Being Jack

So this is the view. Staring down the sawn-off barrels of an unsilenced Coventry-Climax V8, ears pricked to the bark and crackle of this angry, pint-sized 1.5-litre race engine, eyes smarting in its rich, fumey wake. 

An array of Brabhams for Dickie Meaden to test

This is the view the Gods of Grand Prix racing knew so well. Legends such as Clark, Gurney, Surtees, Hill, McLaren. And ‘Black’ Jack Brabham. They all knew how it felt to be tucked tightly into a web of welded tubes and flanked by fuel tanks, narrowed eyes peering through protective goggles, exposed faces peppered by grit and stung by rain. They knew what it took to dance these fierce yet delicate machines between the trees and telegraph poles at Spa, launch into the murk of the Nürburgring Nordschleife, thread the needle at Monaco or chase the slipstream at Monza. Theirs is a view I’ve longed to see...

Anglesey’s Coastal Circuit is a far cry from those classic GP tracks, but close your eyes and it could be any of them. For today the peace is being shattered by the unmistakable sounds of Coventry-Climax, Repco and Cosworth V8s keening across the clifftops. The source of these echoes from the past? Three fabulous Brabhams – BT7, BT24 and BT33 – convened to celebrate the 70th anniversary of team founder Jack Brabham’s very first race.

It’s a remarkable gathering, as much for its informality as for the sheer pinch-yourself glory of having a trio of Brabham Grand Prix cars and an empty track at your disposal. Oh, and did I mention we’ve also been joined by David Brabham – the youngest of Jack’s three sons and one of the finest sports car racers of his generation? Together we will be taking a journey to the heart of the Brabham story in three of its most significant cars.

Brabham BT7 Anglesey


Being North Wales the weather isn’t playing ball. There’s no small irony in having conditions Jack was known to relish, but when you’re entrusted with others’ precious cars (just how precious will be revealed in a moment) and charged with generating a film and a magazine feature, I’m not sure whether to sit with my head in my hands or stand in the sodden pit lane and shake my fist at the brooding sky.

My mood is saved by James King’s beautiful Brabham BT7. One of a pair built for the 1963 season, this is chassis F1-1-63 – the first car built and the very car in which Dan Gurney scored Brabham’s historic first Grand Prix victory, in the 1964 French GP at Rouen. Later that year he also won the Mexican GP. Just to be standing in its presence is awe-inspiring, but to crouch next to it knowing you are going to drive it is a feeling that defies description. 

The BT7 is among the prettiest cars of the ‘half-ton’ era – so simple and pure, with perfect proportions and pared back to the point of apparent frailty. Finished in a gorgeous metallic green and fat gold stripe it’s so beautiful it almost makes your heart ache just to look at it.

I’m not a big bloke. Perhaps a tad wider than I’d like, but someone who rarely has to duck to get through a doorway. Still the BT7 is a snug fit. Given Jack was only an inch under 6ft tall and Gurney several over it must have been hard for them to get comfortable, unlike the whippet-like Jim Clark, who could have been designed by Colin Chapman himself and must have slipped into his Lotus 25 with ease.

Once strapped in you adopt a classic straight-arm position, as much to give yourself room to work the scarlet steering wheel as any desire to make like a latter-day Moss. It feels unnatural to steer with wrists and forearms, but when you try and get a little closer to the wheel you soon find there’s simply not the space to bend your elbows. 

Lotus might have introduced the monocoque chassis in 1962, but for most teams tubular spaceframes were still the order of the day in 1963. The BT7 was no exception and followed Brabham and Ron Tauranac’s philosophy of building simple, sturdy cars, though in the context of 2018 the featherlight BT7’s chassis looks as though it has been spun from gossamer.

The BT7 has a somewhat spidery stance, its slender thorax slung low between a cradle of spindly suspension wishbones and supported by a tall treaded tyre at each corner. Sitting in the cockpit you feel vulnerable and exposed with the upper half of your torso visible through the flanks of the wraparound Perspex screen. Look at pictures of Gurney in F1-1-63 and his head is so far above the roll hoop it’s laughable.

The Coventry-Climax V8 is a raucous, waspish engine, its holler belying its diminutive capacity. King, who still regularly races the car, revs it to 9000rpm (about 500 down on its in-period maximum), but we’ve agreed not to exceed 8000 in the first three gears and no more than 8500 in the remaining two, so as to leave some margin and save its best for King’s appearance in this year’s Monaco Historic GP.

With approximately 190bhp and a little under 120lb ft of torque, its vital stats are modest compared to modern outputs, and with the BT7 weighing just 475kg it makes every horsepower count. There’s a delicious energy and lack of inertia to the way it makes progress that’s quite unlike any other racing car I’ve driven. And the steering? Well, it’s so light and communicative you immediately see why wrists and forearms are all you need to guide it.

On a cold, wet track there’s a disconcerting lack of grip, which coupled to the lightness of the controls means you feel robbed of the reference points you crave to deduce how much you can lean on the tyres and to what degree you can squeeze on the throttle or brakes. Finesse is clearly the key, but knowing and doing are two very different things. It’s not until the track has dried and I head out for another run that I feel confident enough to bring the BT7 to life.

Once those tyres find some purchase it’s truly glorious. It has grip and traction, but of a fluid, almost elastic nature. One that will stretch if you work it sympathetically, but snap if you hammer the brakes, bully the front end or stomp on the throttle. When it slides it does so quickly, and it’s easy to lock a front wheel. The modest slip angles and steely serenity you see on the faces of Brabham, Clark and Gurney are a reflection of those precisely measured inputs and maximum commitment.

Brabham BT24 onboard view


If you’re going to ‘be’ Jack Brabham, the place to do it is the cockpit of a Brabham BT24-Repco. This car is actually a faithful reproduction rather than the real McCoy, built more than 20 years ago and featuring many Brabham components. Crucially it has Repco’s bellowing V8, so the experience is about as authentic is it gets.

The BT24 was the first Brabham built specifically for F1’s new 3-litre formula (rather than the one-off BT19, which was originally designed for the 1.5-litre formula then adapted). Nicknamed ‘Old Nail’, the BT19 took Brabham to his third championship and the first in his own car. 

Although its origins were humble, the Repco V8 was both light and – crucially – reliable when compared with the complex V12 and H16 motors fielded by the less pragmatic opposition. The same was true in 1967 with the new BT24, Brabham and team-mate Denny Hulme stealing a march on their rivals to secure a world title double for Brabham and Hulme.

Immediately you sit in the BT24 you can sense it’s a more serious car. There’s a bit more space in the cockpit, so you feel less confined, while the view out front and in your mirrors is dominated by those fat, square-shouldered tyres. It’s like a BT7 that’s been lifting weights and drinking protein shakes.

When the Repco motor fires your world fills with the most glorious noise. A cacophony of crackles and snorts at rest, the sound builds into a magnificent howl under load and a barrage of pops and bangs on the overrun. The increased performance is obvious from the moment you crack open the throttle. Neverone of the most powerful engines in its day, the Repco V8 is still a big step up from the 1.5-litre Climax, with somewhere in the region of 310bhp and a commensurate uplift in torque.

The gearbox is still slick and switch-like in shift quality; a short punch of the wrist is all that’s required to snap the stubby lever through the H-pattern gate. There’s more grip, but it’s still easy to push through the front end’s hold on the track. Likewise the rear tyres aren’t able to contain the Repco’s torque, so even though it feels more like a car you can grab hold of you need to be mindful of over-driving.

It’s funny how these old cars lead you to unconsciously adopt poses held by their drivers back in the day. With a break in filming I return to the pits, kill the engine and sit quietly in the BT24. The wider cockpit’s rounded sides are the perfect place to rest your elbows, and so I find myself with arms braced and fingers meshed, chin resting on my hands as though in prayer. It’s a posture you’ll see in many archive shots, drivers apparently lost in their thoughts. Given Dan Gurney’s Eagle-Westake was clocked at more than 190mph at Spa in 1967, one can only imagine what must have been going through their heads in the moments before the races began. 

Back in the pits I say as much to David, who confirms my thoughts with wide eyes and puffed cheeks, adding, “Dad always said he tried to win races as slowly as possible. Largely to be kind to the car, but also because, bluntly, he didn’t want to die. Things were dangerous enough in those days without taking unnecessary risks. That was his philosophy, and you’d have to say it worked. He lost a lot of friends...

“I think perhaps that’s why he never tends to feature in those ‘top 10’ lists. He was maybe seen as a calculating driver. Of course what you also need to remember is that when he had to dig deep he produced some incredible drives. He had the raw speed when he needed it.”

It’s during my last run in the BT24, following the BT7 driven by David, that I see ‘the view’. We’re not running at speed, but it’s a vivid snapshot of an epic era. One in which I’m close enough to hear his gearshifts, see his hands on the steering wheel and his eyes flicking to the mirrors, watch the driveshafts and CV joints spinning furiously and even smell the fumes from the Climax V8. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.

Brabham BT33 track test


After the evocative BT24 it’s time for slicks, wings and a Cosworth DFV. Is there a more mouth-watering combination? Right now I’d have to say not, for what the BT33 lacks in the delicacy of the BT7 and the drama of the BT24 it makes up for with a brilliantly beefy physique and the promise of yet another leap in performance. 

When it’s rolled into the pit lane, it seems inconceivable that the BT33 is separated from the BT24 by a mere three years and from the BT7 by only seven. The first Brabham to feature an aluminium monocoque and the last in which its maker would race (and win), the BT33 is a world away from its cigar-shaped siblings – the first step into a modern era.

For this child of the Seventies it brings back happy memories, though truth be told this car pre-dates me by a year. This was the third decade in which Jack had been a Grand Prix driver – a remarkable achievement in itself, given that he had made his debut against the likes of Moss and Fangio, and would retire from racing while he still had the pace to fight for wins against the likes of Jochen Rindt and Jackie Stewart.

By now 44 years of age, Brabham had intended to retire at the end of the 1969. But when a deal to secure Rindt fell through as the Austrian joined Lotus at the last minute, Brabham found himself with little choice but to race the BT33 in 1970.

Jack had endured suggestions he was too old for F1 for years, even as he embarked on his championship-winning season in 1966. Once more he silenced his critics in emphatic style by winning the opening GP of the 1970 season, at Kyalami. It was a brilliant start to a fiercely competitive year. Brabham ultimately finished fifth in the title chase, but were it not for a string of retirements from big points-scoring positions he might have taken a fourth title in his swansong season.

Stepping into the BT33 it’s impossible not to reflect upon the magnitude of the challenge faced by Brabham, who had spent 15 years continually adapting his driving style to suit the rapidly evolving Grand Prix cars he was racing. Many of his rivals were little over half his age, unencumbered by the pressures and distractions of running a team and business and, most likely, free from the emotional strain of knowing he had a wife and three young sons praying for his safe return.

Nevertheless, Brabham was a racer to his core. Known for his fearsome determination, it’s easy to imagine him rolling up his sleeves and getting on with it. And I’m sure seeing Rindt in Chapman’s Lotus must have been an additional source of motivation.

The BT33 must have pleased the racer and engineer in Jack, for it offered everything he craved – power, grip, structural rigidity and some (modest) aerodynamic downforce. In it he must have felt he could take the fight to the opposition and build on the strong results enjoyed the previous year by Jacky Ickx in Brabham’s first DFV-powered car, the BT26A.

Straights feel shorter when you’re being propelled by Cosworth’s legendary V8. The noise, the urgency and the sheer eye-widening shove all make for one of the great in-car experiences. One that defined another golden era of Grand Prix racing.

Lowering yourself into the BT33 is to be immersed in a car that feels far more rooted in the present day than the BT24. Okay, so it’s still a resolutely simple and analogue machine – one controlled by three pedals, an H-pattern gearlever and unassisted steering, but your cockpit surroundings and the view out are more familiar.

David Brabham makes an excellent point when he says that each of the three cars places you ever closer to the track’s surface and seems to swallow you up. You’re very much sitting inthe BT33 where you sit onthe BT7.

The result is that you feel safer and less exposed, although while it’s true to say an aluminium tub offers more protection than a tubular spaceframe, the fact remains that these early ’70s cars were not for faint hearts.

The moment the DFV catches, you know you’re in a very different animal. With the engine now serving as a stressed part of the chassis you feel every tingle and vibration transmitted into your body. It’s as though your flesh and bone is also part of the car.

The clutch needs a bit of muscle, but the gearbox and steering are light and deft. Bring the revs up, tentatively find the bite point, then feed the clutch in and you’re away. Once free from the pit lane the first squeeze of throttle is vivid evidence of just what the jump to 450+bhp with no additional weight actually means. 

The track is still damp in places, which coupled to a chilly ambient temperature means tentative exploration of the rev range, at least until the slicks have woken up a bit. The DFV is a surprisingly tractable motor and it’s a real pleasure to snick through the five-speed Hewland gearbox, revs barely dropping with each upshift and carefully matching engine and road speeds on the way down with a stroke of heel-and-toe.

As the BT33 comes to life it feels more and more connected, both to you and the track. It’s a precise, pointy and instinctive car to place – easier in many ways than the BT7 and BT24, which need greater sensitivity and considerable mental adjustment to understand. Above all it feels immediate and explosive in a way the older cars can’t begin to match. Perhaps because it feels more planted it’s easier for me to enjoy it. It certainly does nothing to diminish my belief that everything’s better with a DFV in the back.

How steep is the progression in performance between BT7 and BT33? In 1964 the quickest F1 cars were lapping Spa in 3min 50sec. In ’67 they were more than 20sec faster. In ’70 when you apply a correction factor for the new temporary chicane at Malmédy they were another 10sec quicker. And all on the same brutally unforgiving track. The mind boggles. 

JACK BRABHAM CLAIMED his greatest achievement was managing to survive a sport that claimed the lives of so many. Already a double world champion with Cooper in 1959 and ’60, Brabham had achieved so much before founding his eponymous team with long-time cohort Ron Tauranac. It was this ambition and inner steel that propelled him into another realm. One in which he would take on the best in the world, on his own terms and in his own cars.

Like fellow Antipodean Bruce McLaren, Brabham was a pioneer. Blessed with a fascination and aptitude for engineering, the start of his racing career could almost be described as accidental. Yet not only would he become one of the most successful Grand Prix drivers of his or any other era, he would do what no other man has done before or since, winning the world championship in a car bearing his name. Jack died in 2014, aged 88, but in that momentous 1966 season he achieved immortality.

His is a legacy that will never be surpassed.