A familiar name is back on top of the podium. Simon Arron meets one of a famous dynasty’s youngest representatives
"One of my first proper kart races was at Bayford Meadows, but nobody was available to give me a lift so Uncle Mike volunteered. He hadn’t been to a circuit for years, but when we got there he began fiddling with the kart, then took me for a track walk and pointed out the correct lines and gave me a few tips. It was funny because I’d never seen him in that context before, getting involved in motor sport…”
To Sam Brabham he might be Uncle Mike, but to the rest of us he’s one of the greatest unfulfilled talents of recent generations: Mike Thackwell. Wherever you turn, 19-year-old Brabham’s racing pedigree runs deep. Grandfather Sir Jack won three world titles, father David and Uncle Geoff are Le Mans winners (among other accolades), Uncle Gary was British F3 runner-up in 1988 and mum Lisa, Mike’s sister, used to compete in the Honda CRX Challenge.
Despite all of which, Sam made a relatively late start – by contemporary standards, at least. “I was obviously aware of motor sport,” he says, “but hadn’t really appreciated the bigger picture. Then I went to a friend’s karting party, beat my mates and thought it was good fun. For about a year after that I nagged Dad to let me have a go, but he knew how expensive it might be! After a while he relented, so I did a minor arrive-and-drive championship at Buckmore Park and completely fell in love with the sport.
“The late start was my doing and it’s good that I wasn’t forced into it, unlike some kids. Dad always points out that the impetus had to come from me, to show I was prepared to work hard to achieve my goals.”
From entry level at Buckmore Park in 2008, aged 13, he compensated for time lost by stepping up swiftly through the karting ranks, reaching Senior Rotax Max – and competing at European Championship level – by 2012. He switched to cars in 2013, finishing fourth in the British Formula Ford Championship (weak in numbers, but with several strong runners at the sharp end) and has this year stayed on for a serious title assault. He scored a landmark first victory at Thruxton over Easter, then added another the following afternoon.
Nowadays, many young drivers step directly from karts into Renault Clios or Ginettas, because they perceive it as a route to a wider range of career options. “My ultimate goal is Formula 1,” Brabham says, “but I have an open mind. Even if I make it to F1, I’d like to go on and race sports cars afterwards. They have a special place in my heart because Dad raced them for a long time, but for now F1 is definitely the aim. Whatever happens, I want to be able to perform at the top of my game, chasing race victories. Ideally my next step would be F3, but there’s always the small matter of finding a budget…”
Born in the UK to Antipodean parents, where do his loyalties lie during an Ashes series? “I’d rather see a good game of cricket than worry about whether England or Australia wins,” he says, “but because of my family background I tend to side with Australia. Football is a bit more divisive, because Mum supports Arsenal, my younger brother Finn is a Tottenham fan and Dad and I support Man Utd, which generates a bit of good-natured tension...”
And is that illustrious surname a help or hindrance?
“A bit of both,” he says. “It’s a real privilege to have a link to what my grandfather, father and other relatives have achieved. Some people make assumptions on the basis of your name, but it creates opportunities because you get a bit of profile. There are good and bad sides, but I’m just trying to forge my own path and continue the legacy.”
Career in brief
Born: 14/08/1994, Slough, UK
2008: arrive-and-drive karting
2009-10: club-level karting
2011: national karting
2012: senior karting, UK & Europe
2013: UK Formula Ford, 4th; MRF Challenge, Asia, 9th
2014: chosen as BRDC Rising Star; UK Formula Ford