The son of Sir Jack, David Brab­ham, opens up about the tragic death of his team­mate Roland Ratzen­berger in 1994, and an un­ex­pected bat­tle to use his own name


David Brab­ham comes from a fam­ily with a rich rac­ing her­itage, but he’s very much his own man. In fact, he was 17 be­fore ac­tu­ally dis­cov­er­ing motorsport and fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of his fa­ther, triple world cham­pion Sir Jack Brab­ham.

While el­der broth­ers Ge­off and Gary had been busy rac­ing what­ever they could lay their hands on, pick-up trucks were the most pow­er­ful ma­chines to have come David’s way while he worked on the fam­ily farm in Aus­tralia. It wasn’t un­til he vis­ited Ge­off in an IndyCar work­shop in the USA that David hap­pened to set eyes on a kart for the rst time – and had to ask what it was! The an­swer must have been the right one, be­cause it trig­gered an im­me­di­ate de­sire to go rac­ing. Mak­ing up for lost time in ev­ery sense, David be­came Bri­tish F3 cham­pion in 1989, won the Ma­cau F3 Grand Prix, the Spa 24 Hours, took class wins at Le Mans, and even­tu­ally claimed the Le Mans 24 Hours with Peu­geot in 2009.

Through­out all that, F1 was al­ways the goal, although the ro­mance at­tached to even­tu­ally rac­ing for Brab­ham was not matched by the re­sults from a team that was a sad shadow of the outt started by David’s fa­ther 30 years be­fore.

The low­est point had to be Imola 1994, when his Simtek team-mate Roland Ratzen­berger was killed in a qual­i­fy­ing ac­ci­dent. This spec­trum of motorsport highs and lows has given Brab­ham the per­fect cre­den­tials to start up a pro­ject that taps into his ex­pe­ri­ence in a unique way. But, be­fore any­thing could be im­ple­mented, David had to wage a seven-year le­gal bat­tle for the right to use the fam­ily name.

It has sim­ply been another ght – al­beit an en­tirely un­ex­pected one – to add to his tally of wins. I get to hear all about it over lunch in the Wykham Arms at Sib­ford Gower, not far from his home in ru­ral Ox­ford­shire where he lives with wife Lisa and son Sam. Mau­rice Hamil­ton: I can’t be­lieve you’ve ac­tu­ally had to go to great lengths sim­ply to use your own name. When did this hap­pen? David Brab­ham: I got the name back on Christ­mas Day 2012. It was seven years pre­vi­ously that I heard that some­one had reg­is­tered the Brab­ham name. We ob­vi­ously had to nd out who this bloke was and what he was do­ing. That was quite a process even be­fore open­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion and ask­ing ques­tions like: ‘What the hell are you do­ing?’ They had ab­so­lutely noth­ing to do with us. MH: So any­one can register any name they like? DB: They can. But, in this case, they were us­ing the history of our name – which is a dif­fer­ent thing. We couldn’t do any­thing for seven years. In some ways it was a bless­ing, be­cause seven years ago and all the way through the crash from 2007-09 I would never have been able to do what I’m do­ing now. If I’d built some­thing up be­fore that, it would have been ham­mered. MH: You were ob­vi­ously think­ing of your fu­ture be­yond rac­ing. What was the plan? DB: Yeah, you don’t make buck­ets in

“That week­end at Imola, peo­ple had a strange feel­ing they were tap­ping into be­fore all the chaos hap­pened. There was an energy about the place we’d never felt be­fore; as if we were feel­ing it be­fore it hap­pened”

sportscar rac­ing; you live the dream. So it was a case of ‘Okay, now we’ve got the name, what do we do with it?’ We started with a clean sheet of pa­per. I got a brand­ing ex­pert to come in to have a look at what Brab­ham is. He did a 15-month re­search pro­ject and came up with a brand bi­ble, telling us ex­actly what Brab­ham is; what peo­ple think and feel about it. I wanted to be seen more as a com­mer­cial brand than a motorsport brand. MH: Are you say­ing that even though your name is steeped in a motorsport tra­di­tion money can’t buy, you needed to look be­yond that? DB: Yes. If you look at race teams and how they brand them­selves, they’re a long way from the com­mer­cial world out­side motorsport. I tried to learn from that. We have to have a con­sis­tent brand mes­sage: in­te­gra­tion; pi­o­neer­ing; in­no­va­tion; en­gi­neer­ing. That’s what Brab­ham means. Ev­ery­thing we do has to have our DNA so the con­sumer knows ex­actly what Brab­ham is. I don’t think motorsport brands do a very good job at that be­cause they’re gen­er­ally as­so­ci­ated with a race team, and that’s all. Our prod­uct is very dif­fer­ent; it’s much more than that. MH: But the ba­sis surely has to be ev­ery­thing that your fa­ther did? DB: Up to a point, yes. When my fa­ther passed away, the head­lines talked about him be­ing an in­spi­ra­tion and a bril­liant engi­neer who was at the fore­front of a chang­ing F1. But then, of course, the Brab­ham story con­tin­ued in a sim­i­lar vein with Gor­don Mur­ray. That’s what peo­ple re­mem­ber about Brab­ham. Dad be­ing a bril­liant engi­neer is one part of Brab­ham. In­spi­ra­tion is another. Pi­o­neer­ing think­ing another; in­no­va­tion, yet another. All of this tied in with what the brand re­search told us, and then the re­ac­tion when Dad died conrmed it.

For many years I’d been think­ing I’d re­ally like to see Brab­ham as a race team again. But I’d been in the in­dus­try long enough to know how hard it is for teams to sur­vive. Peo­ple had said I’d make a great team man­ager. But why would I want to do that? In my head, I was still a driver. MH: You guys are all the same. Can’t help your­selves, can you? DB: I know. But, at the same time, I’ve lived it. The rea­son I’ve driven for a lot of teams is be­cause they’d run out of money and I had to nd some­one else to pay me. So the man­age­ment side didn’t re­ally in­ter­est me, and yet I felt that for Brab­ham to be used as a brand in the way that we wanted, we’d re­ally need a race team I could run. It was a case of work­ing out how I could look at this in a dif­fer­ent way.

We brought some cre­ative peo­ple on board and came up with the idea of us­ing the race team as a tool to pro­vide peo­ple with a com­pletely dif­fer­ent motorsport ex­pe­ri­ence. Brab­ham will pro­vide a unique ex­pe­ri­ence. Fans can be in­volved. They can en­gage, con­trib­ute, vote on stuff; re­ally feel it’s their team. Ev­ery­thing we learn, we will share. We came up with a knowl­edge-shar­ing and e-learn­ing plat­form called ‘Brab­ham Dig­i­tal’. Online, you’ll be able to tap into it and get in­volved whether you’re a fan, a driver or an engi­neer. MH: I guess there’s a sub­scrip­tion of some sort? DB: Yes, a monthly sub­scrip­tion. If, say, you’re an engi­neer some­where else in the world, you never get close to what goes on be­hind closed doors within en­gi­neer­ing. But if we can in­spire young engi­neers, give them ac­cess to be­come part of the de­vel­op­ment of the en­gi­neer­ing side of the race team, peo­ple will grow with us as we grow. I’ve looked at it from a com­pletely dif­fer­ent an­gle. We’re not just a race team. The race team is a ve­hi­cle for our model. MH: What stage are you at with this con­cept? DB: Hav­ing come up with the idea, it was a case of work­ing out how to take it to mar­ket. We did a crowd­fund­ing cam­paign last Septem­ber and raised £278,000 over six weeks. At the time we were the big­gest sport­ing crowd­fund­ing cam­paign ever. Ours was just about to end when Cater­ham did their own crowd­fund­ing cam­paign, which was very dif­fer­ent and pro­vided an acid test for us. We were about fan in­volve­ment, shar­ing the knowl­edge, get­ting in­volved. Cater­ham were ‘save our race team’. Peo­ple com­pared the two and we came out quite favourably; the con­tri­bu­tions ac­tu­ally went up quite a bit be­cause all that ex­po­sure was go­ing

“Dad be­ing a bril­liant engi­neer is one part of Brab­ham. In­spi­ra­tion is another. Pi­o­neer­ing think­ing yet another”

on with Cater­ham. It brought more peo­ple on board. When the cam­paign closed, we did a re­search model through the crowd­fund­ing. Two things be­came clear: peo­ple liked the idea that Brab­ham is com­ing back. And they also liked the fact that they could buy into these pack­ages at a dis­counted price when we get it up and run­ning. We did two fur­ther sur­veys within the motorsport com­mu­nity and put the busi­ness plan to­gether based on that re­search. MH: What cat­e­gory of rac­ing are you look­ing at? DB: The World En­durance Cham­pi­onship, start­ing off with LMP2, which has a cost cap. That will help us keep costs un­der con­trol

un­til we get ev­ery­thing up and run­ning. Then the idea would be to do LMP1, but we’d have to make sure we get the right part­ners. Mean­while, we can use our model to in­volve peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly engi­neers, in the pro­ject.

We’ve been talk­ing to a CAD soft­ware com­pany that’s very in­ter­ested in this col­lab­o­ra­tive de­sign idea with engi­neers around the world. That’s just one ex­am­ple of a num­ber of peo­ple who have come knock­ing on our door. We’re not quite ready yet be­cause we need the fund­ing to put all the peo­ple in place to be able to deal with it.

We’ve done things in re­verse. Usu­ally teams start up, race against each other and try to cre­ate a fan base in the hope that in a few years’ time, they’ll have a fol­low­ing to help sell what they’re do­ing. We used crowd­fund­ing, which ended up with more than 3,000 peo­ple from 64 coun­tries con­tribut­ing and be­ing part of it. MH: What have you learnt about to­day’s fans? DB: Peo­ple’s habits are chang­ing thanks to Twit­ter, Face­book, mo­bile phone apps and so on. Peo­ple can ac­cess in­for­ma­tion re­ally quickly. That’s what they ex­pect. With that in mind, rac­ing is an old model. If you’re not tap­ping into this new mind­set, then I think you could be in trou­ble in years to come. I see it as an op­por­tu­nity for Brab­ham to use the latest tech­nol­ogy to get peo­ple in­volved and not think of our­selves as just a race team spend­ing loads of money try­ing to beat another race team. Our aim is to give peo­ple around the world a re­ally unique motorsport ex­pe­ri­ence by be­ing part of our team. MH: Do you think these nd­ings en­cap­su­late F1’s im­age prob­lem at the mo­ment? DB: Yeah, I think so. F1’s been a very suc­cess­ful model for a long time and I’m not here to knock it. All I’m say­ing is that we can see what’s hap­pen­ing in F1. We can see what’s hap­pen­ing with the com­mu­nity mind­set of want­ing to be in­volved and close to the ac­tion, partly be­cause tech­nol­ogy is chang­ing our lives. The com­mu­nity’s ex­pec­ta­tion has changed com­pared to what it was. Think about when my dad was rac­ing. There were big crowds in the 1960s

Dad hated Le Mans. I’ve al­ways viewed it quite dif­fer­ently. For me, it’s been Mecca

be­cause what else could they do? Now, the next gen­er­a­tion is spoilt for choice; they can do what­ever they like – and they can do it online. MH: The irony is that the tele­vi­sion cov­er­age in the ’60s was al­most nonex­is­tent; you’d have given any­thing to see a tele­vised grand prix. Now it’s wall-to-wall – and peo­ple are not in­clined to sit in front of the box for hours on end. DB: Ex­actly. They can watch our races on TV, but they’ll have a sec­ond screen, which is part of our race team. They’ll be able to see what’s go­ing on and there will be a way for them to be in­volved and vote on stuff as we go along. We will be shar­ing what­ever we learn with peo­ple who are part of our com­mu­nity. MH: Fas­ci­nat­ing. So has this nally pushed your driv­ing ac­tiv­ity into the mar­gins? DB: As a driver, you’re co­cooned in that world – which you have to be – but you just don’t know how the rest of the world op­er­ates. Ev­ery­one who reaches the stage of mov­ing from driver to non-driver has said to me: “Don’t stop till you ab­so­lutely have to, be­cause it’s a night­mare on the other side.” I can still drive fast and get the job done but I’ve had to park my ca­reer for the past two years to work on this pro­ject. MH: The Le Mans con­nec­tion is in­ter­est­ing be­cause your dad did a bit of that, didn’t he? DB: Yeah, he did. With Ma­tra, and in his ear­lier days, with Stir­ling Moss in the As­ton Martin. Dad hated Le Mans. I’ve al­ways viewed it quite dif­fer­ently. For me, it’s been Mecca. MH: I guess win­ning there must be a big tick in a big box? Allan McNish said: “You win Le Mans and the phone doesn’t stop ring­ing.” DB: Ab­so­lutely. I won three in a row, twice with As­ton Martin in the GT1 class and then once over­all with Peu­geot. I had al­ways won­dered what was it like to win over­all be­cause the feel­ing when you’re a GT driver or a lower-cat­e­gory win­ner is just amaz­ing, it re­ally is. I re­mem­ber think­ing: ‘If it feels this good win­ning Le Mans in a GT car, what’s it like if you win over­all?’ The fol­low­ing year I got to ex­pe­ri­ence that.

The feel­ing was ex­actly the same. But what did change was Mon­day, be­cause all of a sud­den there’s all sorts go­ing on. I’d al­ready had a hell of a lead up to Le Mans be­cause I was rac­ing in Amer­ica for Honda in their LMP1 pro­gramme. Then I did three 30-hour tests be­tween Fe­bru­ary and June. I was knack­ered by the time I got there. Af­ter Le Mans, I had a two-week break be­fore go­ing back for another race in Amer­ica. I thought I would be able to re­lax. It didn’t work out that way. We were shipped all over France, go­ing to fac­to­ries and talk­ing to Peu­geot em­ploy­ees about our great win. MH: You’ve cov­ered a lot of ground in ev­ery sense in motorsport. What led to your com­par­a­tively brief but event­ful time in F1?

“In 1990, I was asked to do a grand prix in a Brab­ham. I just didn’t feel pre­pared. I wasn’t fit enough”

Left: David Brab­ham got his start in the Ford Laser Se­ries in the mid-’80s.

Right: In 1987 he was Aus­tralian Driv­ers’ Cham­pion; then he left for Europe.

Vic­tory at the 2009 Le Mans 24 Hours, driv­ing for Peu­geot, along­side Marc Gené and Alex Wurz. Brab­ham se­nior wasn’t fond of Le Mans but he did con­test the 24 hours. In 1958 he shared an As­ton Martin DBR1 with Stir­ling Moss (far left)

David driv­ing the un­der­pow­ered Brab­ham BT59 at the Aus­tralian GP, the last race of 1990. He man­aged to qual­ify it just eight times out of 14 races that sea­son

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