The photo depicts the quiet satisfaction of a difficult task well done: 10 men standing proudly behind their world championship-winning car and alongside the converted Bedford coach that hauled it around Europe.
AUG 24th 2016
Brabham voices: Part 1 – The few
Behind them lies a busy, no-frills workshop decorated by laurels earned during a remarkable season. For not only had Brabham Racing Organisation won the 1966 Formula 1 constructors’ and drivers’ titles – boss Jack’s third such honour – but in conjunction with Honda had also dominated European Formula 2.
Rare is the occasion that so much is achieved by so few.
To the right stand ‘the suits’: Jack himself; chief designer Ron Tauranac; a 24-year-old English engine designer called John Judd – a former Coventry Climax apprentice soon to be dispatched to Australia to help with the next generation of Repco V8; and business/team manager Phil Kerr.
In the middle in smart-casual is Denny Hulme – “a mechanic at heart who just happened to be a racing driver”. And to his right stand ‘the boiler suits’. Mechanics, all five of them: three Kiwis, an Aussie and a ‘Welsh Pom’ called Hywel ‘Hughie’ Absalom.
“We trusted each other totally and worked many, many months with no time off,” says Absalom. “Friction can come into it when people are tired, but I can’t remember us ever having differences of opinion.
“We did all kinds of things and got away with them. My son works for Force India and he tells me that the only reason they have so many rules and regulations today is because we broke them all.”
Absalom joined in April 1965. He was 22 when he arrived from a Jaguar dealership in Pembrokeshire. One minute he was tweaking Triumph Heralds and Sunbeam Alpines at Jack Brabham Conversions, the next he was number two mechanic to Australian Tim Wall on Dan Gurney’s F1 car.
“Every time I applied for a job with other teams I had received a letter back saying that they wanted experience,” he says. “So I couldn’t believe my luck at Brabham. I got in via the back door somehow.
“It was an amazing deal really. The travelling was fantastic. Another world. Literally. Driving the transporter – and never worrying about the possible consequences – or flying about in a little private aeroplane. People dreamed about such things.
“The second race I did was at Reims and I stood, with my pit board, on the white line – right in the middle of no-man’s land – with cars passing close by at 170mph. It was just what you did.”
He switched to Jack’s car for 1966 and worked alongside chief mechanic/senior pro Roy Billington from Whangarei, New Zealand’s northernmost city.
“Jack was a very clever man, very astute in everything he did. As a driver, it always seemed liked he had a cushion, that he was never really on the limit. I can’t remember any accidents in those two years.
“Ron was more abrasive but also knew his stuff. I learned more at Brabham than I did during my subsequent spell at Lotus.
“But at the beginning of 1966 I didn’t I think we had a winning combination; the Repco kept knocking cam followers out, and there were lots of other little problems with it. Jack was in a quandary about reverting to a Climax engine.”
The mechanic charged with solving those problems was Bob Ilich, a 25-year-old from Perth, Western Australia. He, too, was a convert from Conversions.
“Jack was my hero and fundamental to my interest in motor racing,” he says. “He lived up to all my expectations. I can’t speak highly enough of his team, but without him at the top we wouldn’t have won. He was overseeing the whole thing.”
Ilich left his family’s BMC dealership in mid-1964 to follow his dream. He told his parents that he’d be in the UK for a year.
He stayed for four.
“I’m the little blond bloke on the end,” he says of ‘the photo’ while taking a break from rebuilding his Brabham BT30. “My ambition was to earn enough to buy a racing car and bring it home.”
Colleague Cary Taylor from Christchurch was thinking the same thing and between them they hatched a plan.
“We worked at Conversions in the daytime, knocked off at 6pm and went assembling racing cars [at Tauranac’s Motor Racing Developments] at night,” says Ilich.
“The F1 team was next door. It was roped off but we used to look over. There was a bloke working there one Sunday and Cary said, “You’re a New Zealander aren’t you?” It was Roy Billington. After a few visits he asked if we’d like to come to Oulton Park and give him a hand, pushing the cars around, polishing them, cleaning their rose-joints, that sort of stuff.”
His eagerness had led to a full-time job – and a surprise role – for Ilich by 1966: “One day Jack said, ‘Flying Repco engines back and forth to and from Australia isn’t going to work. We’re going to have to rebuild them here.’ So, along with Jimmy Potton, a very experienced English mechanic who had worked for Aston Martin, I helped strip the first engine.
“Then, and I don’t know why, Jimmy left, and Jack asked me, ‘Did you watch how he pulled that engine to bits?’
“I replied, ‘No, not really.’”
“But I’d worked on truck engines in Australia and been building engines at Conversions, so I got it back together and we put it into Jack’s BT19. It wouldn’t go. The battery was flat. When it did start, we’d flooded it and flames shot about 10 metres from the exhausts.
“Anyway, it went to Reims and won – and I did the engines from there on.”
That was the first of four consecutive GP victories – France, Britain, Holland and Germany – which provided the backbone of Jack’s title push. The crown was secured despite retiring from the lead at Monza in September.
By which time another New Zealander, John Muller, a 25-year-old from Hamilton, had joined from McLaren to work on Jack’s car and in theory free up Billington. A quiet perfectionist – distracted, he is the only one not making eye contact in ‘the photo’ – he hadn’t enjoyed the ‘American’ element at McLaren.
“There were people there climbing the ladder and they would stamp on your fingers if necessary,” he says. “Brabham was totally different: a smaller, tighter knit group. If anyone had a drama or a problem everybody helped to fix it.
“Jack didn’t communicate a great deal but he really looked after us. He was great, as was the team, and we all got on like a house on fire.”
But, boy, was it hard work.
Photography courtesy of LAT