Taken from the May 1999 issue of Motor Sport
Forty years after he won his first World Championship, Sir Jack Brabham is showing no signs of slowing down. He is always in demand for historic events and PR appearances, and he never turns down the chance to get back behind the wheel. As he showed at the Goodwood Revival Meeting last September, just pootling round in a museum piece is not the Brabham style; he still likes to hang the tail out. The spirit still burns and man, now 73, still drives. Hard.
“I really enjoy getting back into those old cars,” he smiles. “It feels just like old times, gives me a little bit of a spurt and stops me from getting old!” When will he finally give it up?
“I’m going to have a think about it when I’m 75, and if I still want to do it I’ll review it again when I’m 80. When I get in a motor car I don’t feel any different.”
Sir Jack Brabham is our oldest living Formula 1 World Champion. A handful of other F1 drivers bridged the enormous gulf from the 1950s to the 1970s (Jo Bonnier, Graham Hill, Bruce McLaren and Dan Gurney), but none started quite as early as Brabham, who made his GP debut at Aintree in 1955. Only Jack raced against the Mercedes W196 and the Lotus 72. During a remarkable career he won three titles, the last with his own team and car. And he was still winning when he reluctantly walked away from the sport in 1970, at the age of 44.
And yet somehow his achievements have been taken for granted by the history books. Ask anyone to list the Top 10 of all time, and Brabham’s name is never considered. Extend the query to the Top 20, and he might just crop up in the low teens, alongside drivers who didn’t win a single title, never mind three. Stirling Moss and Jim Clark dominated the headlines when Jack was racing, and they still do.
“I think it’s just that I didn’t piss in the press’s pockets as much as other people,” he grins. “Being an Australian doesn’t help over in this country. I never used to worry too much about what the press wrote about me, but, in retrospect, that probably was a mistake on my part.”
Jack was never very dashing or glamorous. He was a man of few words, always characterised as a thinker, a dour technician who often won races through stealth. That sort of low-key style rarely captures the public imagination. But when the mood took him Brabham was also a hard racer who could fight with the best.
The World Championship was not on the unknown Australian’s mind when he first came to Britain. Already pushing 30, he didn’t seem to have much of a future, but within a few years he helped to turn Grand Prix racing upside down – or rather back to front.
“All I was interested in was just doing some motor racing. I never even thought about a World Championship or whatever. It took me a year to find out what motor racing was all about over here, and luckily I got in tow with John Cooper, and he gave me a job at the works putting cars together and things like that. Eventually I drove for him, and that was really how it all started.
“He let me build a car in the workshop, revolving around the little Bobtail sports car. I put a 2-litre Bristol in it, and that really became Cooper’s first F1 car. We had a little trouble with it up at Aintree, and the clutch fell out of it before the end of the race, but then I took it home and won the Australian GP in 1955.”
A tremendous rapport developed between Brabham and Cooper, the underdogs who took on the might of Italy, and cheekily outflanked Vanwall and BRM to become Britain’s premier racing team.
“It wasn’t long before we realised there was a lot of potential at Cooper’s, but even then we didn’t think that we would win a World Championship so quickly. The rear-engined car was obviously the way to go, and luckily Coventry-Climax built a 2.5-litre engine for us, which really put us in the driving seat. We went straight out and won the championship in ’59 and ’60. Without that engine we wouldn’t have been able to achieve it.”
The double title was a tremendous achievement for the little manufacturer. Jack was far more than just the driver. He was at the heart of the team, spearheading development – especially the 1960 ‘lowline’ model, in which he scored five straight victories.
“The most enjoyable win was Reims. We were told there’s no way we were going to beat the Ferraris there. We managed to do it, and it was a great thrill. In all my years of racing I never got to drive a Ferrari, but I had a lot of pleasure beating them. It was a very interesting time for me, being so involved in it, being part of it. Going all around the continent with John was a lot of fun on its own, apart from the racing. It was a big advantage for me to have some mechanical knowledge, but there were times when I backed off in the car when I probably didn’t need to, and lost races by doing that. At the same time at least I didn’t drive it into the ground like some of the other drivers.”
The spell was broken by the switch to 1.5-litre rules in 1961. After an unsuccessful final year with Cooper the only highlight came by shaking up the establishment at the Indianapolis 500. “It was very different. They called our Cooper the funny car, because it was so different to what they had. Then they said it shouldn’t be painted green, because that was bad luck there. Then they caught me eating peanuts, and they said you shouldn’t eat peanuts in the pits, that’s unlucky. The other thing they said was you mustn’t bring a woman into the pits. I couldn’t find one so I couldn’t do that.”
A difficult 1961 helped Jack make the bold decision to build his own car. Again, he was breaking new ground; drivers had run their own teams before, but no established star had gone the whole hog as a manufacturer.
“I had a friend in Australia, Ron Tauranac, and I talked him into coming over. We started our own company in ’62. It was a gamble, but I had a lot of confidence in Ron’s ability. The two of us were a good combination. We were short of money and couldn’t do it properly, and it took a few years to really get going. We were also starting to build production cars to be able to afford to go GP racing. That really took a bit of doing.”
Did his driving actually suffer because of the outside pressures? “I don’t know whether it affected it, but we certainly didn’t do all that well for a while. We had the incentive to keep going with our own car, and we thought we’d get there eventually, which we did.”
Jack didn’t win a single World Championship race during the 1.5-litre era, although team-mate Dan Gurney gave the team its first successes. “It was good news when they brought in the 3-litre formula. It really made the cars worth driving, so that you could call it F1 again. There’s no way you could call those 1500cc machines Formula 1.”
Having already been caught out by the slump at Cooper, Jack couldn’t let his team be left in the lurch by a rule change. He did such a good job that his cars dominated the first two years of the new formula.
“It was a bit of foresight on my part. Our problem was we just didn’t have access to a 3-litre engine we could put in a car and go racing with.” History recalls the solution was a triumph called Repco. Jack won four races in 1966 to become the first and, to date, only man to take the title in his own car. But it was not without its troubles.
“Trying to work 12,000 miles away from your engine builder wasn’t easy. We lost so many parts in air freight – we even lost a complete engine for three weeks. The thing had been outside a hangar in the rain before somebody found it.”
The following year honours went to Denny Hulme, before the Repco was superseded by the DFV. In 1968, Jack earned a solitary fifth place. He joined the DFV hordes the next year, and while he didn’t win, two pole positions reminded everybody that Black Jack had by no means lost interest.
By then he was under pressure to return to Australia to spend more time with his sons Geoffrey, Gary and David. He planned his retirement for the end of the 1969 season when, at 43, he would already be one of the sports elder statesmen. The plan went all up in smoke when Rindt chose to stay put with Chapman rather than return to Brabham. Jack had no choice but to drive for one more year, and nearly enjoyed a remarkable swansong.
He won at Kyalami, took pole at Jarama, and outran Rindt around Monaco until an infamous last corner mishap saw him stuck in the fence as the Austrian swept by. He led again in the British GP before his season dissolved in a series of mechanical retirements; he had already scored the last points of his Formula 1 career. His final outing was at the Mexican GP on October 25, but engine problems forced him out. Was it hard to accept it was all over as he packed away his gear?
“I was stuck with it, I couldn’t change it. It was a dreadful feeling really. I felt very sad, and I couldn’t believe it had come to an end. I just had to grit my teeth, and say that’s it. I had made my mind up and I’d got to get on with it.” At least he had left knowing he was still quick enough to win. A talent such as his was not one to watch wither on the vine. Just as Jack was smart enough to know how to start in F1 and start his own F1 team, so he was also smart enough to know when to quit.
“I didn’t feel I was giving up racing because I couldn’t do the job. I felt just as competitive then as at any other time, and I really should have won the championship in 1970. I have no idea, but I think I could have gone on at least another three or four years. The press didn’t help either – they kept calling me the old man of motor racing, at 44! In those days 44 was old, but today, particularly if you go to America there are plenty of people racing well in their 50s.”
Although he’d previously helped youngsters like Bruce McLaren, Hulme and Rindt, Jack chose not to stay on and run others. Again, there really was no decision to be made; owning the team would have kept him out of Australia as much as driving for one, so it had to go too.
“To me all my enjoyment I have had over the years was never just driving, but being involved in the cars and building of the cars. I got just as much pleasure from that. But the family wanted me to go back to Australia, so I was stuck with that. If I’d stayed I would have been involved with the team, probably doing testing and all that sort of thing. It really wouldn’t have been any different to driving.
“I’d have been a lot better off if I’d stayed. That was another mistake in my life, but sometimes family pressures don’t allow you to make the decisions you’d like to. Ron took it all over and it wasn’t long before he got fed up with it and sold it to Bernie Ecclestone.”
Jack may look back now with regrets, but at least he got out of the sport in one piece. During his final Grand Prix season McLaren, Piers Courage and Rindt were killed, and the ensuing three or four years extracted a terrible toll. “It’s very sad actually. Every now and then I pick up an old programme and look at it. I saw one from Monaco ’58 and more than half the drivers are not there anymore. It’s incredible how many friends we’ve lost over the years. I always remember winning the Belgian GP in 1960, when we had two drivers killed in separate accidents in one race.”
Jack insists it wasn’t just good fortune which ensured his survival over such a long career.
“I’m like everyone else, all drivers think that it’s not going to happen to them, but one of the things that got me through it all was that I had very good control over my emotions and my abilities. I knew when to knock off, and I wasn’t too proud to lift my foot if I felt that was what was needed. There were a lot of people out there who didn’t lift their foot at the right time and are not here to talk about it today.”
Jack had only three significant accidents in his entire career. In Portugal in 1959 he was sent flying by an errant backmarker. Later he was put off the road by tyre failures in testing at Silverstone and, in his final year, at Zandvoort.
“It rolled three or four times through a wire fence. When I came to rest I was upside down and I couldn’t get out, as the wire was wrapped around the car. I was sitting there hanging in the seatbelts. Fuel was running out of the car, although luckily it was disappearing into the sand. Being a test day it took forever for somebody to come over…”
Jack has a unique perspective on 15 years of technical progress.
“From 1955-70 we saw a lot of changes, and I felt part of it, because with the rear-engined Cooper we felt we gave everyone the message “if you don’t put the engine in the back you’re not going to catch us.” Colin Chapman was one of them. He was pretty pig-headed about having the engine in the front, but he couldn’t compete with us.”
So which period did he most enjoy?
“The 3-litre cars from ’66 onwards. It was our own car, and we did well with it. We won the constructors’ title twice.”
Jack has no doubts about the greatest driver he raced against.
“I raced Fangio a couple of times, but Moss was the one I had a lot of dices with a learned a lot from. He was the man to beat, and it was a great challenge for me. Moss never, ever had an off day. He was a competitor from when the flag dropped to the end. Some of the others were good on some days but not every day, and things had to go right for them all the time. With Moss it didn’t matter what he was driving. Probably the next best was Rindt.”
And what of Clark? Jack’s view will surprise.
“He was good too, but I don’t think he was in the Moss or Rindt class from a speed point of view. They were two very fast drivers. It was the era when Clark had the best car. Lotus was on top, and Jimmy drove it well. But he would have his off days – he wasn’t fantastic every time he sat in the car, like Moss.
“I suppose Jackie Stewart was the best of the next era. Since the 1970s Senna’s obviously the best driver to come along. He was a very forceful driver. Stewart was a bit like me – we won, but we wouldn’t stick our necks out to do it. Our own safety was more important. Schumacher makes the odd mistake, but when you look at the rest, he’s the quickest and best driver today.
“Personally I don’t think F1 would be as good to be in today as it was when we were driving. The driver role is not all that concerned with the car anymore; you don’t get involved in the technical side. As for driving, they go round on rails, they don’t have to change gear – just press a few buttons and computers do the rest for them. I just don’t think the challenge is as good.”
Jack still attends GPs, although this year he missed his home race because of business commitments in England. His famous garages in Worcester Park (est 1961) and Ewell (1965) still take up a lot of his time. Through them he’s retained links with a little corner of suburbia which holds a lot of memories, since both Cooper and his own team were once based nearby. He’s almost certainly the only man to have driven an F1 car on the A3.
“It was about 10.00am on Sunday morning, and we’d just got the Cooper finished. We decided that we’d have to give it a run, just drive it round the block. But I ended up going up the Kingston bypass, down to the Hook roundabout and back again. When I got to Ewell I noticed a police car chasing me. I raced down to the garage, went in and shouted out to John to shut the door as I skidded to a halt. We went upstairs in time to watch the police looking in the window to see if they could see anybody. We had to try it out, didn’t we?…”
Click here for more from Sir Jack Brabham’s page on the Motor Sport Hall of Fame website