Australian motor racing legend and the oldest surviving Formula One world champion Sir Jack Brabham has died at his Queensland home aged 88. The Sydney native reached the zenith of motorsport on three occasions, winning the F1 world championship in 1959, 1960 and 1966.
These days, even the oldest and most revered records can no longer be proclaimed unbeatable in the unpredictable world of Formula One. Only last year, history was made when Sebastien Vettel set his sights on Alberto Ascari’s ‘never to be equalled’ achievement of nine consecutive Grand Prix victories; and did just that. No record is untouchable, it would seem. Except for one. Sir Jack Brabham can lay claim to possibly the only unassailable record left in Formula One; he is the only driver ever to have won the world championship driving a car he designed and built himself. That 1966 title for the Brabham team is, and will surely forever remain, a true one-off achievement in the history of the sport. In the context of today’s corporate-fuelled, economic juggernaut of F1, such a feat would be totally implausible.
Considering this glittering accolade, together with the countless other records he amassed during his 15 year career, the name of the man who started life as an apprentice mechanic in a Sydney garage should surely be held aloft in the pantheon of F1 gods; Fangio, Senna, Schumacher. But history has not afforded Jack Brabham that mythical status.
Why? The answer perhaps comes down to a question of style, personality and star-quality; the sort of virtues that transform a successful sportsman into a cult hero. Fangio was the godfather of modern motor racing, Senna the charismatic and universally loved hero, Schumacher the relentless and highly controversial winning machine. Jack Brabham, on the other hand, was always the quiet man of the track. His nickname ‘Black Jack’ eluded not only to his characteristic dark hair and stubble, but also to his extremely low-key, withdrawn, almost shadowy persona. He seemed to revel in the antihero image that he forged for himself, ducking and dodging the limelight wherever and whenever possible. On the occasion of his second consecutive world championship title in 1960, he was asked who he considered to be the best driver in the world. “Stirling Moss”, came the response. Such was the man.
Famously loathing of the triviality of small-talk around the paddock, Brabham always came over as a man of actions rather than words. And those actions on the track certainly bore no resemblance to the impassive character off of it. Stirling Moss himself, with whom Brabham shared many ferocious duels throughout his career, always considered the Aussie as his toughest ever opponent in F1. His gritty, forceful and highly uncompromising style was undoubtedly acquired through years of honing his skills in the rough and tumble of dirt track midget racing in 1940’s Australia.
At the start of the 1960’s, the then double world champion Brabham looked to be on the cusp of dominating the sport for the foreseeable future. Instead, the Australian would not win another Grand Prix until 1966.
These six years in the wilderness were, perhaps unsurprisingly, self-inflicted. Brabham the mechanic, not Brabham the racer, came to centre stage. He had something more than just trophies and lap records in mind; he had a project to launch and an ambition to fulfil. And so, in the depths of his suburban London garage, Brabham set about secretly developing his very own racing car capable of one day returning him to the pinnacle of F1. It was a long, hard road. Debuting in 1962, the Brabham Racing team suffered from patchy reliability, and Jack himself spent four uncompetitive years in the lower reaches of the top ten.
However, 1966 was to prove different, as Brabham took advantage of a change in engine regulations to scoop four GP wins and finally claim the elusive holy grail of the drivers’ and constructors’ world championships; both under the same name.
Another easily forgotten attribute of Sir Jack Brabham was his remarkable longevity in the sport. He secured his last world championship at the age of 40, and in his final season in 1970 he provided some of the stiffest opposition for 28 year old Jochen Rindt during his title winning year. By then, Brabham was 44.
As 1970 drew to a close and F1 entered a new era, Brabham realised his time in the paddock had passed. He hung up his helmet, sold the team and packed his bags for Australia. The story of Brabham Racing continues on until 1992, when the team eventually folded, but not before Nelson Piquet claimed two more drivers’ championships at the wheel of a Brabham in 1981 and 1983. As for the man behind the team, Brabham himself characteristically retreated away from the limelight he so resented during his racing career and quietly set about furthering his business pursuits in Australia, where he ran a farm, an aviation company and, naturally, a garage.
There are perhaps two single moments that sum up Sir Jack Brabham more than any others. The first came on the race track, on the eve of his first world championship title at the 1959 US Grand Prix. With one lap remaining, Brabham led the field; however his Cooper ran out of fuel and ground to a halt with the finish line in sight. With Stirling Moss already retired and Ferrari’s Tony Brooks too far down the field, Brabham was certain to lift the trophy whether he crossed the line or not. Nevertheless, the Aussie proceeded to push his stricken Cooper down the start/finish straight to claim fourth place. It must be one of the most unglamorous coronations of a Formula One world champion ever witnessed.
The other defining moment came when Brabham was summoned to Buckingham Palace to receive his OBE in 1966. As he was about to leave, his car’s engine broke down. Clad in full ceremonial dress, complete with top hat and tails, the triple world champion got out of the car, lifted the bonnet and plunged his hands in to the bowls of the engine as palace guards and royal guests looked on. Even at the height of his stardom, Brabham was always just the humble mechanic from Sydney.
Close friend and fellow Aussie racing driver Frank Gardner once said that Jack Brabham was without doubt the best driver of his generation and that, had he spent more time out on track practicing rather than dedicating himself to technical matters in the garage for days on end, he would surely have dominated Formula One as the next Fangio. Maybe so, but Jack Brabham was never like the other greats. He was not simply a man who raced cars; he was a racing man in every possible sense.
RIP Sir Jack Brabham: 2/4/1926 – 19/5/2014