The Jack Brabham story is unlike any other.
Born on the 2nd April 1926 just outside Sydney, the Australian driver won fourteen of the one hundred and twenty six races that he started between 1955 and 1970. He also achieved thirteen pole positions, twelve fastest laps and a total of thirty one podium finishes. The culmination of these achievements was winning the F1 Driver’s Title three times – something he managed in a way that had never been done before and has never been done since.
Brabham was involved with cars from an early age as he learned to drive using the family car as well as the trucks belonging to his father’s grocery business. He dropped out of school when he was fifteen and balanced a life of evening courses in mechanical engineering with a job at the local garage. Not long after his eighteenth birthday, he enlisted in the RAAF and became a flight mechanic. Following his discharge, he opened a small service, repair and machining business behind his grandfather’s house.
A close American friend of his, Johnny Schonberg, introduced him to racing after the pair went to watch a midget car race (small open wheeled cars racing on dirt ovals). Brabham wasn’t particularly keen on the idea of racing but teamed up with Schonberg to build a car to drive. Brabham took over from Schonberg and won his first race on the third attempt before going on to win the Australian Championship in 1948, 1949, 1950 and 1951.
He became interested in road racing and took part in this for the next few years racing cars from the Cooper Car Company until Dean Delamont persuaded him to try out a season of racing in Europe following the 1954 New Zealand Grand Prix.
Basing himself in the U.K in early 1955, he bought another Cooper to race at national events. His driving style was a crowd pleaser and frequent visits to the Cooper factory soon resulted in a friendship with Charlie and John Cooper. Both liked telling the story of how, after many requests for a drive with the factory team, Jack was given the keys to the transporter that took the cars to and from the race.
Brabham and Cooper seemed to fuse together and not long after that, he began working for them from mid-1955 on. He built a Bobtail mid-engined sports car and drove it in his debut Formula 1 race at the British Grand Prix at the age of twenty nine. The car had a two litre engine which was half a litre less than permitted and ended up retiring from the race with a broken clutch. A number of fights with the likes of Stirling Moss at non-Grand Prix races that year made him believe he could compete at this level and so, he hatched a plan. He shipped the Bobtail car back to Australia where he used it to win the 1955 Australian Grand Prix before selling it in order to move permanently to the UK with his wife and son.
1956 proved to a tough year for Brabham as the second hand Maserati 250F he drove brought him little success. He competed in sports car racing and Formula 2 at the same time which led to him driving another Cooper car at various Grand Prix. Running in third place during the Monaco Grand Prix after avoiding a big collision at the first corner, the fuel pump mount failed but a tired and resilient Brabham simply got out of the car and – not wanting to have wasted the previous three hours of racing – proceeded to push it over the finish line for sixth place, something you simply wouldn’t see happen in F1 today.
In 1957, he won the F2 championship in a Cooper and competed in other categories of motor racing. He also reignited his love for flying and bought a plane which he used to take his family and team members to various races. In 1959, Cooper obtained a 2.5 litre engine for the first time and Brabham didn’t waste any time with it as he won the opening race of the season at Monaco. A combination of podium finishes, including a win at the British Grand Prix in Aintree gave him a thirteen point lead in the championship with four races to go. At the Portuguese Grand Prix, a backmarker tried making a move on him – launching Brabham’s Cooper into the air before crashing into a telegraph pole. Jack was thrown from the car and narrowly avoided being hit by one of his teammates. Miraculously, he didn’t sustain any injuries. This incident meant that going into the final race of the season at Sebring in the U.S, Brabham, Moss and Ferrari’s Brooks were all in with a shot at winning the Championship. Moss retired during the race that Brabham had led from almost start to finish. He ran out of fuel on the last lap and again, not wanting to be beaten, pushed the car over the finishing line for fourth place.
Despite the fact that Brooks finished third, Brabham managed to clinch the Drivers’ Title by four points – the only driver to do so after pushing their car over the finishing line.
Brabham considered buying Cooper, in partnership with Roy Salvadori instead decided to concentrate on his own car sales business – Jack Brabham Motors. He continued to race for the team in 1960, even helping design the next generation Cooper T53. After spinning out of the race in Monaco, he went on to win five straight races including the Dutch, French and Belgian Grand Prix. Stirling Moss was out of action for two months following a crash in practise at Belgium which also saw two other drivers killed during the race, allowing Jack to build a substantial championship lead. He beat Graham Hill for the win at the British Grand Prix after Hill spun off and he repeated the same again in Portugal where John Surtees crashed. Despite the British teams withdrawing from the Italian Grand Prix on safety grounds, nobody could touch the Cooper team in the points thus securing Brabham his second Drivers’ Title.
1961 was abysmal for Brabham as the teams’ engine supplier was late in producing the new engine required for the season, putting them on the back foot – Jack scored just three points that season. He raced in the Indy 500 that year with a modified rear engined Cooper designed for F1. He finished in ninth place and despite all the doubt at the time, within five years of Brabham’s appearance there, the majority of cars that raced there switched from being front engine cars to rear engine cars – thus providing superior handling through the turns.
Brabham and his friend Ron Tauranac set up Motor Racing Developments which produced customer racing cars whilst Brabham continued to race for Cooper. In 1962, Brabham left Cooper to drive under his own name in F1 using cars built by MRD. A new engine limit in 1965 didn’t sit well with Brabham and he didn’t win a single race during that year. He considered retirement and Dan Gurney replaced him as lead driver at the team whilst he focused on managing the team. But when Gurney left the team at the end of the year, Brabham stepped back into the seat.
After a generally unsuccessful season in 1965, Honda had revised their 1-litre engine completely and Brabham won ten of the 16 European Formula Two races in his Brabham-Honda. In the absence of the European Formula Two championship that year, Brabham contested and won the Trophées de France, a championship consisting of six of the French Formula Two races.
In 1966, a three litre formula was created for F1. Teaming up with Australian engineering company Repco, Brabham thought that by making a new three litre, eight cylinder lightweight reliable engine, he could achieve some good results for the team whilst other teams focused on making their new designs more reliable. The combination of the Repco engine and the Brabham BT19 chassis designed by Tauranac worked like a dream and Jack won his first Grand Prix since 1960 at the French Grand Prix. In doing so, he became the first person to win a race in car they’d built themselves. This is a feat that has only been achieved twice since then – by Bruce McLaren and Dan Gurney.
He won the next three races with ease. In a great move following press stories about his age, Brabham hobbled to his car at the Dutch Grand Prix leaning on a cane wearing a long false beard before going on to win that race as well. It was then at the Italian Grand Prix that he won the World Championship for a third time – the only driver in history to win the Formula 1 World Championship in a car that carried his own name.
1967 was a competitive but, by his standards, fruitless year in the end for Brabham. He won the French Grand Prix as well as the first ever Canadian Grand Prix. He had a number of other podium finishes throughout the year but in the end, had to settle for second place in the Driver Standings as his teammate, Denny Hulme, took the Drivers’ Title for himself. In 1968, he raced with Jochen Rindt and, fulfilling a personal dream, flew his own plane Britain to Australia. Having seriously injured his foot in a testing accident, mid way through 1969, he planned on retiring at the end of the season but came back in 1970 for one more year, replacing Rindt who had moved to Lotus.
He won his last Grand prix at the season opener in South Africa and led every lap of the Monaco Grand Prix until the final corner on the last lap where his front wheels locked in a skid, gifting the victory to Rindt. Despite this, Brabham still finished in second place. Jack Brabham retired from F1 at the age of forty four, having equalled Jackie Stewart for fifth in the driver standings.
Somehow, Brabham isn’t listed in the top ten F1 drivers of all time, eclipsed by the likes of Stirling Moss and Jim Clark. He was however, the first post-war race driver to receive a knighthood. This was for his service to motorsport and he received the honour in 1978. In retirement, Brabham still involved himself in motor racing and drove some of the old cars at a number of events such as the Goodwood Revival. He commented that by driving, it stopped him from getting old. This was in 1999 when Brabham was seventy three. In 2010, he flew to Bahrain to celebrate sixty years of Formula 1 and was at the time, the oldest surviving World Champion.
Jack Brabham died in 2014 at eighty eight years old following a long battle with kidney disease.
Brabham remains the only driver to win a Formula 1 World Championship racing for a team with his name on.