He was as hard as they came. He created a dynasty and set the mould for the F1 owner-constructor. Nobody got one over on Jack Brabham
They’d talk about him back then with colonial, Pathé-newsreel tones in the sports bulletin on Radio 2GB Sydney: “Australia’s Jack Brabham is a conrmed entry for next Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix at Warwick Farm. Brabham will drive a new car of his own design and manufacture and will face tough opposition from the reigning world champion, Graham Hill, as well as from Britain’s John Surtees and the 1962 AGP winner, Bruce McLaren from New Zealand…”
I was there, sitting in the Leger Grandstand with my dad, Mum’s picnic lunch in a clothcovered basket. It was one of those dazzling Sydney days: 90° in the shade, deep-blue sky, brilliant sun. They pushed the cars onto the grid below us, brightly-segmented umbrellas shading the cockpits. I perched our old binoculars on my knees. There’s Graham Hill! Standing by the strange-looking Ferguson. And there’s Bruce McLaren, kneeling by his low-line Cooper. Silver helmet, goggles around his neck. Looks as though they’re pouring water, or ice, down the back of John Surtees. And there’s Jack Brabham, walking up from the back of the grid, helmet in hand. Blue overalls, with a diagonal zip running right across his chest. Shiny black hair, parted down the middle. Jack Brabham. The words slipped easily from my ten-year-old lips. He had to be someone great.
The flag dropped. They left us in an explosion of noise, colour and movement. I couldn’t tell one car from the next.
By the end, though, it was clear: Jack had driven through the field in his oil-smeared turquoise-and-gold Brabham. I watched, mesmerised, as he unstrapped his helmet and climbed from the car, his overalls now dark with sweat. I stood and clapped as they placed a garland around his neck, and a bearded Stirling Moss presented him with the Dowidat Spanner Trophy. Australia’s very own! With a car he’d built himself!
Later that year, dragging my dad back to the Farm and then also to a lovely little circuit called Catalina Park, I was astonished to see other drivers in Brabhams. Gavin Youl, David Walker and Frank Gardner all raced Formula Junior Brabhams; all were deliciously quick – and each car, in its own way, was a work of art. In that sloping, dusty paddock at Catalina, I drooled until my dad dragged me away, for there was something about a Brabham that summed up my perception of what a ‘racing car’ should be. I loved the little black bucket seats. I loved the little steering wheels with the black rims. I loved the ‘Motor Racing Developments’ badge on the nose. I smelled the brake fluid and the Redex cleaning liquid.
There would be many more such cars. Eventually, with that epic 1966 world championship behind him, Jack would race at the Farm in February 1967, with the two-car team to end all two-car teams – he driving the new, dark-green BT24, with those Repco exhausts chromed out from on top of the vee; Denny Hulme in the 1966 car, exhausts out the side. Both wearing Goodyear-striped Nomex. Both in the Farm paddock area, on the grass, engines ripping up and down the rev range as Roy Billington and Tim Wall fiicked the throttle slides, with Jack and Denny in the Esso tent, chatting away with friends and family. By 1967 it was as if Brabhams were at the heart of all of motor racing; that the others were
“In the paddock at Catalina Park, there was something about a Brabham that summed up my perception of what a ‘racing car’ should be”
destined always to find a smaller space in the stratosphere.
Also, in time, I began to get to know Jack Brabham. Now working as the Farm’s junior press officer, I’d sidle up to him with notebook to ask how it was going. “Not too bad,” he’d say in what they used to call a ‘cultivated’ Australian accent. “Bit of a problem with the fuel system this morning, but she’ll be right.” And you knew it would be: Jack was every bit as good at solving problems as he was at winning races. The one engendered the other.
I chatted to Jack on many occasions, long after he’d retired. He’d invite me over to his garage on Hook Road in Chessington, where we’d have
“Jack was every bit as good as solving problems as he was at winning races. The one engendered the other”
a few cups of tea and then maybe a beer or two. My overriding memory was of how he felt he’d been “strong-armed” (his words!) by the family (in the nicest possible way!) into retiring too soon – in 1970. Given that Jack was already 44 by that point, you may struggle today to see his logic. Remember, though, that Jack in 1970 was at least as quick – if not occasionally quicker – than the mercurial Jochen Rindt. Given slightly different circumstances – a little more fuel at Brands Hatch, no backmarker to lap on the last corner at Monaco – Jack would have been world champion for the fourth time. He decided to retire, though, so that he could raise his family in Australia.
The thing was, the family very quickly changed its mind. His son, Geoff Brabham, decided he also wanted to race – as did Gary and David. Long before he was truly resettled in Australia, Jack was back in England, helping Geoff with a light touch, never pushing. And, by now – I sensed as we’d chat – it was too late. He’d sold out to Ron Tauranac and Ron had sold out to Ecclestone. The anchor that Jack deserved, and should have had for his later life, was gone.
I always thought this to be immeasurably sad, although Jack was never a guy to dwell on things. He loved his racing. He worked hard. His motivation as a constructor, at its core, was simply to ensure that he always had a car to drive. Even so, he was a generous and dignied team owner, hiring stars who
“To watch Jack drive was to watch a man with extraordinary flair and talent for sliding a car to the very edge of what is humanly possible”
could potentially beat him (Denny Hulme, Dan Gurney, Jochen Rindt, Jacky Ickx) and never worrying about his ego. He therefore always exceeded my perception of how a racing driver should be. He was so good at all the other things – the conception of each car and its subsequent development, the running and funding of his team, the sale of all those production Brabhams – that his mere driving began to take on an almost perfunctory role: you just took it for granted that he would either win the race or come very close. To watch Jack drive was to watch a man with extraordinary flair and talent for sliding a car to the very edge of what is humanly possible. But watch him doing that for lap after identical lap, with digital levels of consistency and, after a while, it seemed unbelievable that a man like Jack could achieve so much out of the car yet be so good inside it.
If I think of Jack Brabham I think of that day at the Farm in 1963. I also think of the way he used to jump into Ford Galaxies, Ford Mustangs, Matra sportscars, Indycars, Aston Martin DBR1s, little Brabham two-seaters and, of course, all types of Formula 1 and every type of Cooper car – and also to be as solid and as true to his world as anyone who has ever zipped up a race suit, strapped on a helmet and said, “Beauty mate. Let’s go.”
Read Murray Walker’s tribute to Sir Jack Brabham on p146
Stirling Moss (right) congratulates Jack Brabham on his win at the 1963 Australian GP
On his way to becoming the first driver to win a championship in a car of his own
construction at the 1966 German GP
Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham doing battle at Solitude in Germany in 1961
Victory at Oulton Park: the second of Brabham’s four victories in 1966 – his third championship-winning year
The Brabham racing dynasty: Jack Brabham (far right) and his sons (left to right) David, Geoff and Gary at Silverstone in 1988
Brabham tended to hire drivers like Rindt, who could potentially beat him