Sydney-born Jack Brabham was nicknamed ‘Black Jack’ by his peers, the title coming about not because of any affinity with gambling, but because of his uncompromising nature on the race track.
Here was a man who combined commitment and determination with talent and technical know-how to create an incredibly successful career in Formula 1 that would net him three Drivers’ Championship crowns, one of which came in his very own Formula 1 team.
Having learned to drive by age twelve and competing in midget racing at the age of twenty, Brabham formed an alliance with Australian designer Ron Tauranac, with whom he would later create the Brabham F1 team.
By 1955, Jack had made his F1 debut with Cooper, and by 1959 the rear-engined Coopers had come on strongly, netting him his first victory at Monaco and a championship by the end of the year, brought about by dint of his consistency rather than sheer unadulterated speed. His championship was secured by pushing his out-of-fuel car over the finish line at Sebring to earn fourth place.
But if anyone had doubts that he deserved the 1959 title, they were proven wrong in 1960 when Brabham won five (all consecutively) of the eight races that season.
He then took the plunge of setting up his own team, with Tauranac by his side, and by 1964 he had picked up his first win and a third title in 1966. He would eventually retire from the sport in 1970, approaching his 44th birthday, and proving just as competitive as drivers half his age.
Returning to Australia with his three young sons, Geoff, Gary and David – who would all go on to become racing drivers in their own right – Jack settled into retirement but proved more than happy to hop back in the cockpit for the odd demonstration and historic outing.
It was a terrible shame that his successes achieved such little recognition in Australia, while overseas he was (and still is) revered for his achievements. He became the first sportsperson ever to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of his success.
Finally this year, Australia’s National Trust bestowed upon him a ‘National Living Treasure’ award, one of the highest accolades possible in the country. It would seem that the tide of public opinion and awareness is finally turning in his favour.
Sadly today, his health is far from what it used to be. Hit by kidney troubles and with his eyesight rapidly failing with macular degeneration, he might physically be on the frail side for a man in his eighties, but his mind and wit are as sharp as ever. He remains a great ambassador to the sport and to the many charities he supports, particularly Kidney Health Australia.
I had the great pleasure of catching up with Sir Jack on one of his rare visits to Sydney, where we talked all about his career and the evolution of the sport. I wish to thank his wife, Lady Margaret Brabham, for her time and support in making this interview possible.
|Full Name:||Sir John Arthur ‘Jack’ Brabham, AO, OBE|
|Born:||2 Apri 1926, Hurstville (AUS)|
|First GP:||1955 British Grand Prix|
|Last GP:||1970 Mexican Grand Prix|
|World Champion:||1959, 1960, 1966|
|1955||Formula 1, Cooper Bristol T40, 1 race, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1956||Formula 1, Maserati 250F, 1 race, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1957||Formula 1, Cooper / Walker Climax T43, 5 races, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1958||Formula 1, Cooper Climax T45, 9 races, 3 points, 18th overall|
|1959||Formula 1, Cooper Climax T51, 8 races, 2 wins, 5 podiums, 31 points, 1st overall|
|1960||Formula 1, Cooper Climax T51 / T53, 8 races, 5 wins, 43 points, 1st overall|
|1961||Formula 1, Cooper Climax T55 / T58, 8 races, 4 points, 11th overall|
|1962||Formula 1, Brabham Climax BT3, 8 races, 9 points, 9th overall|
|1963||Formula 1, Brabham Climax BT3 / BT7, 10 races, 1 podium, 14 points, 7th overall|
|1964||Formula 1, Brabham Climax BT7 / BT11, 10 races, 2 podiums, 11 points, 8th overall|
|1965||Formula 1, Brabham Climax BT11, 6 races, 1 podium, 9 points, 10th overall|
|1966||Formula 1, Brabham Repco BT19 / BT20, 9 races, 4 wins, 5 podiums, 42 points, 1st overall|
|Made an ‘Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE)’|
|Winner ‘Australian of the Year’|
|1967||Formula 1, Brabham Repco BT19 / BT20 / BT24, 11 races, 2 wins, 6 podiums, 46 points, 2nd overall|
|1968||Formula 1, Brabham Repco BT24 / BT26, 11 races, 2 points, 23rd overall|
|1969||Formula 1, Brabham Cosworth BT26A, 8 races, 2 podiums, 14 points, 10th overall|
|1970||Formula 1, Brabham Cosworth BT33, 13 races, 1 win, 4 podiums, 25 points, 5th overall|
|1978||Declared a ‘Knight of the Realm’ for his services to motorsport|
|1985||Inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame (elevated to ‘Legend’ status in 2003)|
|2000||Australian Sports Medal recipient|
|2001||Centenary Medal recipient|
|2008||Made an ‘Officer of the Order of Australia (AO)’|
|2012||Named a ‘National Living Treasure’|
You were declared an Australian ‘National Living Treasure’ earlier this year. Amongst all of your success on the track and your recognition off it, what did this acknowledgement mean to you, over forty years since you last raced in anger?
Yes, that was a big thrill. It was an honour, really. It was fantastic to be recognised that way, and obviously it’s not something given to everyone, so it made it extra special.
What sparked your initial interest in motorsport?
I got a job looking after someone’s racing car when I was young. Eventually, his wife stopped him from racing, and I thought ‘I’ll have a go at this myself!’. I won at my third ever race, and as they say, the rest is history.
You have always been acclaimed as one of the best driver-engineers to have competed in Formula 1. Your first two World Championship crowns came off the back of the constant refinements you championed for the rear-engined Coopers. What did the success mean to you, and is the notion of the driver-engineer a long-gone concept in Formula 1 today?
My ability to engineer the car certainly helped with my success. There are very few drivers today who know much about how to set up and engineer a car. They are almost completely reliant on their engineers and support crews to help with fine-tuning the set-up. The notion of a ‘driver-engineer’ today is very much a dying art. It’s a shame in a way, but it’s symptomatic of how much development motorsport has undergone in the last fifty years.
And speaking of famous engineering partnerships, you met [Brabham team co-founder] Ron Tauranac in your early years. The pair of you would ultimately go on to become one of the most successful partnerships in Formula 1 history. What was your relationship like with Ron during your years together at the helm of the Brabham operation?
I met Ron when he came and bought a motorcycle engine from me that he’d wanted to put into a racing car he had designed.
I did some work for him, and he did some work for me.
Later on when I was racing for Cooper, I would secretly send him design and engineering concepts to look at that we were thinking of trying on the car, and Ron would give me some guidance.
Ultimately, I wanted to go it alone and set up my own team, and who better to help me with this than Ron? It took a lot of convincing by me for him to up sticks and come to the UK (laughs).
He was reluctant to give up his job, but I eventually talked him into it, and the rest is history.
He had a reputation as a bit of a taskmaster for his high standards and he was known to be difficult to work with at times. But I found him great to work with. I understood him, but I don’t think a lot of other people understood him.
By the time you were approaching the 1970 season, you were in your forties and your then-wife was very keen for you to quit racing and return to Australia. You were still very competitive right up to the point that you retired – and you were event a contender for that year’s championship. Was it the right decision to hang up the helmet?
Ultimately, it was. It’s true that I was competitive and, frankly, I could have continued racing for another couple of years.
In the end, it was a wise decision. We lost three drivers that year – Bruce McLaren, Piers Courage and Jochen Rindt – to fatal accidents. Piers was killed in a custom-made Brabham, and that was particularly hard.
Over the course of my career, I lost upwards of thirty men – many of whom were dear friends to me – to accidents at the race track or on the road, and I didn’t want to be part of that honour roll.
I’d been extremely close to Bruce, particularly, when he first made his way into Formula 1, and his death was extremely difficult for me. Piers was a fine racer, who died in a custom-made Brabham chassis at the Dutch Grand Prix.
And Jochen was another friend whose time was up too soon. He’d driven for Brabham before he was poached by Lotus, and his death at Italy was so unnecessary.
You would sell your shares in the team to Ron Tauranac, who would manage the team for a year before he opted to sell it to Bernie Ecclestone. While the Brabham name would continue – going on to achieve wins and championships over the next two decades – you would have no involvement in its running. How did that sit with you?
It was one of those things I couldn’t do anything about (laughs). It was Ron’s decision as to what he wanted to do with the team, and when he sold it to Bernie, he also sold the rights to the team name.
It was strange to watch these cars and drivers for the next years in a team bearing my name, but it was also out of my hands.
Of the three Formula 1 championship titles you won, which gave you the most satisfaction?
The third title in 1966, really because it was an Australian effort. The team had an Australian designer in Ron Tauranac, Australian mechanics, and an Australian-built engine from Repco.
It was effectively Australia against the rest of the world, and to win with that package and group of people behind it was a huge thrill.
To do it all in a car bearing my own name is a record that will never be broken.
Your surname would continue into the next generation and beyond, with your three sons Geoff, Gary and David – perhaps against the wishes of their mother! – each pursuing their own motorsport careers. While none has gone on to achieve quite your level of success, what are your thoughts on how they followed in your footsteps?
I was initially nervous for each when they started out in racing. I think that’s natural when you’re on the sidelines and not in control, but once they proved to me that they knew what they were doing, it was alright.
Of the three, David has done very well, and that’s no criticism of Geoff and Gary, who each carved their own racing career.
And now my grandson Matthew (Geoff’s son) is also pursuing his own racing career, and he’s proving to be very successful.
But don’t hold out any hopes of him becoming the third-generation Brabham to race in F1; that’s not his focus. I think he’ll remain in the American scene.
Who was the toughest driver you’ve ever raced against?
Without question it would be Stirling Moss. I couldn’t recall a standout race where he gave me a particularly hard time, because that applied to every race where we competed against each other. He always gave me a hard time (laughs).
There were many excellent drivers in my era, including Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt, Dan Gurney and Graham Hill. I was great friends with them all, but I rarely had the opportunity to socialise with them while I was racing and trying to run a team.
And what was your favourite circuit you’d ever competed on?
Rouen, Brands Hatch and the Nurburgring. Brands Hatch was a great little circuit, with its elevation changes and blind corners, it was a real driver’s track.
The ‘Ring was the ultimate. Fourteen miles and 176 corners: up and down, left and right. You’d better not forget which corner was coming up or you risked being in a whole lot of trouble!
Of all the cars you raced, which was your favourite?
Well, I’m obviously going to say one of mine (laughs). While I managed to win the title with the 1966 model [the BT19], it was actually the 1967 car [BT24] that was my favourite. It was a beautiful car, but unfortunately the engine went in the final race and cost me a shot at the championship.
The 1967 and 1970 seasons both gave me realistic shots at the championship title, but ultimately, it wasn’t to be. I’m certainly not bitter about that at all, and I’m proud of my achievements and the success that motorsport has given me.
Are you a fan of the current version of Formula 1? Would you change anything to improve the sport today?
Of course the cars are all completely different to what I drove back in my day, and of course they are much safer and stronger. I’ve been amazed by how competitive and close the racing has been, particularly given the number of different drivers and teams that have been running at the front so far. I think it’s great!
Unfortunately my health is not good these days, so I don’t get to travel much or get to many Grands Prix. I’m quite happy watching the races from the sofa!
To-date, Alan Jones remains the only other Australian to win the World Championship, although Mark Webber came close in 2010. We now have two Australians on the grid in Webber and Daniel Ricciardo. How do you rate their prospects?
To have two Australian drivers on the grid is just fantastic. It’s very tough for an Australian to break into F1 today, so to have two at once – admittedly at different points in their career – is brilliant.
I think Daniel is a super talent and he has all the right ingredients to do well and enjoy a long career in Formula 1.
Mark has been in F1 for ten years and he’s driving very well this year. The real question will be how much longer he can remain in the sport.