Zandvoort 1970: as the cars line up on the grid for the Dutch Grand Prix, a bent figure in overalls, leaning heavily on a walking stick and using his other hand to keep his long, flowing beard in check, walks slowly towards his waiting car. Some said Jack Brabham, who passed away this week, lacked a sense of humour. They were wrong: this ‘old man’ was Brabham (then 44) in artful disguise, Jack’s way of taking a gentle dig back at the critics who were saying he was too old for this Formula 1 game.
John Arthur Brabham was born on April 2, 1926 in the Sydney suburb of Hurstville. With a natural bent towards mechanical engineering, Brabham was called up as a student to join the RAAF. He had hoped to become a pilot, but the RAAF turned him in to a flight mechanic instead as they were in short supply. It was one crucial step in the making of the engineer-driver without parallel that Jack Brabham was to become.
Discharged in 1946, Brabham was attracted soon after to midget car racing—and discovered this was another area of natural aptitude. The Brabham name was soon well-known around the traps, especially at suburban ovals like Parramatta in Sydney’s west.
His earliest forays into ‘serious’ racing came in an imported Cooper-Bristol, but as the racing bug bit harder Brabham quickly realised he had to go to Britain, still with such close ties to Australia at that time, and then, as now, the heartland of motor racing as it continued to emerge from the doldrums of post-war life.
Brabham quickly made himself known to the Cooper car company, then front-runners in European motor sport, and in 1955 his dual talents – engineer and driver – were given their maiden World Championship outing in the British Grand Prix in a car which he had built up from one of Cooper’s ‘bobtail’ specials. A DNF was scant reward – and no real sign of things to come.
Becoming a regular entry in Grand Prix fields in 1957, Brabham secured his maiden victory in Monaco in 1959. One of the most eloquent images in F1 history shows Brabham, exhausted and on the ground, but triumphant after pushing his out-of-fuel Cooper over the line at Sebring that same year to clinch his first World Championship.
Brabham repeated that feat with Cooper in 1960 but could see the writing on the wall for the quintessentially British marque as F1 grew and developed. With his friend from Down Under Ron Tauranac Brabham set up Motor Racing Developments, a name that would eventually be changed to Brabham because a French journalist pointed out that the initials, if pronounced in French, meant something rather unsavoury…
Setting out to take on the Grand Prix world in 1962, Brabham had to wait until 1964 to claim his first victory as a constructor. He was not the man to claim it, either: that honour in the German Grand Prix went to ‘Tall Dan’, the great American driver Dan Gurney who was in many ways his homeland’s equivalent to the racer/engineer he recognised in Brabham.
By 1966, when F1 enjoyed its ‘Return to Power’ with a new 3-litre engine formula, Brabham was ready for even greater things. His partnership with Australian firm Repco, suppliers of his engines for that season, bore fruit when Brabham reeled off four successive Grand Prix wins in France, Britain, Holland and Germany to take a grip on the title he would never relinquish.
Jack Brabham became – and remains – the first and only man to have won the F1 world title in a car that carried his own name as its manufacturer. Both titles were retained in 1967, though this time it was Brabham’s combative Kiwi teammate Denny Hulme who snatched the drivers’ crown from under the boss’s nose.
Jack Brabham’s final Grand Prix victory, his 14th in 126 race starts, came at the South African Grand Prix at the start of 1970 – the year in which he put on his ‘old man’ act on the Zandvoort grid.
His great contemporary Jackie Stewart, also a three-time World Champion, paid a typical racing driver’s tribute to a rival when Ross Bastiaan’s splendid bronze bust of Sir Jack was unveiled at Albert Park last year: “When I raced against Jack,” joked the Scot, “I never watched the man who was waving the starter’s flag. I kept an eye on Jack – and when he went, so did I!”
Awarded the OBE in 1966, Jack Brabham became the first knight of motor racing in 1979. He went on to found a motor racing dynasty: all three of his sons, Geoff, David and Gary, achieved notable success in their own right, Geoff and David both winning Le Mans, while Sir Jack’s grandson Matthew is now on his own winning way in the United States.
Australia lives in the eyes of the world largely through its achievements in sport. Like Bradman in cricket, Brabham in motor racing took his own and his country’s names abroad and represented them with unmatched dignity and a competitive edge that commanded respect from all those who came up against him.
They nicknamed him ‘Black Jack’, not only for those dark, rugged looks but also because he was known for using all the tricks of his trade to get the upper hand on the men he was trying to keep behind him.
Now ‘Black Jack’ is gone, but Sir Jack Brabham will live long in the memories of all of his compatriots who love motor racing and of fans and foes all over the world. Australia will not see his like again.