Salvadori on Brabham

The phrase 'friends and rivals' was rarely more apposite: Black Jack was a good mate, a fine engineer and a tough fighter
By Rob Widdows

Roy Salvadori chose Jack Brabham unhesitatingly as his subject for our series on team-mates. He is clearly very fond of Jack and the two remain friends to this day, Salavadori saying that he would rather have raced alongside Brabham than with any of the other drivers with whom he competed over three decades. And the list is long.

“Jack is Jack,” he says. “I first met him in the mid-1950s when we were both driving the bobtail Coopers, and what you saw was what you got. And what you got was what you saw. He was an Australian, a very straightforward type, and a good mechanic. He’d done a lot of dirt track racing back home in Australia and that’s why he was always driving the car sideways,” smiles Roy. “He came to Britain with quite a reputation but it took him a while to break into the English motor racing scene.”

They met, as so many did in those days, through their connections with Charles and John Cooper. In the early days Salvadori was a customer, while Brabham had already designed and built the Cooper-Bristol T40 in 1955 and was building cars in Surbiton when the two joined forces in the works team for 1958 in the T45 Climax-powered cars.

“We had a business just down the road from Coopers,” remembers Roy, “that’s how we met. He was building his own cars, preparing cars for the racing team and driving as well, of course. I always had great cars from Jack – I reckoned he’d be working to his own advantage – but I often had the more reliable car and he would have a gearbox failure or something like that. He got pretty pissed off with this and at one stage he was threatening to go back to Australia. But he got over that, and of course he then got to be where he should have been – a world champion.”

So what made the man such a great competitor, such a force to be reckoned with at the end of the ’50s?

“Well, Jack was a marvellous driver, and tough — really, really tough,” he smiles. “There were no friends when the old flag dropped with Jack. He just went from strength to strength as a driver and, funnily enough, he was driving better than ever when he retired. He should have gone on for ever, Jack, he’d really got it all weighed up by then.”

The friendship and rivalry continued when Brabham joined the Aston Martin sports car team where Salvadori was about to lay the foundations for his reputation as one of the great all-rounders. “Yes, it wasn’t easy for Jack at the beginning when he came to Aston. He was paired with Moss in 1958 and he found it tough at first; they were very different heights and shapes and that’s always tricky in sports cars. But, Jack being Jack, he soon found out how to cope with the Aston, you know, and they won at the Nürburgring. And then later in the season we drove together, coming second in the Tourist Trophy at Goodwood – less than a second behind Moss and Brooks that day.”

Salvadori reckons that Brabham was always going to win a world championship for Cooper. “Well, we must have been idiots if we didn’t see that coming,” he laughs, “I mean, he was quick and he was constantly scoring points, always consistent, and he took no prisoners. But it was his car control that was amazing, he was always sideways and you thought ‘he’s never going to get this back’, but the bugger always did. That, and the black look he’d give you – you’d know not to push the move on him any further – the look was enough.” More laughter at the memories of dicing with Black Jack.

“As much as we got on together, as much as we liked each other, it did get very nasty on occasions and we had some pretty tough matches, really getting at it together,” he remembers with a twinkle in the eye. “But it never did me any good getting tough with him because every time I did, I suffered for it. It didn’t pay to get rough with him.” He grins. “I wasn’t really a smooth driver myself, I was always pushing to get on top of the car, and maybe I developed this from Jack, I don’t know, but I tended to push too much; we were similar in that way. We both had this style — you know, get the car moving — and with the Coopers you could push on like that, drift it, but with the Lotus you had to be very precise, very correct, and it didn't want to be drifted. It didn't like being drifted through the corners like we wanted to do.”

Salvadori has enormous respect for Brabham’s engineering abilities, his no-nonsense approach.

“Yes, this was Jack. You told him in one sentence what was wrong with a car, he didn’t say much, just went away and got the job done,” he says. “He was very good at the engineering, the set-up of the car, and just getting on with the job. I was paid to race the cars, not to engineer them. I knew what needed doing but I didn’t know how to get it done. But Jack did, and he was very good at that. He got on and did things, and when you worked with him things used to happen. So it was no big surprise when he won the championship with the Brabham Repco, a car he constructed himself.”

Salvadori is happy to reminisce about the great Australian all day long but we end on a theme that reveals much about the triple world champion. “When you raced Jack, and I got it across him a few times, you had to race bloody hard, be prepared for a good old bash, drive hard and rough,” he laughs. “Nothing was ever easy with Jack – he'd know who he was racing against and once you’d given him a tough time, your name went down in his little black book. And he didn’t forget much, I can tell you. So if you’d done him down in a previous race, you'd better watch it!

“You know, he was a fine test driver, the best tester of the lot. When he prepared a car, you knew it would be right, and that's why we were great team-mates at Cooper. We had a similar style, and I'd choose Jack as my team-mate over any of the others. We're both getting old now,” – back comes that charming Salvadori smile – “we haven’t got bloody long, so we need to see each other every now and then, pull each other’s legs.”

Good friends, great respect and raw rivals. A rare combination, and all recalled by a man who could surely persuade the birds to come down from the trees. And a man who earned his place in Mr Brabham’s little black book.