prix, Brooks would provide relief for which the British public had been looking for more than half a decade, since the grand promises of the foiled BRM program. But Brooks wouldn't just sooth the ache. He would help to give the British the same confidence he bore in that grand smile of his.
This would prove to be a watershed moment. Brooks had performed the root canal. The rot had been cleansed. The Brits now knew one of their manufacturers could do it. They had seen Moss and Hawthorn succeed. They knew their manufacturers could do likewise. The stage would be set for England to become the home of Formula One, and Tony Brooks would remain an important figure in that transformation.
Traditionally, Sicily had been a must in grand prix racing. However, in the modern era of grand prix racing and the Formula One World Championship, the ancient island struggled to hold the same prestige. Usually, however, the Syracuse Grand Prix would draw the best Italian marks. However, as the date of the race drew closer and closer it would become abundantly clear that Scuderia Ferrari would not attend the race. This meant the only factory team that would attend the race would be the factory Maserati team. The rest of the field would be comprised of privateer entries. Fearful of a Maserati runaway and a poor showing for the fans, the organizers would go on a search for another factory team, particularly an international one, to help provide some competition and flavor. The only one that would answer the call would be Connaught Engineering.
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