Remembering Tony Brise, 40 years on

This Sunday marks 40 years since the tragic death of rising British Formula 1 star Tony Brise. With the help of Ian Flux and Nick Jordan, Sam Smith looks back on the life of a man seemed destined for great things.

On 29 November 1975, the motorsport world lost one of its most loved characters, Graham Hill, after a plane crash in North London.

Along with the double F1 World Champion, Le Mans and Indy 500 winner, five other souls perished – all of them talented professionals in the nascent Embassy Hill squad.

Ray Brimble, Andy Smallman, Terry Richards and Tony Alcock all died on Arkley Gold Course, alongside Hill. So too did a 23 year-old who was one of Britain’s biggest racing talents. His name was Tony Brise.

On the cusp of breaking through as a top-line F1 driver, Brise left behind grieving loved ones, team members and a yawning sense of ‘what if’ had he been given the chance to realise his considerable talent.

Several generations on, there are agonising and awkward hypotheses to consider.

For two men, who became trusted lieutenants in Brise’s all too short racing career, this Sunday will conjure up many of those unanswered questions.

Ian Flux, then just 19 years old and working for the Embassy Hill team as a junior mechanic, watched helplessly as the team he worked for and lived by was decimated.

Nick Jordan was Brise’s mechanic at the Modus Formula Atlantic and F3 team in 1974/75, when Brise broke through on to the International scene.

A man who bleeds racing, Jordan was a key figure in the ‘Lost Generation’ immortalised by David Tremayne’s excellent 2006 book on Brise, Roger Williamson and Tom Pryce.

Motorsport.com was privileged to sit down with both Flux and Jordan recently, and they shared their memories of one of F1’s greatest lost talents.

For Flux, who had been recommended to Graham Hill by Neil Trundle, partner with a certain R. Dennis at the Rondel F2 team, Brise struck a chord, mainly due to the fact he was just a few years older than the ambitious mechanic/racer himself.

 “The first time Tony came to the factory was just after Graham failed to qualify at Monaco, which was really sad after what he achieved there throughout his career,” recalls Flux.

“Anyway, Tony comes to the factory really late and he was really quite unapologetic, sort of saying: ‘I’ve arrived, where’s my bloody car?’

“So, we got the two-part foam out and sat him in the cockpit. Our then chief mechanic Alan Turner said: ‘Right you, we ain’t having no superstars in this team, ok. We’re off for lunch now, so see you later.’

“We went to the pub and left him for an hour to have a think about his time-keeping. That did him a lot of good within the team!”

“He was confident and he knew he was quick, you could see that. Yes, he had a slight arrogance, but we soon drummed that out of him.”

 

Tony Brise and Graham Hill
Tony Brise and Graham Hill

 

Nick Jordan agrees with Flux, and the no-nonsense Scot had an equally direct way of parrying any diva delusions Brise might have had.

“He could be aloof in his manner yes, and when he first came to Modus I had to straighten him out a bit in my own special ‘northern way’,” chuckles Jordan.

“He was demanding but he was also kind and he had a very good nature. Once you got a handle on him he was as good as gold.”

“I remember very vividly when I first saw Tony, and it was when I was working for Roger Williamson in F3, where we ran him in a GRD,” continues Jordan.

“I knew Roger very well; in fact my wife and I (Irene) lived with him for a while back then. We were close; he was like a bit of a brother really.”

Brise had enjoyed a meteoric surge through the lower ranks in racing. Runner-up in the ultra-competitive FF1600 series in ’71, the 1973 John Player F3 champion and star performer in Formula Atlantic was ready to compete in F1 by the spring of 1975.

But for Jordan, evidence of Brise’s sensational talent came a lot earlier than that, at a blustery Snetterton in 1972, and the memory is still fresh.

“At Snett, Roger and Tony had a fantastic race in F3,” remembers Jordan. “Roger just pipped him over the line after he made a move coming under the bridge at the old Russell.

“Tony said afterwards: ‘I just couldn’t believe what he did there, he’s mad.’ But Roger was like that, he was ballsy, and he hooked through on the inside using the gravel, grass and whatever he could hook his tyres on to… he did him good and proper.”

Brise and Jordan’s paths crossed again in 1974 when the young racer went to Modus, a new operation fronted by property developer Ted Savory. It was essentially run on a design/engineering basis by Swiss designer Jo Marquart and Jordan himself.

“1974 was hard because we did some F3 with the Pinto engine and it wasn’t always on song,” says Jordan.

“But by the time we went to Ireland in September, the Formula Atlantic series was taking off and we had a secret weapon in Johhny Nic (engine guru and Lyncar racer John Nicholson).

“John sorted the Holby engine out with his magic box of tricks and we ended up winning the big Leinster Trophy race at Mondello Park. It was a memorable weekend because Alan Jones got in to a scrap with a local nut-case, and I ended up having to intervene and wrestle Jonesy off him.

“Not every day you have to stop a future World Champion crackin’ someone’s head against the wall of an Irish toilet!”

1975 was to be a crunch season for Brise, but it started shakily.

“Tony wanted to do F2 in 1975 but couldn’t get the money together,” remembers Jordan. “So I said to Tony, why not use our old development Formula Atlantic car and we’ll build it around a new tub and bodywork, use Nicolson engines and we’ll go out and we’ll ‘horse ‘em all senseless.’

It was a good plan and it paid off handsomely for Brise. By the time he got to the Monaco Grand Prix support race, unbeknown to Jordan, Brise had already got his career mapped out with Embassy Hill.

“At Monaco we took the Atlantic car and we had a Neil Brown prepared twin-cam engine, which we ran with a mark nine gearbox, where most others used an FT200 box,” says Jordan.

“We did a lot of work on the car, really honed it and Tony was instrumental in that process too. So at Monaco we were really confident, full of beans.”

“There were two heats in the race, and in the first one there was a misfire on the engine and he started to go backward. He came in to the pits and I whipped off the engine cover.

“I saw the plug-lead had jumped off, so I reached in and sorted it, and then I banged him on the helmet to go.

For Jordan, it soon dawned on him that his error had accounted for the misfire, and he was mortified.

“As he left the pits I knew in my heart I’d made a mistake when I changed the plugs before the race. I was devastated and I went back on to the truck and cried my eyes out, I thought ‘I’ve f****** his whole career up here, and the whole f****** F1 paddock are watching it happen!”

But salvation came in the shape of Brise’s Modus somehow making it in to the final.

“I don’t know how, but he finished ninth, which got him on to the final row of the grid for the main race,” continued Jordan.

“Tony knew I felt guilty but he came up to me, put his arms around my shoulder, and said: ‘Don’t worry big man; everything is going to be ok, we can win it tomorrow, no problem.’

It wasn’t for show, nor was it bravura – Brise really believed he would win the race, from the back of the grid, at Monaco!

“On the grid he just flicked his visor up and said to me: ‘I’ll either be on the podium or I’ll be in the f****** wall, but it will be an adventure on the way through.’

It certainly was an adventure, as Brise scythed through the field, and in the closing stages caught the leader – Brazilian, Alex Ribeiro driving a works March- Toyota.

The inevitable happened, and the two collided at Mirabeau. Brise mounted the March and the two came to rest with nothing but the delirious roar from the nearby Tip Top car to comfort them.

Renzo Zorzi blasted through to an unlikely win. Brise pulled his Modus off the back of Ribiero’s March, got back in and came home 11th.

“That night we went up to the Metropole (hotel) where he was staying and he gave me £50, which in 1975 was a lot of money,” recalls Jordan.

“He said ‘go and get some beers in for the lads, you deserve it, get pissed.’ Then out of his other pocket he brought out a sheet of paper with a big Embassy Hill logo on top and it was his F1 contract. Nobody other than Graham [Hill] and Tony knew about it.

“He was so excited and it seemed to be his big chance was there with him, literally in his pocket. I’ll never forget that moment.”

 

James Hunt, Tony Brise and Ronnie Peterson
James Hunt, Tony Brise and Ronnie Peterson

 

Brise, now on cloud nine, dovetailed his Modus commitments, F5000 outings and his new F1 adventure with Embassy Hill throughout the summer, which would be his last.

There was much irony around Brise’s start in F1, as he debuted for Frank Williams in a FW03 at the Spanish Grand Prix in Montjuich Park, in April. He finished seventh.

It was, however, a race tainted by tragedy as several spectators were killed when Rolf Stommelen, driving the Embassy Hill, vaulted in to the crowd after a rear-wing failure.

With Stommelen injured, Brise was given his chance by Hill and so began his all-too-brief Embassy Hill F1 career. At Zolder, he qualified a sensational seventh, before retiring with a cooked Cosworth engine.

“Tony was all about natural talent and Graham saw that, which is why he looked after him so well,” opines Flux. “They were close, you could see that.

“Graham loved Tony, and he was like a grown-up son to him, he really believed in Tony.”

“When you look at it after what happened with Tony, it is easy to say he would have gone on to win Grands Prix, etc. But genuinely, given the right opportunity, I don’t think there is anyone who would say he wouldn’t have done that. He was too bloody good.

“You know, I used to have a massive ‘chip on my shoulder’ about Nigel Mansell, because I raced against him and beat him in F3, and after a few years in F1 he was nowhere near winning a race.

“But my attitude changed when he won his first Grand Prix at Brands. Still took him five years, though, when I reckon Tony would have taken two at most.

“I could see Tony in that Williams in 1980, and he would have walked the title I’m sure,” says Flux.

“Jonesy did a great job but I am sure that Frank [Williams] would have loved Tony in one of his cars. That would have been a bloody good match-up.”

Brise starred again at Zandvoort and Anderstorp, scoring a championship point at the latter. Monza too exposed his massive potential and he qualified the GH1 in sixth, ahead of Messrs Hunt, Reutemann, Peterson and Andretti among others in only his ninth Grand Prix.

The magic carpet ride though would come to the most appalling end. On the way back from an encouraging test at Paul Ricard on Saturday, November 29th, he was lost, in a split second, forever.

“The last telex we got at the factory was positive because they had taken a GH1 and GH2 down there and put the back-end of the GH1 on to the monocoque of the GH2,” recalls Flux.

“So the last message was: ‘Car now brilliant, test ended, see you Monday morning’.

“The first I knew about the accident was when I was coming back from seeing Queen playing in concert. I’d met this girl there and was driving her home to Cranleigh, listening to the radio in my Volkswagen caravanette.

“It came on the news that a plane had come down at Elstreee. I just knew it was them. I found myself in this crazy situation where I was introduced to her parents and the first thing I said to them was ‘I need to borrow your phone, because I think my friends might be dead.’

For Flux, it was a pivotal moment in his young life, and he almost unconsciously struck a deal with himself to savour every minute of life.

“I went to all except Graham’s funeral,” says Flux. “It has stuck with me always. Going to so many funerals in five days, well, it affects you.

“Looking back on it now, I think it gave me the realisation to live life for every day. Accidents do happen, and it would be terribly sad if you hadn’t enjoyed life when it was your turn to go before you think you ready to.”

Nick Jordan is unequivocal on what Brise’s legacy is – that of a winner.

“Without a doubt he would have won Grands Prix and maybe more,” he says. “You have to look at who he was up against in those days. Alan Jones went on to win the title [in 1980].

“Tony was exactly the kind of driver who would have excelled in late 70s and early 80s F1 cars. He was a pro and he understood race cars from an engineering perspective.

“His life was cut short at 23 years of age. It’s like Bianchi this year, a bloody tragedy. What can you say about something like that? Not much, it’s just an awful waste of life and potential.”

Forty years on, and Flux is still clearly moved by what occurred that foggy November evening, when so many lives were turned upside down by the tragedy on Arkley golf course.

But, the memories of Tony Brise will forever permeate through the awful end to his brief but brilliant life.

“I still see Janet [Tony’s widow] most years at the British Grand Prix,” Flux says. “There is a bench outside the BRDC.

“We sit on it, have a beer and talk about Tony. It’s always a bright conversation, full of good memories.”

Motorsport.com would like to thank Ian Flux and Nick Jordan for their input

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Series Formula 1
Article type Special feature
Tags ian flux, nick jordan, tony brise