F1's great drives: Jack Brabham – 1959 United States Grand Prix


Jack Brabham clinched the 1959 F1 championship by pushing his car over the line; the story of how he got there is one of meticulous planning, determination and a dose of craftiness

Brabham wins Sebring 59

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Jack Brabham wasn’t in the car for the entirety of his greatest F1 drive. For the last 400 yards, he got out and pushed.

In the eternal search for more speed, “Black Jack” had run his fuel consumption to the absolute limit by fuelling his car light. A driver, engineer and budding team boss all rolled into one, the Australian’s gamble almost came off.

Spooling back to the start of the 1959 United States Grand Prix weekend, a long and gruelling season had culminated in a three-way showdown at a new F1 venue in Sebring. The first grand prix to be held in the US, at what would become a legendary circuit, the layout was not altogether appreciated by Motor Sport’s Michael Tee.

“The championship was pretty close with Brabham, Stirling and Brooks. It really was winner takes all.”

“The most difficult thing for the drivers in the featureless open spaces in the middle of this aerodrome is to find a fixture for braking points and lines through corners…parts of the circuit resemble a driving test layout at a small British club meeting.”

Whatever the tracks’s drawbacks, it was witness to a breathtaking F1 finale.

At the centre of that season’s thrilling conclusion, Jack Brabham’s drive was not just the story of one race, but a whole season’s worth of hard work.

Vying for the title was the Aussie Brabham, British hero Stirling Moss and compatriot Tony Brooks, driving for Ferrari. The former two drivers were driving the revolutionary rear-engined Cooper, a car which initiated a sea-change in F1 design philosophy. Brabham was driving for the works team and Moss was campaigning a Rob Walker Racing-entered machine.

Brabham’s son David picks up the story:

“The championship was pretty close with Dad, Stirling and Brooks going into that event. It really was winner takes all. That’s not always the case at the end of grand prix seasons, so there must have been a high anticipation and pressure.”

Start of the 1959 United States Grand Prix at Sebring

The flag drops at Sebring

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Throughout his life, Brabham viewed Moss as his greatest racing adversary. It was the latter who was on pole for the championship decider, taking full advantage as the flag fell at the start of the race.

“Stirling was on pole by three seconds and then took off into the lead – he was just an outstanding driver. Dad has always said he rated Moss as number one in this category.”

From the archive

Although Brabham got a better start, Moss muscled his way back in front at the first corner. By the start of lap five, the Brit’s lead had increased to ten seconds.

However, as was so often the case for Moss in his career, heartbreak soon struck. Heading into the chicane on the fifth tour, his gearbox failed.

David believes that there was more to this failure than just bad luck. Brabham, in correspondence with his Australian engineer friend Ron Tauranac, redesigned various parts of the Cooper car.

“Dad’s engineering nouse probably helped him win that championship more than anything because he had redesigned the gearboxes to make them more reliable.

“He had them for the works Cooper Cars but no-one else had them, everyone else had the standard gearboxes.

“Had Stirling had the Cooper work’s team gearbox, I think Dad would have been struggling to beat him.”

Via the not particularly rapid method of airmail, Jack and Ron would discuss improvements that could be made, before the latter then sent over his designs.

“I would redraw the dimensions, then airmail it back to him,” said Ron in an interview with Alan Morgan, “Jack got them into the car (design). I think John Cooper knew, but Charlie (Cooper, father of John and owner of company) didn’t. They just went to the draughtsman, Owen Maddocks, and fed the designs through the backdoor. It worked, so Charlie had to go along with it.”

Brabham hoped that fuel-efficiency would swing the race. It didn’t quite work out as he envisaged.

This attention to detail in the long-distance designs from Down Under paid rich dividends for Brabham.

“Jack was doing everything – he was more than a driver,” David recalls, “He would build the engines, he was that person in the pits – whereas Stirling and other drivers…they were drivers. They weren’t that involved in building and maintaining the cars. I think that was one of Dad’s advantages.

“In his era, understanding what a car can do, what it can’t do, how to nurse it, what the problem might be, gave him that consistency (as a driver).”

Jack and Ron’s search for performance through improved design would famously lead them to setting-up their own F1 team.

For now though, Jack had to concentrate on winning a race he was in control of.

Jack Brabham in the 1959 united States Grand Prix at Sebring

The hard work paying off: Brabham was in control at Sebring

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A first corner altercation meant that Brooks was also out of contention – he had been rammed from behind by his Ferrari team-mate Wolfgang von Trips.

All Brabham had to do was put in a safe drive to win and bring home the championship. The hard work that had been put in throughout the year in improving the cars durability afforded him this luxury.

As his son points out, “Reliability in that season – and the following one – was huge in terms of helping him to win. Not just on on track with speed, but having the bigger picture of how to win the championship.”

With his main competitor out Brabham had his teammate, the young Kiwi Bruce McLaren, acting as his rear-gunner.

Mindful of being marginal on fuel, Brabham slowed, allowing McLaren to close up on him. The two ran in a high-speed Cooper convoy for the rest of the race.

Brabham leads McLaren in the 1959 United States Grand Prix in Sebring

The Brabham-McLaren convoy


However, there was another reason behind the Australian slowing. In addition to fuel saving, Brabham was also keeping an eye on that of his team-mate.

McLaren was Brabham’s protege. After the New Zealander made his way over to the UK, it was Brabham who got him a driver at Cooper in 1958. By 1959, the youngster had already graduated up to the Grand Prix team.

“After the race, Bruce McLaren talked about how Jack backed off and waited for him,” David tells us. “When Bruce dropped back (during the race) by making some mistakes, Jack would pull back again and sort of tag him along.”

In trying to win a race, a championship, thinking about car design and helping Bruce, Jack was defining himself as the motor sport multitasker – in real time.

From the archive

Up to lap 24, Moss’s team-mate Maurice Trintignant had been bottled up behind Ferrari’s Cliff Allison. When the latter retired however, Trintignant began to close down McLaren.

Brabham’s plan of backing off began to look slightly risky.

The Frenchman Trintignant began to catch the Coopers at an ever-increasing rate, soon setting the race’s fastest lap of 101.11mph in 3min 5sec.

He had been gaining a second per lap and as the final tour began, had got the gap down to 4.8sec.

It wasn’t long before there was even more for the Coopers to contend with.

What had up to now been a more or less exemplary team performance suddenly began to go slightly awry.

Brabham and his team boss John Cooper had filled his car with a minimal amount of petrol, hoping that fuel-efficiency would swing the race, and also the championship, his way.

It didn’t quite work out as he envisaged. As Brabham approached the finishing straight, the Cooper began to splutter before coming to a halt within site of the chequered flag.

The Australian then went into grand prix survival mode. After racing for over two hours in punishing conditions, Brabham climbed out of his car, and he pushed. Father Brabham often regaled his son David with the tale of what happened next:

“Jack just knew that he had to get across the line. And at the time, he didn’t know that he’d won the world championship, not a clue. He didn’t know where everybody really was, where he was positioned. He just knew he had to push the car and get across the line to get a result.

“He was making sure no-one touched the car (to avoid disqualification), he pushed, got across the line and to his surprise…”


Brabham pushes the Cooper over the line

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Famous pictures show an exhausted Brabham slumped on the floor, pouring liquids over his head in an attempt to revive himself from dehydration.

“You’ve got to remember they were long races back then. The radiators were in the front of the car, so there’s a lot of heat coming through to their feet.

“They had different issues to what we have today. Okay, so now there’s more Gs, there’s more load, but they still had their pain thresholds.

“It was hot. You can see by the picture of him sitting on the ground, with people around him – he was toast, absolute toast. He would have been toast before he even ran out of fuel.”

From the archive

It required every last ounce of Brabham stamina to get himself to the finish.

“He had to find reserves to push the car across the line. It’s easy to think about it now when you haven’t done that sort of race.”

As if Brabham’s crisis wasn’t enough for team-boss John Cooper to worry about, driver No2 was having issues of his own.

A hesitant McLaren, seeing his team-leader coming to a halt, had slowed also. Brabham frantically indicated to him to keep going, with the youngster picking up just enough speed to hold off Trintignant as they went into a drag race towards the finishing line.

In a breathless conclusion, McLaren won the race by 0.6sec and Brabham pushed his car home in fourth place.

Although Brooks sped past the Cooper driver as he wheeled his car to the end, the four points the Ferrari-driver achieved from his third-place finish was not enough to secure the title.

He may not have done it the easy way, but Brabham was the new F1 World Champion.

The post-race image of the spent Brabham, sprawled on the tarmac, came to be an iconic F1 image – the portrait of a driver who gave everything to win.

Though famously a man of few words, David says that his father always rated his first championship as one of his greatest achievements. In addition to his own victory, the Australian was delighted for his team-mate’s debut win.

“It was like Christmas all at once. I think for Jack, that would have been the perfect scenario, that Bruce was able to win the grand prix and he got the championship.”

The title triumph proved the driving skills of Jack, the engineering instinct of his partnership with Tauranac and also fully vindicated Cooper’s decision to move to a rear-engined car. This winning ensemble heralded a new dawn in grand prix racing.

The New South Wales native would go on to win a second title the following season, before making history in ’66 by winning the world championship in his own car – designed with his friend Ron, of course.

Jack Brabham would put in more stellar drives in the future, but none quite so eventful and memorable as his last-gasp push over the line in Sebring.