Published: 06:00, 01 April 2021
| Updated: 13:30, 04 April 2021
Sensationally talented and having finally secured the Formula 1 drive he more than deserved, Tony Brise had it all.
And then – on one foggy November night in 1975 – tragedy struck and Kent lost its brightest motor racing star who was tipped for the very top.
Aged just 23, there was little doubt the tall Bexley ace and protege of legendary champion Graham Hill would have become a world-beater.
But as he flew back from a successful test session in the south of France in Hill's light aircraft, their plane crashed into trees in north London and not one of the six men on board survived.
The media naturally focused on the death of the double world champion but, as the driver chosen to lead Hill's own Embassy Hill Racing squad, Brise had made it to the big time and was brimming with confidence ahead of his first full season in F1.
Following in the tyre tracks of his father Johnny, a three-time world stockcar conqueror, the former Eltham College student had won virtually everything in his junior career.
And with Hill retiring from driving to concentrate on running his team, all the ingredients were in place for a strong 1976 campaign in which James Hunt and Niki Lauda so famously battled for the title.
"It's a real tragedy that Tony never got the chance to show his full potential," says Graham's son Damon, the 1996 F1 champion who was just 15 years old when the crash happened.
"I only know what I have learnt in subsequent years because I was too young to really know Tony when he arrived, but he was a really lovely guy.
"It seemed like he ticked all of the boxes to make a name for yourself in F1.
"He was a very intelligent guy – I have listened to some of the interviews with him and he was a very thoughtful, philosophical person."
In Watching the Wheels, Damon's autobiography, he suggests his father's relationship with Brise could have mirrored that of Ken Tyrrell and Jackie Stewart – a bond between team owner and driver that resulted in three world titles.
Brise had in fact made his F1 debut in a one-off drive with Frank Williams' squad at the Spanish Grand Prix in April 1975 – a race hit by tragedy when Rolf Stommelen's Embassy Hill left the circuit, killing a marshal and four spectators.
But Hill had picked up on Brise's obvious talent and hired him as a replacement for the injured Stommelen at the following month's Belgian GP.
His engine failed on lap 18, but qualifying on the fourth row alongside reigning champion and points leader Emerson Fittipaldi showed just how good he was.
In all, Brise took part in 10 grands prix during 1975, scoring one championship point in machinery that was far from pace-setting.
"I think my dad would have been a better catch for Tony [than Williams]," Damon, 60, says.
"No disrespect to Frank, but in the early days he wasn't front-running or anywhere near that.
"My dad's team had got through the pain barrier and was starting to look like it could have been a reasonably good contender.
"When you look at what happened with Hunt and the Hesketh team, it was still possible in those days to turn yourself around in a very short space of time.
"And with my dad having recently retired and stepping back from driving, he would have been very well-placed to bring on Tony.
"It would have been a motivating factor for the team to have a young guy like Tony there."
But, sadly, the team's 1976 season never happened and all of the work put into developing their promising GH2 chassis came to nought.
Following the productive test at the Paul Ricard circuit near Marseille, Hill’s Piper Aztec plane was coming into land at Elstree Aerodrome when it crashed in thick fog on Arkley golf course in Barnet.
With six of the key core team personnel lost in the tragedy, the tight-knit squad couldn't continue and was closed down.
"It was all looking reasonably positive and that makes it all the more poignant and sad," Damon says.
"They had gone from using other people's cars to building and designing their own one and it's just so sad that everyone's futures were just snatched away.
"I do look at Frank Williams' team and I think my dad's could well have been a Williams-type operation and been as successful as that, but that's how life is – you can't be sure what the future holds."
Before graduating to F1, Brise, the eldest of three brothers, had enjoyed a stellar career in the junior ranks, becoming the joint British karting champion in 1969.
He then moved into car racing, taking numerous victories in Formula Ford aboard an unfancied Kent Messenger-backed Elden, finishing runner-up in the 1971 British championship.
Still sponsored by the KM for his graduation to Formula 3 the following year, he continued to show great speed and went on to win both the John Player and Lombard F3 championships in 1973.
But despite all of his successes, he seemed to be flying under the radar and was unable to secure a move into F1.
"I do feel he should have been picked up earlier – he was really talented," says former Buckmore Park kart circuit owner Bill Sisley, 67, who was good friends with Brise and worked as a mechanic on his Formula Ford car.
"I saw the same with Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button and Johnny Herbert at Buckmore – there was just something about them and they were naturally quick.
"I spent so much time with Tony and he had a certain arrogance about him that is what a champion needs."
Lacking the budget to move into Formula 2 for 1974, Brise became a star of Formula Atlantic before finally getting his F1 call-up in April '75.
But even after impressing on his top-line debut at the Spanish GP, the deal with Williams was only for one event and he was back in F3 for the next grand prix in Monaco – an event where Hill realised he had to snap up the university graduate.
Starting from the back following a misfire, Brise cut through the field in his Modus and caught race leader Alex Ribeiro in the closing stages.
'It's a bit like Johnny Herbert's F1 career – we don't know what would have happened if he hadn't had that accident...'
The Brazilian shut the door at the tight Mirabeau corner and the resulting contact forced Brise out of contention, but he had done enough to catch Hill's eye.
"Graham was watching in the pitbox while the race was on, talking to Tony's wife, Janet," says Brise's nephew David, himself a successful sportscar racer.
"He was looking for a young talent he could mould and all of a sudden he was interested in Tony.
"They got on really well and Graham was like a second father to him – they were as thick as thieves which was really cool."
During his nine races with the Embassy Hill squad, Brise, who grew up in Rowhill Road, Hextable, took a best result of sixth at the Swedish GP, only losing fifth spot due to gearbox trouble.
In Italy for what turned out to be his penultimate race with the team, he outqualified the likes of Carlos Reutemann, Hunt and Ronnie Peterson, setting a time good enough for sixth on the grid.
And alongside his new F1 commitments, Brise entered Formula 5000 events during the summer of '75, starring in the inaugural Long Beach Grand Prix for Theodore Racing against the likes of Al Unser and Mario Andretti.
"If you look at what he did in F1 with a Hill car that was not the quickest, Tony would have definitely made it," says Romney Marsh-based Sisley, who worked at Johnny Brise's Montala Motors garage in Dartford before starting his own karting business.
"I think he had the perfect make-up for a racing driver and he would have been a world champion.
"Tony definitely had the right attitude and the skill, but he just died too young and it's a shame he never got to fulfil his potential."
Off track, Brise studied business administration at Aston University, Birmingham, and graduated with an honours degree.
His younger brother Tim – dad to David – was a successful professional driver in his own right and made his name in rallying in the late 1970s.
The 67-year-old, who lives near Leeds Castle, still races to this day, handling a Merlyn Mk20 in the Historic Formula Ford Championship.
'Unless the Hill car was capable of winning a championship, he would have been snapped up by a big team – potentially Ferrari...'
"There is so much racing history in the Brise family especially when you include my grandfather Johnny," says David, 38, a professional driver who previously worked as chief instructor at the Goodwood circuit in West Sussex.
"But the Brise family dynasty never came from money – none of our racing successes have ever been from the fact that we have a big pot of money to support us.
"A lot of people look at motorsport as very elitist and something you can't get into and, yes, that's true with lots of it, but you can get into it without huge funding if you're hungry and want to work for it.
"Motorsport-wise, success in the Brise family has only ever come from hard work and Tony was one of those.
"He would prepare his own karts and cars – he certainly wasn't shy of picking a spanner up and doing some hard work to make sure the car was as fast as it could be."
Like Tony, David started his car racing career in Formula Ford and says he is proud to carry the family name while "trying not to let the Brise side down".
For this season, he will continue to drive a Dutch-built Saker RapX in selected Britcar and GT Cup rounds alongside long-time co-driver Alan Purbrick.
The pair will also compete in the Masters Endurance Legends series, driving a "beautiful" LMP2 Lola from 2009.
"It's fabulous to know that part of motorsport's history is in my blood," David, who lives near West Peckham, says.
"Some people say Tony was arrogant but he was very quiet in a lot of ways – he wasn't an outlandish person and his life was about how he could make himself faster.
"I'm probably a bit like that – I will sit in a corner and just stew over how I can make the car quicker next time out rather than engaging in a conversation... it's a Brise trait!
"My grandmother always described Tony as a deep-thinker and sometimes people would assume that was arrogance even though he was just deep in his own thoughts.
"I don't think he was always the life and soul of the party like Hunt was, but everyone who knew him well and all of his close friends said he was a really lovely, genuine person.
"For those who only met him for five minutes, he probably didn't come across as the most open extrovert because that was just not his way.
"But he knew how good he was, there's no question about that."
'Let's be generous and say I think Tony could have been a world champion in the right situation...'
While searching for a new driver to lead the Embassy Hill team, Damon thinks his father, who was 46 when he died, would have been impressed by Tony's attitude.
"My dad probably saw a little bit of his commitment and drive in Tony," he says.
"People weren't looking for drivers who wanted to just play at it – they wanted people who were committed.
"When someone is told it's an impossible dream but they don't give up, then they are the sort of people you want."
More than 45 years since the tragedy, David feels his uncle's story "could do with being retold to the younger generation".
"I think an awful lot of people in Kent might be massive motorsport fans but won't know the story of this wonderkid from the county who – back in the 70s – everybody said was going to be the next world champion," he said.
"My prediction would have been that, after '76, unless the Hill car was capable of winning a championship, he would have been snapped up by a big team – potentially Ferrari.
"People like Herbie Blash [former Brabham team boss] who were around F1 with Bernie Ecclestone say the same thing because everybody would have wanted to give him the right car.
"Tyrrell were sniffing around in '75 and he was offered a drive in the six-wheeler, but my grandad said it wasn't a great plan because it was an unknown car and he thought it would get banned, and that turned out to be true.
"There is a good quote from Bernie when he was asked 'is Tony really as good as everybody is saying he is?' and Bernie said 'no, he's better than that.'"
Damon shares a similar view to that of the former F1 supremo, saying Brise had the "flare, talent and ability" needed to go all the way.
"It's a bit like Johnny Herbert's F1 career – we don't know what would have happened if he hadn't had that accident [in Formula 3000 at Brands Hatch in 1988]," Damon says.
"That is sadly something we will never know, but let's be generous and say I think Tony could have been a world champion in the right situation.
"He was certainly in the right place at the right time to start with, but then catastrophe hit – it's just all very sad."
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