Remember Jack Brabham this weekend: one of the greatest of all


Ten years have passed since the death of Jack Brabham. Time for Matt Bishop to remind us why he's one of the very best to have graced the World Championship

Jack Brabham celebrates victory holding soft toy tiger at the 1966 European GP in Reims

Victory in the 1966 French GP was the first world championship win for a driver in a car bearing his own name. Jack Brabham would go on to claim that year's title

Wolfgang Kuhn/Getty Images

This coming Sunday (May 19) will be the 10-year anniversary of the passing of one of the greatest figures in the history of motor sport. There have been more flamboyant Formula 1 drivers than Jack Brabham – although he was not only notoriously combative but also damn quick when he needed to be – but one of the notches on the metaphorical bedpost of his racing CV will never be matched. In 1966, driving superbly at the age of 40, he won the F1 world championship, both drivers’ and constructors’, in a car run, built and designed by his own company, and that company bore his own name.

The Brabham Racing Organisation first entered F1 in 1962, at Nürburgring, its BT3 car designed by Brabham’s business partner Ron Tauranac for sturdiness as well as speed (if only Colin Chapman had taken note). The record books do not catalogue the car’s debut as a success – Brabham qualified 26th and retired on lap 10 with a broken throttle – but he made a fantastic start that rainy August day, carving his way up to ninth place by the end of the first lap. Not everyone might have noticed, but he and Tauranac were on their way.

They skipped the next grand prix, Monza, even though it took place in mid-September, six weeks after Nürburgring, the better to focus on prepping their car for the final two F1 grands prix of the year, Watkins Glen (USA) in early October and East London (South Africa) in late December. No-one could live with Jim Clark’s Lotus 25 at the Glen – he won from the pole, driving fastest lap en route – but Brabham qualified fifth and finished fourth. In East London he did almost exactly the same, qualifying third and finishing fourth again.

Jack Brabham in BT3 car on the grid at Nurburgring in 1962

Brabham looks back on the grid at the Nürburgring in 1962, where his BT3 made its debut

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Jack Brabham in 1966 F1 car with team members

Brabham with his team in 1966. Tauranac is third from left

Victor Blackman/Getty Images

Brabham and Tauranac were new boys when it came to designing and running their own F1 car, but as a driver Brabham was already an old hand. He had made his F1 grand prix debut at Aintree in 1955, in a Cooper-Bristol, at the age of 29, which was a pretty ripe age for an F1 debutant even in those days, and he had won the F1 drivers’ world championship in 1959 and 1960, both times in a Cooper-Climax, in the earlier of those years becoming the first driver to do so sitting ahead of the engine rather than behind it.

All in all – even if you put to one side his remarkable achievements as a team founder, owner and boss, for at one time he and Tauranac were running the world’s most prolific manufacturer and vendor of single-seater racing cars for customer teams and privateers – Jack’s three F1 world championships, his 14 F1 GP wins, his 13 F1 GP pole positions, his 12 F1 GP fastest laps, his 16 non-championship F1 wins, his many F2 wins, Tasman Series wins, and British Saloon Car Championships wins, not forgetting plenty of early successes in Aussie Speedcars (more familiar to us as Midgets, which is the American name for them) and hillclimbers, as well as becoming Queensland Road Racing Champion in 1953, place him among the greats. Or the GOATs, if you favour that acronym.

I had a conversation with him just once, in the Albert Park paddock, in 2013, soon after he had been honoured alongside Australia’s only other F1 world champion, Alan Jones. Bronze busts of the two great racers were unveiled in Melbourne that year – and, although Brabham was 86, a little frail, and decidedly hard of hearing, he was visibly moved by the accolade. So was Jones, I should add, whose father Stan Jones had raced Brabham in Australia in the 1950s. I was working for McLaren at the time, and I made so bold as to congratulate both Alan and Jack. At first I thought Jack had not heard me, but I had deliberately spoken loud and clear, and he had. His hesitation was born not of mishearing but of a mixture of no-nonsense humility and heart-warming emotion. “It’s a great honour,” he said, finally, then smiled and added, “and the statue certainly looks the goods.”

Jack Brabham and Alan Jones at the unveiling of their statues in Albert Park at the 2013 Australian GP

Brabham and Jones alongside their likenesses in Albert Park

Grand Prix Photo

When I arrived back in Woking after the 2013 Australian Grand Prix, in which our drivers Jenson Button and Checo Perez had not done well, Ron Dennis was not surprisingly in a less than chipper mood. At that time he was the McLaren chairman, and Martin Whitmarsh the team principal, but Dennis’s feet were getting itchy. Yes, he was busy building up McLaren Automotive, but, even so, he hated seeing his F1 team doing so badly – by his ultra-high standards calamitously so. On a whim, while discussing with him in his McLaren Technology Centre eyrie how best we might cope with the comms/PR challenges presented by such woeful underperformance, I thought I might try to cheer him up by telling him about my recent encounter with Brabham, for whom he had worked in 1968, 1969, and 1970, a move facilitated for him when the driver for whom he had been spannering at Cooper in 1967, Jochen Rindt, took him with him when he moved to Brabham the following year. Parenthetically, I should make clear that, now a super-wealthy 76-year-old knight of the realm, Sir Ron tends not to like to dwell on his humble origins; but in my view he should be proud of them. Moreover, those who knew him in the 1960s tell me that he was not merely a good mechanic but a great one. Apparently, his attention to detail was second to none, which surprises me not one jot.

From the archive

Dennis was silent for a while after I told him my Brabham story, which is his normal preamble to framing a reply, then he looked up and to the left, which is what he usually does next, a movement a bit like that of a twitcher who has just spotted something interesting on the wing. “Jochen wasn’t always the easiest guy to get on with, but he was extremely quick,” he began. “And Jack? I was only 20 when I joined Brabhams” – it was always “Brabhams” with Ron, and “Coopers” too, but never “McLarens” even though the old plural naming convention did indeed extend to Bruce’s eponymous team back in the day – “and, although I was young and ambitious, and Jack was twice my age, I could recognise greatness when I saw it. I regard it as an honour and a privilege to have worked for him, and I learned a hell of a lot from him, too.”

The Brabham team continued to race in F1 long after Jack had stepped away from it, most successfully under the ownership of Bernie Ecclestone in the 1970s and 1980s. The first F1 grand prix winner in an Ecclestone-era Brabham was Carlos Reutemann, who won three F1 grands prix for the team in 1974 and one in 1975. Many years later, in 1997, I accompanied Reutemann and our mutual friend, the journalist Peter Windsor, to that year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed, where Lole, then 55, drove two F1 cars, a 1972 Brabham BT34 and a 1978 Ferrari 312 T3, which he was disappointed to find was fitted with Avons rather than Michelins.

Jochen Rindt leads Jack Brabham in 1970 British Grand Prix

Rindt (leading) vs Brabham in the 1970 British GP

Grand Prix Photo

Those who read this column weekly, or follow me on Twitter/X (@TheBishF1), will know that Reutemann was my childhood hero, so hanging out with him and Windsor at Goodwood that day was a big deal for me. We chatted awhile, and I asked him about his Brabham days. He praised the 1974 BT44 and the 1975 BT44B, politely dissed the 1976 BT45’s Alfa engine, then suddenly said something like this, which foolishly I did not record in my diary at the time but I remember clearly 27 years later: “Brabham. Jack. He win in Kyalami in 1970. I was in Argentina. I hear the result on the radio: ‘Jack Brabham win in South Africa.’ Suddenly I feel, yes, this is what I have to do. I have to get to F1. I imagine Jack, fantastic driver, at Kyalami, fantastic circuit, in BT33, fantastic car, and I think: ‘I must get to F1. I must, I must.’” He did, he did.

Over the past month I have spent a bit of time with David Brabham, because he mentors Patrick Heuzenroeder, the 18-year-old GB3 racer, also from Australia, whom my comms and PR agency does some work for. Not long ago I asked David about his father. “Well, some people assume that my childhood hero was my dad, but he wasn’t really, because he retired when I was only five. My childhood heroes were Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx, in those beautiful Rothmans Porsches, then my teenage heroes were Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. But, as I grew older, of course I began to realise what my dad had achieved. I used to look at all the trophies he had in our house, I learned what they all stood for, and, yeah, I became enormously proud of him. I still am. He was a three-time F1 world champion. He won an F1 GP at 44, at Kyalami, in 1970. He had two great races with Rindt that year, Monaco and Brands Hatch, neither of which he won, as we know, but he almost won both of them, and, yeah, to win an F1 GP at 44, that’s pretty phenomenal. I won Le Mans in 2009, when I was 43, so we Brabhams appear to age pretty well.”

Indeed they do. David is still racing now, at 58. His father, the great Sir Jack, made it to 88. Please raise a glass to him on Sunday, to toast the 10-year anniversary of the passing of one of the best we have ever seen.