Of His Own Construction - 1966 Repco Brabham BT19
In 1966, Jack Brabham won his third Formula One world championship. This was a remarkable achievement because it made him thr first and only driver to win a championship in a car of his own construction. The car in question was the Brabham BT19. Making this achievement even more remarkable the car was powered by a 3.0L V8 built by Repco, a Melbourne-based company that could make the modern Cosworth look like Mercedes.
Jack Brabham and his engineer Ron Tauranac headed over to Europe in the late 1950s to take on Formula 1. They started out at Cooper, designing and working on the car themselves. Together at Cooper they would revolutionise F1 car design by placing the engine behind the driver in the T43.
After winning two world championships in 1959 and 1960, the pair established their own team, Motor Racing Developments, better known simply as Brabham. .Brabham was smaller than the other teams in F1. Jack served as driver, team manager and mechanic, while Ron designed the chassis. In their first F1 season in 1962, they ran a Lotus-Climax 24 for the first five rounds, before introducing their own car, the Brabham-Climax BT3 at the German Grand Prix.
The BT3 was the first Brabham F1 car. The team would adopt Australian green and gold for the following year's BT7
For the first four years, Brabham designed their own chassis around Cooper engines. BT19 would take things a step further with a unique to Brabham engine.
For the 1966 season, F1 would double its maximum engine capacity from 1.5 to 3.0 litres. Teams responded to these rules in a variety of ways. Ferrari, Maserati and Westlake produced V12s, Climax made do with a 2.0L version of their FWMV V8, and Ford supplied a 3.0L V8 to McLaren. Brabham had previously been a Climax customer, but without a competitive engine available for 1966, Brabham and Tauranac had to change suppliers. Buying Maserati V12s, as Cooper did, would have been too expensive, so Brabham sought out a cheaper alternative. To source a cheaper engine, Brabham turned to their sponsor, Repco.
Jack began preparing for the 1966 season by engaging Repco to build him a Tasman Series engine. Deciding that it would be too difficult to design an engine from scratch, he acquired Oldsmobile Jetfire V8 engine block for £11. Phil Irving, a Melbourne-born engineer who had worked as chief engineer for Vincent, HRD and Velocette, was hired by Repco and Brabham to turn the single-cam pushrod V8 into a racing engine. Irving replaced the original pushrods and cam-in-block with his own two-valve SOHC cylinder heads. The bore and stroke were reduced to meet the 2.5 litre Tasman Series capacity limit.
Phil Irving with Jack Brabham at the Tasman Series round at Sandown, february 1966
Repco had experience in Australian motorsport, but they had no Formula 1 experience. Yet they agreed, and despite the additional logistical challenge of being about as far away from Europe as you could get, built an F1 engine from a production Oldsmobile V8 to take on Ferrari, Maserati and Ford. Irving seconded himself in London to design the engine alongside Brabham and Tauranac, who was responsible for the chassis. Incredibly, in just six months, an engine was completed in Melbourne, shipped to the UK and installed in the back of the BT19 ready for the start of the 1966 championship.
To turn the 2.5 litre Tasman engine into a 3.0 litre F1 engine, the bore was increased back to the Oldsmobile F85's 88.9mm, and the carburetor replaced with Lucas mechanical fuel injection. Initially the power output was 285hp@9000rpm, some way short of rival power-plants. The Repco RB620 was very much the underdog engine in 1966 up against the more powerful engines from the major engine suppliers. But Jack thought that their rivals' engines might be unreliable in the opening rounds and that they might get lucky.
The Repco V8 was light, compact enough to fit in a 1.5L chassis and, crucially, reliable. All things that rival V8s V12s and one bizarre H16 were not. Brabham and Hulme may have lacked outright speed, but the Repco engine proved to be relatively reliable. It only let Brabham and Hulme down once at Watkins Glen, both driving BT20s. Ignition problems put Hulme out twice in the BT20 at Zandvoort and the Nurburgring.
Jack Brabham's Brabham BT19 leads Jim Clark's Lotus 43 and Denny Hulme's Brabham BT20 at the Dutch GP
The BT19 chassis was a typical Tauranac design. It was a simple and practical steel spaceframe. Originally designed to accommodate the stillborn Cooper flat 16 in 1965, it almost missed out on racing. A dispute between Brabham and Tauranac over Ron's role in the team and the relationship between the Brabham-owned F1 team Brabham Racing Organisation and the Brabham/Tauranac co-owned manufacturer, Motor Racing Developments meant that there was not enough time to design an all-new chassis. Tauranac was unhappy about not being directly involved in the race team and not receiving enough money for development, and had lost interest. They came to a resolution and Ron agreed to continue with greater involvement. Tauranac redesigned the BT19 chassis to fit the RB620, a task made easier by the engine's compact dimensions.
The Repco V8 was compact enough to fit in a chassis originally designed for a 1.5L engine
Only one BT19 was built and Jack Brabham was the only driver to race it. Hulme started the 1966 season in a Climax engined BT22 before switching to a Repco engined BT20 for round 3 in France. Brabham drove a BT20 for the final two rounds in the US and Mexico. The team's second BT20 had been available earlier, but Jack elected to stick with his "old nail".
The team worked extremely hard to complete the car on time, and had the only 3.0 litre car on the grid at the non-championship South African GP. As the only driver with a 3.0 litre car, Jack had a comfortable lead early on, but a loose screw in the fuel injection system ended his day after 11 laps. Before the start of the season people said he was too old and there were doubts that the Repco RB620 could compete with the other 3.0 litre engines. The result in South Africa only reinforced their doubts about the Repco engine.
There would be three more non-championship rounds in 1966. At Syracuse, Jack had another mechanical failure,so what happened at the BRDC International Trophy at Silverstone came as a surprise. Brabham took pole by 0.2 seconds over John Surtees' Ferrari, then won the race by 7.4 seconds, and set the fastest lap. He then took pole, the race win and fastest lap again at Oulton Park. Hulme finished second in his new BT20 in an emphatic display for Brabham.
Brabham's championship didn't get off to a good start. Round one at Monaco ended in DNFs for both Jack and Denny due to gearbox problems. In the heavy rain at Spa, Brabham slid out of the Masta Kink at 135mph, but recovered and finished fourth. He won his first championship race in France. Not only did he win, he set a new grand prix speed record of 136.89mph. Most people thought it was a fluke before he backed it up with another win at Brands Hatch, where he and Hulme scored a one-two finish a lap ahead of third placed Graham Hill in the BRM.
At the following round in the Netherlands, in response to suggestions that at age 40 he was too old to be challenging for the world championship, Brabham limped to his car with a false beard and walking stick. Brabham won the Dutch Grand Prix by a lap. At the German Grand Prix two weeks later, Brabham qualified fifth but lead the race after one lap in damp conditions. He went unchallenged for the remainder of the race and won by 44 seconds. After that final win, only John Surtees had a mathematical chance of taking the championship from Brabham.
Brabham after winning the German GP
The Italian GP would be the BT19's final race in 1966, with Jack moving to the BT20 for the final two rounds. The race would be an anticlimax for the BT19's season. Brabham qualified sixth and then suffered an oil leak on lap seven. Jack still secured the championship at Monza. Surtees had to win all three of the remaining races, but retired due to a fuel leak on lap 31.
Jack had three retirements in 1966, but back then, only your best five finishes counted towards your championship and that for Brabham meant a dominant four wins and a second in the BT20 at the Mexican GP. None of the other race winners, including second-placed John Surtees, actually managed to finish five races. But he didn't win the championship by not breaking down and consistently coming home third every race. Four wins, a podium and the most pole positions (three) showed he had genuine speed.
The BT19 was brought out of retirement in 1967 to compete in the Dutch GP. Although they were only entering two cars, one each for Jack and Denny, Brabham brought two BT20s, the still under development BT24 and the BT19, which was running the same RB740 development engine as the BT24. The RB740 was a development of the 620 with a lighter block and inlet and exhaust ports in the V, increasing power to 330hp@8000rpm. Jack elected to run the BT19. He finished second, earning the BT19's final podium and a proper send-off that made up for Monza. It was also the first podium for the RB740 engine.
As time has passed, Brabham's efforts with the BT19 seem more impressive. Their work with the BT19 has earned Brabham, Tauranac and Irving more accolades than most Australians in motorsport. Jack has a knighthood, and an OBE, both Jack and Ron have Order or Australia medals and Phil has an MBE. The Confederation of Australian Motorsport (CAMS) has an annual Phil Irving Award for outstanding contributions to engineering excellence.
That a small team from Australia could travel to the UK and build their own chassis to compete in F1 with an engine built and serviced back in Melbourne and come away with a world championship is unthinkable today. Jack Brabham will always remain the only driver to win a world championship in a car of his own construction.
Sir Jack Brabham with the BT19 at the National Sports Museum at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in 2010