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Brabham, Sir John Arthur [Jack]free

(1926–2014)
  • Tony Collins

Sir Jack Brabham (1926–2014), by unknown photographer, c. 1964

INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

Brabham, Sir John Arthur [Jack] (1926–2014), engineer, racing driver, and car designer, was born on 2 April 1926 in Hurstville, a suburb of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, the only son of Thomas Brabham, greengrocer, and his wife, May. He left Hurstville Central Technical School at the age of fifteen and worked as a trainee mechanic in Harry Ferguson’s local garage while attending night classes in mechanical engineering at St George Technical College, Kogarah. Discovering his exceptional talent for engineering, Brabham began repairing broken-down motorcycles and selling them on. He joined the Royal Australian Air Force in May 1944 as a flight mechanic, and upon being demobilized in 1946 opened a workshop in Penshurst, another suburb of Sydney, adjacent to Hurstville. Soon after, he met an expatriate American, Johnny Schonberg, who before the war had driven midget speedcars, small racing cars that were raced on dirt-track oval courses. Schonberg and Brabham teamed up to build their own speedcar, but when Schonberg decided that he no longer wanted to be a driver Brabham took his place. He quickly proved to be as talented a driver as he was a mechanic, winning the Australian speedcar championship in 1948 and 1951. In the latter year he married Betty Evelyn Beresford, with whom he had three sons, Geoff, Gary, and David.

By the early 1950s Brabham’s dominance on the dirt track led him to try road racing. Once again he quickly proved to be successful, driving imported Cooper 500cc formula 3 racing cars that he had modified himself. After finishing sixth at the 1954 New Zealand grand prix he moved to Britain at the start of 1955. He attached himself to the Cooper Car Company in Surbiton, working in their small factory to modify a Bobtail sports car for formula 1 racing. In July 1955 he made his formula 1 debut at the British grand prix at Aintree, retiring after thirty laps owing to a broken clutch.

Brabham’s driving style, honed on the tight dirt tracks of Australia, paid little heed to the still gentlemanly decorum of British racing. Crouching over the steering wheel, he took corners using full steering lock and generous amounts of throttle, treating other drivers in what the television commentator Murray Walker described as a ‘forceful’ manner (‘When We Were Racing’). Nevertheless, Brabham’s aggressive driving proved popular with formula 1 spectators.

The owners of Cooper shared Brabham’s innovative approach to racing, exemplified by their revolutionary mounting of the car engine behind the driver. In 1959 Brabham won the Monaco grand prix, his first formula 1 victory, going on to win his first world championship that year. The following season he won five consecutive races, going on to win his second consecutive world championship. These back-to-back championships heralded a revolution in formula 1, removing any doubts that rear-mounted engines were superior to those at the front of the car. After Brabham’s wins, no formula 1 world champion ever sat behind his engine.

Brabham’s 1960 championship was sealed at Florida’s Sebring circuit, when he pushed his car the last 500 yards to the finish line after it had run out of petrol. It was this self-belief that led him to leave Cooper in 1962 to set up the Brabham Racing Organisation, using cars designed by Motor Racing Developments Ltd, a company he had established in 1960 with the Australian motor engineer Ron Tauranac. The team initially struggled to make an impact, and Brabham at one point stepped down as its lead driver, but in 1966 his innovative engineering instincts once again gave him a competitive advantage. New regulations were introduced allowing cars to use three-litre engines. Whereas most teams tried to use problematic twelve-cylinder engines, Brabham teamed up with the Australian engineers Repco to produce an eight-cylinder engine that offered greater reliability and road-holding.

Using the Repco engine on Tauranac’s newly designed BT19 chassis, Brabham won the French grand prix, becoming the first driver ever to win a race in a car bearing his own name. Mocking those who had suggested that, at forty years old, he was too old to be competitive, he walked to the starting grid at the Dutch grand prix wearing a long grey beard and using a cane. With four wins, he carried off his third formula 1 world championship, the first man to win the drivers’ and constructors’ titles in the same year. It was also the first time that a non-European company had won the constructors’ title. His achievements were recognized in 1966 when he was made an OBE and named Australian of the year.

The Brabham team won both titles again the following year, but Denny Hulme had replaced Brabham as the team’s lead driver and took the individual championship. By this time, Motor Racing Developments had become the biggest manufacturer of racing cars in the world and Brabham was spending increasing time in both team and business management. Intending to retire in 1969, he sold his share of the company to Tauranac (who sold the company on to Bernie Ecclestone in 1971), but the team found itself without a lead driver and Brabham took over for 1970. He finally retired at the end of the season, aged forty-four, but only after winning the 1970 South African grand prix, the last of his 14 wins in 126 grands prix. After returning to Australia he was involved in various motorsport-related business ventures, and maintained a presence at events and reunions. In 1979 he was knighted for his services to motor sport, and in 2008 he became an officer of the Order of Australia.

Tall and dark-haired, Brabham conquered all facets of motor-racing. He was an innovative engineer who pioneered rear-engined racing cars; a hugely talented driver who won without needlessly putting himself or fellow drivers in danger (his aim, he frequently said, echoing the five-times world champion Juan Manuel Fangio, was to ‘win the race at the slowest possible speed’); and a successful team leader. In the decade from the late 1950s he was at the cutting edge of the technological developments that revolutionized formula 1. Yet his achievements perhaps never received the full recognition they deserved. His taciturn attitude to the media and lack of ‘clubability’, one of the reasons the press nicknamed him ‘Black Jack’, put him out of step with the 1960s, when media-friendly drivers such as Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, and Jackie Stewart became household celebrities. Brabham had little interest in this side of the sport, an attitude expressed in the original but unused title of his 1971 autobiography, When the Flag Drops, the Bullshit Stops. Moreover, he came from a relatively humble working-class family, separating him from many of his contemporaries whose privileged backgrounds were more traditional for motor racing. Paradoxically, it may well have been these origins that led to his future success. As with Fangio, the dominant driver of the early 1950s, it was the long hours spent working on customers’ cars in ordinary garages that gave him such an instinctive feel for his cars, allowing him to coax the best from them under intense pressure.

Brabham’s first marriage was dissolved in 1994, and in 1996 he married Margaret Taylor. He lived latterly in Surfers’ Paradise, Queensland, and died there on 19 May 2014. He was survived by his wife Margaret and his three sons, all of whom had followed him into motorsport.

Sources

Archives

Film

  • documentary, interview, and performance footage, BFI NFTVA

Sound

  • documentary and interview recordings, BL NSA

Likenesses

  • photographs, repro. in Jack Brabham’s motor racing book (1960)
  • photographs, repro. in Brabham, When the flag drops (1971)
  • photographs, repro. in Henry, Brabham (1985)
  • photographs, repro. in Brabham and Nye, The Jack Brabham story (2004)
  • G. Argent, bromide print, 1969, NPG
  • photograph, driving the BT19, c.1966, Formula One Hall of Fame
  • photographs, Brabham.co.uk
  • photographs, Getty Images
  • photographs, Alamy
  • photographs, Rex Features
  • photographs, Bridgeman
  • obituary photographs
  • photograph, c. 1964, Alamy [see illus.]
J. Burke, A general [later edns A genealogical] and heraldic dictionary of the peerage and baronetage of the United Kingdom [later edns the British empire] (1829–)