Few Grand Prix marques have produced a range of cars as technically diverse and innovative as that designed and built by the Brabham team over its 30 years of participation in Formula One. The team also boasts the rare distinction of both their first and last Formula One cars being raced by a World Champion, though, in the latter case it would take a further four years before its driver was able to claim his crown.
In the 1962 German Grand Prix, the team’s name sake Jack Brabham – title holder in 1959 and ’60 and destined to repeat the achievement in 1966 – did the job. In 1992, it fell to Damon Hill to ring down the curtain on Brabham and Formula One with his outing in the Hungarian GP.
Between that tentative debut (Brabham’s BT3 lasted just nine laps) and depressing, scarcely noticed finale lay 394 Grands Prix starts, 39 pole positions, 35 wins, four drivers’ World Championships and two Constructors’ crowns.
Jack Brabham himself – along with his longtime designer and collaborator Ron Tauranac – were essentially pragmatic and conservative. Not for them the wildly innovative Colin Chapman approach with monocoque chassis and aerodynamically efficient inboard front suspension. Outboard springs and simple, tubular monocoques were the hallmark of Brabham F1 design right from the first 1.5-litre Climax V8-engined BT3 through to the Cosworth DFV powered BT26 of 1969.
Dan Gurney won the Brabham team’s maiden Grand Prix victory at Rouen-les-Essarts in 1964 after a long run of promising, but intensely disappointing performances. Jim Clark may have privately rated the lanky Californian as the only rival he really had to worry about, but then Jimmy had Lotus boss Chapman’s undivided attention. Gurney’s task was rather more difficult – he had to race his boss, Black Jack, in the other car!
Gurney eventually decided to imitate Brabham and go his own way in 1966, developing his All American Racers Eagle Weslake. That left Jack with a clear run to the Championship in the first season of the 3-litre Fl regulations. The opposition was stunned, but it shouldn’t he been.
Jack and Ron Tauranac pulled a master stroke. Reasoning that the rival teams of Cooper-Maserati and Ferrari V12s, not to mention the horrendous BRM H16, would be either too heavy or too unreliable, they decided instead to go for a lightweight production based engine for the new Brabham BT19.
This was the Australian Repco V8 based round the General Motors Oldsmobile F85 cylinder block. This engine had been abandoned by GM after initially being developed as part of a linerless aluminium engine programme for a projected 3.5-litre Buick “compact.” Not quite at a stroke, Repco transformed this from a commercial disaster to a motor racing dream.
The Repco V8 was light, serviceable and sufficiently powerful to get the job done. It might have only had a claimed 315bhp at a leisurely 7250rpm, but that was enough to see off the vastly overrated and ultimately disappointing Ferrari 312s which were hotly tipped as pre-season favourites. Brabham won four races that year to clinch the World Championship, then team-mate Denny Hulme repeated the title winning performance in 1967 using first the BT20 and latterly the newer BT24. But by then, of course, the Repco V8 – and everything else, come to that – had effectively been eclipsed by the sensational 400bhp Ford Cosworth DFV V8 which made its winning debut in Clark’s Lotus at the Dutch Grand Prix.
Unfortunately, the 1968 season saw Brabham stumble dramatically. Having hired the young and dynamic Jochen Rindt as his number one driver, Jack thought he could reasonably look forward to a third consecutive successful season. Ron Tauranac penned the semi-monocoque BT26 – in fact a spaceframe using smaller gauge tubing but stressed with alloy sheeting – but the vital stumble came from Repco’s new type 860 V8. Brabham shared the Australian engine maker’s belief that they could produce a four-cam V8 to match the new Cosworth DFV. It didn’t turn out that way. F1 engine specialist John Judd who subsequently went on to build his own Formula One engines and those for Yamaha sets the season in perspective.
“I spent much of the 1967 season down in Australia working on sorting out that four-cam engine,” he recalled. “The power output was alright, but when it came to actually racing it we had a large number of quality control problems. But, it has to be said that, at the end of the day Cosworth’s DFV was far ahead in terms of design. There were so many things they did for the first time, and they did them right.”
Rindt only finished twice in the World Championship points, including a strong third in the pouring rain at the Nurburgring. He wanted to stay with Brabham, but Colin Chapman was prepared to bid the earth for him to move to over to Lotus. After much consideration, Jochen finally made the move.
For ’69 Jack bowed to the inevitable and switched to DFV power, signing the fiery young Belgian star Jacky Ickx to drive alongside him. Ickx went on to score a spectacular victory over Jackie Stewart’s Matra in the German GP at the Nurburgring and would also triumph in the Canadian GP at Mosport Park. But at the end of that single season he returned to Ferrari, from whence he came.
At the end of 1969 Rindt’s manager, one Bernie Ecclestone, found himself stuck in the middle of a dilemma. Jochen was thinking hard about returning to Brabham, but again Chapman played his financial trump card with the help of some very big bucks from tyre supplier Firestone. So Jack – staring his 44th birthday in the face – found himself virtually committed to driving for one more season.
With the splendid Brabham BT33, Jack won the season opener in South Africa and would have beaten Rindt’s Lotus to win the British race at Brands Hatch had he not run out of fuel and been relegated to second. Possibly all the fuel churns didn’t go in prior to the race. But Ron Tauranac explained; “the people concerned were very reliable.” He was referring to chief mechanic Ron Dennis, now millionaire head of the McLaren-Mercedes F1 team.
At the end of the season Brabham sold out to Tauranac who, in turn, sold the company on to Bernie Ecclestone by the end of 1971. Bernie then brought on the brilliant but unknown South African-born designer Gordon Murray who would go on to be responsible for Brabham’s Formula One designs for the next 12 years.
Although his first work for Brabham was merely some detailing on the famed ‘Lobster Claw’ BT34, Murray’s first master strokes were the race winning BT44 and 44Bs of ’74-75 which saw Carlos Reutemann win four Grands Prix across two seasons and Carlos Pace one. However, Brabham seemed to be infected by a penchant for not topping their cars up with fuel prior to the race. Reutemann lost a stunning victory on home ground at Buenos Aires in ’74 when his tanks ran dry under two laps from the flag.
It was indeed a bitter episode. “I worked out the consumption afterwards,” said Murray, “and even taking account of the consumption if the engine’s mixture control had slipped onto full rich, it still pointed to one churn of fuel being left out!”
The BT44-series was one of the Grand Prix classics of the decade but Ecclestone’s commercial acumen dictated a switch to Alfa Romeo flat-12s for 1976. The first Brabham BT45 was a lumbering heavyweight which gobbled fuel like an alcoholic on a day trip to a distillery. By 1977 the BT45B had been worked into a halfway decent proposition in which John Watson came close to winning both the French and British Grands Prix. But there was no way one could harness the new technology of ground effect aerodynamics with the 180-degree Alfa engine, so Murray put on his thinking cap and tried to find a way around it.
For 1978 he came up with an innovative solution in the form of ‘surface cooling’, using a system of heat exchangers on the outside of the monocoque surface. That didn’t work. Then he came up with the ‘fan car’ which used a large gearbox driven fan to suck air out from beneath the chassis and literally stick the car to the road. And it worked just fine. Niki Lauda used it to win the Swedish GP in fine style, but the opposition created such a furore about it that Ecclestone agreed to withdraw it from the tracks. Contrary to popular opinion, it was never banned.
The only way out of this ground effect dilemma was for Alfa to produce a V12 which came on stream for 1979. It was a total disaster. “Those V12s varied alarmingly engine to engine,” says Murray. “We eventually pinpointed the problem to oil scavenging. Some engines worked fine, others simply drowned the crankcase. There was no rhyme or reason to it.”
Mid-season, Ecclestone decided to ditch the Alfa V12s and return to using Cosworth’s trusty DFV V8s, an event Gordon Murray describes as “like having a holiday.” Initially, Murray simply converted two BT48s to take Cosworth engines but everything behind the cockpit was totally new and the car was a hit from the word go. This was the superb new BT49 which Nelson Piquet would use to win his first Grand Prix at Long Beach in 1980 and then clinch the first of his three World Championship titles with the car the following year.
Of course, the early 1980s saw the predominantly British Formula One Constructors’ Association fighting a desperate rear-guard action against the new generation of turbocharged engines. The Ecclestone-led Brabham was firmly positioned at the sharp end of the fight. Allegations that the team cheated its way to quick grid times by using a below-the-weight limit qualifying car were voiced provocatively by some French magazines after Nelson put the BT49 on pole for the ’81 Monaco race. None of it was proven, but the rumours linger to this day …
Piquet developed into a world class driver during his stint with the Brabham team and developed an almost telepathic partnership with Gordon Murray. Yet even Ecclestone could detect which way the wind was blowing and decided in 1981 that it was time to get Brabham firmly hitched to the turbo bandwagon.
He struck a deal for Brabham to use BMW’s new four-cylinder overhead camshaft, four-valves-per-cylinder engines. Their initial power output was quoted at 557bhp at 9500rpm, although it would eventually achieve almost twice that figure in high boost qualifying form during the course of its F1 competition career. The following year, with the new Brabham BT50Bs, Murray introduced in-race refuelling in time for the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, a month or so after Piquet posted the first Brabham-BMW win at Montreal. Bernie seemed confident that there would be no changes in the technical regulations for the following season.
“In the middle of the season, we equipped one of the BT50s with all the necessary gear, including an air jacking system, and went to Donington Park to test in secret,” said Murray. “We timed those and came to the conclusion that we had to do the whole slowing-down, speeding-up process, including the stop itself, in under 40 seconds. “The first time we did it, with Nelson coming into the pits very slowly indeed, we lost only 26 seconds, so we knew we were OK. With more training we were obviously going to do it a lot quicker than that.”
Buoyed by the obvious potential of the in-race refuelling stop, Murray decided to take this concept a step further for 1983 with a ‘half tank’ chassis, dubbed the BT51, complete with a radical new transmission which was designed to get the best out of ground effect aerodynamics. But, on the 3 November 1992, it all went wrong. On that fateful day, Murray realised the new car would have to be scrapped when the FIA decreed that flat bottomed F1 cars would become mandatory in 1983.
The BT52 was duly readied in time for its race debut in Brazil. It was distinctively different, owing virtually nothing to the long line of Murray-designed Brabhams stretching back to 1973. It had no side pods and the cockpit looked dramatically slim as a result.
The BT52 duly won on its debut in front of Piquet’s home crowd. In fact, the new machine very nearly scored a 1-2 on this maiden outing as Riccardo Patrese ran second until a cracked exhaust resulted in loss of turbo boost pressure and consequent retirement.
Piquet won the World Championship for Brabham, marking the peak of the team’s achievement under Ecclestone’s stewardship. The following year the BT53 won just two races in Nelson’s hands, blighted by unreliability, while 1985 saw the Brazilian post the marque’s final victory, his BT54 now running on Pirelli rubber. For 1986 Murray evolved the striking lowline BT55 with its canted-over BMW engine and bevel drive transmission. Its much-reduced frontal area should have produced a major performance boost, but oil scavenging problems contributed to a dramatic loss of power and the car never realised its potential.
Piquet had, anyway, gone to Williams by this time and the season was blighted by a fatal testing accident to the the team’s new driver Elio de Angelis at the Paul Ricard circuit in southern France.
Thereafter with Ecclestone increasingly absorbed with the commercial side of the business, Brabham’s fortunes declined. It was passed through a couple more owners, ending in the custody of the Middlebridge Group who presided over Damon Hill’s last outing in the arthritic BT60-Judd at Budapest in August, 1992. For those who remembered Brabham’s great days at the front of the field it was truly a tear-jerking moment.