Racer, engineer, legend… and Dad

To us, Jack Brabham was the driver who won a world title in a car bearing his own name. To his son, he was just The Old Man. Now, 50 years after that landmark success, David Brabham pays tribute to the father he knew

Writer Damien Smith

"Dad wasn’t a great talker. But it always stuck that when I first started racing he looked at me and said ‘David, it’s all in here’.” At those words, his face hardens and for a moment it’s as if Jack Brabham is back with us. The grit in the voice, the determined heavy brow, the straight mouth, those close-set eyes boring into mine as he points an index finger to his temple… He looks so much like his old man it’s startling.

David Brabham, the youngest of Jack’s three sons, openly admits that he didn’t have the easiest of relationships with his father. No surprise there, given the granite-hewn character we’re talking about. But little more than two years after Jack’s death at the age of 88, the memories are predominantly affectionate, and pride flows to the top of the brim, just as you’d hope for one of the greatest of motor racing men.

It’s 50 years since Brabham carved what is likely to remain a unique place in history by becoming Formula 1 world champion in an eponymous chassis. The back-to-back titles for Cooper in 1959-60 were perhaps landmarks of greater significance to the sport as a whole, given the placing of Climax’s engine behind Jack’s hunched shoulders rather than ahead of his feet. But this third one was personal, a confirmation that even as an ‘old man’ of 40 here was a genuine motor racing colossus, as a driver, engineer, gilt-edged sportsman – take your pick.

Down at Goodwood, the anniversary won’t go unnoticed. At the Revival on September 9-11 it will be Jack’s turn to be honoured as Bruce McLaren, Jackie Stewart, John Surtees and Dan Gurney have been in previous years, with a gathering of his cars to be demonstrated and displayed. David has been deeply involved with the mission to source them, including the genuine 1966 BT19 that’s coming all the way from ‘Down Under’. Today he has agreed to meet me, at the Unicorn in the bustling Oxfordshire village of Deddington, to talk solely about the man he just knew as ‘Dad’.

“In the history of Grand Prix racing, there’s one era when I wish I’d been an adult and that was the 1960s,” he says. “It was such an amazing period, actually not just for racing but for life on this planet. There was so much change going on. People got liberated. 

“Looking back on ’66, you had two of Dad’s previous team-mates in Dan Gurney and Bruce McLaren coming out with their own Grand Prix cars to try and become the first to win a championship in a car of their own production.” But it was Jack who was ahead of the game.

He was supposed to be winding down the driving by this time, thanks to the pincer pressures of his age and a burgeoning customer racing car business. He had Gurney and promising Kiwi Denny Hulme to hold the front line – until Dan left to form Eagle. As F1’s ‘return to power’ 3-litre era dawned, this was no time to throttle back. Armed with an American-sourced V8 tuned by old contacts at Repco, mated to a typically no-nonsense spaceframe from his plain speaking partner Ron Tauranac, Brabham was ready to make hay. The rule change, despite a three-year notice period, appeared to catch most on the hop – especially when Coventry Climax made the shock announcement that it wouldn’t play to the new capacity. Yes, Colin Chapman and Cosworth were sowing the seeds for the DFV, but that was more than a year away from bloom. Meanwhile Ferrari had its heavy, sports car-derived V12, but with John Surtees at its head Maranello was still well placed – until politics pushed the ’64 champion over the edge. After his final win in red at Spa, he walked and pitched up at past-its-best Cooper. 

Brabham consequently stormed through the summer, claiming four Grands Prix in a row – the French, British, Dutch and German – to lay hold of an unchallenged crown.

***

The perception has lingered that Brabham’s achievement in ’66 is undervalued in comparison to the feats of others such as Clark during the same era. Perhaps it’s the ‘interim’ nature of that Grand Prix season, as teams scrabbled for short-term, or at least severely compromised, power solutions. Jim Clark’s Lotus, for example, was hobbled first by a Climax engine of only two litres, then by BRM’s hulking (and unreliable) H16; likewise Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart in the constructor’s works cars. But rather than undermine Brabham’s success, his nous to develop a winning package should enhance it – and as ever, his ability behind the wheel couldn’t be underestimated.

“As a driver, my own purple patch – where I was at such a level that whatever car I drove I felt I could beat anyone – was 44,” says David. “The same age that Dad retired. When I turned 40 I looked at what Dad achieved at the same age in ’66 and it blew me away: how he was able to focus on the business, focus on the race team, develop the cars in all the formulas, then jump into a Grand Prix car – against guys who only raced, remember. And they were bloody good, too, the likes of Clark, Graham Hill and so on. 

“Don’t forget he also dominated F2 in ’66 [with Honda power] and could have won the F1 title again in 1967 when Denny was champion. He was developing cars and trying new bits, which didn’t always work. Denny said to me, ‘For sure, if your dad hadn’t dicked around with the bloody cars he probably would have won the championship.’ Denny had the reliable one, did a great job and won the championship. But they were pretty close at the end, after another dominant display.

“When he retired [at the end of 1970] he felt he still had more years left in him. He could have won the championship in that final season. He won the first race in South Africa, should have won Monaco and Brands Hatch… and both times Jochen Rindt beat him. If he’d won those two GPs it would have been a great fight.” 

Brabham was a pioneer in more ways than one. Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and later Jackie Stewart are regularly credited for ushering in the concept of the ‘professional racing driver’. But this tough nut from Australia, who cut his teeth racing midget ‘speedcars’ on the dirt tracks in and around Sydney, made his own significant contribution to pushing the game on.

“You’ve got to remember when Dad came over in 1955 motor racing was very much a gentleman’s deal,” says David. “So who was this rough nut? He was aggressive on the track and went to boundaries no one had really gone to in his attempts to win a race. He started to change the mindset of drivers coming through to be a bit more like him. Once that helmet went on you are talking about a different character, which is true for a lot of us. He was never flamboyant, he was a grafter. But when he put his mind to it he could beat any of them.”

The influence of Ron Tauranac on the Brabham story can never be overstated, even from Jack’s earliest days racing in Britain. Sadly, the ‘T’ from the ‘BT’ type numbers will be a notable absentee at the Goodwood celebrations, because of ill health, but David is keen that he won’t be forgotten. It’s one of the great motor racing partnerships, up there with Chapman and Clark, Tyrrell and Stewart. But given the nature of their characters, they didn’t always rub along smoothly. Should they be described as friends? “Oh yes,” says David. “But when you say ‘relationship’, you’re talking about guys who got through the end of the war [both served in the Royal Australian Air Force]. They were particular characters… they weren’t lovey-dovey! It was a case of ‘This is how we do it. If you don’t bloody do it like that, you’re out.’ 

“When you think about how different they were, their relationship lasted forever. They never fell out enough for it to finish…” They’d met back in Australia when midget racer Jack was a rapid interloper on the hillclimb scene. Mutual appreciation was formed early on.

“And of course they both built their own cars,” says David. “Dad always remembered Ron and his skill sets. When he was doing the Cooper stuff Dad would produce drawings, say ‘This is what I want’, send them by airmail to Ron and he’d do the magic of the design. He’d ship the paperwork back to England and Dad would then go and make it. He was involved as far back as Dad winning his first two world championships. Not many people know that. 

“During that time Dad didn’t feel Cooper was heading in the right direction, saw another opportunity for himself and brought Ron over. They were starting the process of building cars as early as ’60. Their plan was to create a team and build customer cars for sale. At the time Cooper and Lotus dominated the world of race cars, but by the mid-60s Brabham was three or four times bigger than they were.”

The customer angle was essential to Motor Racing Developments Ltd, the company behind Brabham racing cars. Tauranac was its driving force. “Very quickly the pair hit the market with a product, in a dangerous period,” says David. “Ron was very pernickety, not about how light a car was, but how strong it was, from a rigidity and safety point of view.” While Lotus broke F1 ground with its lightweight monocoques, Tauranac – with one eye firmly on his customer base – persevered with spaceframes. “Dad would do all the testing
and development, so it was his neck on the line, plus he was an engineer with great intuition. Together they ended up dominating the world of F1 and the customer car market.”

***

For David, this is all second-hand history. He was born in 1965, so his memories of Jack’s racing days are next to zero. “My first memory of the UK was Big Ben in Westminster. I always remember looking out of the window at St Thomas’ Hospital because Dad had his accident and was in there [a broken leg, mid-season testing at Silverstone, 1969]. But I remember nothing to do with his racing, although I did go to some. I’ve seen pictures of the Hill kids – Damon and Samantha and myself – playing in a swimming pool. But [older brother] Geoffrey obviously remembers a lot more about that era because he was 14 when Dad won the championship in ’66.”

David grew up in Australia, once his father had retired from racing and took his family back home. “As a kid growing up in Sydney, from about five to the age of 12, I didn’t appreciate what Dad did,” he recalls. “Where I’d walk to the kitchen from my bedroom there was a corridor and a wall of squares with trophies in them. But they were objects, just bits of metal to me. Normally when I was walking down that corridor I had a football or a skateboard in my hand. That was me! But every time someone would come to the house they would look at all these amazing trophies. I’d be thinking ‘What are you looking at?’

“Then I went to an agricultural boarding school. Dad was quite a big name in Australia during that period – huge, in fact. He was on TV ads, everyone knew who Jack Brabham was. The first thing people would say about me was: ‘That’s Jack Brabham’s son.’ I heard that so many times! To me he was just my Dad.

“It probably wasn’t until I started racing karts and then Formula Ford, and started mixing with the racing world – which I hadn’t done before – that I started to understand what he’d achieved.” 

Talk to David about the roots of his own career in racing, and it becomes clear his interest grew organically and entirely independently of his father. In fact, it not only took Jack by surprise, but perhaps David too. Now, having hit his own half-century, can he see Brabham character traits that carried over from father to son?

“My wife will tell you there’s a lot, a lot more than I’d probably admit,” he smiles – through gritted teeth! “I know I’ve got traits of my dad in me. I have a particular work ethic, I guess, and an expectation of myself.”

There’s also a pleasing, if entirely coincidental, parallel to Jack’s dirt track racing roots. “My versatility was always very good and some of that came from the farm,” says David. “If it was a tractor, a motorbike, a ute, a normal car – whatever it was I would drive flat out, as fast as I could go on the dirt, and try and drift as far as I could. Each felt different. Even though I didn’t think about being a racing driver, I loved driving on the edge. That was inherent in me. Those years on the farm, I nearly killed myself… Then I jumped in a kart and was fast straight away. They didn’t know I’d been ‘training’ on the farm for so long.”

When Simon Taylor interviewed David for this magazine in October 2012, he told a key story from his early career, when he stormed through from the back of the field to win in Adelaide at an Australian Grand Prix support race. The intense performance had followed a row with his dad on the grid, their relationship having already come under strain by David’s news that his then-girlfriend was pregnant with his son Jason.

“Because he was away a lot I really grew up with my mum,” says David. “She brought me up more than Dad did.” He admits they grew closer when he followed in his dad’s footsteps and left for England to pursue his racing ambitions. But his parents’ divorce, relatively late in life in the 1990s, put further strain on their relationship. Jack’s habit of disappearing when David’s career hit choppy waters didn’t help either…

“When I started racing over here and I was doing Formula 3, I was winning a lot – and so I saw Jack a lot,” he smiles. “When I went to F1 in a Brabham that was full of problems I didn’t see him! Right when I really needed you, Dad… But he wasn’t like that. He was gone because he could see it was a disaster.

“We clashed quite a bit. I didn’t always agree with what he did and I told him so. There would be a falling out and then we’d get back together again, and it was a bit like that all the way through, until… 1995, ’96. From then on until the end of his life we had a pretty good relationship. I kind of got him and he got me, which was nice because now I have no regrets. You’re young and you have an opinion, and you don’t understand the full picture…”

***

David is genuinely excited about the Goodwood celebration of his father and perhaps it might be just what he needs right now. It hasn’t been the easiest of years. His work continues to revive the Brabham name as a force in motor racing, but it’s far from straightforward (see right), while the family has been rocked by estranged middle brother Gary’s conviction for child sex offences in Australia. The Revival will offer a timely reminder of Jack’s incredible achievements half a century ago and allow David one final opportunity to celebrate the legend – but more importantly the Dad – he knew.

“It’s not easy to say this, but I can never remember my dad saying ‘I love you’,” he says. “It was just never said – not to say that he didn’t. My mum was very similar, she found it hard to say. I don’t know whether it was their up-bringing… I tell my kids and wife I love them every day. So I’m a different character like that.” 

They are different men, from entirely different times. But you sense Jack’s presence will always be an influence on David’s life. “Yes, there are times where I can get quite stubborn. And I just have to look in the mirror…”