Reflections on the only man to win Formula 1 titles as both driver and constructor, by a Motor Sport contributor who knew him well
Writer Doug Nye
On hearing of Sir Jack Brabham’s recent death – at the age of 88 – Australian enthusiast Alec Hawkins sat down at a computer keyboard and submitted the following to one of the internet motor racing forums. I believe his words speak for a generation of contemporary racing tifosi.
“As an Aussie who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, to me Sir Jack Brabham represented everything that I thought was good about Australians. To me we were a modest, quietly capable people, determined and reliable with a natural reserve verging on shyness, a thoroughly decent, peaceful people but with an inner steel that made formidable opponents in ‘battle’. Maybe my schoolboy patriotism was somewhat idealistic, but make no mistake. Sir Jack personified all of those qualities by the bucketload.”
He continued: “I have felt surprisingly sad all day – it feels as though part of my youth left me today. Not only has motor racing lost a genuine legend, but Australia has lost a fine ambassador for what was so good about this country…”
It made no difference whether one was a racing-mad kid following major-league motor racing in the late 1950s, or ultimately into the 1970s, in the UK or Australia, Jack Brabham was ‘right there’. He was such a quietly capable all-rounder and in so many ways such a wily, thoughtful operator, that his pervading presence there in the race reports and the results lists was absolutely integral to the game.
There’s absolutely no point revisiting his entire career here. It’s all there on the web and in dozens of books and magazine articles. I first remember reading about the newcomer, driving Bobtail Cooper sports cars, then F2 single-seaters alongside the exotic Roy Salvadori, and the burly, humorous, but strangely haunted Ivor Bueb. Little wonder ‘Ivor the Driver’ felt insecure, with the man Denis Jenkinson labelled so descriptively as “the nut-brown Australian” crouching forward over the steering wheel, tail-out, dirt-track style, right on his gearbox.
Jack was such a rare mixture – apparently such a taciturn and private bloke’s bloke – but once comfortable so ready to grin, share a joke, return it with interest, and a man who never, ever, forgot his roots. He related to everyone and anyone, totally without airs and graces. Even at the height of his success and fame, as three-time Formula 1 world champion driver and, in partnership with his long-time engineer associate Ron Tauranac, double F1 world champion constructor, he’d talk and socialise just as comfortably with pauper or plumber as president or prime minister.
For me, he was at core the most relentlessly competitive alpha racer I have ever known. Soon after his last autobiography was published, which I’d helped him write, my ’phone rang. “Doug? It’s Jeck…” he said. I took a deep breath and bawled down the line – aware of his desperately limited hearing, after years driving without ear plugs so he could sense his engine’s health – “Hi Jack, how are you going?” – “ ’Ullo? Can you hear me?”, turn up the volume some more: “Yes Jack, got you loud and clear!” Then the competitiveness: “Aah – I just wanted you to know the book’s now top in the Sydney sports best-seller list – ahead of some monkey called Waugh!” (Steve Waugh, recently retired as Australia’s great test cricket captain). Jack just loved that.
Years earlier, a friend met Jack – already long into his ill-considered and in his view premature retirement – at Heathrow on his return from the celebrity Race of Champions at Daytona Speedway. Before any greeting Jack was pushing a sheet of paper into his hand, grinning gruffly: “Look at this. Qualifying times. See who’s top!” – that’s right, guess who. Even into his 70s, as a racer Jack was right on it, as the likes of Rick Mears, A J Foyt and a bunch of other established champions had just had their skills forcibly recalibrated. And in a bubbly, infectiously cheerful way – free of conceit – Jack had just wanted to share the news.
He was from a very special generation – a particular type of world-class racing celebrity. They tended to be older, more widely experienced, worldly-wise, stable and mature than modern superstars. These men who bestrode the racing world in the ’50s and ’60s pre-dated the increasingly commercialised, specialised, homogenised and insulated racers who followed them into the later ’70s, ’80s and beyond. Trainers, dieticians and media minders were far in the future as Jack and his rivals might race together as F1 team-mates one weekend, then against one another in F2 or sports or touring cars – or at Indianapolis – the next. They lived, raced and travelled together. No holds were barred on track, no quarter asked or given, yet that group of top-level drivers had a firm bond off-track – of varying warmth – but unmistakably they became a band of brothers.
The cost was great. On average two drivers a month, at some level, died racing during Jack’s career. More ended up in hospitals around the world. But despite his many years of racing right out there – often on his trademark, spectacular ragged edge – Jack escaped injury until a tyre failure at Silverstone in 1969 broke his ankle. Into 1970 the toll mounted rapidly – Bruce McLaren, Piers Courage, and finally Jochen Rindt. Another tyre failure sent Jack’s gorgeous Brabham BT33 tumbling side-over-side into the catch fencing at Zandvoort before the Dutch GP. He wound up enwrapped with wire mesh, trapped upside down in a car dripping petrol. Happily, some marshals unravelled him in time.
Back in the paddock his dad – Jack’s most avid supporter – joined his first wife, Betty, and others in urging him to retire. “You’ve had a good run – don’t push your luck any further.”
So he took the decision he’d quickly regret, reckoning in fact he could have gone on for another four or five good years. Interestingly, youngest son David Brabham, now 48, rates his own very best years as a driver as having been between the ages of 38 and 46. But that November of 1970, in London, Walter Hayes of Ford – one of Jack’s great sponsors – hosted a star-studded farewell dinner, declaring: “There are theories about why he’s retiring. Graham Hill told me something Brabham told him the other night. When he was a young man in Australia sex was forbidden, and now in England everything’s permissive and he’s going home before it becomes compulsory…”
Graham then proposed the toast, and his patter tells much about the true relationship the band shared – jokey, ribbing, just a hint of needle. Graham – only three years younger than Jack – began: “I admit I’ve got mixed feelings about this because when he leaves I’m it – the last of the Mohicans, the elder statesman.
“It’s very encouraging to us to see somebody actually retire. Jack is going to take his place beside Fangio and Stirling, one of his old adversaries. I am sure Stirling has lots of memories of Jack rushing around and doing what Innes said, shutting the gate on him. He didn’t really do that – he just never looked in his mirrors.
“John Cooper asked if I would drive for him, so I found myself driving with Jack and Roy Salvadori. A right pair… [Knowing storm of laughter from the absolutely tuned-in racing audience.] There were three cars at a practice day and John said, ‘Jack and Roy will just try the cars and then we’ll let you go out in yours.’ So they shuffled about from car to car, and with about 10 minutes to go they said ‘That one’s yours’... And they were absolutely right!” [Perfectly timed, as ever, this one also struck home brilliantly.}
“I got my first works drive with Lotus and was driving the old cigar-shaped Lotus in a 10-lapper at Goodwood, which ended up with a big dice. Jack was probably thinking ‘Who is this bloke?’ I managed to do quite well until the very last lap, just going into Woodcote. I thought ‘Here we go, there’s a nice win here, very handy’ – and the next minute there’s a blur of bloody green across my right bow, and somebody came haring across the grass, across the track, onto the grass the other side. I thought ‘Christ, who’s that?’ – ’cos I was frightfully religious in those days – and while I was saying that the bloody idiot shot back in front of me and won the race! It was your actual Jack! The wily old fox slipped by, and that’s what he is – and I’m bloody glad he’s going back. I mean, I’ve had enough, I can’t stand any more…”
When everyone had recovered from another Graham tour de force speech, Jack responded: “After all that, I’ve changed my mind, I really don’t want to retire. When I first came to England I got a lot of comments about Australia. John Cooper in particular used to ask me whether we used knives and forks out there. He was sure we were all descendants of convicts – well, probably right – but the thing that really had me worried then, was that I was back in the country where they all came from…
“And I was absolutely certain too, after being here a while, that they hadn’t caught them all. People like Alan Brown, John Coombs, Salvadori, Cliff Davis, ‘Chopper’ Tyrrell, Colin Chapman, Innes Ireland, Graham Hill – you name it, there were plenty here they hadn’t caught…”
‘Black Jack’ was a racer, a constructor and, to conduct his business at peak efficiency, a terrific, highly competent – and among all his peers an unusually careful – aviator. But even then he had some hairy moments. In 1968 Jack had sold his Beech Queenair to Bib Stilwell in Australia, and had Roy Coburn – who maintained Jack’s aircraft in Britain – prepare it with long-range tanks so they could fly it Britain-Australia for delivery.
A thousand miles out over the Indian Ocean, with about another thousand to go before safe landfall, they were sitting there half-dozing in the sun with the Queenair on auto-pilot – when one engine abruptly starved and died. Almost instantly the other died too. Roy and Jack snapped fully alert, and both dived for the fuel tank change-over cock between their seats. But as they dived for the tap they cracked their heads together, and knocked each other almost senseless before flicking the tap. The auto-pilot had sensed the speed loss and fought to maintain their pre-set altitude by pulling up the nose, which bled more speed. Nose-high, at 14,000 feet, the Queenair was about to stall.
Jack, his head ringing, recovered it, then fought to restart. They had just enough speed to windmill the engines. They lost more than 7000 feet before first one engine, then the other, struck up. Jack recalled: “Thank goodness we hadn’t been cruising at 7000 feet. We’d have become another mystery, missing without trace.”
Another time, caught late in the day by cloud over ground fog, with light fading fast, Jack force-landed his Cessna in a field near Amersham. He was taxiing slowly through the fog, trying to find some kind of habitation, when out of the clag loomed an irate Buckinghamshire farmer, brandishing a shotgun. He’d heard the noise and thought someone was trying to pinch his tractor…
After retirement Jack was talked into buying a farm where his first wife, Betty, hoped their three sons – Geoff, Gary and David – could grow into a future away from racing. But the racing gene is powerful, and all three boys would build successful driving careers. Come 1989 Jack was fit to burst with pride as each of them won a championship title. Geoff went on to better Jack’s best-ever finish at Indianapolis and took multiple IMSA titles with Nissan, both he and Formula 3 champion David have won Le Mans and Gary was British Formula 3000 champion.
Middle son Gary describes his father as “a gentleman and a gentle man. He just had a way to make you feel bad if you had done something wrong as a kid, without being hard-handed. He did this in a very quiet and calm manner – just the ticket for an uncontrollable teenager. It made you think about what you were doing. The thing that I admired most is that he was utterly unaffected by his success and fame; he always had time for everyone, whether it be a person who didn’t have two pennies to rub together or the other extreme. He had time for my friends and often flew them to the farm from Sydney to be with me.”
He admits Jack was indeed, “A man of very few words – an understatement when it came to passing on his driving knowledge. I asked him once for some racing tips; his answer was ‘keep between the green bits’. His philosophy was that I was the one driving the car; he couldn’t steer it for me too.
“But when it came to preparation, his eyes lit up followed by an enthusiasm that only engineering would ignite. He would teach me how to set the car up, how to do the wheel alignment, wheel weights, roll centres and how to change the gear ratios. We would spend hours doing this and I ended up running my own cars in the UK. It’s probably why my testing and feedback led to three Formula 1 testing contracts.
“There was another side of Dad in which he’d love to share his experience – flying. I was about 11 when he first started teaching me to fly. I had to demonstrate I had the ‘feel’ before he allowed me to progress. When I was 13 I could fly his twin-engined Beechcraft Baron from the farm all the way to Sydney; the only thing I couldn’t do was land or take off.
“When I was 14, we flew to Western Australia for the Albany Soap Box Derby (my first competition race). I was flying along the Great Australian Bight when we came across some cloud. I said, ‘You’d better take over now, Dad’. He replied, ‘So there’s some cloud, just fly through it’.
“Into the cloud we went and when I saw his famous smirk I knew I was in deep shit. When we passed the cloud, we were nose-diving towards the ocean and his smirk turned into a grin. His training methods worked, and he got just as much enjoyment inflicting his wicked sense of humour on you.”
One day in 1979 Jack received a letter from Malcolm Fraser, Australian Prime Minister. It asked ‘If you were offered a knighthood would you be prepared to accept it?’
“I wasn’t just surprised. I was completely shocked, but I wasn’t about to refuse,” Jack recalled: “I’d always been a very proud Australian, and really respected the traditions that shaped us. The knighthood really helps when you’re trying to book a decent table in Californian restaurants, but it doesn’t come with any money…”
Out on the farm, Jack and Betty had grown apart. In 1970 Margaret Taylor became his Ford dealership secretary, and later joined the aviation business. She won’t thank me for this, but in Jack’s words: “They say Australians are not romantic. I dispute such Pommie allegations. Margaret has never really forgiven me, but I did tell her one day, ‘You know, Margaret, you’ve really grown on me – like a wart’.”
He and Betty divorced in 1994, and he married Margaret in 1995. In his later years his profound deafness, then macular degeneration – which destroyed his once stunningly acute eyesight (very much his secret weapon as a driver) – preceded the misery, steadfastly borne, of kidney failure, and the need for dialysis three times per week. In between he remained spry.
One year, on what I think was his last Classic Adelaide Rally, through the hills, vineyards, grazing land and forests of South Australia, I rode with Jack on a special stage in a Mercedes SL. Quick, clean, smooth, precise, the old warrior hadn’t lost his edge. But his hearing was a problem. I wasn’t beside him another year there when, in a borrowed Aston Martin DB4GT, he flashed past a double-caution sign without noticing it, nor hearing his nav bawling “Double caution Jack – 90-right on brow. Jack… Jaaack!” The triple champion hammered over that brow as if on the Mulsanne Straight, and as the road swept hard-right he slammed straight into a mighty gum tree. The following year, the Adelaide organisers wheeled out a set of vast metre-square double-caution signs, lettered at the top ‘Sir Jack!’ He paid heed, but Win Percy dropped his Cobra on that self-same brow and hit the next gum tree along. At the morning tea stop Jack was positively beaming: “ Is that right, Doug? Win hit me tree?” When I nodded he tittered in near-satisfaction: “Ha – takes some of the pressure off me then…”
Another time, Paul Vestey and I were following Jack through a winding section out in the forests. As our Ferrari nosed up on his Merc’s tail, he obviously spotted us in his mirror. At the very next apex he put two wheels onto the verge, showering back dust and gravel. As the ess-bend reversed, sure enough, two wheels over the other verge, another shot-blast – another knowing, self-aware, old-time-habits Jack joke. Knowing our place, we dropped back.
When we helped run a historic 3-litre F1 race on the Adelaide street circuit, Jack was wired for sound and on-board vision in Bruce McCaw’s McLaren-BRM M5A. As he nipped past one rival after slipstreaming him, suitably, along the Brabham Straight, his microphone picked up the unreconstructed warrior instinct: “Hah! Gotcha!”
He was, rightly, immensely proud of his three sons’ racing achievements, and in recent years grandsons Matty and Sam have extended the Brabham racing dynasty.
He was a fine engineer, a maker, a mender, a ‘doer’. He was hands-on – right in there, identify that problem, avoid it, or find it, fix it. He was also one of Australia’s greatest-ever sportsmen and, as a world-renowned racing car constructor, he and design partner Ron Tauranac – using Australian Repco V8 engines – won the F1 constructors’ championship twice in succession. One cannot foresee any future world champion driver ever matching that.
And finally, as a measure of how great a racer this too often under-rated driver really was, consider his swansong season, of 1970.
In Formula 1 he not only won the South African GP, he only lost the Monaco GP on the very last corner of the very last lap. And when his BT33 ran out of fuel after he had broken Jochen Rindt’s challenge in the Lotus 72, he also lost that year’s British GP on the very last corner of the very last lap.
But he also drove in Formula 2 that year – in his friend ‘Noddy’ Coombs’s Brabham BT30 – and at Tulln-Langenlebarn he was poised to win outright, drawing away to lead heat two... until François Cevert’s Tecno came through with just three laps to run. Second place would still have given Jack the win on aggregate but – again on the very last lap – an injector pipe failed, enabling Jacky Ickx’s BMW to scream past and win overall instead.
Having pioneered European-style rear-engined entry at Indianapolis with the 1961 Kimberly-Cooper, Jack’s last 500 was troubled in 1970 with his 930bhp Brabham BT32’s Offy engine blowing apart.
There, A J Foyt had finally clued-in Jack and Ron Tauranac on one key to Speedway driveability: “Any oversteer whatever,” Jack recalled, “and every turn would scare any driver. We dialled in total understeer. At the California 500 Lee Roy Yarbrough led with only nine laps to go when the engine blew again. We’d cracked Speedway racing, but too late to exploit it…”.
And the drive he really enjoyed that final year was with Matra. “I felt like a privileged guest. It was a real novelty to be relieved of all other responsibilities – nice people, good cars – and the last win of my frontline career, in the season-ending Paris 1000Kms. I was happy with that.” So ‘Black Jack’ was a winner to the end. As Gary Brabham observes: “Dad lived the lives of a hundred people in his one lifetime.”
Jack Brabham – Sir Jack Brabham – ‘Black Jack’ – ‘The Guv’nor’… He was hero, mentor, example and friend to an entire generation of world-class racers. He fostered the careers and ultimate emergence of Bruce McLaren, Dan Gurney, Denny Hulme, Jochen Rindt, Jacky Ickx and more. To his family he was husband, father, grandfather, step-father, step-grandfather – and in all those roles he was respected, admired, revered and deeply, deeply loved.