Podcast: Norbert Singer, Porsche's winning formula
The architect of Porsche's sports car racing triumphs for 40 years, Norbert Singer joins us for a podcast to explore the company's remarkable record of success
Project Brabham, Le Mans, Formula Ford, Mike Thackwell, Formula 3000, F1, the ALMS, Jack Brabham… There wasn’t much not discussed when the podcast team sat down with David Brabham. Fueled with mince pies, chocolate and fudge brownies and a bottle or three of wine Nigel Roebuck, Damien Smith, Rob Widdows and Simon Arron bring you the last podcast of 2014. If you’d like to find out more about Project Brabham please visit the official site www.brabham.co.uk/project-brabham If you would like to subscribe to the Motor Sport podcasts then visit our iTunes page. To find all our podcasts in one convenient place, visit our SoundCloud page.
Rob Widdows: Hello again, everybody. And thank you so much for joining us, for what is the last Motor Sport Magazine podcast of 2014. Aww, but we’ll be back in 2015. And we might just think very quickly about who we’ve had on the show this year. It’s quite a list. John McGuinness, Gordan Murray, Emanuelle Pirro, James Weaver, Andy Wallace. They came together. Perry McCarthy, Pat Simmons, Derek Bell, Jonathan Palmer, and today, David Brabham. Ta da. Wow, that’s a name to conjure with isn’t it? One of the big, big names of post-war motor racing. Brabham, I like it. We’ve got lots and lots of questions. We’ll be with David for at least an hour today and in case you hadn’t noticed we’re all in the Christmas spirit. Aren’t we Damien?
Damien Smith: Yes. That’s as, that’s as good as it gets.
RW: And our website editor, Ed Foster has very kindly provided some chocolate brownies, some mince pies, some wine, good grief. But, never drink while broadcasting, it’s one of my rules. Okay, Damien.
DS: Lucky we’re so professional, isn’t it?
RW: Yes, yes for a change.
Simon Arron: As a, as a diabetic I’m only, I’m only going to be able to have the wine, not the chocolate brownies or the mince pies.
RW: Fine. That’s okay. Okay. Around the table as well as David, of course, we have already been to Damien Smith. We have Simon Aaron and we have of course the vulnerable Nigel Roebuck. David Brabham, you’ve just come back from France. What were you plotting in France?
David Brabham: While you were having red wine, I had red wine in France, as well.
RW: I bet you did.
DB: I did, yeah. Well, , obviously with our plans for the future of Brabham is, is to go back to racing as a team. To race at Le Mans, to race in the World Endurance Championship, so I went down to have a look at the Ligier down there because obviously that’s one of the cars that we’d be considering. As well as talking to the ACO finding out more about their plans. Well what’s the future look like? What have we got to be aware of? So yeah, it was very good. It was a really good trip, very worthwhile and I’m now back.
RW: It’s a big, big project this, because motor racing is as we all know fiercely expensive, fiercely competitive. When did you start to hatch the plot to bring the name back into top line racing?
DB: Well, it’s about nine years ago actually. You’re probably thinking, well what happened in those nine years, ? Well, it’s been probably well documented. But , 19 years ago I started to think ahead of time and go, what am I going to do when I stop driving? Because, I’d seen a lot of drivers, including my brother get to the end and, and then what? what I mean? And I didn’t want to get into that situation. So I started to think about what it is I could do. And , I thought well what? We got this name Brabham, but as a family we do absolutely nothing with it, ? Dad went off and did his thing, , my brothers and I went off and did our thing. And there’s never been any sort of group thing where, , Brabham is a brand that represents everything that the brand is and what can we do with it. So I went to dad and said look, , we should do something with this. And of course, , I wanted to understand what trademarks he had because I remember sort of when Brabham finished in, in the early 90’s, there was a lot of things going on about the ownership of the name and, and , dad ended up paying some money for the name. I think he was offered a million quid to get the name back.
RW: Bet that pleased him.
DB: Yeah, well he, he wasn’t going to pay that, that’s for sure, but he did get it for a lot, lot cheaper than, than that. So by the time I went in there to have a look at it there were a few holes missing because for dad, , he was getting older. He was taking his eye off of the ball on that a little bit and someone in Germany saw an opportunity and registered Brabham and Brabham Racing, started up a business over there calling it Brabham Racing, The Legend Returns. It was building BMW M5s, spicing them up, and calling them BT92. So I only found that out once we’d sort of looked at the registrations, put our own in to start the protection of the name because until I had that I really couldn’t do anything. So obviously discovered that this guy had rejected, there was a rejection for our application. I was like, who the hell was this bloke, ? So by the time we figured it out, he’d launched his whole programme. So the only option really was to go to court to get the name back. And that took seven years in the German courts to basically get the name back. So, , I lost seven years of doing anything with the name.
Nigel Roebuck: Why did it take so long? How could it take seven years?
DB: Well it took from the process of us finding out that this guy existed, then to finding out okay, what’s the process? What are we going to do? I ended up getting a lawyer here in the UK, which then had to have a lawyer in Germany. And so we went through the process, we ended up going to court. We ended up winning the first court case, but of course they appealed. So then it had to go to the higher court of Germany. And these things just take ages before they come round again and you’ve got to do your homework. At the time I’d never realized how expensive going to court was. It’s just, it was horrendous. Luckily I had two racing programs going on or at the height of it was 2009 when I was racing in the American Le Mans Series with Highcroft and Le Mans with Peugeot, which was super, super stressful. It was bloody difficult.
RW: The good thing is you’ve done it.
DB: Yeah, once we went through the second, third time of court we finally won. It took nearly eight, nine months after the court case for the name to finally come back to us. And then it was a case of OK, what do we do with it? I see a lot of brands, you see them walking down the high street, and you see motor racing brands as well. What is the message they’re giving me?
RW: What is the Brabham brand message? Is it sideways, gritty and…
DB: What I did do is I got someone in who was a brand expert and told him to tell me what Brabham is. What do people think and feel about the brand? Basically after about 15 months of research and interviewing fans, and Brabham owners, and people within the sport, people dad worked with, people I worked with, we really did our homework on what the brand represents and it’s inspirational, it’s pioneering, innovation, engineering.
DB: They were the core messages. They were the DNA of what Brabham is. So, and of course when dad died, all the magazines, that’s all you saw was those headlines that were underneath Jack’s picture. So we got our branding right. And so then it was a case of OK, now we understand what that is. We have to come back into racing. But, as I’ve said many times before, for race teams to survive just as a race team year in, year out is really tough. Did I want to bring Brabham back into that industry like that, or should we be looking at something different? Is there an opportunity for Brabham as a brand to come back into racing and do something like it did years ago and was a game changer? Can we do something now? And this is where Project Brabham came about. Where we’ve come in and said we’re going to open the doors, we’re going to inspire fans to be involved.
RW: Yeah, great.
DB: It was all about communication between the fans and the team. We’d make decisions together and things like that. I’ve got 31 years of knowledge of a racing driver, as a professional driver for a long time, what does it take? We’re gonna create Brabham Digital, which is for fans and the drivers. And of course with engineers, to inspire engineers as well through racing. So people learn and experience through the team with an open door.
RW: How much is Australia involved? Because Australia is such a big part of the whole background to the thing, isn’t it? Or is this a very British Brabham?
DB: Well, it’s a very David Brabham programme, put it that way. Yes, I was born here, I was raised in Australia. I’ve spent more time here in the UK. I’ve traveled the world. I see myself more as a world citizen, more than from one particular country. And this program is a global initiative.
RW: Fantastic, good.
SA: Does the launch of this programme David… you said you were looking for something to do once you stop driving. Does this mean you’re actively now looking at winding down your own racing career?
DB: Well, if you’ve noticed I haven’t done a lot the last two years…
SA: But you are still involved.
DB: Yeah, yeah I mean, I’ve done three races this year, big races. It’s like Daytona 24 Hours, Sebring, which we nearly won and the World Endurance Championship at Shanghai just the other month. So it was good to keep my eye in and everything. But for the last two years I’ve only done six or seven races because my main focus… I had to come to a point where I’ve just got to park my driving and get this program up and running.
SA: Have you drawn a line under it then now?
DB: No I haven’t drawn a complete line under it right now, but I’m getting more and more involved in what this is going to take. It’s not just starting a race team. It’s also creating Brabham Digital and the content… I mean it’s a massive, massive program. So I guess if, if you were me and I’m you, I’m interviewing me, and I’m saying what you want a job with me? Tell about what your days are like, how committed are you as a racing driver? I’d probably be struggling to employ myself.
RW: Can we can we go back in time a bit because you were into football, weren’t you when you were younger.
DB: I was the Ryan Giggs…
RW: Were you now?
DB… in Australia.
SA: You were one of Manchester United’s local fans then I guess?
DB: Yes I was! It’s funny because I obviously grew up in a family full of racing but it didn’t really interest me, there were beautiful trophies that people would just stare and look at. And I’d just walk past like they’re objects, because they didn’t mean anything, really. I was seven, eight, nine, ten when all that was happening. But I had a football in my hand and I’d go out every day and play football. And we had a really, really cracking team. I started when I was seven. I scored something like 38 goals in my first season. We won everything, absolutely everything. And then nine, ten, 11, and 12 years of age, we always made the final, which we lost every time but we were one of the strongest teams. And that was my passion, that’s all I thought about. And then my family decided that I needed to follow Gary and go farming, and go to an agricultural boarding school where they didn’t really play soccer. They just played Aussie rules. So my soccer was finished. I had asthma as a kid as well for about seven years during the time I played, and I went for a trial but I had an asthma attack so it never happened. Probably luckily so.
RW: How did it go from football, to agriculture, to motor racing, where I guess it was pretty much going to end up? Wasn’t it, in the end?
DB: Well, I never even during school, I never thought ‘oh, I’m going to be a racing driver’. I was groomed to be a farmer. We had a four-and-a-half-thousand-acre farm. My two brothers were racing, so I was the last one in the chain and dad thought ‘well, at least one of them is not interested in racing’. But what I was interested in while I was growing up on the farm and at school was speed. Because I would… I just loved getting in a farm vehicle, a tractor, a motor bike, it didn’t matter what it was. I had to get from A to B as fast as possible and as sideways as I could. So I should’ve been a rally driver.
RW: You were putting that together with being a racing driver?
DB: No, no, I didn’t even think about it. I left school at 16 and then went to a college to learn about wool, to be a wool classer. Dad didn’t want to pay for a wool classer so he thought I’d be quite good at that. And so I’d be there looking at all the microns and everything of what the wool was and putting it into categories. But then I went and spent three months in America, which was my first big trip away from Australia. And my brother Jeffery was racing in Indycars in ‘82. And that was really for me, the first time I saw racing for the first time. He was asked to help Al Unser Jr. win the CanAm Championship. So Geoff had won the CanAm Championship for VDS the year before, in ‘81. So they brought him in with a second car to help Al Junior. And so he said, ‘you want to come along and have a look?’ So I thought, ‘yeah great’. So I went and had a look, and he was getting his seat done, and I wondered around the workshop, which was one of the first workshops I had ever been to, in a race team. There was a go kart sitting over in the corner with the mechanic working on it. And I wander over there and I’m looking at this go kart, and the first words out of my mouth were, ‘do people race go karts?’ Exactly. And the bloke turned round and said ‘are you adopted?’ I said ‘no I’m not’. But he just couldn’t work it out. My brother Geoff said I’m his younger brother and I don’t even know people race go karts at 16, 17 years of age. No idea. Problem is, that was the moment, that was the spark, the change, sometimes you go a long life and something happens and you go on a different path. I just thought, ‘I loved driving fast anyway’, so it was like, ‘right okay, I wouldn’t mind having a go at that.’ Of course, when I went back to Australia and sat down with dad and said, ‘I’d really like to have a go in a go kart’, you can imagine the look on his face. It wasn’t full of smiles and ‘oh, yes he wants to be a racing driver’, it was ‘you got to be kidding!’
RW: He didn’t want to pay for that either, did he?
DB: No he didn’t because I convinced my neighbour I went to school with which was about three hours away from the farm. We were at boarding school together and we actually bought a second-hand go kart together. And we went off, we went off racing without dad’s help or influence.
RW: Mike Thackwell got involved early on didn’t he? You did the Laser Championship. Have I got this right?
DB: No, no Mike Thackwell, my brother-in-law because I married his sister Lisa… I obviously went through karting, Formula Ford. Graham Watson who was running Ralt Australia wanted to go over to do the Tasman Series and he wanted to take me in a Formula Ford and my brother Gary in a Formula Atlantic car and Mike Thackwell was going to be the other driver. I did a test in a Formula Atlantic car and the test went really well. I would have put it P3 on the grid from the previous race. And they said ‘right, you’re coming with us in the Atlantic car’, so that was the end of my Formula Ford career. I went off and I was his team-mate for a month racing all around New Zealand with Mike, a real legend of our sport. He was incredibly fast and he was only 26 when he retired, so he was 25 when I saw him. He was on it, I learned a lot. He was weird, but I learned a lot… You interviewed him a couple of years ago, didn’t you?
RW: Well, yeah, partly thanks to some help from David actually I finally tracked him down.
DB: He was great, wasn’t he?
RW: Fantastic, I like him a lot, yeah. That’s maybe because I’m weird, but I like him lot.
DB: Yeah, he’s good weird. I mean he’s not weird, he’s just a really interesting character and he just does what he wants to do. He walked away from the sport at his peak, never turned back, never got back in a car again, which takes some… you know what I mean? And actually he doesn’t give you an impression that he regrets it at all. He changed his life, had different aspirations. He went to do North Sea helicopters, flying, learned sign language, did scaffolding work in Perth and he surfs a lot. He’s always been a surfer.
RW: Yeah, he should come in and talk to us hopefully, because he’s good fun.
DB: I don’t know if he would, he’s always been a bit shy in that area. You’re not going to get an interview with him… I
RW: I did, but it took me quite a long time, actually.
SA: It’s interesting, I interviewed your son Sam about his Formula Ford programme earlier this year we were chatting about stuff. He said there was a day when he was still karting that none of the family were available to take him and Mike said he’d do it. Mike gave him a lift there, and he’d never related Mike really to motor racing and he said they got there and they started doing a track walk. He said for the first time in his life… to me it’s just uncle Mike, but then suddenly he became alive with ‘right, turn in here, and you do this’. He’d never seen that side of him at all.
DB: Yes I think Sam will remember that day forever. He just thought it was a fantastic day because obviously some father-son relationships don’t always go smoothly at a race track, especially for myself because I’m quite hard on Sam and I push him a lot. For Mike it was a different ball game and he really enjoyed the day. I think all those things came out in Mike. I think it was a great day for Mike, and for Sam.
RW: Is this Project Brabham thing, was it partly with Sam in mind as well?
DB: Well there’s a lot of things that made this a reality in my mind and it was ‘what do I do at the end of my career? What has the family got moving forward as it’s something that they can work towards in a sense. Nothing was created before that with dad’s era in terms of how do we carry the legacy forward? How do we create a business for the family for generations? All those things sort of came in and of course I’ve got sons, and one’s racing, one’s into cricket. But it’s something that potentially he could be involved in, but like I said, I’m pretty tough .It’s ‘hey, if you’re not on it and you’re not an asset to a team, there’s no reason why you would be in our programme. If you’re on it, you’re serious, and you’re an asset and you’re a Brabham, well, that’s a bonus.
SA: I’ve asked him that very question last Sunday and he said he badgers you about it every five, ten minutes or so, and he said you said to him ‘prove yourself and you’ve got a chance’. Which I think is absolutely great.
DB: It’s quite right. I mean I see a lot of fathers in the industry who all they can see is this wonderful son that can’t do anything wrong. I’m a little bit the opposite. I probably need to back off a bit.
SA: He did mention that as well.
DB: Yeah, I know, I bet he did. But he’s a great kid, and I can see he’s definitely got the Brabham genes in terms of ability and speed and awareness and feel for the car. With the court cases I didn’t have much money to take him racing so he’s had a limited programme. So from what he’s done, he’s done a good job, he just needs a break, he needs a proper programme to really see what he can do, and if he gets that then he really can show his abilities. Then he would be someone we would consider.
DS: What’s it like watching Sam come through the ranks now compared to when you were doing it? I mean, it’s always been hard, it’s never been easy. Is it harder now? Or is it the same? How would you rank it?
DB: Well, I can only talk through my own experiences. And when I came over here, I came over on a free drive, because Camel was sponsoring sons of famous drivers. So that was my opportunity to come over here and do Vauxhall Lotus with Derek Bell Racing and Justin Bell. And then I went for a drive in F3 in ‘89. And there were five of us going for a competition. I won that mainly because I was the only one that actually answered the question about the sponsor, ‘what is Jewson?’ The other four said ‘I don’t know’. It’s funny, it just shows you, you’ve got to think ahead. I had just come from Australia and I saw ‘Jewson’. What the hell is Jewson? I thought, ‘well I don’t know what they are, but I’m going to find out what they are so I ended up getting some bumpf from them and I walked into a store and walked around. Of course, the question came to me, ‘what is Jewson? I thought ‘now how do I put this into words?’ Just sometimes something just comes to you at the right time. ‘Well, when I think of Jewson I think of the home’. And it just, it just ticked the box.
DB: Exactly. Very smooth. I don’t know where it came from! But it came from somewhere. So I got to drive. And I’ve been a paid professional, I even got paid doing F3, and since those days I’ve just been on this great run really of a paid professional. Back then you had Jewson, you had Marlboro, you had Camel, you had CellNet, you had opportunities to get a drive for free. It was a great time, actually. We were on BBC primetime television. Now it is down to wealthy parents that can afford to go racing. So I think for Sam and not just Sam, but kids his age and in his situation, I think it is tougher.
RW: We’ve got lots of questions from our readers, listeners by the way. There’s one from Anthony B. I don’t know why people can’t give their names when they ask as question… anyway, Antony B asks ‘was it harder to qualify for a Laser Series race back in ’85 or a Grand Prix in 1990? That’s quite a good question actually.
DB: No believe me the Lasers were a lot easier. A lot easier. I mean when I went to Formula One in 1990 I wouldn’t say I was ready, to be honest with you, but I just felt a year of F3000 would’ve been good. That was the plan, to do that. They stopped the F3000 programme, so Damon Hill and I were going to be team-mates. And they, well, they did actually ask me to do Phoenix, the first round, literally that week of the race. I was supposed to be doing F3000. Phone rings, and I’m asked ‘how would you like to come out and do the first race in Phoenix?’ And I thought about it for a second and I said, ‘no thank you’. He said, ‘what?’ I said ‘well, I’m not ready, I’m not fit enough’ I was unprepared and I just didn’t feel like I could do the job justice, based off the running that I’d had in any sort of F3000 car. So, I said no. And then, after two races, that’s when they stopped our programme. They said, ‘look we want you in Formula One car’. I had no option. Go and look for another drive, or be a Formula One driver. It was tempting. And of course you had pre-qualifying. You had 30 cars going for 26 slots. Brabham at the time… we’re on the decline, unfortunately the BT58 which was the year Martin Brundle had some cracking races, I think Martin was third at Monaco that year. I drove that car, my first F1 car, and it was a beautiful car. It was just a dream to drive, it was so easy. Then the BT59 came out, and it was half ready, the gearbox wasn’t ready, so they put the old gearbox in. I talked to the guy who designed it back then and he said it was the worst car he ever designed. Unfortunately they ran out of money pretty much halfway through the year. It was a very difficult situation yeah.
RW: What was it like in the family during that whole period where Brabham was going disappear any minute?
DB: It was bought by this person, then Bernie Ecclestone had it for a while. When Bernie had it, to be fair, it worked. They were still a good team.
RW: Yeah, yeah, very successful.
DB: But then of course you had different owners before I got there and unfortunately it was just slipping away. And it was effecting my father’s other businesses.
RW: Yeah, I wondered.
DB: It did because people would ring up and say ‘what’s happening with Brabham because I hear there’s a lot of problems’. Thinking it was my dad’s businesses. So it was not an easy situation for the family to see the name go down.
DB: It wasn’t good. And there was nothing we could do about it.>>
RW: Did your dad and talk to Bernie Ecclestone about all that because it was when Bernie decided to sell it was the time it started to go a bit pear shaped, wasn’t it?
DB: Dad was not interested in doing anything with a Formula One team, that just wasn’t him. He’d done all that
RW: No absolutely but his name was…
DB: Yeah, well it hurt him. I know it hurt him. When it did fold that’s what motivated him to get hold of the name as best he could at the time. To stop it from damaging his other businesses and things like that.
NR: Actually, a story that comes back to me we were talking earlier on about the importance of Brabham as a brand. When Bernie bought it, what in ‘70, ‘71?
DB: In ‘70, yeah.
NR: Yeah, yeah that’s right. My old friend Alan Henry went to interview Bernie at around that time, when he’d just acquired it. At one point during the interview, he says to Bernie ‘so anyway, Bernie, what are you going to call it?’ And there was a silence. And Bernie just looked at him as if he was a half-wit, and he said, Brabham, Alan. He said ‘if you and I bought Marks & Spencers we wouldn’t call it Ecclestone and Henry would we?’
DB: It kind of sums it up, though. I mean back then the name Brabham was one of the biggest in the sport.
RW: Nigel will be publishing his book of Christmas Ecclestone jokes later this month, and I highly recommend it…
DB: Actually I was talking to Ron Tauranac, and he never quite told me the full story of what happened there, but he did say he got stitched…
RW: How did that come about, getting into the big sports cars?
DB: Well, there were some discussions I know at TWR at the time about drivers, and Fiona Miller said to Tom what about David Braham? So, I got invited to do the XJR 15 Intercontinental Cup, which was the three races at Monaco, Silverstone and Spa. A million-dollar prize fund for who won. So, I was lucky enough to be invited to do that. That was in ‘91 and by that time I’d come out of Formula One because I didn’t have any money. So I was doing sort of part programme in F3000 and they said ‘would you like to do this championship?’ And I thought ‘great opportunity’. So, I went to Monaco to do their race and I actually finished second behind Derek Warwick. After the race they said ‘oh, how’d you like to come and drive the XJR 14 in a test?’ By that time that thing was just the talk of motor sport wasn’t it? I mean it was just amazing. They didn’t say anything more than that. They just said ‘would you like to come do a test?’ So I said ‘well, let me think about that… yes!’
They said ‘great, call us next week when you get back from Monaco’, so I was straight on the phone, and I said I’m ringing up about the test thinking ‘things can change’ and whatever. And they said ‘well there’s no point you testing for us if you’re not going drive for us’. I said ‘are you offering me a job?’ I mean that was like a complete bolt out of the blue. Because they needed someone to replace Martin Brundle, who was doing a joint F1/ sports car campaign. And because Tom wouldn’t pay for four drivers. He only really paid for three. So Martin or myself would start in one car and finish in the other. So I remember going there to the first test whilst Ross Brawn was there because it was the last car he ever penciled apparently. And I just couldn’t believe the performance of the car. It was just amazing, it really was and I went to Nürburgring and we finished first and second.
SA: It’s funny, that car, David, everybody who ever drove it seems to say the same thing, they were just startled by it the first time they drove it and…
DB: Yeah, I think if you asked anyone who drove that car, with all the cars they’ve driven in their life, what’s the one car that just sticks up in your mind that has something special? All of us would probably say that car.
SA: Without a doubt Martin does.
DB: Yeah, without a doubt, I do as well. They had a great team there and for me, that was my first introduction to a professional race team, because Brabham was in a little bit of a disarray at the time, lots of money problems, or whatever. But this was a proper programme, working with people like Ross Brawn, I did some stuff in America with Tony and yeah, I mean, that was a really good thing for me, and then to work with Teo Fabi and Derek Warwick as well, driving each other’s car that had completely different driving styles, so the setups were completely different. And that taught me to be adaptable in that period. I went on to drive lots of different cars, quite well. So, I think that really taught me how to adapt as a driver. It was a watershed moment and it saved my career, because it was going nowhere for a period of time. And then Jaguar came along and I was there to help them win the World Championship, which we did.
RW: In ‘94, you went back into Formula One. Why?
DB: Why not?
DB: Yeah, well I mean, it felt a bit like unfinished business, there was an opportunity to get back into the Formula One…
RW: Again, not a great team, not a big team.
DB: No, it was a small team, under funded, but there was no other option. It was like ‘give it a go, don’t be frightened of it, let’s see what we can do with it’. And obviously from a financial point of view it was very difficult. Obviously with Roland’s accident Imola it was not an easy situation for any of us to deal with but we got through to the end of the year. Don’t know how but we did. And for me that was pretty much the end of my Formula One career. Like I said I’ve never brought money to a team, I’ve always been a paid driver. Never had the kind of backing to take me to a big team or anything like that. In fact in ‘91 I had a chance to drive the Jordan.
DB: Yeah, I just needed half a million US dollars at the time.
NR: Was that the 10 laps?
DB: Yeah, maybe. I didn’t get to that far down the line with the conversation with Eddie…
NR: You can have the Wednesday morning… Here’s a half a million and then we’ll talk about the next day, yeah.
DB: Exactly. So that was an opportunity. But it just didn’t happen.
SA: David, just come back to the… I know it’s a slightly morbid subject, but the end of the ‘94, everyone focuses on the Senna accident, how did you all cope with that weekend?
DB: I don’t know how we coped with it because when something like that happens… I’d never had an experience like it before. What the hell do you do? If it happened now I know what to do. I know how to think, I know how to react, I know the people around me I’ve got to speak to, I’ve got to put an arm around or whatever. But back then you’re stunned. You’re just in a state of shock. The whole team was… Formula One was… the world was… all of a sudden, we’d had a Formula One driver die and it was my team-mate. So it was very difficult, but there’s something deep down inside you that knows you just go to keep going, it can’t defeat you. You’ve just got to keep going. That’s why I raced the next day. Which was kind of an unusual thing at the time to do because most people would have packed up and left, but we did the warm-up and came in and we actually were fairly competitive. Don’t know why. Probably they put me on empty tanks or something, I don’t know. But I came in and I wasn’t right mentally, but we were fast enough when I came in that it just slightly lifted the team a little bit and I thought, ‘I’ve got to race for them, I’ve got to’. And that was my way I think, of not focusing on the situation. I know Roland, he would have said ‘go with it’. These things happen and for us it was a new experience. Not easy at the time but it taught all of us something out of it. It taught Formula One something out of it, because things changed quite rapidly after that weekend in terms of safety. And it probably saved many lives afterwards, many lives. So it was like, there is a silver lining through every dark cloud and a lot of really good things came out of it.
NR: When you started the race the thing that always comes about, and I’ll never forget that weekend because it just seemed to be ‘well, what conceivably is going to happen next?’ But even the accident away from the start. I mean that was a big accident and presumably you must have been in the middle of all of that. So, I was going to say…
DB: I remember thinking ‘not again’.
NR: How did you deal with that?
DB: I think because you are racing there’s that mentality where… It wasn’t easy to have that clarity in your mind because you’re cluttered with so many things going on at that time. I was lucky in the race that I had… normally we didn’t race with anyone, we just got in everyone’s way, but I actually had a race with someone which was a real plus. And then I had a steering failure in the end and luckily I didn’t hurt myself. But it was one of those where you just got out of the car and you just go ‘I just need to get out of here’, you just have to kind of escape really, because there was just too much going on. The adrenaline, even when I was dicing on track… My right foot on the accelerator was bouncing up and down, I had absolutely no control of my right leg. I was trying to keep it flat on the straight, but it was just bouncing up and down. The adrenaline was all over the place.
RW: Lets take another question and this comes from Peter and he begins by saying how much he loved your father’s career and your career and I think we all feel that way.
DB: Thank you, yeah.
RW: And he wants to know what the ‘94 breed of Formula One car was like to drive. Was it a bit of a magic carpet ride? Well, actually yours wasn’t…
DB: Our biggest problems were downforce and power, clearly. It wasn’t an evil car to drive, it was just slow. And what made a lot of cars more difficult to drive was when they change the rules like that because they did some stuff to the floor. They did all sorts of things to slow the speeds down. And, of course, that just completely upsets your balance and everything. Even weight distribution and all that sort of thing. So, for us, as a small team, it took a while to try and adapt because we couldn’t test, we didn’t have the money to test, so we were testing at the race track. And the cars got more difficult after those rule changes for sure.
RW: Interesting. Another one comes from Sombrero his name is.
DB: No surname?
SA: Sombrero Smith.
RW: Or no Christian name.
DB: Hat. Mr. Mexican Hat.
RW: Anyway, Sombrero, thanks for the question. Only joking. He wants you to talk a bit about Audi at La Mans and his question is very simple – why are they so, so good at it?
DB: Well, I’ve been racing against Audi for a long time. In the Panoz days you could beat them. In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s to early 2000s you could do something if they just faulted a bit, you’re in. Jan Magnussen and myself would just pounce, and we could do it. I’ve just seen this progression that just got better and better. You got to think, they’ve been at it for a long time now. They spend a vast amount of money.
We had a competitive car back in those days. They were still learning about sports cars when the R8 came out… that thing just got better, and better, and better, and I actually had the privilege of driving it at Jerez. In 2003 when I joined Bentley we were all testing there, it was the first test for the new Bentley which Johnny crashed so we never got to drive it after. He trashed it after six laps or something in a brand new car and broke the top. So I ended up being a spectator and then they asked me at the end of the test ‘would you like to jump in the R8’ and I thought ‘that’s the thing I’ve always been trying to beat’. I jumped in it and I thought ‘no wonder this thing is so…’ it was just so easy to drive. And the engine was just amazing. It was a very successful car. Very reliable. Very easy to drive. And I think they started to get it at that point. And the diesel power… they’ve had a big advantage for such a long period of time without a doubt. I didn’t realize that until I drove for Peugeot in ’09 and felt what diesel power was like. It was a different world. In terms of the power advantage, the amount of money they spent, when you look at it now, what they spend… Not only on the car but just the hospitality at Le Mans is ten times more than the budgets that people are running just to do the whole year. And fantastic attention to detail. I mean, they’ve got it right. They know how to win. They know how to win now. And, okay, they didn’t win this year, Toyota did a very good job, but they were still strong. Still finished second. They’ve had a fantastic run and they’ve been very difficult to beat.
RW: Sombrero has a question about Peugeot actually. He wants to know why was it that the foreign-driven… I’m not quite sure what he means actually. The foreign-driven 908 was the fastest car in 2009.
DB: I think he means the one that was not driven by a French driver.
RW: Yes, exactly.
DB: Well, we weren’t the quickest. We won but we weren’t the quickest.
RW: You had fewer problems?
DB: Yeah, we had a perfect race. It was very clear that we were not the car to win. Car 7, French drivers, French team, it’s pretty well documented that was the one they wanted to win. I was intrigued by the politics that were going on at that time. And I saw that was actually to our advantage because car 9 with, with Alex Wurz, myself and Marc Gene, we had an engineer that came from rallying, never done Le Mans before, never done sports cars before. So you could see the importance of our car… But, what they didn’t realize is that they, gave us an opportunity because we could separate ourselves from some of the other stuff that was going on. We just focused on what we had to do. We figured out that the splitters were breaking if you went on the curbs too much. So we made a pact that we wouldn’t bounce all over the curbs. That meant we lost time, quite a lot of time, but the other cars kept having to come in and changing splitters and that’s where they lost a lot of their time. So Alex and Mark did a fantastic job, the engineer that we had learned very quickly, in fact he had chicken pox before the event. He turned up on the Friday so we virtually were running without an engineer to begin with. Sounds weird with the big factory Peugeot team, doesn’t it? But we were experienced campaigners. We knew what we wanted and he turned up with spots all over him. And you could see he was not right, but he had to be there. And full credit to him because he took the helm then and we won the race.
RW: Fantastic, it was a great win.
DB: Yeah, it was an unbelievable win. And we nearly didn’t win by about, probably ten meters, which people don’t realize, that we nearly lost by ten meters of track because of a safety car at the end. We came in for a pit stop, as Mark Gene drove out the safety car was going down pit straight and we were literally one or two car lengths in front of it. If we were just that little bit behind we would have had to have stopped. Car 7 was in that lineup. It then would have been in front and we would’ve had to have waited behind the queue. It was getting close to the end of the race. We just got out in front, ended up at the back of the queue halfway around the lap. And of course for them, for Peugeot, after that they said ‘okay, no more racing’.
RW: I’m interested, when you said you first drove it, I mean it sounds as though the horsepower took you by surprise.
DB: It did. It really did. I drove it out of the pits at Barcelona for the first test. By the time I got out of the pits and accelerated and got to the first corner, you should have seen the grin on my face. It was huge because I just thought ‘I could win Le Mans with this’. It just pushed me back into the seat. And it was an interesting situation because I was actually driving for an opposition manufacturer with Honda in America. We were racing against each other at Sebring. And I remember it was a surprise getting the email from Peugeot. I was at Sebring just about to do our first test and this e-mail came through and I opened it and it said ‘what are your contractual arrangements re Le Mans’, and I was like ‘what?’ I had to read it twice. I was free for Le Mans, as long as Highcroft and Honda said it was okay. Now they weren’t doing Le Mans. Within two days I got the okay and then I went to have a meeting and they were a bit unsure abourt me being in their car being with another opposition team, and they did say that to me. They said ‘I’m not sure about this’. And I just said to them, the very fact that I’m in your office talking to you about this, do you not think this kind of highlights the way I go about my racing? He didn’t have a response to that and I never put any secrets across either side it just, it’s not what you do. If I did that then my name would’ve been mud afterwards, and my career would’ve been in trouble. So we kept everything above board and to be fair, not Peugeot, not Honda asked me once about the opposition. So everybody was very much above board.
RW: It’s good to hear.
DB: Yeah, it was really good. And of course, I’ve got to thank Highcroft and Honda for giving me the opportunity too.
DS: You must have thought before that came up that the chance of an overall Le Mans win was probably gone, didn’t you?
DB: Yeah, I mean I’ve done 18 Le Mans and I’ve really only had two chances of winning. One was with Bentley in ’03. We finished second so I was gutted after that race because I knew we had a 50% chance of winning, we were so much quicker than everyone else. We had problems, the other car didn’t. And it was a one-two, which was great. Great to be part of Bentley’s return to racing.
RW: Yeah, fantastic.
DB: And to have a one-two as a Bentley boy. Unbelievable. But it was gut wrenching for us to finish second. We had the fastest car, but it doesn’t always win, does it?
RW: Okay, let’s take a question from Kip. A nice simple name, I like it. Kip wants to know about Geoff actually. He says that he’s always followed your and Geoff’s careers. And in fact he remembers catches his hat from the podium at the 1988 Road Atlanta Race.
RW: That’s Geoff’s hat, I imagine.
DB: It wouldn’t be mine.
RW: No, exactly. You would have been back in?
DB: I was here, actually, ’88. I was doing Vauxhall Lotus, or F3, yeah.
RW: Okay, right, sorry. I can’t remember what happened an hour ago, sorry. Anyway what’s Geoff up to? He wants to know whether Geoff’s going yo be part of the resurgence of Brabham.
DB: No, no. He’s, he’s flat out helping Matthew’s career. I think he’s kind of positioning himself now back in America because he lived there for some time. Went to Australia when Matthew was born. And now Matthew’s racing and has done very well in the States, his focus is fully on him. Obviously I keep him up to date with, as well as Gary, just what’s going on but this is very much 100% my deal. Any chance of my brother putting any money towards this? On our crowd funding campaign we started from one pound to 10,000 pounds as contributions. He wanted a 50% discount on the one pound contribution… That’s my brother.
RW: We should ask you where you’re at with the project in terms of crowd funding because it’s obviously been successful and it’s really worked?
DB: Yeah, I mean, you come up with a new idea and you’re just not quite sure how people will take to it and, like I said I always felt a change is needed, we got to look at another way of making sure a race team can survive. Crowd funding gave us the seed money to get the ball rolling. It engaged a community straight away with what we are doing. We’ve had maybe 3,000, I think about 3,000 people now, from 64 countries have contributed, really just off an idea.. This is our idea, this is what we would like to do. This is not a finished product saying, right, here’s a team, we’re going do this and this and everything’s up and running. This is about starting the journey now, but come and be part of it. And so, it’s very much done its job. We set a target at 250,000, we got 278,000. There’s a bit more come in obviously since then. And we’re very busy at the moment trying to get partners involved in our Brabham Digital experience because that’s a big program. We’re talking to manufacturers about LMP2 cars. We’re looking at factories where we’re going to position ourselves. There’s a hell of a lot to do. But we keep the community updated. I was on the train writing down what’s happened since crowd funding finished to give out to our community – what type of people we’re talking to, the things we’re looking at, just to keep them involved.
RW: Exciting, isn’t it?
DB: I think it’s all right. I mean, for me it’s a real, I get a real buzz from the whole thing, because I really see an opportunity and for me it opens up a whole array of commercial opportunities as well because we are talking to education at the same time. How can we engage a community of students to learn through the team? Something that’s exciting to learn through.
RW: Let’s take one last question, this comes from JoePro, yes I know, anyway he wants to know the best sports car you ever drove, that’s the Jag I guess?
RW: Okay, and the best Formula One car you ever drove, that’s a bit tougher. Shall we leave that one?
DB: Well no, actually I drove a few. I drove the Footwork. I was a test driver for Footwork which wasn’t, it was a little bit pitch sensitive. And Alan Jenkins didn’t like that word when I said that it’s a bit pitch sensitive, but it was. But it wasn’t a bad car and then they improved it after that, with a Mugen engine… Yeah, it wasn’t bad. I didn’t drive a Formula One car for like three years and then a phone call came out of the blue and that would of been, it was in ’97. I’d just come back from Japan, doing the 1000kms out there in August.
I got home, literally, within a week, and Tony Dow rings up, who was involved with Tom. And they were looking, obviously working with Bridgestone at the time, and I got invited to go over to, to test at Suzuka, in a year-old Ligier doing tyre testing. That car, it wasn’t the best, but it was all right and it was great opportunity to do tyre testing there. And had not having been in an F3 or F1 car for three years, that wasn’t an easy thing to jump back into. It takes time and I remember getting to the end of the first day thinking, ‘I don’t know how I’m gonna get through the next day’ because my neck was just gone. So I got up and thought, ‘right, just keep pushing’. My first lap out was as quick as I did the day before, and then I had to come in, we had an engine problem and that was the end of the test. So that was the last time I drove an F1 car.
RW: And now you’ve just been to see Ligier again, literally.
DB: Yes. Well, a different Ligier, but…
RW: Well, yes, okay.
SA: Rob, we’ve actually got a question from Ed Foster at the far end of the room, he’s just scrawled on a piece of paper, which I can just about read. He’s asking what the Panoz was actually like to drive. I seem to remember we discussed with Mr. Weaver and Wallace…
DB: It was like an oven, and you doing more than one stint in Le Mans was always hard work… James Weaver had the most beautiful line about driving it, as he would in his beautiful English. He said, ‘when you drive a Panoz you lose the will to live’.
It was damn hot. It wasn’t easy to drive. I would say there were only a few of us that could get the most out of it. Anyone coming in was just that little bit off, because it was so different, so weird, sitting on the rear axle like that and you’re moving around and stuff. But certainly for Jan and I we were the main drivers so we were in quite a bit so we got used to it. But anyone coming in found it tough.
RW: We’ve never really talked a lot about that whole Panoz thing. I mean, it’s an extraordinary, the whole story is amazing, isn’t it? An individual like that and all that money, it’s amazing.
DB: It is. I remember reading reading about it in Autosport. I remember it was on the inside page, it was just a little column, had a picture of it, and it said, ‘front-engine Panoz’. And of course, my dad, in the ‘60s, took the engine out of the front and put it in the back with Cooper and I remember reading it, long before I’d done a deal, and I thought, ‘well, you’ll never see me in that thing’, so I turned the page. If it wasn’t for Dave Price’s persistence to get me in the seat it would never have happened.>>
DS: What about the noise?
DB: Sorry what was that?
DS: The noise! Given the fact your dad came out with hardly any hearing from motor racing and there was some irony that you ended up in a bloody Panoz of all things.
DB: Yeah, I know, I learned a lot, living with a deaf father, to be honest with you because even when I was karting I had earplugs. A lot of kids don’t, which is not the right thing. And I came up with an idea of sewing in my balaclava some sponge, so I did that. And sewed it on like a cut-up piece of Nomex underwear, and got it all done because that with the earplugs did help. If I didn’t have it on, boy, I did notice a difference. This was late ‘90s when I did that. And of course now you can buy them. You can, I think Sparco do them… I just think it should be compulsory because the damage to our ears in a racing environment, it’s stupid. Why we keep going down these paths and not doing something about it just baffles me sometimes.
RW: Tell us a little bit about Don Panoz.
DB: Yeah, speaking personally, I don’t know a huge amount about him, apart from what he did, and how he made his money.
RW: I mean he was very involved all the time?
DB: No, not necessarily, enough to upset things… I’m just joking. He has a very different view to life to a lot of people. He’s an entrepreneur. He thinks outside the box. He gets excited by challenging the way people think and do things. And if someone said to him… I’m sure it was probably Adrian Reynard, who when he said , ‘I want to put the engine in the front’ Adrian said, ‘well that’ll never work’. ‘Well, I’m gonna show you it’s going to work. That was his mentality. You don’t become a billionaire by being stupid and he had a very different twist to things. He didn’t understand the sport like you meet people who just get it. He didn’t get it at the time. He just couldn’t, you could see that bridge, this gap between the real racing and what he thought it was. Which was kind of probably good in some way because he had a different perspective. Sometimes we can be a bit too close to it and can go down these paths and someone from the outside goes, ‘what the hell are you doing that for? Let’s go this way.’ And a very interesting character. I got on well with him, and his wife, Nancy, really well. And I had from not really looking at that picture, thinking I’d never drive a car like that, I ended up with six years at Panoz. And we were a small team. It was a great team. Really just terrific team. We were really hungry to win. Everybody was on it. Driving with Jan Magnusson was a great, great pleasure. We had one of those relationships where I’d do all the development and set up work because I love all that sort of stuff and I know I’m good at it. And it was like I’d come in, Mags was there, fag in his mouth, in the pit lane. And he’d look at me, go ‘is it ready, Brett?’ He’d stub the fag out, jump in the car, go like a bloody rocket and we both pushed each other all the time. If he was half a tenth quicker than me he’d look at me and go, ‘so what was it like to be spanked today Brett?’ And then it would be my turn. We just had a fantastic relationship and Chris Gordon was our engineer. And we just really gelled, which I think sometimes made it difficult for the other car with other team-mates coming in because we were the focus. But we were driven and we were up against Audi and that was our high motivator. Beat Audi if we can and when they faulted just a bit, boom we got them.
It’s a great story, Panoz. And it also was the absolute savior of Jan, as well. I mean, he became a hero in Denmark again, for the second time, after the disappointment of Formula One. So it’s just a great thing, isn’t it?
I guess when I saw Jan first, not really knowing who he was until he was in the team – he wasn’t my team-mate at that point, he was in the other car – I could see why within the Stewart Grand Prix organization it just didn’t work, it was like putting a square block into a circle. It just didn’t fit. I think there’s a few of us actually that have come out of Formula One and gone into sports cars and gone, ‘actually, this is a lot better’. We just totally enjoyed racing in America. The American Le Mans series was a really great series, a really great series.
SA: I would’ve thought it’d be just the right thing for Mark Webber as well, that kind of atmosphere.
DB: Yeah, I mean I know Mark, I’ve had some conversations with him, and he’s really enjoying sports cars. He did fantastically well in Formula One, he had a great, great career, achieved a lot. And then he’s gone into sports cars as one of the top, top names, and he’s enjoying life, which is fantastic. He’s a bit sore at the moment, but…
DS: Were you watching, did you see any of that live?
DB: I was kind of in and out watching it, and then I had to go off, and then, when I came back, it was… someone texted me I think, and said, ‘boy, that was a big shunt from Mark’. And I ran to the TV and as I came in they were just literally talking about it, but I didn’t see it. So then I had to find a YouTube clip to find it. That was a big one. They had a commercial break and they came back from the commercial break, and the first picture back from Brazil was the wreck sitting there with fire and everything else. I thought ‘Jesus, is that…’
RW: Not what you want to see.
NR: No. No.
DB: It doesn’t matter what driver it is. Yeah, but I think he went off there in January, didn’t he?
DB: It was turned into a bit of a multiple, didn’t it?
NR: Yeah. It was the huge shunt.
DB: Well, when I saw it, I did text him, I did say ‘what is it with sports cars and big shunts with you, mate?’ Couldn’t resist.
This is a good time if you’re coming in as a team into sports cars. I mean, it’s really on the up, isn’t it? It’s great to see. As we know in sports cars it goes in circles. One minute it’s up, one minute it’s down. It’s definitely on an up. The manufacturers are getting back involved. And they’ll pump millions into marketing, so it’s good for the series. Good for everybody involved. It’s exciting for Brabham to be coming back to racing, but also into a series that’s starting to come up. And of course, one day I’d love to see Brabham back in Formula One.
NR: Yeah, yeah.
DB: That’s a long way down the road, but Formula One and Brabham, it’s in its DNA. Obviously it’s not achievable at the moment. But in ten years time, who knows?
NR: Can I just ask you a question about your dad? We lost him this year and I’ve always thought about him… There are certain drivers, really great racing drivers, who seem to me to be curiously underrated by history. And I’ve always thought that about your dad. Do you think the same?
DB: I asked Stirling Moss to just tell me about it. He said, ‘absolutely’. God knows why he is, but you’re right. He wasn’t a marketing man was he? I mean I think for Dad when I think about what he achieved and how he achieved it, it is pretty amazing. When I turn 40 I thought when Jack was 40 he was winning his third world championship. He’s also winning the Formula Two championship in a Brabham Honda. He’s also got the biggest racing car manufacturer in the world to manage and there he is testing the cars, all the bits and pieces. Then he’s going jump into a Grand Prix car and race against Clark and Graham Hill and John Surtees and Jackie Stewart,
I think Dad, the first thing that he said was, ‘I learned how to win by going as slow at possible speed. And I think because he thought to survive in that era and to win, he had to play a smart game. So he wasn’t as spectacular as some of the other guys, although there were races…
RW: I tell you, he certainly could be.
DB: When he turned it on no, they couldn’t beat him. And, of course, he’d get out of the car, he’d be more interested in talking with Ron who, without Ron, Dad would never have achieved what he’d achieved. But they would go off together back in the workshop. He wasn’t going on PR mode or anything like that. And I just think all those little things that he kind of did just took him off people’s radar. I think that played a role. It was his character, he wasn’t, he just was straight down the line. Told it as it was, didn’t say much, but when he did, people listened.
DS: Are there any plans in the longer term, you’re talking at the moment about running a sports car team with maybe a custom chassis from Ligier or whoever. But I mean, are there plans in the longer term maybe to set up a place in Chessington and put a Brabham badge on a car now and again?
DB: Yeah, absolutely, I mean further down the road, we’ve talked about, in our program, becoming a manufacturer in Formula One, in sports cars, in LMP1. But because we’re a kind of open-sourced race team, where people can get involved, we’re talking to companies now about collaborative design software that allows people to help contribute to designing a race car of the future so…
RW: Adrian Newey could join in…
DB: Well, he could put in an application. We’ll look at it and we’ll interview them, yeah. But this whole programme’s about engaging a community, inspiring a community of engineers, engineering in this country’s got a problem, there aren’t enough engineers, English engineers. I think in six or seven years, it’s going be 50% down on where it really needs to be.
RW: Which is what Richard Noble’s been saying for many years.
DB: Yeah, so with the Bloodhound program, and Williams announcing what they’re doing, trying to find the next Adrian Newey or Wes Brown… Well we need programs like that out there in the marketplace and Brabham is trying to do its bit as well.?
RW: That’s great. Fantastic. Thank you very much, it’s good fun.
DB: Thank you, yeah, it’s great fun.
RW: We could talk a lot more couldn’t we? Actually, it’s been a really, great broadcast to end the year on. Thank you David, very much indeed.
I think, I think we all wish you the best of luck with the projects, it’s really good to see what you’re trying to do. And it’s good to see the Brabham name back.
DB: Thank you. I have to say that you guys, the whole of the media have really got behind it. We haven’t found any real negativity to what we’re trying to do, which has been fabulous and so thank you not just to the fans that have contributed and been involved. And people can still be involved, they can still buy the pre-order, the sort of digital packages in advance to be part of the team. And it’s growing and there’s a lot to do, but it’s an exciting future.
RW: We should put all those details on the website, shouldn’t we Mister Website Editor?
DS: We should, yes, he’s giving them.
RW: Okay. Thank you very much everybody, Damien, Simon, Nigel, Ed, thank you very much for putting all our podcasts together this year. And to Alan, sitting quietly in the corner every time, making sure you can hear us. And we’ll be back in January, 2015 with another Motor Sport Magazine podcast. Thank you so much for your support this year. We do need it, and we love it. See you soon. Bye-bye.
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