Born with one of the most famous surnames in motorsport, David Brabham is the only one of Sir Jack Brabham’s three motor-racing sons to start a Formula 1 Grand Prix.
Sadly for David (the youngest among his brothers Geoff and Gary), he didn’t emulate his father’s incredible achievements in Formula 1, however he nonetheless has carved out a hugely successful motorsport career.
Born in Wimbledon, David returned to Australia as a youngster when his father retired from full-time competition, and it was little surprise that he, along with brothers Gary and Geoff, would follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue a career in motorsport.
David’s interest in racing came in his late teenage years. He was quickly successful in Australia and New Zealand in single-seaters, and ventured to the United States to race in Formula Atlantic, before moving on to England to contest the Formula Vauxhall Lotus championship in 1988.
He moved up to Formula 3 in 1989, and enjoyed a ding-dong battle with Allan McNish for the crown, which he eventually won after appeal the following February. He also won the Macau Formula 3 race.
Next stop should have been Formula 3000 with the Middlebridge team, but this quickly translated into Formula 1 when Middlebridge bought the failing Brabham team, and he was drafted in to replace Gregor Foitek, who quit the squad after just two races.
The team was ‘Brabham’ in name only, and despite the pressure and unhelpful comparisons trotted out by the media, he performed capably in very uncompetitive machinery, although he still failed to make the grid six times.
Not kept on for the 1991 season, he switched to sports cars instead, driving for TWR Jaguar in 1991 and Toyota in 1992 while he treaded water in the hope of another Grand Prix return.
And a return opportunity did come, joining the fledgling Simtek team in 1994. It was a tough season in the underfinanced outfit, and he rose admirably to the role of team leader when team-mate Roland Ratzenberger was tragically killed at San Marino.
With the team facing uncertain times heading into 1995, David left the team and took to touring cars, before again moving to the world of endurance racing, where he has found his niche and is widely considered to be Australia’s most successful endurance racing export.
A two-time champion in the American Le Mans Series, he has tasted the victory champagne in virtually every major international endurance race you can think of, along with winning the 2009 Le Mans 24 Hours as part of Peugeot’s works operation.
Still extremely active in the now-renamed World Endurance Championship, David divides his time with his own racing and also as a figurehead of Team UK, a young driver development programme that seeks to spot and nurture up and coming talent.
We are extremely thankful to David for his time and support in making our interview possible.
|Full Name:||David Philip Brabham|
|Born:||5 September 1965, London (GBR)|
|First GP:||1990 Monaco Grand Prix|
|Last GP:||1994 Australian Grand Prix|
|Wins:||0||Best Finish:||10th||Best Qualifying:||21st|
|1987||Australian Drivers’ Championship, AMR Ralt RT30 VW, 1st overall|
|1988||British F3 Championship (Class B), Jack Brabham Racing Ralt RT31 VW, 3rd overall|
|1989||British F3 Championship, Bowman Racing Ralt RT31 VW, 1st overall|
|Macau F3 Grand Prix, Bowman Racing Ralt RT31 VW, 1st overall|
|1990||Formula 1, Brabham Judd BT59, 14 entries, 6 DNQ, 8 races, 0 points, Not Classified|
|1991||World Sportscar Championship, Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-14, 18th overall|
|1992||World Sportscar Championship, TOM’s Toyota TS010, 10th overall|
|1994||Formula 1, Simtek Ford S941, 16 races, 0 points, Not Classifies|
|1995||British Touring Car Championship, Schnitzer BMW 318i, 13th overall|
|1996||All-Japan GT Championship, Team Lark McLaren F1 GTR, 1st overall|
|24 Hours of Le Mans, GTC Racing McLaren F1 GTR, 5th overall with L. Owen-Jones & P. Raphanel|
|1997||AMT Bathurst 1000, BMW Motorsport Australia 320i, 1st overall|
|1998||24 Hours of Le Mans, Panoz Esperante GTR-1, 7th overall with J. Davies & A. Wallace|
|1999||American Le Mans Series, Panoz Motor Sports, 2nd overall|
|24 Hours of Le Mans, Panoz LMP1 Roadster S-Ford, 7th overall with E. Bernard & B. Leitzinger|
|2003||American Le Mans Series, Prodrive Ferrari 550 GTS Maranello, 3rd overall|
|24 Hours of Le Mans, Team Bentley Speed-8 LMGTP, 2nd overall with M. Brundle & J. Herbert|
|2005||24 Hours of Le Mans, Aston Martin DBR9 GT1, 3rd in class with S. Sarrazin & D. Turner|
|2007||24 Hours of Le Mans, Aston Martin DBR9 GT1, 1st in class with R. Rydell & D. Turner|
|2008||American Le Mans Series, Highcroft Racing Acura ARX-01B LMP2, 3rd overall|
|24 Hours of Le Mans, Aston Martin DBR9 GT1, 1st in class with A. Garcia & D. Turner|
|2009||American Le Mans Series, Highcroft Racing Acura ARX-02A LMP2, 1st overall|
|24 Hours of Le Mans, Peugeot Sport 908 HDi FAP, 1st overall with M. Gene & A. Wurz|
|2010||American Le Mans Series, Highcroft Racing HPD ARX-01C LMP, 1st overall|
|2011||FIA GT1 Championship, Sumo Nissan GT-R, 10th overall|
|2012||FIA World Endurance Championship, JRM HPD ARX-03 Honda LMP1, 10th overall|
|24 Hours of Le Mans, JRM HPD ARX-03 Honda LMP1, 6th overall with K. Chandhok & P. Dumbreck|
You were just five years old when your father hung up his race helmet. For much of your childhood, you actually held very little interest in motorsport. What was the eventual trigger to getting involved and following in your father and brother’s footsteps?
It’s true. My Dad had retired and I had no real interest in racing. My passion as a kid was soccer.
I landed up going to an agricultural boarding school as a place called Walla Walla, where I learned all about farming. I was actually being groomed to become a farmer and take over the family farm one day – we had a 4,500-acre farm that Dad had bought and that we’d moved back to when he retired.
I then, aged seventeen, went over to America to watch my brother Geoffrey race in his first year of IndyCar racing, and it was probably the first time I’d seen racing. I’d been to plenty of races as a child, but at that age I was more interested in playing in the paddock and mucking about with the other kids than what was happening out on the circuit.
That was the moment when I started to take an interest. My brother was also doing a couple of CanAm races to help Al Unser Jr win the championship, and I went with him to the factory and saw a go-kart that one of the mechanics was working on.
I’d never seen a go-kart before and I thought to myself, ‘Wow! I’ve got to have a go at that’, and that was the spark, the moment, that changed the direction of my life.
You would have had a great mentor in your father during those early years, and your first seasons racing in Australia and New Zealand would have been interesting. How much expectation was placed on you, given your surname, and to what extent was it perhaps a help or a hindrance?
When you’re young and trying to establish your own name, if you have a famous father in the same industry that everyone relates to, it’s not at all easy. It’s not easy in the sense of trying to get your own footing.
There’s this expectation that you should just be able to pick up where your father left off and be winning races and leading at the front. The reality is not necessarily the case at all; you still have to go out there and learn your craft and make the mistakes that everyone else does when they’re learning.
I know for myself that it took a while before started to consider me as David Brabham instead of Jack’s son.
That only comes about on the back of proving yourself and achieving your own results, and it probably takes a lot longer than it would for someone who doesn’t have that background and legacy.
This was the case for Geoffrey, Gary and I when we each started out in motor racing.
For many years, it was all about Dad before we were able to forge our own identities. I would say Geoff had it worse than any of us though.
But it also had some advantages in terms of opening a few doors and landing some other opportunities, so you have to accept the good with the bad.
You took the slightly unusual path of heading to the European racing scene via North and South America. What were those early years like racing overseas on new circuits and against international competition?
I’d had some exposure racing against international drivers when I raced in New Zealand in the Tasman Series, and it was quite common for drivers to come from overseas championships.
It was quite an eye-opener – having been a farming boy – to be thrown in the deep end against overseas competition.
I remember my first time in an Atlantic car in New Zealand and my team-mate was Mike Thackwell, a driver who’d established himself quite well in motorsport and someone I read about when dad bought back some racing magazines. I went on to marry his sister…!
I then headed overseas and had four races in North America and another three in South America before heading to England. By the time I’d arrived in the UK – even though I didn’t know any of the circuits or much about the competition – I had some idea of the standard of competition I’d be up against. I think that helped my transition, but it was a steep learning curve because the competition was pretty fierce.
The team I was with, Derek Bell Racing, was a new team to the championship and the people in the team had little in the way of racing experience. It was very difficult for the first six months, we weren’t very competitive and I lost motivation as a result. I thought that it was the end of my hopes of becoming a motor racing driver.
But things changed mid-year. Formula Vauxhall Lotus was about two steps backwards from what I’d been racing before, and everyone could see that I wasn’t happy.
Luckily for me, the sponsors and team management got together and found me a seat in the British Formula 3 Championship’s Class B with my brother’s team, and that was like a lease of life for me. Now in an environment where I was happy, I won five of the last seven Class B races, and I went on from there.
That served as the launching pad for your career, and you spent the following season in Class A in a neck-a-neck battle for the championship with Allan McNish, which you ultimately won on appeal the following year. A major highlight was also winning the Macau Grand Prix. What did the success mean to your career, following the struggles of the Vauxhall Lotus period?
Obviously, at the end of 1988, I’d done enough to get a few people to take notice of me. I didn’t have the luxury of bringing any money with me to take to a team the next year.
Fortunately, Bowman Racing, who’d run my brother the year before, had a sponsor for the car and they didn’t need a driver who could bring any money with them. I went through a shootout among five drivers, and landed up as the ‘winner’ of that to land the seat.
I was very lucky to drive for them as they, along with West Surrey Racing, were the frontrunners in the British F3 championship at the time. Because of my experience leading up to that point and the disappointment of the Vauxhall Lotus period – which ultimately brought back my motivation because I’d though I’d lost all opportunity – I ended up having a very good year.
That year had a lot of political problems with appeals and protests which was a saga in itself. It was unfortunate, because I’d pretty much dominated that championship and when the appeal came about with the MSA, everyone was given back the points they’d lost because it was such a shambles. The recalculation meant that I actually should have won the championship with one race to go, but that wasn’t sorted until the following year.
With all of that up in the air at the time of going to Macau, my motivation level was so high and I was so determined to win it, which was a task in itself for someone going there the first time. I was able to win against some immense competition, and that was the next launching pad because I basically went from there to F1.
You were set to join Middlebridge’s Formula 3000 programme, which then became an F1 opportunity when they bought the Brabham F1 team. Talk us through that period.
I’d signed with Middlebridge to race in F3000, and then they called out of the blue just before the F1 season-opener at Phoenix and asked if I’d like to join the F1 team. I refused, because I didn’t feel I was ready and hadn’t tested an F1 car.
I knocked it back on account of not feeling ready enough, and then what happened was they eventually called us all in for a meeting at the Formula 3000 factory and announced that they were closing the team down and investing all of their efforts in the Formula 1 team.
By that point, I was like ‘Oh, shit’ – think I’d blown it – and I was then summoned into the office and again given the offer of joining the F1 team.
I had no option: it was take the offer or do nothing for the rest of the year. The latter simply wasn’t an option, so I started from the third race on at Imola. So that was how it happened, it was totally unexpected.
Ironically, they did eventually bring back the Formula 3000 team and put Damon Hill – who was meant to be my F3000 team-mate – alongside my brother Gary, who’d just left that Life F1 team.
Your first F1 outing was in the team’s brand-new BT59, which had no testing in the lead-up to the event, and rather predictably it conked out almost as soon as it left the pit lane in the opening practice. A failure to qualify was perhaps inevitable, can you talk us through that weekend in a little more detail?
I managed to have a couple of tests in the BT58 beforehand, which was a super little car [team-mate Stefano Modena had taken it to fifth place at Phoenix]. It was easy to drive and nicely-balanced.
At least leading up to my F1 debut, I felt somewhat ready. But the car wasn’t, and it had barely been assembled by the time first practice came along, which was effectively an opportunity to give it a shakedown.
Of course, we had problems with the car stopping on the out-lap. I was able to do a few more laps in the next session before it broke down again.
So when it came to qualifying, I had so little running in the car and had so few laps around a circuit that I didn’t know well, it was a case of being thrown completely into the deep end.
I missed the qualifying cut by about three- or four-tenths of a second, which I was pretty happy with considering the circumstances. Back then, don’t forget, you had well over thirty cars competing for twenty-six places on the grid. It was tough at the bottom end trying to get into qualifying.
The BT59 wasn’t a complete car until midway through the season. The car had been designed with a transverse gearbox in mind, but we had so many problems with it that we refitted the BT58 gearbox into the back of it. But that was a longitudinal gearbox, so that affected the rear suspension geometry and the whole thing was a bit of a botch job.
The car just wasn’t reliable or fast enough throughout the season, and to go from being a frontrunner in Formula 3 to just struggling to qualify in F1 was a big eye-opener.
Was there an opportunity to remain in Formula 1 in 1991?
Brabham was severely in debt at the end of the year, and there was no way that I was going to continue.
There were people in the team who – even from the moment I arrived – didn’t want me there.
They probably felt – and rightly so to a degree, I will add – that they needed a more experienced driver, but the people from Middlebridge felt that they wanted to put me in there, no doubt going with the strategy that my surname would help raise the profile and extra sponsorship.
But the whole team was quite badly managed, to be honest, and by the end of the season there was just no place for me. So I had to go and find something else, so I went back to Formula 3000 with Roni Motorsports, which was running Mexican driver Fernando Plata, who was bringing quite a lot of money with him.
So that enabled me to have a free seat for a few races, before I was given a call-up and offered the opportunity to compete in the XJR Intercontinental Challenge with Tom Walkinshaw Racing, and I finished second behind Derek Warwick at Monaco, but ended up winning the series.
TWR asked me if I’d like to come and have a test drive in the XJR-14, which was the most dominant sports car at the time. So I called them a week later as instructed to follow up on their offer, and they effectively offered me a race seat, reasoning that there was little point in my testing for them if I wasn’t going to race for them.
It was perfect timing: Plata’s money had run out – meaning the certain end of my stint with them – and here I had TWR offering me a seat in the Group C World Sportscar Championship! It was a massive lifeline.
I picked up the reins from Martin Brundle [who had, coincidentally, joined the Brabham F1 team for the 1991 season] that season. TWR only employed three drivers to race its two cars, which meant I’d start in one car and finish the race in the other, and I joined the team after that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours. What it did mean that I could finish first and second in the same race, which I did at my first outing with them at the Nürburgring 1000k..!
You’ve enjoyed enormous success in sports cars in subsequent years. Was it a difficult transition to move into this type of racing with bigger and heavier cars where you’re compromising on set-up with your co-driver?
I learned a hell of a lot that year with team-mates Derek Warwick and Teo Fabi. They were like chalk and cheese as people, and as drivers. I’d get into one car and it definitely felt different from the other on account of their preferences in car set-up, and I had to learn how to adapt and drive around a set-up that perhaps didn’t suit me.
I was able to do that fairly easily, and it came quite naturally for me to do that – perhaps it came about from driving sideways on the various vehicles around the farm when I was younger!
It definitely taught me a lot about how to adapt to different set-ups, and that has certainly served me well in my later career in sports car racing.
Your return to F1 came with Simtek for the 1994 season, a team in which your father was a shareholder. What was your initial perception of the team when you signed on in 1993 and took the S941 out for its first test laps?
After my time with Brabham, I still harboured the desire to get back into Formula 1. I’d never felt like I had a proper chance when I was there.
The Simtek opportunity came about, but it was again a case of my not being able to bring any money with me. I met with Nick Wirth [the Team Principal] and we were both of a similar age, and he was an interesting, clever and very ambitious guy.
We got on very well, and he was looking for someone with experience who was able to help them with their car in the first year in F1, so the second seat was always going to go to someone who brought money to help the programme along.
I’d been out of F1 for a few years, and things move on pretty quickly without you. Getting back into the cockpit, the S941 felt pretty quick having not been in one for three years.
We didn’t know how competitive it was, and the team was quite excited about the car. But like every team when they build a new car, they’re always convinced that it’s the baby.
But it became apparent straight away that the car wasn’t competitive enough. It didn’t have enough downforce, nor enough power compared to our competitors. We had a customer Ford engine, and we just didn’t have enough money to develop the car. We hardly tested.
It was another Brabham scenario, but at least it was a much friendlier environment. I was a better driver having gone through my experiences in the past, but it was obvious at the end of the year that Formula 1 wasn’t going to be my world.
One can’t even begin to imagine how tough the year was for you and the team when Roland Ratzenberger was killed at the third round at Imola. You have been widely credited as being the galvanising force that kept the team going for the rest of the season.
None of us had been through a situation like that before, and it was very difficult to know what to do next.
Your emotions take over you completely, and it’s a very different world when something like that happens. I didn’t know what to do, or how to do it, but all I knew was that we had to keep pushing. We were underfunded and desperately needed to keep the show on the road.
The usual practice is for the team to withdraw its other entries if one of its drivers died, but the FIA and the team gave me the option of taking the start. I had the final decision.
I looked around me and decided to get in the car for the Sunday morning warm-up, which was a big decision in itself in that we weren’t 100% sure what had caused his accident.
So I took the car out for the warm-up and – I suspect some of the other teams were running very heavy fuel loads – we were suddenly well up the timesheets and posting similar times to teams we had no business competing with. So I made the decision to take the start.
Of course we were at the back of the pack come the race, and then there was the start line crash, followed by Ayrton’s accident, and then the pit lane incident with Michele Alboreto shedding a wheel. I crashed out with a suspension failure – which was a big scare. It just all turned to shit.
The team then signed Andrea Montermini for the Spanish Grand Prix, and he crashed, injuring himself and writing off another chassis. It was surely a case of ‘what could go wrong next?’
Exactly. We only ran one car at Monaco – which itself was hit with Karl Wendlinger’s accident in the Sauber, which put him in a coma – and then we came to Spain with Andrea as the new driver.
The politics and tension were unbelievable there, and everyone was on edge in light of all the accidents that had happened. The sport was at the crossroads.
Andrea simply wasn’t fit enough to cope with the G-forces and his neck was starting to go after just a handful of laps. He should have come into the pits, but started another flying lap and crashed at the final corner when his neck gave up on him. It was just a disaster.
|Simtek entered one car for Brabham at the Monaco Grand Prix following Ratzenberger’s death, and ran this fitting tribute on the S941’s roll hoop for the rest of the season (above left). But disaster would strike at the next round at Spain, when replacement driver Andrea Montermini crashed out and broke his heel. Another chassis was written off and the cash-strapped team was in serious trouble…|
What was your approach for the rest of the season? You had three further team-mates before the year was out to keep the money coming in, and then F1 effectively left you behind at the end of the year…
We got the final race in Adelaide – my home race – and it was clear that I wouldn’t be able to stay with the team, or in F1, even if I’d wanted to.
It’s impossible to get noticed by a better team when you can rarely do any better than getting off the back row of the grid, and Simtek was in dire financial straits and desperately needed better-funded drivers for the following year.
As I’ve mentioned before, I have never been able to come into a team and bring sponsorship backing to help shore up my seat. It’s always been a case of being hired directly on the back of my results, so there just wasn’t the option of staying in Formula 1.
While your later career has been synonymous with endurance racing, you have also dabbled in other championship categories, such as touring cars and in the new FIA GT1 Championship. Have you enjoyed the occasional opportunities to return to Australia with the V8 Supercars?
It’s been great to come back home and race in front of local fans at events such as the Bathurst 1000. I’ve been lucky that my schedule has allowed me the opportunities to do that, and equally that I’ve been able to be competitive from the off despite my relative lack of experience in these cars.
After a couple of years competing very successfully on the American side of the Atlantic in the American Le Mans Series, you’ve returned to Europe and contested the GT1 Championship and have this year joined up with the new JRM outfit in the newly-renamed World Endurance Championship. What hopes do you have for the 2012 season?
I’m back in the HPD ARX LMP1 car, which I’ve driven a developed so much over the years to the point that it’s almost in my DNA. It’s nice being behind the wheel of it once again, and to be partnered by a mix of experience and youth – in Peter Dumbreck and Karun Chandhok – is great.
Peter’s a hard charger with years of experience behind him, while this year is Karun’s first in this type of racing, so he not unexpectedly has a lot to learn.
It will be a tough year for us. The team is still in its relative infancy, but on the plus side we’re dealing with a car that I’m extremely familiar with.
That being said, while we may be competing in the LMP1 category, we are up against the might of Audi and Toyota, although Toyota’s campaign is only part-time. Both carmakers are extremely competitive and having huge resources to play with, so I’m not expecting that we’ll necessarily be able to compete with the latest kit they have on offer.
Despite that, I’m hopeful we can spring a few surprises along the way.
You’ve enjoyed such enormous success in your motorsport career. Is there a particular moment that’s stood out as your greatest career achievement?
I’m not the kind of person who likes to categories his achievements – by saying ‘That’s number one, that’s number two, and so on’.
Obviously winning Le Mans in 2009 was that little bit special. That’s a tough race to do, it’s even tougher to be in a position where you can genuinely compete to win it outright. The only time before that where I had the opportunity to do that was with Bentley in 2003, where we finished second, and we should have won but for there being too many little issues we encountered throughout the race.
If I look at my eighteen years of competing at Le Mans, I have only had two opportunities where I was in the position to compete for victory, and on those occasions I’ve finished second and then first. Le Mans is a very special place for me.
But with all that I’ve achieved – from winning at Macau, winning at Bathurst with my brother, winning at Spa 24 – they all mean a lot.
I remember the Le Mans GT1 class wins with Aston Martin in 2007 and 2008, and it was such an incredible feeling, I wondered at the time, ‘My God, what would it ever be like to win overall?’, and the answer is that it feels exactly the same. The only difference is that the later response in the media is much larger if you win overall. But in terms of personal feelings – with the satisfaction that you and the team have done an amazing job – it’s exactly the same.
Can you please tell our readers more about the young driver programme that you’re heading up?
In more recent years, I started helping out some younger drivers who were coming through the ranks and I was enjoying doing so.
The MSA – which is the UK’s motorsport authority, much like CAMS in Australia – wanted to do a young driver development programme in motor racing, having already started a similar programme in rallying about 18 months before.
They put out a tender for the job, which I put a presentation together for the MSA, and was fortunate enough to be offered the gig.
I went there with a plan of how I’d like to see a programme run, with a focus on fitness (physical and psychological), understanding the technology and media training. We’ve brought experts in to help these young drivers on how to put proposals together to attract sponsorship as well.
The whole idea of the programme is that a driver who goes through our process emerges as a more complete driver with a long-term platform to stay and succeed in motorsport, and this is now the sixth year that I’ve been running the programme, which has continued to improve and deliver better results each year.
Images via F1 Facts, F1 Nostalgia, Flickr, LAT, Motorsport.com, Sutton Images