Sir Jack Brabham 1926 – 2014

Jack Brabham has died at the age of 88. He was a towering figure of his era, becoming a triple World Champion in Formula 1, the first motor racing knight of the modern era. He started his own Brabham team and won the World Championship with it in 1966, while also achieving success as a racing car manufacturer. He ultimately became the head of a family of racers, the third generation of which is now beginning to flower.

The grandson of a Londoner who emigrated to Australia in 1885 and opened a grocer’s shop in Adelaide, Brabham was born in Sydney where his father worked as a dealer in flour. Brabham grew up fascinated by machinery. He was studying mechanical engineering when he was called up to work for the Royal Australian Air Force in World War II and worked as a mechanic on Beaufighters based in Australia. When the war ended he was demobilised and he immediately began to build a midget racer which was raced by an American called Johnny Schonberg. When Schonberg decided to stop racing Brabham thought he might try himself and he took part in his first race at the Paramattta Speedway in the suburbs of Sydney. He was soon winning races and in the years that followed he became one of the stars of the midget racing scene in Australia until his original engine blew itself up.

Brabham very nearly quit the sport after that, but a meeting with a young engineer called Ron Tauranac resulted in a switch to hillclimbing in 1951 and from there he moved into road racing with a Cooper-Bristol which had been shipped out from Europe. He found sponsorship to run the car but the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport forced him to remove the name of his sponsor from the car and Brabham decided that he would go racing in New Zealand instead. This brought him into contact with a number of international drivers who raced each winter in New Zealand and in 1955, and having seen that he could be competitive with some of the best international racers, Brabham headed off to England where he raced a Cooper-Alta without much success. It was not until he switched to a Bristol engine that thing began to improve and he was soon working at the Cooper Car Company in Surbiton where in lieu of payment, he was allowed to build a car which he raced and then sold. This enabled him to buy a Maserati 250F for the 1956 season. That initiative was not a success and so Brabham went back to Cooper, racing for the factory team in Formula 2 and in sports car events.

In 1957 the Climax engine in his Cooper F2 car was stretched to 2.2-litres and Brabham went to Monaco for the Grand Prix. He crashed. A deal was struck with Rob Walker to put Brabham’s engine into one of Walker’s chassis and Jack raced the car. He was running third with three laps to go when the engine failed, although he pushed the car to the finish and was classified sixth.

Brabham and Cooper continued to develop the car and the engine and in 1959 Brabhham began to win F1 races, his first being the Daily Express Trophy. This was followed by wins in the British and Monaco Grands Prix and these successes took him to the World Championship. The following year he did it again but Cooper’s domination waned with a change in the rules which ended up with Ferrari dominant in 1961. It was during that year that Jack and Tauranac established Motor Racing Developments Ltd and began building a Formula Junior car in a shed in Esher. The project was kept secret as Brabham was still a Cooper driver. At the end of the year Brabham left Cooper and the Brabham company moved into new workshops in Surbiton and began to design a Formula 1 car.

Brabham bought a Lotus with which to start the 1962 season and then in July 1962 the Brabham BT3 finally appeared at the German GP. Cars for other championships followed but success in F1 did not come until 1964 when Brabham driver Dan Gurney won the team’s first Grand Prix at Rouen. Brabham himself did not win a race in one of his own cars until 1966.

A new engine formula was introduced that year and in preparation for that Brabham convinced the Repco company in Australia to build an engine for his team, based on an aluminium Oldsmobile V8. This proved to be the most effective engine of 1966 and 1967 and enabled Brabham to win his third Drivers’ Championship and the team’s first Constructors’ title. In 1967 the team won again with Denny Hulme taking the title.

In 1966 Brabham was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his services to motor racing.

In 1968 a new Repco unit proved to be less effective and the arrival of the Cosworth DFV left all opposition standing and Brabham duly became a DFV user in 1968. He continued to win races but at the end of 1970, at the age of 44, he decided to retire and sold his half of Brabham to Tauranac and went back to Australia. The following year, he and former Repco engineer John Judd set up Engine Developments Ltd, originally marketed as as Jack Brabham Conversions.

His three sons Geoff, Gary and David all enjoyed successful racing careers, David getting to Formula 1 with Brabham and later with the ill-fated Simtek team, in which Brabham was a shareholder.

Brabham was knighted in 1979.

He competed in a total of 128 Grands Prix in his 15-year F1 career, winning 14 of them. In Australia he was one of the greatest sporting legends, while in the wider world he was one of the view whose name became synonymous with the sport.

On behalf of the family, Jack’s youngest son David said: “It’s a very sad day for all of us. My father passed away peacefully at home at the age of 88 this morning. He lived an incredible life, achieving more than anyone would ever dream of and he will continue to live on through the astounding legacy he leaves behind.”

One of the greats has gone.

36 thoughts on “Sir Jack Brabham 1926 – 2014

  1. Oh no, this is very sad news. I was only thinking about him yesterday, watching some old footage and wondering how he was doing.

    He won the first GP I attended (1966 British) and was a big part of my childhood obsession with all things Formula One. I was also at Brands Hatch the day he ran out of fuel on the last lap… we all groaned and felt for him, even those of us who were Lotus/Rindt fans.

    Sincerest condolences to his family.

  2. Very sad news. A life well lived.

    A few years ago I was at a local track here in Queensland where Jack’s grandson Matt was practicing in his Formula Ford. I was wandering the pits when I saw an elderly man, neatly dressed, slowly making his way to the toilets, assisted by his son. I realized who this was before I saw his face, went over and said “g’day Jack” and congratulated him on the progress of his grandson.

    Afterwards it made me think just how much Jack had seen over the years, three world championships, a knighthood, and yet age spares no one. I wondered how many of the young upstarts even knew who he was, the old man making his way to the toilets.

    Certainly a moment I will cherish.

  3. I am saddened to hear this news, but thanks for the great obituary.
    Although I was too young to be aware of Brabham while he was racing… A young Australian lad in the 70’s soon learns the name… and gets to see the cars at historic events frequently now I’m in NZ.

    I knew my uncle worked at Repco, but did not find out until recently that he had a small part to play in the Repco Brabham engines that I had heard of and seen racing… He was just an apprentice at the time, but hand polished (with a leather strap) the bearings of the cranks after they were machined….

    I doubt that goes into a modern F1 engine?

  4. Very sad news. There is solace in that Sir Jack Brabham lived a long life and accomplished truly great things in his life. My condolences to his family and all who were close to him.

  5. My childhood hero, Jack you achieved things that made us a proud made us dream. Your true legend is more than can be appreciated we salute you Sir Jack.

  6. Very sad to hear this. An absolute legend of the sport and the last link to an extraordinary era of motor racing has been lost. The story of his achievements and that old footage of his exploits is amazing. I too was lucky enough to meet the man and get an autograph many years ago, at one of his appearances in Adelaide at the GP meeting.

    Let’s hope the Brabham name lives on in the motor racing world through his sons and grandson for may years to come.

  7. Very sad news, indeed. We Australians have precious few world motorsport champions, and Sir Jack was the best of the best here.

  8. Very sad, we will probably never see another Jack Brabham or Bruce McLaren in F1. The sport is much diminished because of that.

    1. Quite true. Also worth remembering that Jack was one who encouraged Bruce and took him under his wing in many respects when he first came to the UK.

  9. A really great man, someone who was respected with the likes of Sir Jackie Stewart and Mario Andretti – people who are known for the real love for the sport. Too bad he sold the team to Tauranac…later it became Bernie’s turf.

    Don’t know why, but whenever I see “Brabham” I only think of Nelson Piquet in the BMW-liveried Parmalat-sponsored championship-winning machines…

  10. Indeed a legend, I remember standing with Graham Fuller of Minister Power in the pit lane at Brands, he spotted Jack standing quietly on his own
    a few feet away and was genuinely startstruck, this from a man who a few years earlier was helping Senna put ‘Patch’ in the boot of his Alfa

  11. This is very sad news. In the early 1970s, I bought his book (with Elizabeth Hayward) called “When the flag drops”. It’s one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read.

  12. Very sad a true one of a kind never again will anyone be able to even enter in a self built car let alone win a world championship

  13. I was lucky enough to see Jack in the midget at Sydney Showground, spectacularly sideways on cinders, in the Cooper-Bristol at Mt. Druitt – a delightful circuit outside Sydney long buried under suburban houses – and then often in F1. He could be dour – but he once appeared on the grid in a long black beard after people started suggested he was getting too old for F1.

  14. I was born and brought up in Long Ditton, just a mile from Surbiton. I remember the Cooper works and the Repco shop in Surbiton from my paper round and later the “Brabham” (MRD Ltd) works in New Haw (by the canal behind the White Hart). I made several friends at “Brabham’s” in those days, some of whom I am still in contact with and who some still I regard as best friends. Great days! Thank you Jack and all.

  15. Very sad to hear. I attended the 1968 non-championship International Gold Cup at Oulton Park and the 1970 German Grand Prix at Hockenheim in which Jack Brabham drove. He retired from both. He was certainly very successful in his racing career both as a driver and constructor. Sincerest condolences to his family.

  16. My immediate memory is of him appearing on the grid at the Dutch Grand Prix towards the end of his career in Formula 1 with a long straggly beard and a walking stick, on his way to his car which he had planted on the front row next to Graham Hill’s Lotus 49 – perhaps 1968? A fine sense of humour.

    He was unfortunate to be the victim of Rindt’s Monaco drive, which many will say shows that he couldn’t take the pressure, but I’m not sure anyone would have resisted that day.

    He was certainly a fine engineer and you don’t get to win three World Championships without being a damn fine driver.

    Sincere condolonces to his family.

  17. He not only leaves us with memories of his own achievements, but a legacy of two further generations of racers, class acts as drivers and people, every one.

  18. A massive and enormously sad loss. Everything about Jack Brabham was memorable: the driving style, the achievements, the cars, the accent, the humour and the stories he liked to tell. There are very few greater names in F1 history.

  19. That’s a shame, condolences to his family.

    This reminded me that I used to live in Surbiton, a few hundred feet from where their office was, albeit ~30 years later. I think I can be sure that Sir Jack Brabham and I shared a few of the same barstools, although a few decades apart.

    His house was in the poorer part of town! further from the river.

  20. Joe, your ability to pull together an abbreviated bio of people into a readable and interesting narrative is astounding.

    RIP Sir jack.

  21. I can’t do justice by way of tribute to such a man.

    But it is my deepest heartfelt hope, wish, desire, aspiration, will and willing on in hoping to emulate the spirit of such men, that I call for this sport to do right by the fire and determination of the giants whom we leave behind in memory at our peril; so that we – or rather who can, for I am mere bystander – raise this game by as true and indisputable a substance as such a great life attests.

    He has faced his ultimate challenge. May it be as he wished. To do less than we can in life is the only insult to the greats who have taken our leave.

    Reflect but prospect.

    I want to believe that soon enough this racing game will be looked on as a proper job by those we miss.

    I’m sad with every loss, but I’m genuinely hopeful there’s another generational change happening now, maybe not clearly so, but as we must inevitably mourn each one of who grew up with this sport, I feel far less sad because I sense there’s the elements of something worthy in firmament. Every loss makes us cherish more what we do have. What we do have looks the best to me for a long while. If I’m wrong, I pray those who can will reflect the more and prospect the better. If there’s a way to look down, when not resting īn peace, I hope things will be approved of.

  22. Thanks Joe for the nice words about the great man. My favourite story about Jack emanates from a Melbourne GP where the McLaren 2 seater made its debut (1999?). A lot of local celebrities were being ferried around Albert Park by Martin Brundle and a young female reporter asked Jack if he would like a go as a passenger. His reponse was something like “Bugger that, I’d rather have a go at driving the thing”

  23. A very sad day. One happy thought I have is that his grandson, Matthew Brabham, won the inaugural Indy Lights race on the new road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a couple weeks ago. Matt seems to be on the rise, and I’m sure his grandfather was proud. I hope we’ll see him in the Indy 500 in the next few years, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He also happens to drive for another famous family of racers.

  24. Not unexpected, but what a life! Quite apart from the race wins and championships, think of his role in creating the Formula One of the latter half of the 20th Century. He had a key role in developing *successful* mid-engined racing cars in the top echelon. Motor Racing Developments was in the mid-1960s one of, if not the biggest manufacturers of single seat racing cars – the 1965 British GP saw 7 Brabhams compete and later Frank Williams would taste his first successes in F1 (two podiums) running a privateer Brabham for Piers Courage. In other formulae, Brabhams were widely used and highly successful for many drivers on their way to the top, and were also often copied by other manufacturers (Much of the success of the cars must of course be attributed to Ron Tauranac!). On the engine supplier side, apart from Repco, Honda enjoyed massive success with Brabham and Hulme in F2 in 1966 before taking the plunge and entering F1.

    Rest in peace.

    1. True this was not unexpected, but sad to come back to as i did tuesday. He was a great Aussie and great human being. A top driver, quality engineer, and has presided over a racing dynasty that has been a credit to the Brabham family name.
      Few drivers win a WCD title, even few win 3 as Jack did, and it could have been a 4th in 1970, but for some bad luck. I don’t think Jack was really wanting to run in 1970, and had Rindt not left, then Jochen might well have been Champ and alive, as the BT33 was a very good car, robust, reliable, fast and simple. I often think that in some races that year when Jochen was behind Jack, that maybe Jack was really trying, just to give Rindt a bit of a two finger salute, and say, ” this is what you should have been driving this year!”…whatever, Sir Jack was a fine driver, a gentleman and a man who left a mark, and a Marque, that will forever be remembered by true enthusiasts.

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