Sir Jack Brabham, three-time Formula 1 World Champion and founder of the illustrious Brabham marque, has died at the age of 88.
The Australian, who became as famous for his mechanical and engineering skills as his driving prowess, was already a two-time World Champion with Cooper by the time he established the Brabham marque with compatriot Ron Tauranac in 1962. The team’s first two F1 Grand Prix victories came with Dan Gurney at the wheel in 1964, and by ’66, Repco V8-powered Brabhams were the cars to beat.
The team won four World Championships in 1966-’67 – the Constructors’ titles in each year, as well as the Drivers titles for Jack himself in ’66 and teammate Denny Hulme in ’67. Brabham remains the only F1 driver to win a World Championship in a car bearing his name, and this is likely to remain the case in perpetuity. He was known for his aggressive and vigorous driving style which belied his deep mechanical understanding.
When he retired from driving at the end of the 1970 F1 season, Brabham sold his share of the company to Tauranac who then partnered with Bernie Ecclestone. Under Ecclestone’s leadership, and with Gordon Murray designing the cars, the Brabham team became known as the most progressive and successful teams of the ’70s and early ’80s, culminating in World Championships for Nelson Piquet in 1981 and ’83.
Sir Jack’s interest in engineering first became vocational when he served as a “fitter” in the Royal Australian Air Force, but after getting discharged following the end of World War II, he became interested in speedcars (Australian term for midgets) and won five national and regional championships in them 1948-’51. After turning his attention to road racing using Coopers, he continued to display great ability, and moved to the UK to pursue a career in the sport. He continued to race Coopers and a friendship developed with its founder, Charles Cooper, and more particularly with CC’s son, John, campaigning the marque’s radical rear-engined cars in both Formula 2 and Formula 1.
While clinching the 1958 Autocar F2 title, Jack’s previously haphazard F1 career also started gaining momentum, and he scored several top 10 finishes that year. Then came the big turning point – Cooper acquired the 2.5-liter Climax engines for 1959. Two wins and three other podium finishes were enough to earn Brabham the World Championship, and he doubled up in 1960 after a stunningly dominant five-in-a-row win sequence.
Cooper, having started the rear-engined trend, was left behind by the switch to 1.5-liter engines in 1961, and Brabham suffered a desultory year in terms of F1 results. However, he and Tauranac had started Motor Racing Developments, a company which began building Formula Juniors, with a long-term plan for graduating to F1.
That same year, Brabham, having developed a friendship with eventual two-time Indy 500 winner Rodger Ward, became the man who initiated the rear-engined revolution at the Brickyard. Armed with a Cooper, he entered the 45th Indianapolis 500 and caused mild shock by outperforming many of the more powerful front-engined roadsters, qualifying 13th and finishing ninth.
In ’62, Brabham campaigned his own car in Formula 1, the Brabham BT3, and scored six points in an era when points were only awarded to the top six finishers. The following year, the Brabham team expanded to a two-car operation and he hired Gurney. Between them, they scored 30 points, which elevated the team to third in the Constructors’ Championship, a remarkable accomplishment for a squad in its sophomore season.
The points haul was the same in ’64, but Gurney’s victories in Rouen and Mexico City provided the breakthrough and encouragement the team needed. In ’65, the team trod water a little as the Jimmy Clark/ Lotus 33 combo was all-but unbeatable, but for ’66, the Brabham team was ready for the new 3-liter regulations, thanks largely to Jack’s far-sightedness.
Figuring rival teams would struggle for reliability in the first year of the new rules, Brabham had commissioned the Australian Repco company to design an engine that was not too overambitious but very dependable, based on an Oldsmobile unit. Brabham’s prediction was accurate: Ferrari struggled all season, and Lotus simply didn’t have a suitable engine ready, and so Jack scored a dominant third World Championship.
The following year, anticipating the strength of the Ford-funded Cosworth engine in the Lotus 49s, Jack became more ambitious with his own car and was constantly trying new, developmental parts, which occasionally let him down. Teammate Hulme, by contrast, stuck with more proven mechanicals, fewer “trick bits,” and the resultant superior reliability allowed him to edge his employer for the drivers’ title. Between them, they scored a 1-2 in the Drivers’ Championship, ensuring a second straight Constructors’ crown.
By the end of ’67, Brabham was thinking in terms of retirement. He was 41, his business was doing well (Brabhams were the dominant F2 cars of choice at this time) and he had hired Austrian ace-in-the making Jochen Rindt for ’68. The rampant unreliability of the Repco that year further endorsed the view that it was perhaps time to hang up his helmet; it was a perilous time to be a racecar driver as the deaths of Jimmy Clark, Mike Spence and Jo Schlesser had proven, and that year at least, this extremely risky business was providing Brabham with very little reward.
However, Sir Jack put his team’s needs ahead of his own. When Rindt was lured to Lotus for ’69 and Rindt’s similarly precocious replacement Jacky Ickx departed to Ferrari for 1970 (after winning two races for Brabham), each time the team owner was forced to conclude that the most suitable candidate left to lead his team’s driving force was himself!
He wasn’t wrong. In 1970, the team’s second year of Cosworth power, Brabham won the season-opener in South Africa, came within a single corner of winning the Monaco Grand Prix (error while under pressure from Rindt) and should have won the British GP but ran out of fuel on the final run to the flag. Elsewhere, it was unreliability that let the great Aussie down, otherwise he might have been a genuine championship threat to Rindt and Ickx, his former employees who dueled for the crown.
But familial pressures to quit while ahead – he was 44, remember! – were given extra weight by the tragedies of the season. Bruce McLaren – Jack’s former teammate, fellow driver/engineer and friend – was killed in a testing accident in a Can-Am car; Piers Courage died in a crash during the Dutch Grand Prix; and then Rindt perished at Monza, winning the World Championship posthumously.
And so, not without some rueful backward glances, Jack Brabham retired at the end of the 1970 season with 14 Grand Prix wins, 13 pole positions and 12 fastest laps to his name – as well as the three World Championships, of course. He eventually saw sons Geoff, Gary and David all display great promise in open-wheel racing, before finding their most notable successes in sports car racing. Geoff won the IMSA GTP title four times and the 24 Hours of Le Mans; Gary won the Sebring 12 Hours; and David twice won the American Le Mans Series title and, like Geoff, added an outright win in the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Jack, who in 1979 was awarded an honorary knighthood in England to make him Sir Jack Brabham, also lived to see grandsons Matt and Sam (sons of Geoff and David, respectively) show great promise in junior formulas, Matt in America, Sam in the UK.
To these and all Sir Jack’s family, including his wife Margaret, RACER extends its deepest sympathy. This racing legend and Australian icon was the guy who set the template for that special combination of successful driver/engineer/team-owner at the top level of the sport. Few have tried to emulate it, even fewer have even come close.
With Sir Jack Brabham’s passing, a very special individual in the history of racing has left us.