Lunch with... David Brabham

Jack’s youngest son was supposed to be a farmer. Instead, he followed the ‘other’ family business and ploughed his own furrow, from F1 to sports cars

We’ve noted before the potency of the motor-racing gene, the father-and-son successions such as the Hills and the Villeneuves, and dynasties from the Unsers to the Andrettis. More rarely, a name can mean not just a family but also a team, or a manufacturer. Then – like the word Brabham – it becomes enshrined for ever in the lexicon of motor racing history.

Jack Brabham, the archetype of the tough Aussie, fought his way from humble beginnings on the dirt tracks of New South Wales to be a triple World Champion. The third of those titles was in a car with his own name on its nose, a unique achievement in Formula 1. His three sons Geoff, Gary and David all became racing drivers too. One of his grandsons, Geoff’s son Matthew, is currently racing in Australian Formula Ford. Meanwhile the Brabham marque, founded as Motor Racing Developments by Jack and Ron Tauranac, became the world’s largest manufacturer of single-seater racing cars. By 1970 it had made more than 500 chassis and won countless races around the world. Later, owned in the 1980s by Bernie Ecclestone, the F1 team won more Grands Prix and World Championships.

David Brabham is Jack’s youngest son, and after 30 years on circuits around the world he is still much in demand as an endurance racer who can bring to a team not only speed but also high intelligence and the racecraft that comes from long experience. He is married to Mike Thackwell’s sister Lisa, and they live the village life with their two sons in Berkshire.

We take lunch in a delightful country pub, the Frog at Skirmett, deep in the Hambledon valley. Professional endurance racers have to be very it – David has a gym at home and his own trainer – and with the Spa 24 Hours a few days away he confines himself to Caesar salad and sparkling water, followed by a cup of mint tea.

He was born in Wimbledon in 1965, when his father was at the height of his racing career, but he was only five when Jack retired and the family moved back to Australia. “My memories of England, and of Dad’s racing, are very fragmented. My earliest memory is visiting him in a London hospital after he’d had a crash and had some pins put in his legs. But motor racing meant nothing to me. As a kid I was much more interested in football, and back in Australia I was playing quite seriously from age seven.

Dad started up several businesses in the Sydney area – aviation, marine, a Ford dealership – and of course he was very well-known. We’d be walking down the street and people would point at him, and in restaurants they’d come up and ask for his autograph. I didn’t understand it, because as far as I was concerned he was just my dad.

“We had a 4500-acre farm on the Murrumbidgee River, sheep and cattle, wheat, barley, oats and lowers. Geoff and Gary were both into racing, but my parents did a pretty good job of isolating me from all that: I was intended for the farm. At 13 I was sent to a boarding school specialising in agriculture. Then in 1982, when I was 17, I went on holiday to America, and hooked up with Geoff. He’s 13 years older than me, and it was his first year in Indycar, with a Bignotti March. He was going to the race shop to be measured for a seat, and I went along. It was a life-changing moment. There was a guy working on a racing kart. I’d never been in a racing workshop before, and I’d never seen a proper kart. I said, ‘Do people race these things?’ I think they thought I was adopted!

“Of course on the farm I’d been driving tractors and utes since I was a small kid, always flat out and sideways. I had no interest in racing, but I loved driving on the edge, as fast as possible. When I saw that kart I thought, I want to have a go at this. Back home I had one of those chats you have with your father. I told him I wanted to go kart racing and it didn’t exactly fill him with joy, because Geoff and Gary were both racing, and I was the one who was meant to keep the farm going. I soon realised I wasn’t going to get any help from him, but I found out where the nearest kart track was and went to have a look. These things were lying around the track, I smelt the smell, heard the noise, and I said to my friend Terry, ‘Mate, we’ve got to have a go at this.’ We scraped together enough to buy a secondhand 100cc kart. Dad showed no interest, but as we were driving off for our first test he put his head in the ute window and said, ‘S’pose I’d better come with you.’

“When we got there Dad put a few bits of stuff on the track edge to show us turn-in points, and I jumped on this kart and was fast straight away. It was like a duck to water. Dad told me years later that he thought, ‘Shit, this kid can drive’. But the good thing was, it all came from inside me, there was no pressure from him like there is with so many racing dads – quite the reverse. After a few races Terry decided it wasn’t for him, but I kept at it, throwing the kart in the back of the ute, going off on my own and racing where I could. It was an old kart with an old engine, but I did all right. I never thought about being a professional racing driver, I just knew I loved to do it. In the end Dad said, ‘If you’re serious, let’s get a decent chassis and engine.’ Then I started to win a lot. In 1985 Ford Australia started a onemake racing series for the Laser – a front-drive saloon like the Escort – and approached Dad, and we bought an old test mule from them. I had some big shunts, wrote a couple of cars off, but we won some races too. Then at the end of the season we were accused of cheating. They pulled the right front strut out of the car and said it wasn’t standard. We hadn’t touched it since we’d bought the car, but they made an example of me and banned me for seven months. At the same time Dick Johnson Racing had been caught using big turbos on their Sierras, and Dick got a one-week suspension.

“In 1986 I did a year of Formula Ford with a Van Diemen. Then I had a Formula Atlantic test and that led to a ride in the Tasman Series, with Mike Thackwell as my team-mate. I was a naïve farmer from the outback, but I’d read about Mike and saw him as a bit of a hero. I went into the back of the truck and there he was, so I said, ‘G’Day, I’m David.’ He just looked away without saying anything, and I thought, ‘Shit, I’ve got this for a month’. But when we walked over to signing-on he started talking to me, and after that we got on fine. It can go either way with Mike: either he likes you or he doesn’t. And now I’m married to his sister…

“In 1987 I ran a Ralt in Australian F2, effectively F3 but with a bit more power, and I did some Atlantic races in the US. Gary was meant to do some South American F3 rounds but had to pull out, so I took over his entry and was put in a car by a local team. I got into this thing and turned the wheel a quarter of a turn, and the front wheels didn’t move. It was a shitbox. I raced it at Buenos Aires, Cordoba and Porto Alegre, and had mechanical problems every time. But it was great experience.”

Back home there was a new situation to cope with: David’s girlfriend Fiona was pregnant.

“I had to tell my parents, and it went over like a lead balloon. I was 22 years old, Dad could see my potential, and the last thing he wanted was for me to have a child at that point in my life. He was gutted, just wouldn’t talk to me. It was as though I wasn’t in his life any more. Supporting the F1 Grand Prix in Adelaide that November was a major one-off F2 race called the Australian Drivers’ Championship. Practice was a nightmare for me: the car stopped on the out-lap of one session and was crippled by a misfire in the other. I qualified 38th and last – for a 15-lap race! I didn’t have a hope.

“On the grid my dad, as three-times World Champion, was wearing a FOCA pass. I said, jokingly, ‘You’d better get me one of those, Dad, for when I’m in F1.’ He looked at me, deadly serious, and he said, ‘The days of you ever getting into F1 are finished.’ I was dumbfounded. I shouted at him, in front of everybody, ‘F*** off, f*** off.’ I got into my car, right at the back of this huge grid, and there was steam coming out of my ears. All I could think was, ‘I’ll show you, you ****.’ The race started and it was like no-one else on the track existed. On the first lap I went from 38th to 17th. I kept passing car after car. I didn’t touch anybody, I just drove around them all. Halfway through the race Dad was grabbing Jackie Stewart and Ken Tyrrell and saying, ‘Look at my boy go.’ On the penultimate lap I got to the front, took the lead and won the race by nearly 2sec. I’d driven at a level I never knew existed. It was an important race to win in front of all those F1 people, and at a difficult time in my life it meant everything to me.

“Fiona and I were still together, and Dad said, ‘Camel wants to sponsor you in Europe in the new Formula Vauxhall Lotus series. What are you going to do about your situation?’
I said, ‘I’ll go to England on my own, see how it goes, and then bring Fiona and the baby over once I’m settled.’ Jason was born halfway through that season, and they came over and joined me. But it just didn’t work. Fiona had to leave her beloved horses behind, and she was very homesick and miserable in England. I was focused on my racing. In the end she and Jason went home. Jason’s 24 now, and I always spend time with him when I’m in Australia.

“But I just hated Vauxhall Lotus. It was a comedown after the F2 I’d been doing, and the team was struggling: we didn’t know how to cheat properly, like everyone else. I lost motivation, and my performances were getting worse and worse. I didn’t doubt my own ability, I just didn’t like driving that car. Luckily a place became available in Formula 3 Class B at Jack Brabham Racing, which my brother Gary was running for his Class A programme. Suddenly I’m in a Ralt VW and straight away I’ve got a new lease of life. I did nine races, won five of them and came third in the championship after only doing half the season. At Spa it was pouring down in qualifying, and I remember going through Eau Rouge lat, having a massive snap oversteer through the river that was running across the road, but keeping my foot in because I loved how it felt. I saw my pit board and it said P2, which pissed me off because I assumed that meant there was a Class B runner who was quicker than me, and I thought, that won’t do. I did a couple more laps, flying past Class A cars, and then when I came into the pits my brother ran over, put his head down into the cockpit and said, ‘F***ing slow down!’ He’d gone quickest in Class A, but I was second fastest overall, ahead of all the other Class As. In the race I won Class B and set fastest lap. That got me noticed, and at the end of the year there was a shootout for the Jewson/Bowman Class A drive for 1989. I was up against Paul Warwick, Vincenzo Sospiri, Derek Higgins and a couple of others, and I got it.”

At first David’s 1989 season went really well, and after five rounds of the British F3 Championship he had a big points lead over Allan McNish. Then the arguments started. McNish’s entrant, Dick Bennetts of West Surrey Racing, protested the Spiess VW engines Bowman Racing was using, and Bowman protested the Mugen Hondas in McNish’s car.

“We both lost all the points we’d scored so far. Then West Surrey appealed and Allan got his points back. I won three more races, but the season ended with Allan as champion and me as runner-up. The whole thing wasn’t sorted out until a court hearing early the following year – and then they decided it had all been done in such a shambolic way that we should both get all our points back. So finally I’d won the title.

“Meanwhile we’d had the most charismatic F3 race of all, the Macau Grand Prix, which really went my way. In practice I made sure I didn’t hit any walls like lots of others did, so I only qualified eighth, but it was an amazing grid: Schumacher, Häkkinen, Irvine, Wendlinger, Frentzen, Zanardi, Gachot. It was run in two heats, and as we all rushed into the first corner after the start of Part 1, I had a premonition of disaster and pulled over to the left. Good thing I did: there was a huge pileup, and the race
was stopped.”

After the restart David came through to finish second to Michael Schumacher. In Part 2 he took the lead from Schumacher and won the overall victory.

“That race, and then eventually being confirmed as British F3 Champion, gave me a real legup. F3000 was next, and after a good test I signed for Dennis Nursey’s Middlebridge team alongside Damon Hill. Then suddenly Middlebridge bought the Brabham F1 team. Days before the first Grand Prix of the year at Phoenix I get a phone call from Nursey: ‘Come and race the F1 Brabham.’ I said, ‘Thanks but no thanks’. I hadn’t tested the car, or any F1 car for that matter. I just didn’t feel it enough or properly prepared.”

The F1 team carrying the Brabham name had endured a rocky time since Bernie Ecclestone sold it to Alfa Romeo two years before. Alfa sold it on to a Swiss inancier, Joachim Luhti, who was then arrested for fraud. The man behind Middlebridge’s move into F1 was a Japanese businessman, Koji Nakauchi, but funding for the Brabham purchase came in the form of loans from a finance company called Landhurst Leasing, whose directors Ted Ball and David Ashworth later pleaded guilty to fraud involving sums of £50 million. David had set his sights on a strong F3000 season.

“It was a good package: Lola chassis, Tickford engines. We were about to go testing before the irst round when Dennis Nursey says, ‘I’m closing the F3000 team down.’ Then he takes me into his office and says, ‘We want you to be in F1.’ It was already April, and I had no other options.” Middlebridge believed that a Brabham in a Brabham might help to attract sponsors, but for David the season was an utter disaster.

“Sergio Rinland designed that year’s car, the BT59, and whenever I see Sergio now he apologises for his worst car ever. It was meant to use a transverse gearbox, but that wasn’t ready until mid-season. But mainly there was no money. At one stage, just when the team was meant to be packing up to go to the next race, there weren’t even any engines, because there was no money to pay for them. The whole thing was just amateurish – as some of the back end of the F1 grids were in those days.” Out of 14 Grands Prix David retired seven times, failed to qualify six times and inished once, 15th at Paul Ricard. “Stefano Modena was the team’s No 1, and all the focus was on him. When he needed bits for his car they were taken off mine. Fair enough: it was his third F1 season and I was just the new boy, but it was pretty grim for him as well. We did no testing – no money for that – so Stefano and I’d just meet at the races, but we got on well. He was the most superstitious driver I’ve ever known, always had to race with one glove on inside out.”

In fact Nursey changed his mind about closing down the F3000 team and ran David’s brother Gary and Damon Hill. But by now David’s image had changed from a rising youngster with great potential to just another back-of-the- grid F1 name who’d had trouble qualifying. He had to rebuild his reputation. In 1991 he managed to do four F3000 races for the Roni Ralt team, and then Tom Walkinshaw came calling. He was running a series for 15 identical Jaguar XJR15s, and wanted David to drive one in the race supporting the Monaco GP.

“Driving one of those big things around the streets of Monte Carlo I qualified fourth and finished second, to Derek Warwick. After that Tom said, ‘You should do a test in the XJR14.’”

The TWR Silk Cut Jaguars were dominating the World Sports Car Championship at the time, humbling the Peugeots and Sauber-Mercedes.

“So the following week I called TWR. They said, ‘No point in just testing the car unless you race it too.’ So I was signed for the rest of the season. My first race in the XJR-14 was the Nürburgring – and I finished first, and I finished second!

“I started the Derek Warwick car, and was running third behind Teo Fabi in the other Jaguar and Keke Rosberg in the Peugeot. Behind me were Mauro Baldi’s Peugeot and Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes. The Peugeots were spraying out masses of oil: Schuey had to stop to get his screen cleaned, and chasing Rosberg I could hardly see where I was going. Finally Rosberg blew up, then Teo had a spin, so there I was leading my first WSC race – virtually driving blind At one-third distance I handed over to Derek, and then towards the end Tom brought Teo in and put me in his car, and I finished second in that.”

David had several more good races in the XJR-14. “You can imagine the contrast at TWR to what I’d been used to in the shoestring Brabham team. It was a fantastic environment to be in. Tom as team boss was tough, a man of few words, but everything was properly organised. And Ross Brawn was running the cars: he was just brilliant. Very quiet, very methodical, very supportive. It was the first time I’d ever been in a team with proper structures, knowing the plan, knowing what we had to achieve in each practice session, in each race stint. It saved my life.

“I had a deal with TWR to carry on in 1992, and I drove a TWR XJR-12D in the Daytona 24 Hours, finished second overall and first in GTP. Then Jaguar pulled out of the world series. But after Toyota works driver Hitoshi Ogawa was killed, Toyota signed me to replace him in the TOM’S TS010, and I did my first Le Mans for them. The 1993 season was a bit barren, although that gave Lisa and me time to get married, but I did Le Mans in the XJ220 with David Coulthard and John Nielsen.

“During one of my stints in the 220 there was a dreadful smell of petrol. I was almost gassed by the fumes. When I came in, as they refuelled they could see petrol leaking out of the bottom of the tank. They said, ‘Can you go out and do a few more laps while we figure out what to do about it?’ I said, ‘No I can’t. You can fix it now.’ They ended up having to pull out the bag tank and put in another one. We still won the GT class, and then afterwards we got disqualified: a row about catalytic converters. It was all politics, really; I don’t think that Tom and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest liked each other very much.”

David had now built a reputation as a firstclass endurance racer, but at 28 years old he still regarded F1 as uninished business. “I was desperate to get back into F1, and with my sports car experience I knew I was a far better driver now than I had been at Brabham in 1990. And then Nick Wirth asked me to join Simtek. It was a very small operation with big ambitions. There was no money, but then Roland Ratzenberger signed to drive the other car, and he brought a bit of sponsorship. We managed to get it all together, and it was a great little car.” David finished 12th in Simtek’s first GP in Brazil, but retired at Aida with duff electrics. Then came Imola.

“Roland didn’t have a lot of experience – he’d done F3000, and had been racing in Japan – but he was totally dedicated to his racing. During practice at Imola he was struggling, and complained about his brakes. I don’t know if the team took that as seriously as they should have, but I jumped in his car, did a few laps and told them his brakes were indeed shite. So they fitted a new set, and suddenly he was going much better, within a few tenths of me.

“During qualifying he had an off over the kerbs. He slowed down and swerved from side to side to check everything was OK – you could see from his data he’d done that – and then he carried on, going for a time. A lap later the front wing came off and went under the car.” In the ensuing 200mph accident Ratzenberger died instantly. It was the first time for 12 years that a driver had been killed at a GP.

“Simtek was a small team, and Roland’s death was devastating. Nobody knew what to do. They were totally demoralised, finished. That evening Nick Wirth said to me, ‘What do you want to do about the race tomorrow? It’s up to you.’ They put the onus on me. I didn’t know what to think, my mind was all over the place. Life deals big blows sometimes, and until something happens you never know how you’re going to deal with it. Your emotions take over, and your brain just doesn’t work functionally. The usual thing for a team in that situation, when one of their drivers has been killed, is to withdraw. But I said, ‘Let’s just do the warm-up, then we’ll see how we feel.’

“In the warm-up I was 18th fastest, which was quick for us – normally we were much further down. When I came into the pits I sensed this heavy cloud had lifted from the team, we’d made the first step towards recovery. If Roland had been sitting there I know he’d have said, ‘What the hell are you doing? Of course you must race!’ So I did.”

The death of Ayrton Senna that afternoon overshadowed all else, but after the restart courageous David ran well until an off at the Variante Bassa, apparently caused by a steering problem. He saw the rest of the season out with four different rent -a-drive teammates, and was very lucky to escape from a huge testing accident at Silverstone.

“We were trying a new rear geometry which improved the stability under braking. But a rear pick-up point pulled out at the end of the Hangar Straight, just as I hit the brakes for Stowe. When it all finally stopped I was upside down against the fences, but there was enough room for me to unbuckle, take off the wheel and crawl out from under. But something like that doesn’t affect your motivation; you don’t think about it, because if you think about those things you worry. They understood what had broken and why it broke, and they fixed it.”

But at the end of 1994 David knew that he and F1 were finished. “It wasn’t easy to accept. If I’d done that 1990 F3000 season and gone well, I’d have developed as a driver and as a person, and one or two decent F1 teams would have taken a look at me for ’91. But that’s how it goes. For ’95 all I could get was a BMW 2-litre touring car alongside Johnny Cecotto. After F1 it felt like it wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t turn in, had no grip, and I kept on out-braking myself. I was lapping faster bedding in the brakes than when I was going for a time. In ’96 I got an offer to do the All-Japan GT Championship in a McLaren GTR. That was great fun: I beat Ralf Schumacher to win the series.

“I remember seeing a picture in a magazine of a Panoz and thinking, ‘A GT racer with the engine in the front! You’d never get me in one of those’. Then Dave Price, who was running the Panoz programme, called and said, ‘Come over for a chat.’ I said, ‘I’m not driving that front-engined heap.’ But I went over, and it looked a bit weird, with a big old push-rod V8, but I could see it was a real race car. Meanwhile David Clark wanted me for their GTC McLaren programme with Ray Bellm – but he said they weren’t going to pay me. I said, if that was how they wanted to treat me they could forget it, and I did the deal with Pricey. Two days later I get a frantic message from McLaren, offering big money and all sorts. I told them I’d given my word to Panoz, and I wasn’t going back on it. That’s how I ended up driving a front-engined Batmobile for six years.

“When I first drove it I thought, what the hell have I done? But gradually we got it sorted, and we had some great results, racing against the likes of Audi, Mercedes and Toyota. The Panoz was the noisiest, hottest car I’d ever driven. James Weaver, who was also in the team, said driving it made him lose the will to live. And it wasn’t an easy car to get a time out of. You were sitting on top of the rear axle line, and it moved around like a bucking horse.

“But when you think how bizarre the thing was, we did pretty well with it. Pricey ran the cars in Europe, and we had some cars based in the US for the American races. Don Panoz knew nothing about racing and had some very strange ideas, but I had a great relationship with him. We won the US Professional Sports Car Championship, and in 1998 I was in the French DAMS team with Eric Bernard, and drove for Panoz Auto in America with Andy Wallace and Doc Bundy. Lots of good memories – like winning the Nürburgring 1000Kms outright in 2000 with Jan Magnussen, beating all the Audis and BMW LMRs. Jan and I had a completely different approach. He was happy to spend his nights in some club getting trashed, but he was very quick, and we respected each other. He came to Panoz straight from F1, and I can see how he hadn’t fitted in too well with Ron Dennis or Jackie Stewart. He’d be lounging against the pit counter, sucking away at his fag, I’d come in after two hours of setting the car up, he’d stamp out his fag, clamber in the car, dump the clutch and drive the wheels off it. ”

Having a long contract with Panoz, David decided to move his family to America. He sold up everything in England, bought a house in Fort Lauderdale, put the boys in local schools – and then at the end of 2002 Don Panoz decided to close down the team. “I had to find work. I picked up the phone to John Wickham, who ran the Bentley Le Mans programme, and told him I was available. He told me to fly over, and straight away I did a deal for the 2003 race.

“That year Bentley was favourite to win, and they had a two-car team, so we had a 50 per cent chance. And it ended up a Bentley 1-2. I was with Johnny Herbert and Mark Blundell, and we had the pace, but we had to change two batteries, which cost 10 minutes in the pits. The other car had a faultless run, and we finished two laps down. Crossing the line at the end, with the crowd going mad, I felt dead inside. I felt I’d lost my chance to win Le Mans.”

In 2003 David had success in the USA with Prodrive’s Ferrari 550, and then moved into the Prodrive Aston Martin DBR9 programme. “At Le Mans we won GT1 two years running, 2007 and ’08. Then early in ’09 Peugeot asked what my contractual situation was for Le Mans. I was racing for the American Highcroft Honda team that year, and they weren’t going to Le Mans, so I got them to release me. I was put in the third 908 with Alex Wurz and Marc Gené. We weren’t the focus of the team, and that was good for us because it meant we could drive our own race. The other two cars were quicker, but we just drove a perfect, reliable, clean race, and we won by over a lap. I’ve had a lot of high points, but that one was the icing on the cake.”

David’s relationship with Highcroft Racing, the team created by American Duncan Dayton, was very fruitful. “Duncan is the best amateur racing driver I’ve ever seen. And as a team boss he is completely professional, always raising standards – just like Penske, whom we were up against in ALMS LMP2 with the Porsche RS Spyder Evos. We beat them sometimes, but finished runner-up to them in ’08, and then in ’09 we went LMP1.”

Driving with Scott Sharp, David lifted the ALMS title outright for Highcroft, and repeated the feat in 2010 with Simon Pagenaud. This year he’s been busy in GT with the United Autosports McLaren MP4/12C, and racing in the World Endurance Championship with the JRM Honda ARX 03a. In that he finished a superb sixth overall at Le Mans, and second petrol car home, with Peter Dumbreck and Karun Chandhok.

“I’ve done Le Mans 18 times now. How many more will I do? I can’t answer that, but at 46 I can still do a good job, although it gets harder as you get older. There are other things I want to do: I mentor drivers, and my company Brabham Performance Clinic helps them with their mental and physical development. I set up a programme for the Motor Sports Association which has become the MSA Academy, and we’re in our sixth year with that. It’s all about human performance. Some drivers understand that better than others.

“I’m not a wealthy man; it’s not like I’ve been contracted to a big factory sports car team for six or seven seasons. But money’s not a big thing for me. You just need enough to live your daily life. When I was trying to make it in F1 we did move to Monaco for a while, but I hated it. Then our first son Sam was born, and Lisa and I didn’t want him to grow up in that environment, so we came back to the UK. I was born here, I’ve spent longer here than I’ve lived in Australia, I pay my taxes, I play cricket for the local village team. Sam’s 17 now, in his second year of racing karts. Finn is 12, and he’s a county cricketer and a good footballer. Lisa was always sporty. She raced when we first got together – Cleos, Honda CRXs, the Rover Challenge – and she was pretty good.”

This is a man in whom the competitive flame still burns, and yet this is also a contented man, comfortable with himself as he looks back on a career in which he hasn’t always had the breaks his talent merited. In endurance racing we’ll be watching for some time to come his speed, experience and innate understanding of how races are won and lost. And when he does hang up his hat, don’t bet against those genes making young Sam the sixth racing Brabham.