With the Australian Grand Prix back in its proper place as the F1 season opener, it seems a good time to look back over the career of the man who helped establish the country as a force in Formula One and made many contributions to the sport, both as a driver and then as a team leader. That man is the three-time drivers’ world champion Jack Brabham.
John Arthur Brabham was born in Hurstville, New South Wales on 2nd April 1926 and spent much of his childhood and youth involved with engineering and motor vehicles. He was driving by the age of twelve and, after leaving school at fifteen, he started studying mechanical engineering and working in a garage. He soon had his own business buying, repairing and selling motorcycles that he kept until he was eighteen, at which point he enlisted in the RAAF, intending to be a pilot. However, as a result of a surplus of aircrew he ended up serving as a flight mechanic at Forest Hills airbase in NSW.
After the war he entered the world of motorsport, initially as a constructor – having decided against competing on the grounds that all drivers were ‘lunatics’ – and went about building a midget car with American Johnny Schonberg. However, after Schonberg’s wife persuaded him to stop racing, Brabham took over and was soon winning races and championships.
After trying the midget car in hillclimbing events he was keen on switching to road racing in full-sized cars, buying them from the Cooper Car Company. Once again, he was highly successful in this type of competition; although he also courted controversy, with an early use of advertising on the side of his car, then banned by the Australian motorsport authorities. At this stage of his career, he gained the nickname ‘Black Jack’, either because of his dark, swarthy looks or his on-track ruthlessness. By 1955 he was ready to try his luck racing in Europe.
In his first season, Brabham bought another Cooper and gradually made himself part of the British team without actually being employed by them. He would help build the T39 Bobtail sports car that raced in Formula One (though not in the world championship) and was successful enough to prove to himself that he could compete at this level. After taking the bobtail home to win the non-championship Australian GP he sold the car to fund a permanent return to the UK.
After three disappointing seasons – the highlight of which was a sixth place at Monaco, where he had to push the car over the line to finish the race – Cooper finally got hold of 2.5 litre engines and Brabham came into his own, winning the season-opening Monaco Grand Prix and the British event at Aintree; further podiums finishes were achieved at Zandvoort, Reims-Gueux and Monza. At the Portuguese GP he was involved in a massive accident, his car becoming airborne after an incident with a backmarker; hitting a telegraph pole, Brabham was thrown onto the track, where he was narrowly avoided by another driver. Nevertheless, he entered the final race of the season at Sebring fighting for the championship with Sterling Moss and Tony Brooks. Moss retired early with a broken gearbox and Brabham led most of the way only to run out of fuel on the final lap. Yet again, he was to push his car across the line, finishing in fourth place whilst Bruce McLaren took his first victory in Formula One. Luckily for Brabham, Brooks could only finish third, securing ‘Black Jack’ his first world championship.
The following year, Brabham and Cooper were even more dominant, winning five straight races and a back-to-back drivers’ championship, with the nearest rival, McLaren, nine points behind. In 1961, however, Cooper were slow in developing a car to compete in the new 1.5 litre formula and Brabham finished in eleventh place with a mere three points. It was time for a change.
The obvious move for Brabham was to return to his roots, to set up his own team and become a constructor. For the 1962 season, he formed the Brabham Racing Organisation, using cars built by Motor Racing Developments Ltd, a company he had co-founded. In the team’s second season, American Dan Gurney joined as a co-driver and, in 1965, the future Kiwi world champion Denny Hulme was given his break in F1 as the third member of the team.
At the end of 1965, Gurney left to follow Brabham’s example, forming his own team, Anglo-American Racers. For the following season, Brabham and his team faced the challenge of another regulation change as Formula One introduced 3 litre engines. Unlike Cooper in 1961, Brabham was quick to respond to the changes, working with the Australian engineering company Repco to produce a lightweight engine built largely around pre-existing components. While other teams were struggling with the reliability of their new, custom-made engines, Brabham was winning races in his BT19. The first victory, in the French GP at Reims-Gueux, was the first ever achieved by a driver in a car he had built himself. Interestingly, the only other drivers to have achieved this distinction are former team mates of Brabham – Bruce McLaren and Dan Gurney. To this day, no one has managed to achieve what Brabham did that season: winning the world championship as both driver and constructor.
In 1967, co-driver Denny Hulme took the drivers’ championship and the Brabham Racing Organisation its second constructors’ trophy. Over the next two seasons, Brabham himself was uncompetitive, with a series of retirements. His form was not to return until the end of 1969.
The following season, 1970, was Brabham’s last as a driver. It began well, but a series of retirements in the second half of the campaign meant that he finished tied with Jackie Stewart for fifth place in the championship. Despite feeling that he was still competitive, he retired at the end of the season, much to the relief of his wife – that year the championship was won posthumously by Brabham’s 1968 team-mate, Jochen Rindt.
Following retirement he moved back to Australia, but kept up his connections with F1, both personally and through his varied business interests. The Brabham team continued to go grand prix racing, winning another two constructors’ championships under the ownership of Bernie Ecclestone. The Brabham name, meanwhile, has continued in the world of motorsport with all three of his sons and one of his grandsons driving professionally in various disciplines.
A man of many firsts – the first Australian world champion, the first man to win a race in a car bearing his own name, the first and only man to win a championship for his own team – he also became, in 1978, the first man to be knighted for services to motorsport: Sir Jack Brabham, an Australian legend.