Why third-gen Brabham could be next-gen IndyCar star

Why third-gen Brabham could be next-gen IndyCar star

Indy Lights

Why third-gen Brabham could be next-gen IndyCar star

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While Geoff Brabham, eldest of Sir Jack’s sons, eventually had a great racing career, his potential in Indy cars was frustratingly unfulfilled. His son Matt appears to have inherited his father’s speed and aggression, yet has also, thankfully, caught the attention of the right people at the right time in his career. As a result, his potential seems unbounded, writes RACER editor David Malsher.

Geoff and Matt Brabham celebrate the third-gen driver’s Pro Mazda crown (Pro Mazda photos)

It took far too long, but at Fontana in October, I finally met Geoff Brabham, albeit briefly, just before the press conference announcing his son’s graduation to the Indy Lights series next year. My colleague Marshall Pruett kindly introduced us and I was about to tell Mr. B. that he’d been a hero of mine, but I restrained myself because 1) it’s a bit tragic to be saying stuff like that at my age; 2) I didn’t want to embarrass the man himself who, at 61, seems as self-effacing as ever; and 3) it isn’t quite as true as it should be

You see, Geoff, eldest son of the great Sir Jack Brabham, has become a hero of mine only in retrospect. At the time when he was dominating the IMSA Camel GT Championship driving the Electramotive Nissans, he was actually more of an anti-hero for this pimply-faced youth. I couldn’t get my head around how the legendary Porsche 962s and the beautiful Tony Southgate-designed Jaguar XJRs could have their asses kicked so regularly and so comprehensively by a car that looked like it was styled by a 10-year-old with a cardboard box and a blunt knife.

LEFT: Brabham and the Electramotive Nissan lead the way at Daytona in 1989. (LAT archive)

By 1991, on the back of Brabham’s fourth straight Camel GT title, I’d come to accept that the Electramotive/Lola design was as effective as its engine was powerfuland that the dude doing the driving was pretty damn special. While Geoff modestly said at the time, “There are a lot of drivers who could win in the Nissan,” eventual two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk wasn’t so sure. After sampling the Nissan in 1989, the Dutchman remarked: “It’s a lot harder to drive this car to the maximum than Geoff appears to make it.” Surely the sign of a true artist.

With two Sebring 12 Hours wins and a Le Mans 24 Hour win (with Peugeot in 1993), Brabham will be remembered as a sports car ace worldwide; but it’s the four straight IMSA titles, that has earned him truly legendary status in U.S. sports car racing. A big question for me, and I suspect countless others including maybe Geoff himself  is whether he could have become a star in Indy cars, too? He certainly starred in them on occasion, but that’s not the same thing.

Part of the problem he encountered in his six years running full time in the CART series was his past. At the time Brabham was trying to make it in this rarefied branch of the sport, the CART series was split around 50/50 between road racing and ovals, with any bias tending toward the latter. That hardly worked in Geoff’s favor, for after leaving his native Australia in 1976 as domestic Formula 2 champion, he headed to Britain for two years. After then moving to America in ’78, he put his heart and soul into Super Vee, both the short-lived USAC-sanctioned Mini-Indy Series and the more significant and prestigious Bosch/Valvoline series, winning the latter title in ’79. That gave him his first oval starts in low-powered open-wheelers, but he then returned to his road racing roots, spending two years in Can-Am. That ultimately proved successful, too, as he took the 1981 championshipbut added nothing to his minimal oval experience.

That ’81 season, Geoff had simultaneously become an Indy car rookie and, driving for Dan Gurney’s All American Racers, he stunned the series regulars with pole at his second race, Riverside, and second on the grid for his third race, in Mexico City. We’re talking about a pretty remarkable talent, then. Yet his debut Indy car race had been the season opener at Phoenix, and that was his first taste of an oval while having more than 200hp at his backand he now had 900-plus.

RIGHT: Geoff was a front-runner with Galles Racing in Indy cars. (IMS archive)

Could Brabham have succeeded, actually got to the point where he could say he’d mastered oval racing? Almost certainly. Ultimately, it comes down to application and willingness to learn. And just as Rick Mears had forced himself to become a strong road racer, progress only stymied by his horrendous leg injuries incurred at Sanair in ’84, there’s no reason to believe Brabham’s skill set couldn’t have expanded in the opposite direction, given more time. Time, however, was not on Geoff’s side. Aged 29 when he made his Indy car debut, he was always going to be playing catch-up with the kids for whom oval races had been ingrained since the first time they could turn a wheel.

Although curiously adept at both the Pocono tri-oval and the Michigan superspeedway, and twice finishing top-five in the Indy 500, the fact remains that of the 10 podium finishes Brabham achieved in his 92 Indy car starts, eight came on tracks requiring right turns as well as left. By the end of 1987, despite taking eighth in the CART points standings (for the third time), he was out of a ride. Team owner Rick Galles was going to be running a one-car outfit in 1988, and he had his sights set on a driver 10 years Geoff’s junior, a superstar in the making by the name of Al Unser Jr.

Brabham was gutted at having to leave Galles Racing, especially with brilliant race engineer Tony Cicale now on board to help turn the squad into winners. But the Florida-domiciled Aussie had too much pride to hang around just to be part of the Indy car scene, and so avoided the mistake so many drivers in their mid-30s make when their best opportunity slips away. Instead of spending a few bitter years licking his wounds while driving an inferior car, Geoff changed disciplines, started overand became the best sports car racer in the country.Matt announces his 2014 program alongside Andretti Autosport stablemate James Hinchcliffe at Fontana (LAT photo)

There’s little chance of Geoff’s son Matt needing to make that career switch. Right now this American of Australian descent is hot property because he’s not only seriously fast but also because, in or out of the cockpit, he displays maturity that belies his 18 years.

A karting hotshot in Australia, Matt then showed his potential in Australian Formula Ford where, despite competing in only nine of the 23 races in the 2011 FF championship, he won two of them and finished runner-up in two more. His first experience of slicks and wings came this side of the Pacific in USF2000and he promptly won the 2012 championship.

Now, to be fair, another very talented American, Spencer Pigot, who was his teammate at Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, won eight races to Brabham’s four that season. But it’s difficult to emphasize enough how much these junior formulas are about learning on the job at a huge rate and Pigot was in his second year in the category. Also, by the time Pigot dominated the final event, the double-header at Virginia International Raceway, Brabham had only to nurse a healthy lead in the championship, which he did adequately with cautious runs to fourth and eighth that weekend.

None of this is a slight against Spencer who, unfairly under the radar, is one of the most accomplished open-wheel racers on the Mazda Road to Indy system. But it does highlight the fact that young Brabham, in only his second full season racing cars, could drive with his brains in the manner of a wily veteran in order to seal the deal.

There was no such need for that approach this past season as he graduated to the Pro Mazda Championship and joined Andretti Autosport. It was an absolute whitewash, as Brabham won 13 of 16 races, and took seven of the 10 pole positions on offer, leaving his closest rival over 100 points adrift. Interestingly, despite usually being in command of the races, he also had the confidence to slam in fastest lap of the race on 13 occasions. Small wonder that team owner Michael Andretti was eager to keep hold of the prodigy who has now moved from Florida up to Indianapolis to live near the team.

While Brabham is a grown-up, this adult outlook hasn’t hurt his boyish enthusiasm for his profession, and this may come as a surprise to those who recall his father’s demeanor from the mid-’80s. One veteran Indy car journalist remarked, “Geoff was a strange guy in his Indy car days; he never gave the impression that he actually enjoyed his racing.” Matt, by contrast, seems to have got the balance just right, clearly deriving great pleasure from success but not trying too hard to be Mr. Personality Plus.

As he talks with that peculiar accent that veers between Australian, American and surprisingly English, he sounds confident and relaxed he’s one of just a few junior open-wheel racers who actually has a contract for next year, which must help! but remains humble. Despite the praise thrown his way over the past couple of seasons, Brabham doesn’t pretend a driver can do it alone and willingly spreads credit where it’s due.

“I had a great race engineer, a great crew at Andretti, plus I had Dad helping me out and even the Capes the guys from my USF2000 team were helpful with advice, especially on who to go with in Pro Mazda,” he says.

“During the off-season last year, there was a lot of uncertainty over whether the series would even be on or not, because it was changing ownership. Thankfully, Dan Andersen came in to take over. So then trying to decide which team to go with was really difficult: Team Pelfrey had won the championship in 2011 and Juncos Racing is always strong. There were a lot of good potential choices, no one team clearly stood out.

“In the end we went with Andretti Autosport because they seemed to be working the best and contained the best people and their instructor was really good, too. But even so, I wouldn’t have predicted a season like the one we had. It took us only one day of testing with the new Cooper tires [as the series swapped from Goodyear] for the team to figure out what we needed to do to get the best from them and once we had that down, we were quicker than everyone else for the whole year. It was incredible.

“Well, I say it was incredible but when I look back, maybe it just makes sense because I can’t think of a single thing that was out of place in the whole setup of the team. To have everything sorted, even the little things, is about Andretti Autosport bringing a big-team approach to the series, getting all the details right.”

If it was logical, therefore, that Brabham would be a preseason favorite, still the level of his dominance was remarkable, particularly from a driver new to the series. You could argue that he had less to “unlearn” about the tires than, say, second-year Pro Mazda driver Diego Ferreira who proved to be Brabham’s most consistent challenger in 2013, but then Matt himself had plenty of learning to do, too. As anyone will tell you, the Pro Mazda cars are not merely more powerful USF2000 cars; their handling requires very different techniques.“I had to really adjust my driving style in Pro Mazda, yeah,” says Brabham, “but once I’d figured out what worked best, it seemed really obvious what I needed to do and it came naturally. Getting off the brakes early and rolling more speed into the corner really cut my lap times compared with trail-braking into the apex and then getting on the power straight away, which is the quickest way in F2000 cars. Because they have less power and quite a lot of grip, you could hit throttle in the middle part of the corner and it wouldn’t unsettle the car at all.

“Trying to do that in the Pro Mazda car getting on the throttle mid-corner, while I still had almost full steering lock on I just lit up the tires, had to go to full opposite-lock. I mean, it was fun and it probably looked good if anyone was watching but it definitely wasn’t fast. That’s the other thing that you immediately notice in the Pro Mazda cars compared with F2000: it’s not just the power increase but also the throttle response is way more instant. So you learn more about throttle control, for sure, but also that you can’t get back to full throttle until you’re almost pointing straight. To compensate for that, you roll a lot more speed into the corner so the revs aren’t having to come from so low down and so you’re not going to get so much wheelspin.”

Brabham said it took “the first couple of test days” to get used to the new demands, which seems an extraordinarily short amount of time to re-program habits developed over a whole season in the slower car. (Then again, the restricted amount of testing granted to professional open-wheel racers worldwide has enforced an accelerated learning curve upon the undergraduates.) After that, it was a case of fine-tuning the car, and there Matt found that the rules were not as restrictive as one might assume.

“There’s definitely enough room in the regs to adapt cars to various driving styles,” he says, “as well as altering its characteristics between tracks. When we switched to Cooper tires, we made a lot of changes from the base setups with Goodyears, and we had to really work hard at it. I don’t know if maybe other teams were putting too much emphasis on setting the cars around the drivers’ particular techniques. But I do know that Shelby [Blackstock, his increasingly impressive teammate] and I were going down the same path, which was to make our cars as quick as they could be on the Coopers; that was the main objective. Then it was down to us as drivers to adapt to that setup.”

It was a policy that worked exceptionally well. Blackstock won one of the three races that Brabham failed to, and elsewhere accumulated three runner-up finishes and three thirds to claim third in the championship. For a 23-year-old who only started racing of any kind when he was 20, matching the total points haul of someone as talented as Pigot to claim third in the championship was a ringing endorsement of not only his swift improvements but also the quality of the Andretti operation.

“I think as a team we had the quickest cars almost everywhere we went,” muses Brabham. “I think Juncos were really on the ball at a couple of races I’d say at Mid-Ohio they were a lot quicker than us, actually and I’m not sure why. But for being consistently up there, Andretti Autosport was the team to be with.”

And it should be pointed out that whatever superiority Juncos may have had in Mid-Ohio, Brabham took pole, fastest lap and victory for both races there! Of course such brilliance can have a price, though. Sadly, predictably, even before the mid-point in the season, there were murmurs about the driver or team having some kind of unfair advantage. After a third place in the season opener at Circuit of The Americas, Andretti Autosport’s No. 83 (homage to Geoff Brabham’s Nissan sports cars!) entry swept the next six races pole, fastest lap and victory in each including the first race in the double-header at Toronto.

“After that race, our engine was taken away I don’t know if it was for a routine inspection or whatever,” recalls Brabham. “But I do know we were given an engine from another team and so my crew were forced to spend the night installing this new one for the next day’s race. I stayed with them to give some moral support, but also because the race the next day was going to be from a standing start, and I had a problem with my clutch engaging slightly. Basically, the car was creeping even with the clutch pedal on the floor, and we didn’t want to get penalized for jumping the start”

If nothing else, that long night under the awning was a good opportunity to strengthen the bond between team and driver, but undoubtedly there were those outside the team hoping this would mark a turning point, when the rookie and his crew were about to be “found out.” Was the secret of their season-long dominance a particularly strong Mazda unit. Those theories were smacked down unequivocally with another dominant victory by Brabham the next day.

“Yeah, that was definitely my most satisfying win of the year,” he chuckles, “and I think if you asked any of the crew, they’d say the same. It removed any question mark that might have been hanging over us.”If there are question marks over their 2014 prospects together, they center mainly on team rather than driver. The last time Sam Schmidt’s team was beaten to the Indy Lights crown was in 2009, and although it was by an Andretti-run car, AA’s latest Lights star and 2014 IndyCar rookie Carlos Munoz has discovered that SPM is a hard team to break, having developed a clear edge since then.

Consider also that this is the final year of the current Indy Lights formula, so if everything that can be learned about the old car has been learned (by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports alone, apparently), then how much investment will Andretti Autosport make to find those crucial last couple of tenths by chasing technical insight that becomes obsolete and irrelevant in nine months’ time? One thing of which we can be certain is that Brabham will make the most of his situation and adapt.

“From what Sage [Karam, Indy Lights champion] has been saying, it sounds like the adaptation to Lights is similar to what I was telling you about the move from F2000 to Pro Mazda,” says Brabham. “You have so much more power again, that you have to be even more patient about getting back on the throttle on corner exit, and you also have a lot more downforce than you do in Pro Mazda, so you can carry even more rolling speed into the corner. But I’m gonna keep an open mind, of course, and try and figure it out myself. You can listen to other people and hear what they say, but they may have techniques or theories that might not be relevant to your own and it would be easy to head down the wrong path.”

Perhaps in his favor is that, for a second successive year, Brabham finds himself joining a series just as it switches rubber, with Cooper Tire replacing Firestone as Indy Lights supplier. With more new data to acquire than normal for Lights teams, that may level the playing field once more, keep the Andretti vs. Schmidt team battle close. At least, Matt’s got to hope so. But as Michael Andretti proved with Munoz, winning the Lights crown is not a prerequisite to graduating to the big cars. If you’ve proven your potential, outperformed your car on occasions, outperformed those with superior cars on occasions, Mikey will take notice.

“Being the only team running cars in all four levels of the Mazda Road to Indy is a big part of Andretti Autosport’s appeal,” agrees Brabham. “It gives young drivers the chance to build relationships within the team, and it’s been cool to meet everyone involved at all levels of the team. I know it sounds like a clich but, honestly, the people working on all four types of car do form this kinda family feeling at Andretti. I’ve been watching the IndyCar and Indy Lights guys from their pit stands, listening to how they do things, so I already know the guys who I’ll be working with in Lights next year, and that’s got to be a lot better than switching from team to team and being in a new environment at the start of every season.”

Indeed, it seems Matt Brabham has everything going for him right now. While it would be foolhardy to describe his future in IndyCar as assured, at a time when he’s only just reaching the penultimate stopping point on the Mazda Road to Indy, I confess I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Matt ultimately became the first driver to win all four domestic open-wheel titles   USF2000, Pro Mazda, Indy Lights and ultimately, IndyCar.

And if, for some godforsaken reason, the single-seater scene lets him down, IMSA’s new TUDOR United SportsCar Championship could offer a fine alternative for showcasing the Brabham talent: Dad proved that, repeatedly.

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