As we reflect on another dramatic Monaco Grand Prix with an Aussie on the podium, it’s a good time to remember the (mis)adventures of Australia’s greatest racer on F1’s most challenging circuit.
In May 1957 a rangy, dark-haired bloke from Down Under made his first appearance at the Grand Prix de Monaco – and at first it didn’t go too well.
It was the third year of Jack Brabham’s attempt to conquer Fortress Europe and he felt he had a pretty significant weapon in his arsenal this time. It was an ‘interim’ Cooper with a reworked 1960cc Coventry Climax engine.
You might say Brabham put the car in pole position – but not the way he wanted. In final practice for the race he put the car in the wall at Casino. No Armco in those days, just straw bales – and telegraph poles.
The Australian narrowly escaped disaster as the telegraph pole he had hit took unkindly to the Cooper’s assault and fell on the car like an axe blade, just behind the cockpit… But every cloud has a silver lining, as they say, and Brabham’s arrived in the shape of a Cooper designed for the F2 regulations of the time. The team commandeered it from Les Leston, dropped in the salvaged 1960cc engine and away they went.
Thanks to incidents and accidents Brabham ran as high as third in the Monaco Grand Prix – until he ran out of fuel just past the Tabac, the tobacconist’s shop which was to become such a famous Monte Carlo landmark.
The intrepid Aussie pushed the car the 800 metres to the line to finish sixth (the perfect rehearsal for Sebring a couple of years later when he had to push his car over the line to claim his first world title).
But the little Cooper’s performance with Brabham at the wheel had turned into what he would later call “a real landmark in motor racing history”. That’s because it was a significant moment in the rear-engined revolution that swept through F1 at the end of the Fifties, with Brabham in the van.
Just two years later ‘Black Jack’ was back for his third race in the city where they play blackjack and many other games. His Cooper this time was pushed along by a 2.5-litre Climax power unit, one of eight rear-engined cars in the race; and Brabham had just recorded his very first F1 win in a non-championship race at Silverstone, the International Trophy.
This time it was a different Monaco story – although it too almost ended in disaster. While Stirling Moss retired from the lead and Brabham was ready to pounce, he almost had to stop. This time it wasn’t for lack of fuel, but because the foot pedals were so hot he couldn’t bear to put his feet on them, far less apply the necessary pressure.
But quitting wasn’t in the Brabham book of how to go racing, and he duly recorded his first world championship Grand Prix victory with a comfortable 20 seconds in hand over Tony Brooks’s Ferrari.
But Jack Brabham’s best-remembered moment at Monaco would come 11 years later, in his final year as a Grand Prix driver. Now in a car that bore his own name as manufacturer, Brabham had already won the opening round of the season in South Africa and set fastest lap in the second race in Spain, where he failed to finish.
Monaco should have brought his second victory, but the famous track had other plans in mind.
The BT33 was leading comfortably in the closing stages of another incident-packed race, when it came upon the slowest bunch of back-markers Jack thought he had ever seen. One was Jo Siffert in a nearly dry Lotus; there were three more at that infamous Tabac corner; but worst of all, on the very last lap, was the De Tomaso in the hands of Piers Courage.
That wouldn’t have been a problem had not Jochen Rindt been closing at a worrying rate of knots in his Lotus. As they approached the Gasworks Corner, which we now know as La Rascasse – the second-last corner at Monaco – the Brabham closed in on Courage.
“Trying to decide which line to take, I slightly overshot my braking-point,” Sir Jack later recalled. “I’d chosen the inside line, of course, but right there a trail of cement had been laid on spilt oil. My brakes locked up and I simply failed to take the corner.”
Worse was to come. An enthusiastic marshal rushed towards the stricken car, whose driver knew full well that if he pushed it the Brabham-Ford would be disqualified for enlisting ‘outside assistance’. Frantically finding reverse, Brabham shot backwards – and the flailing marshal grabbed a handful of air and performed a swan dive on to the nose of the car.
“I jerked forward,” added Sir Jack, “but I could hardly move off with him as a bonnet mascot!” By the time the startled official had gathered his wits and picked himself up, Rindt was long gone, but Brabham had enough in hand to come home for second place in a race he should have won.
The chance never came again in that final season, which ended with retirement from the Mexican Grand Prix on October 25, 1970. That South African win at the start of the season had been the 14th and last of Jack Brabham’s wonderful F1 career.