Forty years after he won his first World Championship, Sir Jack Brabham is showing no signs of slowing down. He is always in demand for historic events and PR appearances, and he never turns down the chance to get back behind the wheel. As he showed at the Goodwood Revival Meeting last September, just pootling round in a museum piece is not the Brabham style; he still likes to hang the tail out. The spirit still burns and man, now 73, still drives. Hard.
“I really enjoy getting back into those old cars,” he smiles. “It feels just like old times, gives me a little bit of a spurt and stops me from getting old!” When will he finally give it up?
“I’m going to have a think about it when I’m 75, and if I still want to do it I’ll review it again when I’m 80. When I get in a motor car I don’t feel any different.”
“I never used to worry about what the press wrote about me, but that probably was a mistake”
Sir Jack Brabham is our oldest living Formula 1 World Champion. A handful of other F1 drivers bridged the enormous gulf from the 1950s to the 1970s (Jo Bonnier, Graham Hill, Bruce McLaren and Dan Gurney), but none started quite as early as Brabham, who made his GP debut at Aintree in 1955. Only Jack raced against the Mercedes W196 and the Lotus 72. During a remarkable career he won three titles, the last with his own team and car. And he was still winning when he reluctantly walked away from the sport in 1970, at the age of 44.
And yet somehow his achievements have been taken for granted by the history books. Ask anyone to list the Top 10 of all time, and Brabham’s name is never considered. Extend the query to the Top 20, and he might just crop up in the low teens, alongside drivers who didn’t win a single title, never mind three. Stirling Moss and Jim Clark dominated the headlines when Jack was racing, and they still do.
“I think it’s just that I didn’t piss in the press’s pockets as much as other people,” he grins. “Being an Australian doesn’t help over in this country. I never used to worry too much about what the press wrote about me, but, in retrospect, that probably was a mistake on my part.”
Jack was never very dashing or glamorous. He was a man of few words, always characterised as a thinker, a dour technician who often won races through stealth. That sort of low-key style rarely captures the public imagination. But when the mood took him Brabham was also a hard racer who could fight with the best.
Cooper stint brought first two drivers’ titles – seen here at Silverstone on the way 1960 British GP
Bernard Cahier/Getty Images
The World Championship was not on the unknown Australian’s mind when he first came to Britain. Already pushing 30, he didn’t seem to have much of a future, but within a few years he helped to turn Grand Prix racing upside down – or rather back to front.
“All I was interested in was just doing some motor racing. I never even thought about a World Championship or whatever. It took me a year to find out what motor racing was all about over here, and luckily I got in tow with John Cooper, and he gave me a job at the works putting cars together and things like that. Eventually I drove for him, and that was really how it all started.
“He let me build a car in the workshop, revolving around the little Bobtail sports car. I put a 2-litre Bristol in it, and that really became Cooper’s first F1 car. We had a little trouble with it up at Aintree, and the clutch fell out of it before the end of the race, but then I took it home and won the Australian GP in 1955.”
A tremendous rapport developed between Brabham and Cooper, the underdogs who took on the might of Italy, and cheekily outflanked Vanwall and BRM to become Britain’s premier racing team.
“It wasn’t long before we realised there was a lot of potential at Cooper’s, but even then we didn’t think that we would win a World Championship so quickly. The rear-engined car was obviously the way to go, and luckily Coventry-Climax built a 2.5-litre engine for us, which really put us in the driving seat. We went straight out and won the championship in ’59 and ’60. Without that engine we wouldn’t have been able to achieve it.”
The double title was a tremendous achievement for the little manufacturer. Jack was far more than just the driver. He was at the heart of the team, spearheading development – especially the 1960 ‘lowline’ model, in which he scored five straight victories.
“I never got to drive a Ferrari, but I had a lot of pleasure beating them”
“The most enjoyable win was Reims. We were told there’s no way we were going to beat the Ferraris there. We managed to do it, and it was a great thrill. In all my years of racing I never got to drive a Ferrari, but I had a lot of pleasure beating them. It was a very interesting time for me, being so involved in it, being part of it. Going all around the continent with John was a lot of fun on its own, apart from the racing. It was a big advantage for me to have some mechanical knowledge, but there were times when I backed off in the car when I probably didn’t need to, and lost races by doing that. At the same time at least I didn’t drive it into the ground like some of the other drivers.”
The spell was broken by the switch to 1.5-litre rules in 1961. After an unsuccessful final year with Cooper the only highlight came by shaking up the establishment at the Indianapolis 500. “It was very different. They called our Cooper the funny car, because it was so different to what they had. Then they said it shouldn’t be painted green, because that was bad luck there. Then they caught me eating peanuts, and they said you shouldn’t eat peanuts in the pits, that’s unlucky. The other thing they said was you mustn’t bring a woman into the pits. I couldn’t find one so I couldn’t do that.”