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Remembering Russell Brookes

Russell Brookes driving his Opel Manta 400 at Race Retro in 2014. Photo credit: Russ Pemberton

Double British Rally Champion Russell Brookes had an inauspicious start to his rallying career. A former Rover Company apprentice with a limited amount of disposable income, his early rallying experiences came from the passenger seat, as co-driver to his friend Roger Platt. Taking the wheel for a road section on the Gulf London in 1968, Brookes crashed Platt’s car, forcing them to retire from the rally. “As you can imagine,” Platt says, “at the time it gave me no indication that Russell would achieve such success [as a driver] in later years!”

That success would see Brookes’ name become synonymous with British rallying of the 1970s and 80s and earned him legions of fans. His status as one of the most popular drivers in what was arguably a golden era for the sport was reflected in the number of tributes that were paid following his death earlier this year aged 74.

Many of Brookes’ cars were adorned in the now iconic Andrews Heat for Hire livery. John Andrews, founder of the company which sponsored him in a long-running deal from 1974- 1991, said: “Russell’s determination to win, whatever the challenge, was an inspiration… He set life examples to us all of guts and determination, prudence, lateral thinking and loyalty. He was simply a sponsor’s ultimate dream who became a very good personal friend, together with his family. The world is a poorer place for his loss but very much the better for his life.”

Brookes secured his first British Rally Championship crown in 1977 at the wheel of a works Ford Escort RS1800, just one year after joining the team. His second title came in 1985, driving the car for which he is perhaps best remembered, the Opel Manta 400, and in which he battled with team-mate Jimmy McRae.

Although Brookes rallied predominantly in the British Championship, his talent was just as evident when competing on international events. In 1978, he won Rally New Zealand, while on his home event in the World Championship, the RAC Rally, he achieved three consecutive podium places from 1977-1979. Another impressive result was a sixth-place finish on Rally Finland in 1982, driving a Vauxhall Chevette. Brookes finished his competitive career where it began, driving for Ford, and delivered their first international win with the Sierra Sapphire RS Cosworth 4×4 on the 1990 Manx Trophy Rally.

After retiring from professional competition in 1991, Brookes often attended events such as Race Retro and the Goodwood Festival of Speed, where he would be re-united with the cars that brought him such success.

It was at Race Retro in 2016 when Brookes first met Chris Ingram, the 25-year old driver from Manchester who this year became the first Britain to be crowned European Rally Champion in over 50 years. But his triumph may never have been possible if it wasn’t for that meeting with Brookes, as Ingram explains: “Shortly after the event, Russell went on to help me secure sponsorship from his former loyal sponsors, Andrews Heat for Hire. This effectively saved my career by enabling me to compete in the European Junior Rally Championship in 2017 with Opel Motorsport, which I went on to win.”

Their encounter at Stoneleigh Park in 2016 was memorable for another reason, with Ingram getting to experience Brookes’ “impeccable car control” from the passenger seat of an Opel Manta 400, before being let loose in the car himself. Ingram said of the experience: “It was a true honour and inspiring moment for me.”

“Russell was a true gentleman and British rally legend. I have so much to thank him for, and he will be remembered so fondly by us all.”

When he wasn’t entertaining the crowds from behind the wheel, Brookes also served as the president of his local motor club, Redditch and District Car Club (RDCC).

Brookes first joined RDCC in 1966, along with Roger Platt. Despite their early mishap on the 1968 Gulf London, it wouldn’t take long before Brookes’ talent behind the wheel of a rally car became obvious. Platt said: “We started directly competing against each other in the Motoring News Championship in 1970/71, me in my Escort and him in his Mini, and we had many battles at the top of the field. It was through these battles that I was aware that he had great potential as a driver.” This natural speed, combined with what Platt calls “the steely determination to win at all costs,” sowed the seeds for Brookes’ later victories.

Outside of the car, Platt says that Brookes had a “quick wit and tremendous memory for funny stories.” He was also very persuasive: “When I first met him, he didn’t have much money and was well known for turning up at the pub for last orders knowing someone would buy the drinks – I lost count of the times he borrowed £3 and never paid it back… Having said that, he was generous in so many other ways.”

Summing up Brookes after their many years of friendship, Platt said: “no one’s perfect – it’s just that the great man was a bit more perfect than most!”

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