In Father's footsteps?

Gary Brabham

Racing dynasties have become positively fashionable in the Eighties. The extended working lives of top Americans such as Mario Andretti and the Unser brothers have even led to second generations racing directly against their fathers, and international sportscar racing could yet see Justin and Derek Bell competing in the same arena.

Here in Britain we have many examples of the racing family at work: Paul Stewart in Formula Ford 2000 has the hardest inherited task, but an easier category to contest than the majority who are honing their craft in the Lucas British Formula Three Championship; here Damon Hill and Paul Warwick have proved generally competitive, while the youngest two of the three racing Brabham brothers (36-year-old Geoffrey has been the Nissan fly in Jaguar’s 1988 American IMSA season) have become regular winners.

David only joined the series late in the season, his Jack Brabham-run Ralt RT32-Volkswagen running only within Class B, whereas his elder brother Gary has been a leading protagonist for outright honours in the Bowman Racing RT32-Volkswagen in his first properly-financed year in the category. When Gary won his first British Championship round (the Oulton Park Gold Cup which Sir jack Brabham won four times, the last 21 years previously in a Repco-powered BT24) and David proceeded to win the B-category in the same Cheshire event, eye-brows began to be raised.

At the time Gary was lying third in the series, but second-placed man Martin Donnelly graduated to Formula 3000 while Gary took further victories at Brands Hatch, Thruxton and Silverstone.

As with all the racing relatives of famous names, Gary Brabham has found his surname as much a hindrance as an advantage in securing recognition of his own worth. He has the quiet thoughtfulness of his Dad, but Sir Jack now lives with a deafness significant enough to occasionally make him appear stand-offish when he literally has not heard a passing trackside greeting. There is a lot of puckish humour about Gary, and the ability to translate his competitive activities into a fascinating evening of insights, rather than a lap-by-lap ordeal.

An Anglo-Australian by upbringing and passports, Gary was born in 1961 in Wimbledon but brought up from the age of nine on the family farm “not far from Wogga-Wogga.” Much of his early driving fun was over loose surfaces, culminating in harsh impact and the scaling of some of the harder local scenery. This destroyed his Ford Escort RS2000, but he is still able to laugh at the memory of a pair of drunken witnesses telling him “that was the best accident we’ve ever seen, mate,” before strolling away from the wreckage without further concern for the occupants . . .

Gary began racing in the 1982 Australian Formula Ford series, finishing third in his first event with a nine-year-old Birrana.

However, such instant success did not please his track rivals and he tells a revealing story about his sixth event at Sandown.

“I’d only qualified eleventh, so I went up to Alan Jones and asked him for advice. He was really fantastic, bent over backwards to help. Alan drove me round, kept stopping the car to get out and show me turning points and lines. “I came right through the field to lead the race, and took fastest lap. Then the protests started. The other competitors were accusing me of tampering with the engine and all sorts. The engine had to be stripped and I had to take it from Melbourne to Sydney (roughly the distance of London-Glasgow, without the benefit of motorways). My $80 sponsorship did not go far; the final bill was $2500. Crazy.”

Problems with other competitors did not ease immediately when he came to Britain in 1983, but he has been using this country as a base ever since and has built a solid core of respect for achievements earned on merit. Part of that recognition traces to his polite patience when working at the Brands Hatch schools, where veteran Tony Lanfranchl made a point of ensuring that Gary dealt kindly with those of less merit. Gary has enough tales of the least talented pupils to fill the remainder of this issue, my favourite being an on-board struggle within an XR3 between pupil and Brabham, the former enjoying a power advantage by virtue of a totally depressed throttle pedal that he would not, or could not, release! The handbrake eventually spun them to safety . .

Formula Three has been part of Gary’s competitive life since 1986, and he finished fifth in the British series of 1987. Last year he “ran his own show”, but 1988 took him to Steve Hollman’s new Bowman Racing Team. Unlike his father, he seems happy to cope with the public speeches and open-day publicity aspects of his association with sponsor NEC, and does so with articulate skill. Brabham is not a natural communicator like members of the Bell or Stewart dynasties, but this thinking driver knows that public relations is a necessary part of funding a winning car in the late Eighties.

The season took time to show winning form, and Gary explained some of the background reasons: “When we started the year, I had driven the Ralt just once. JJ Lehto, who I regard as the best driver in the formula anyway, had covered over 2000 pre-season miles, and probably 4500 test miles by mid-season. That is a lot of hard-won knowledge, and it took us time to sort everything out. “The engine we use (a 2-litre cousin to the 8V Golf GTi unit, tuned by Spiess) is lighter than its rivals, just as powerful and easy to install in a chassis. Because of the restrictor, it has a typical F3 power band — narrow, very narrow! I try not to go below 4800rpm, and there is no real need to exceed 5700. However, the temperature it runs at is absolutely critical. We have to keep it relatively cool, say 60 to 65°C, otherwise we lose 5-6 bhp. We had some initial overheating trouble which has since been cured by fitting new radiators.”

The year ended on a high note, with Gary dominating the prestigious non-championship Cellnet Superprix at Brands Hatch; now he is working hard to ensure adequate funds to capitalise on his 1988 runner-up placing in British Formula Three with a full 1989 season in Formula 3000. He feels the step up “from 160 or so to at least 460 bhp” is wider than it should be, and that was speaking before the carnage of the Brands Hatch and Birmingham international championship rounds in August. Yet he knows that is the only realistic step forward if he is to earn the Formula One seat which has so far eluded the modern representatives of other racing dynasties. JW