JACK BRABHAM REMEMBERED
We look back at the career highlights of the three-time champion and racing legend, Sir Jack Brabham
Sir Jack Brabham has left us. Australian motor racing has lost its greatest ever; world motor racing has lost a champion whose influence on the sport extended far beyond the act of mere driving, a man whose achievements in Formula One will never be matched. But how high does the name Brabham sit on the list of all-time greats of the sport?
Michael Schumacher, Juan-Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost, Sebastian Vettel. Those four men are the only drivers in the 63 years of the World Drivers’ Championship to have been crowned more times than Sir Jack Brabham. Sir Jack’s Formula One scorecard of three world titles is matched only by Ayrton Senna, Sir Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda and Nelson Piquet.
These are Brabham’s peers in the honour roll of the greatest drivers in the history of the Formula One world championship. Yet in a way Brabham’s achievements stand alone, because no one else ever won the world crown in a car bearing their own name.
That, of course, was the 1966 title which Jack won in a Repco Brabham BT19, powered by a 3-litre single-cam V8 engine developed by, of all people, Repco, in, of all places, Melbourne.
But just as Brabham’s third and final crown had added merit for the unparalleled technological achievement it represented, so too did his first title. His 1959 world championship win in a Cooper T51-Climax was the first for a mid-engined racing car, and it laid down the drivetrain blueprint for the future of world motor racing. At Cooper, Brabham was the key driving force behind the development of its mid-engined racing cars.
This achievement shouldn’t be downplayed. It was momentous; it truly did amount to a revolution in racing car design.
Even in the late ’50s the mere idea that a mid-engined grand prix car could be superior to the time-honoured front-engined layout was
something akin to declaring the world was flat. But together Brabham and Cooper took that idea and made it work – and they changed Formula One (and also the Indianapolis 500) from frontengine to mid-engine.
How do you properly rate the place in motor racing history of a figure such as Brabham? It’s always difficult to make meaningful comparisons between great drivers from different eras, but the engineering component of Brabham’s successes makes him a particularly tricky case.
Not that there’s ever been much debate among the experts when it comes to Jack Brabham, however: in most of the all-time great driver polls over the years, it’s rare that Brabham features near the top. Often he doesn’t even make the top 20. It’s not even just the journalists who don’t rate Sir Jack. In the current issue of Motor Sport magazine’s reader’s poll of the top three drivers of the 1960s, Brabham is nowhere to be seen. Clark tops that poll, over Mario Andretti and
Brabham’s 1959 world championship win was the first for a mid-engined racing car and laid down the drivetrain blueprint for the future of world motor racing
If this serial undervaluing of Brabham is a bit puzzling, it is at least understandable when put in context.
For one thing, when it came to popularity contests Jack tended to be his own worst enemy. Fiercely competitive though he was, Brabham was never one to actively seek the limelight. He even once conceded that he probably did not ‘do himself any favours’ during his F1 career by failing to indulge the (largely British) media. A man of few words at the best of times, Brabham had more important things to do when he was not behind the wheel of a racing car than butter up the press – like work on the next sponsorship deal or help develop the next grand prix machine or customer MRD/Brabham car. It also can’t have helped that he raced in an era of so many British greats – the likes of Stirling Moss, Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill and John Surtees. A case can be made for ranking Moss and Clark above Brabham. But Graham Hill? The Motor Sport readers’ poll is just one of many that has ranked Hill ahead of Brabham – and yet the hard statistics to support Hill over Brabham aren’t easy to find. The two drivers scored both the same number of grand prix race wins and pole positions, and while Brabham set more fastest race laps, Hill had five more podiums. Hill’s time in F1 spanned 18 years, two longer than Brabham. So statistically there’s not much between them – except for the big one, which is the fact that Hill was world champion only twice, and Brabham did it three times.
Like Brabham, Hill went on to become a Formula One constructor. While the EmbassyHill team’s fortunes looked to be on the up just when Hill died in a plane crash, the single world championship point the team scored in its three seasons stands in stark contrast to what was
achieved by the Brabham team.
Sir Jack’s grand prix win record – which at 14 victories compares unfavourably with those of contemporaries Clark and Stewart – was badly affected by the decision to establish his own team. Following an unhappy and winless final (1961) season with Cooper, Brabham won not a single grand prix with his own team from 1962 through to the end of 1965. World championship titles in 1959 and ’60, followed by five years without a race win…
You could call this his Emerson Fittipaldi/ Copersucar or Jacques Villeneuve/BAR period. However, where the decisions of those two former world champions to leave perfectly successful teams to set up their own ended up killing their F1 careers, Brabham not only went on to make the team he built with Ron Tauranac work, but also to achieve a singular greatness which will surely never be matched.
Yet here, curiously, is one of the few things for which Sir Jack is unduly credited. It is often said he is the only man to win the world championship in a car of his own design – this is simply not true. Ron Tauranac designed the cars. Brabham of course had important engineering input into what Tauranac created, but in reality Brabham was the constructor, the facilitator who did the deals to make it all happen.
As a partnership, Brabham and Tauranac were formidable. The various capabilities of the two Australians complemented one another perfectly, and together they were able to achieve much more than they’d have managed singularly (without Tauranac, there’d probably have been no Brabham car; without Jack, the Tauranac-owned Brabham team lasted just one season in F1).
The Brabham/Tauranac collaboration dates back to the early 1950s in Sydney, but later when Jack was at Cooper, the pair corresponded – believe it or not – via letters in the mail as they compared ideas as to how to improve the performance of the Coopers. Brabham and Tauranac may have been colluding behind Charles Cooper’s back, but Tauranac had almost nothing to do with the midengine ‘revolution’. The impetus for that came from Jack. It was Brabham who honed the midengined Cooper package into a race winner.
No matter how excellent the Cooper T51 was in 1959, however, it still needed a good, fast driver like Brabham to fulfil its potential on the track. But just how good, just how fast was he? According to drivers who raced against him – the likes of Moss and Stewart – Brabham was chronically difficult to overtake; in all respects a formidable opponent.
Yet Sir Jackie also reckons that Jack ‘wasn’t the fastest driver’. There is certainly a widely held perception that Brabham lacked the ultimate pace of some of his rivals. It is an easy thing to say, but how true is it really?
The important thing to consider about Brabham the racing driver was that he was a different kind of competitor. His engineering background and his respect for the machinery he was operating – and which, unlike most of his rivals, he was usually paying for – frequently saw him opt not take it to its absolute limit of performance. Sir Jack was famous for the phrase ‘win at the slowest possible speed’, and it was no idle slogan.
In some ways, too, a touch of conservatism in the cockpit was probably a prudent way to go racing during what was one of the most dangerous eras in the sport’s history. Brabham lost many friends during his time in motor racing, dating right back to his beginnings in NSW speedway racing in the late ’40s. His abiding memory of winning the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix is not the victory itself, but the deaths during that race of Alan Stacey and Chris Bristow, in separate crashes.
Ron Tauranac says it is impossible to compare Brabham’s pace against the other top men of his era because Jack only ever went as fast as was necessary. He recalls, for instance, that Jack always used less revs than Jochen Rindt when they were team-mates in 1968; between races Brabham’s engines needed far less attention than Rindt’s. More than that, Tauranac adds, it was common for Brabham to back off on straights to avoid over-revving the engine. He would sometimes even deliberately avoid a gear change or two by backing off if there was a corner coming up. If he had just driven flat out all the time like everyone else, Tauranac claims, Brabham would have received a lot more acclaim than he did.
Brabham also went close to winning more
Ron Tauranac says it is impossible to compare Brabham’s pace against the other top men of his era because Jack only ever went as fast as necessary
championships than he ultimately did. He was within a whisker of successfully defending his 1966 crown – but then being runner up in ‘67 was hardly a defeat, because it meant a Brabham one-two as Denny Hulme claimed his only world title, and the Brabham marque scored its second consecutive Constructor’s title.
Then there’s 1970, his last season. Brabham went to his grave believing not only that he could, but should have been world champion that year.
In later life he expressed profound regret at being forced, by family pressures, to retire when he did not want to. Looking back, he reckoned he was driving as well in his final year as he ever had. He even felt that he could have gone on for another four or five years. That may sound like a bit of a stretch, but during that swansong season there was no sign that Brabham was slowing down, even at the age of 44.
Could he have gone on? We’ll never know, but a still-competitive Brabham (whose F1 career, let’s remind ourselves, began with him competing against Fangio and the Mercedes W196) racing against the likes of Niki Lauda, James Hunt and Ronnie Peterson into the mid ‘70s, on the eve of the ground effects era… That’s one tantalising hypothetical.
Brabham’s final F1 campaign started like a whirlwind: victory in the first round (South Africa), then pole in Spain, followed by what was a race-winning drive in Monaco – against Rindt, no less – until the very final corner, where Brabham slid off, gifting the race to the Lotus driver. If that wasn’t heartbreak enough, Brabham went on to run out of fuel while leading the British Grand Prix…
If not for all that, and the string of mechanical failures that hit him in subsequent races, who knows? Yet had Brabham been champion in 1970, it would have been somewhat of a pyrrhic victory, because he would have beaten his friend and former team-mate Rindt, who died in practice at Monza, four races before the end of the season.
There is not much point in motor racing of talking about ifs and buts. However… Brabham could easily have got up in 1967, and might also have done so in 1970 had a few things not gone the way they did that year. That would have made him a five-time world champ – the same as Fangio. Or, if you add in the two Constructors Championships (something no other world champion driver can claim), seven titles – the same as Schumacher.
Main: Jack Brabham’s Brabham BT24-Repco heads Brabham team-mate Denny Hulme at Silverstone in 1967. Below left: Early days in Australia with the Redex Special. Below centre: Brabham’s Cooper T51-Climax helped revolutionise motor racing and delivered Jack his first world crown. Below right: Brabham BT2, the first Brabham Grand Prix car, on debut in the 1962 German GP BT3 Climax.
Main: Jack ‘s rear-engined Cooper heads a quartet of ‘conventional’ front-engined cars - Tony Brooks ‘ Ferrari, Harry Schell’s BRM, Jean Behra’s Ferrari and Graham Hill’s Lotus - in the ‘59 Dutch Grand Prix. Bottom left: Muted victory celebration at the 1960 Belgium Grand Prix after Alan Stacey and Chris Bristow were killed in the race in separate crashes. Below: Classic shot of Brabham in text book four-wheel-drift at Silverstone in 1960.
Left: The Brabham team was a front runner in F1 almost immediately. Jim Clark ‘s Lotus 25 and the Brabham BT7s of Jack and Dan Gurney lead off the front row of the grid. Right: Brabham wrestles the BT 19-Repco in the ‘66 German GP Below: Brabham leads Jackie Stewart and Rindt at Spa in 1970. Below right: Brabham was 44 in his final F1 season but the advancing years had done little to slow his pace.