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 outt 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 conrmed 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