- Maurice Hamilton's blog
'A true racer of the old school'Maurice Hamilton May 19, 2014
When discussion gets going over the truly great drivers, very little mention is made of Sir John Arthur Brabham. It may be a serious omission in terms of the man's achievement but, in some ways, it suited a driver who simply kept his head down - both in and out of the cockpit.
In the days of open-face crash helmets, Jack Brabham could be easily recognised when trying hard - which was 99% of the time - by a head tilted forward and, when trying really hard, an open mouth. All of this would be accompanied by a rear wheel flicking dirt - usually at a hapless opponent.
Brabham's racing background in dirt ovals would be as obvious as his healthy Aussie disregard for sucking up to the press. He was there to race and if you didn't like it, too bad. Saying that, he knew how to play the game. 'Crafty' doesn't make a start. The change of engine formula for the 1966 F1 season sums up his attitude perfectly.
The move from 1.5-litre to 3-litres was as big a step then as the change we're experiencing now. While Ferrari and BRM were building their own engines as usual, others were scratching around. Brabham used his column in the now defunct Motor Racing magazine to baldly state: 'We [Brabham Racing Organisation] have no plans or possibilities of going Formula 1 racing after 1965. The problem will be the availability of engines. It is only manufacturers of the size of BRM, Ferrari and Honda that will be able to take part.'
Many years later, I mentioned this statement to Jack's team-mate, Denny Hulme. The 1967 world champion grinned and shook his head. "Yeah, that would be Jack," said the Kiwi. "He could give the impression that was a bit vague at times. He was quite good at that, particularly with anyone who wanted to talk about money! But he knew exactly what he was doing and in which direction he wanted to travel."
Brabham's travels in 1965 took him to Australia and the door of Replacement Parts Pty Ltd, a company that had built up a vast business in the southern hemisphere manufacturing automotive components under the 'Repco' brand name. Brabham knew they had a 2.5-litre engine based on an Oldsmobile V8 for the Tasman series and, after some discussion, Repco agreed to a Grand Prix programme with a 3-litre version. Despite Jack's early denials, the Repco Brabham was the first F1 car to appear on a race track in 1966.
While BRM became bogged down with their hugely complex H16 and Ferrari dithered between a V8 and a V12, Brabham cleaned up with a simple but reliable engine based on common or garden American V8. The satisfaction gained from designing and building his own car matched the team's eight victories (from 20 Grands Prix) that followed in the next two seasons.
A classic Brabham drive actually occurred in a race he didn't win. Jack finished fourth in the 1967 British Grand Prix - but only after losing third in the closing stages of a race-long fight at Silverstone with Chris Amon's Ferrari.
- Jack Brabham
"That race was one of the most enjoyable I ever had," recalls Chris. "I got involved in this big dice with old Jack and I remember he was adjusting his mirrors early in the race - and one of them flew off and whistled past my head! Then he seemed to be adjusting the other one…I've never been sure whether he was adjusting them or trying to tear them off!
"After about 30 laps, he'd lost both mirrors, and then we had a real tussle. That was a very wide car indeed but, of course, afterwards he tells me he's very sorry for chopping me all over the place but his mirrors were gone and he didn't know I was there! I finally passed him [when Brabham got into a 170mph slide] out of Woodcote with about four laps to go. He went a bit wide there and I was able to get a run at him down to Copse. He did a good job, I must say. It was a real old fashioned dice, and that was why it was so enjoyable. He was throwing everything in the bloody book at me - stones, grass, dirt; everything!"
Twenty years later, when researching a book on the British Grand Prix, I talked to Brabham about the race.
"You say my mirrors came off?" he asked, innocently. "I don't recall that particular moment but there were plenty of moments like it. If I remember rightly, I was behind somebody and my mirrors got hit by stones." He kept a straight face throughout. But you could detect a twinkle in the eye.
When I asked about the satisfaction of 1966 when he became the first man to win a F1 championship in a car with his name on the nose and no less than 10 F2 races that year, he said simply: "Yep, not bad."
Not bad indeed. RIP a true racer of the old school.
Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1.