Sir Jack Brabham, 1926-2014

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Jack Brabham, Brabham, Reims, 1967During 1966, the year Jack Brabham won his third, final and arguably greatest championship title, some sections of the motor racing press had begun to ask how much longer the 40-year-old was going to continue in the sport.

Irked by their questions, at Brands Hatch that year Brabham donned a novelty fake beard and leaned heavily on a jack handle as he hobbled onto the grid for the British Grand Prix. Underlining his point that there was still plenty of fight left in him, Brabham won the race – his second of what turned out to be four consecutive triumphs that year.

But one of the many remarkable things about Brabham was that, unlike so many of his peers in that perilous time, he survived the sport and became its oldest living champion.

Sadly, Brabham passed away in early this morning at his home on Australia’s Gold Coast. He leaves behind a growing dynasty of racing Brabhams: his sons Geoff, Gary and David all raced F1 cars, and grandsons Matthew and Sam are competing in junior categories.

Born in Sydney in 1926, Brabham cut short a three-year engineering course to join the Australian air force at the age of 18, during the final years of the Second World War. After hostilities ceased he began racing midget cars, and found his engineering abilities were matched by a talent for car control.

Brabham was already married with one son when in 1955 he headed for his grandfather’s homeland, Britain, to further his career. Having enjoyed considerable success at the wheel of a Cooper in Australia, Brabham soon began working for John Cooper’s company, who were poised to revolutionise motor racing with their rear-engined cars.

Brabham began the 1959 season – his third full campaign – with victory in the Monaco Grand Prix, which he followed up with another win at Aintree. He arrived at the season finale in Sebring leading the points but with Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks within range.

But Brooks lost ground early on and Moss retired after five laps. Brabham didn’t need to push his Cooper across the line into fourth place when he ran out of fuel in order to win the title, but he did so anyway.

The following year he reeled off five wins in a row at mid-season to retain his crown. But Cooper were not competitive following a change of engine formula in 1961, and six years passed before Brabham won a round of the championship again.

In the meantime they took the rear-engined revolution to Indianapolis, where the performance of Brabham’s underpowered but lighter and better-handling Cooper surprised the speedway regulars in 1961. The only non-American in the race finished ninth, a result he did not better in three subsequent appearances.

Jack Brabham and team, 1966-67But Brabham had turned his attention to a new project – his own racing team, which produced its first car in mid-1962. Their breakthrough came in 1966, a year of drastic change for Formula One as maximum engine capacities were doubled to three litres.

Brabham’s third championship victory that year proved the landmark achievement of his career as he won it driving the Brabham BT19 chassis he developed with designer Ron Tauranac, powered by V8 engines which were produced by Repco at Brabham’s urging.

As a driver-engineer, Brabham placed greater value on the importance of having a car that would finish races than the likes of Lotus’s Colin Chapman, who some felt made too many sacrifices in the name of reducing weight. The Brabhams may have erred on the conservative side but in a year of upheaval in the regulations his finishing rate was a cornerstone of his championship success.

Brabham played down his role in developing the cars which were designated ‘BT’ for Brabham and Tauranac. “The idea people were apt to get from the press, that Jack Brabham built a grand prix car all by himself in his back garden, is a bit far from the truth,” he wrote in his 1971 autobiography.

Nonetheless it was a unique accomplishment, on top of which Brabham became only the second driver after the great Juan Manuel Fangio to win three championship titles.

He nearly made it four, but the following year early-season unreliability left him playing catch-up to his team mate. Brabham eventually lost the title to Denny Hulme by just five points.

Brabham saw too many of his rivals killed and wounded not to do his part in the drive to improve safety standards, which was gathering pace as he neared retirement. In 1970, his final year of racing, Brabham gave his vital backing as the sport’s elder statesman when his fellow drivers refused to race on the dangerous Nurburgring Nordschleife. An important victory was won when that year’s German Grand Prix was moved to the Hockenheimring.

Brabham’s victory in the season-opening race at Kyalami set him up for another tilt at the title but it proved to be the final victory of his career. He was on course to win again at Monaco only to crash at the final corner while lapping traffic as Jochen Rindt closed on him.

Rindt won again at Brabham’s expense at Brands Hatch – this time the BT33 ran out of fuel – and was on the verge of claiming the title when he was killed at Monza. Brabham waited until practice for the final race of the year before confirming his retirement, by which time Rindt had already become the sport’s only posthumous world champion.

McLaren chairman Ron Dennis, who was Brabham’s chief mechanic at the time of his retirement, paid tribute to the man whose unique achievement made him one of the sport’s true greats:

“The word ‘legend’ is often used to describe successful sportsmen, but often it exaggerates their status. In the case of Sir Jack Brabham, however, it’s entirely justified.

“A three-time Formula One world champion, he remains the only driver to win a Formula One world championship driving a car bearing his own name – a unique achievement that will surely never be matched.

“When I started out in Formula One in the late 1960s, I worked first for Cooper and then for Brabham. Even as a callow youth, I could recognise greatness when I saw it, and I’ll always regard it as an honour and a privilege to have worked for Sir Jack. I learned a lot from him too.”

Brabham blended the talents of racing driver and engineer in a way others – including Bruce McLaren, Graham Hill and John Surtees – achieved without the same success.

He was also a trailblazer among Australian racing drivers, and thanks to his endeavours the sport has enjoyed a succession of Australian talent from Alan Jones to Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo.

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Images © Brabham/LAT

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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27 comments on “Sir Jack Brabham, 1926-2014”

  1. Funny enough I don’t feel sad at all, rather just thinking about all Brabhams achievements, his long and successfull life, his children who went on to make their own mark on motorracing etc.

    I think he can be fully satisfied with his life, and while it would be lovely if it could have lasted longer, I just happily remember him for all he was than be sad today. Thank you Jack Brabham.

    1. +1 Absolutely

    2. Same for me. That’s because he was very old and his death was natural rather than tragic accident.

    3. @bascb Well said.

    4. Yes, it was a good death at the end of a good life.

      1. @hohum @bascb agreed on all accounts.

    5. Very much agree, @bascb. He had an exceptional life, and to leave the stage at 88 is a great achievement.

    6. Well said. +1

    7. + 1
      We’ve lost a big motorsport legend who left us a huge legacy.

    8. @bascb +1 Very well said.

    9. @bascb Perfectly said mate.

      RIP Sir Jack, a Legend of Legends.

    10. @bascb Nicely stated. I agree with your sentiments, although I’m a little sad…

      RIP Sir Jack, they don’t make em like that anymore son.

  2. Apparently Sir Jack was still getting around, even doing appearances yesterday at Maroochydore.

    He was never one to slow down, even as age slowly got the better of him.

    1. @kazinho Not surprising at all. Afterall, Sir Jack was not named Black Jack for nothing. He’s not one to walk away from a fight even if it’s against old age

    2. He was at the Melbourne GP earlier this year but looked very old and frail. So I wasn’t entirely surprised to hear the news yesterday. As others have said, he had a long life filled with acheivements and happiness and frankly, that is all any of us could ever want. So whilst I do feel sad for the loss of a legend, I will focus on celebrating an exceptional life. Thanks for the memories Sir Jack, hope whereever you are now has a full scale Monaco GP circuit and you are happily fanging your way around it.

  3. Its strange how the world works sometimes. Just this morning my son and I were looking at an old F1 book and we saw Sir Jack and I explained to him that he was the only man ever to design, build and drive an F1 car to a WDC. 10 minutes later I was on the way to work and heard of his passing!

    As per above instead of feeling sad it was more of being a proud Aussie to celebrate a man who had a great life and many exceptional achievements. RIP!!

  4. There should be a moment of silence at IMS before his grandson Matthew races in the Lights Race.

  5. WilliamB (@william-brierty)
    19th May 2014, 13:28

    Although Jack was one of the few racing drivers I can honestly say was before my time, his story is no less enthralling to me. There goes Australia’s best – my best to his friends and family.

  6. Sergei Martyn
    19th May 2014, 13:51

    Very sad news.
    R.I.P. Sir Jack…
    I was only two years old when he won his third championship and only became aware of his achievements at the beginning of 90’s but the fact that he is the only one F1 champion in a car he designed is truly outsanding and won’t be surpassed ever.

  7. When you look at the achievements of other great drivers, engineers or designers of racing cars and the fact that Jack Brabham combined all of those skills and managed a successful racing team as well is truly astounding.

  8. As an Aussie I can say its a sad day, not only for motorsport but for Australia. Jack Brabham was in the same class as our other sporting icons such as Sir Donald Bradman (cricket) and Dawn Fraser (swimming). I’m not sure if he realised just how much us Aussie’s are proud of his achievements on the world stage.

    The only driver to win the World Championship in a car of his own design and manufacture, the Repco V8 powered Brabham BT19 in 1966. A feat yet to be repeated and its highly unlikely if anyone will ever do that again.

    Australia has lost 3 sporting greats in the past 8 days. Rugby League ‘Immortal’ Reg Gasnier, legendary Australian rules football coach Tom Hafey, and now Sir Jack Brabham.

    I remember seeing Sir Jack at the Historic Sandown meeting in late 2009, though unfortunately I didn’t get to meet him as his health wasn’t the best. It was about 38 degrees that day and the heat was really affecting him, though he did tough it out to watch his grandson (Geoff’s son Matthew) go round in a Formula Ford.

    Rest In Peace Sir Jack Brabham. A true Australian icon.

    1. Some of Sir Jack’s achievements outside of Formula One include:

      * 4 time Australian Speedcar Champion (1947/48, 1949 (twice), 1952/53)
      * Multiple New South Wales Speedcar Champion
      * 3 time winner of the Australian Grand Prix (1955, 1963, 1964)
      * 3 time winner of the New Zealand Grand Prix (1958, 1960, 1961)
      * The first driver to race in the Indianapolis 500 in a modern rear-engined car (1961), sparking the rear-engine revolution in the USA and the end of the road for the old roadsters
      * 1965 British Saloon Car Champion
      * 1966 Formula 2 Champion (the year before the start of the official European F2 Championship)
      * 1966 Australian of the Year
      * OBE 1967
      * First driver to be Knighted for services to motorsport in 1979
      * Australian Sport Hall of Fame 1985 (elevated to Legend status in 2003)
      * Australian Sports Medal 2002
      * Officer of the Order of Australia 2008
      * Australian Speedway Hall of Fame inductee 2011
      * Named a National Living Treasure 2012

  9. Unlike on many other dramatic occasions this time the naturality of the event makes it easier to accept and allows us to concentrate on making an account of his achievements. I don’t know anything about his private life but having a family is an encouraging sign that he has had a happy life, and his sporting successes are incredible and second to none. His legacy is immense and he is someone I’ve always admired from the reports I’ve had of those wonderful, terrible years of feats and tragedies, so this makes me sad for me and most of all for his loved ones, but at the same time happy and – somehow – proud of him, of a role-model who made his wishes into a dream through dedication and hard work.
    Rest in peace, Sir Jack.

  10. I think Ron Dennis summed Sir Jack up perfectly. A legend indeed.

    1. +1 he should be celebrated for an amazing feet “he survived the sport and became its oldest living champion.”

  11. My condolences to Sir. Brabham’s family. The motivation and drive he lived will be carried by many inspired by his good example.

  12. Peter Lovett
    1st June 2014, 2:09

    I recall watching Jack Brabham race at Longford in Tasmania between 1960 and 1967. Longford was at the time the fastest circuit in the Southern Hemisphere and incredibly dangerous. A road circuit that was basically four straights connected by right-angle bends. However, part of the circuit went through the town on Longford, over a railway crossing and also two bridges over a river.
    In 1965 the Australian Grand Prix was held there and Brabham was leading when while lapping a slower car he was nudged and spun. He dashed into the pits for a very quick suspension check and then blasted out, by now well down the field. He finished second to Bruce McLaren by 1/10 sec having passed other drivers the like of Graham Hill, Phil Hill and Jim Clark. It was a stunning drive on the edge on a circuit where any mistake would kill you. He was known for winning at the slowest speed possible but on that day he wanted to win and how.
    A very modest man who survived by his own count the death of 30 friends. RIP

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