The death of Sir Jack Brabham robs us of a true legend of the sport, and a driver whose extraordinary achievements have long been underrated.
A man who raced through the eras of Stirling Moss, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart has usually been overlooked when the greats of all time are discussed, and yet his record was extraordinary.
He was only the second driver after Juan Manuel Fangio to win three World Championships, and even today the list of those who have matched or exceeded that total is an exclusive one. The fact that his third was achieved with his own car and team earned him a unique place in the history books. In addition with John Cooper he was at the heart of the rear-engine revolution both in Grand Prix, and later, at Indianapolis. And in a Grand Prix career that extended from 1955 to 1970, he was the only man to race against the Mercedes W196 and the Lotus 72.
I once asked him why he thought he was so overshadowed by his contemporaries: “I think it’s just that I didn’t piss in the press’s pockets as much as other people!,” he grinned mischievously. “Being an Australian doesn’t help over in this country. I never used to worry too much about the press, but probably that was a mistake on my part…”
What should not be forgotten is that in 1970 he won the opening GP of the year in South Africa, but lost victory in Monaco with his infamous last corner incident, and at Brands Hatch when he ran out of fuel. He was also on pole in Spain. He had a few mechanical gremlins along the way as well, and had fortune favoured him that season he could well have won a fourth title – at the age of 44.
It was family pressure that caused him to retire at the end of that tragic season, and crucially for the first time it came from his father as well as his first wife Betty. It was a decision he later regretted.
“I was stuck with it, I couldn’t change it,” he told me. “It was a dreadful feeling really. I felt very sad, and I couldn’t believe it had come to an end. I just had to grit my teeth, and say that’s it. I’d made my mind up and I’d got to get on with it.
“I didn’t feel I was giving up racing because I couldn’t do the job. I felt just as competitive then as at any other time, and I really should have won the championship in ’70. I have no idea, but I think I could have gone on at least another three or four years. The press didn’t help either – they kept calling me the old man of motor racing, at 44! In those days 44 was old, but today, particularly if you go to America, there are plenty of people racing in their 50s.”
He could certainly have continued for a few more seasons in F1, and perhaps then looked to sportscar racing. Indeed in 1970 he raced for Matra, winning the Paris 1000kms and thoroughly enjoying not having the burden of running the whole show.
He might have been a little frustrated at stopping prematurely, but he did get out unscathed. And that wasn’t just down to luck. Brabham was the first to admit that he always assessed the risks when he was racing – if that meant finishing second, so be it. In addition his technical understanding meant that he had a sympathy for his machinery that not all drivers shared. Those traits helped him to survive.
He still couldn’t get it out of his system of course, and would make occasional appearances, even driving a Rothmans Porsche 956 at the Sandown WEC race in 1984. Officially it was a camera car, but he wasn’t hanging around. In 2000 he was racing a 1967 McLaren F1 car flat out at the Goodwood Revival, until a heavy accident. It was the first time he had to spend a night in hospital. And yet he still continued to compete in historic events, for as long as his health would allow.
His legacy is of course the dynasty he created. Sons Geoff, David and Gary all achieved some success, and now grandsons Matthew and Sam are carrying on the family tradition. The Brabham name will be around for many years to come.