In the second installment of our tribute to this pioneering pacesetter, whose career will be memorialised at the Revival, we recall the beginning of the Brabham team in the early 1960s
AUG 10th 2016
Remembering Jack Brabham: Part 2 – The Genesis of a Great Grand Prix team
The first Cooper consisted of a pair of Fiat Topolino front ends connected by a simple ladder chassis powered by a single-cylinder motorbike engine placed behind the driver for practical reasons.
The first Lotus, which appeared two years later (1948), was a mud-plugging trials car based on a 1930 Austin 7.
The first Brabham, built in 1961 – and called MRD to conceal Jack Brabham’s involvement from his employer Charlie Cooper – was a bespoke spaceframe single-seat racing car designed for a well-established and thriving global feeder formula.
Much had changed in the intervening years: British motorsport had transmogrified from outpost to epicentre and a ‘nut brown Aussie’ had made the most of this new world.
Jack Brabham was a brilliant opportunist. He saw that the burgeoning production racing car market – dominated by Cooper and Lotus – had space for another player, and that the support industry it had created around it would allow him to make strides rather than take steps.
Limited finance and manpower meant that his first car would be constructed in unpromising premises – a room at the rear of a garage near the Esher Bypass – and be the result of long hours: an environment and process familiar to formative Cooper and Lotus.
But, as a two-time world champion, his name, nous and contacts allowed him to start at the top and create a company beneath him.
Having already turned the sport on its head with Cooper’s rear-engine machines, he was about to do so again: his team’s business model and working practices provided the blueprint for a new era.
Jack codified and empowered the kit-car generation that still rules F1 today.
A set of Goodyears, a Hewland gearbox and a Cosworth DFV – plus some blood and plenty of sweat – and you were good to go in 1970s F1. Perspicacious Jack introduced the first two of these building blocks in 1963 and 1965 respectively.
He not only accessed the subcontractors and specialists in the A3 corridor south-west of London – the nearby Brooklands circuit had fallen into disuse but its legacy had survived and been revived after WWII – but also he took a world view: his engine deals with Honda (for Formula 2 from 1965) and Repco of Melbourne (for F1 from 1966) were considered left field but were proved absolutely right.
All of the above is how, in 1963 – Brabham’s first full season of F1 – it beat Ferrari to third place in the constructors’ world championship; and how in its second season – a super-competitive slugfest versus BRM, Ferrari and Lotus (but not fading Cooper sadly) – it built arguably the fastest car and scored its first GP victory.
Cooper hadn’t won one until 1958 and Lotus until 1960.
Some growing pains were unavoidable, however: reliability comes neither cheaply – Jack was not one to throw his money around – nor swiftly; and divergent internal pressures threatened to blow his nascent organisation apart.
Fellow New South Welshman Ron Tauranac – actually he was born in Gillingham – had been Brabham’s “engineering pen pal” during the second half of the 1950s and played a crucial if distant role in Cooper’s success. Somewhat of a martinet, he was as straight as a dye and led by example.
Ron was central to Jack’s plan and again he was proved absolutely spot-on: only Gianpaolo Dallara vies with Tauranac as the greatest designer of production racing cars.
But Ron and Jack were not bosom buddies and sang different stages of tune.
Tauranac ran Motor Racing Developments and prioritised its customers’ needs. Jack the businessman saw the sense in that – a full order book was what enabled him to go motor racing – but the racer in him wanted first refusal. Yet Brabham Racing Organisation, Jack’s works team created in 1963, often felt the wait (sic) of expectation.
Not that either man was thinking about such things when unknown Tasmanian Gavin Youl put his prototype MRD, aka BT1, on pole for a heat of the Formula Junior support race to Goodwood’s RAC Tourist Trophy in August 1961.
Or when it caught fire after qualification and had to be rushed back to base and rebuilt overnight...
Youl did well to finish fourth in that heat – behind Lotus, Cooper and Gemini – and second in the 15-lap final of this round of the BARC-run British Championship.
Brabham gathered pace in 1962: Youl won at Catalina Park in NSW in March; and Frenchman Jo Schlesser scored the marque’s first European win at Montlhéry the following month.
BT3, the F1 prototype, wasn’t ready until summer and, after a shakedown at Goodwood and a test at Brands Hatch, made its debut at the Nürburgring’s German GP. Blighted during practice by problems with its Coventry Climax V8 – Brabham would suffer more than its fair share of trouble with this engine – it retired because the extra throttle springs attached to its bitsa power unit caused Jack’s right leg to go numb.
The car, however, finished a distant third on its next outing, the non-championship Oulton Park Gold Cup, and by the season’s close had scored fourth places in the United States and South African Grands Prix.
It was rugged, simple and effective. Pragmatic Tauranac designed cars to be easy to set up, maintain and repair and could see no reason why the works cars should be any different.
The BT7 he created for new signing Dan Gurney for 1963 was narrower, lighter and longer to accommodate the American’s rangy frame.
As fast as anyone when his mind was right, Gurney immediately raised Brabham’s game by finishing third and second in Belgium and Holland. He also finished second at the world championship’s South African finale, where he set fastest lap, but had suffered a spate of DNFs between times.
But it was Jack’s BT3 that provided the marque with its first F1 win at the non-championship Solitude GP – less than a year after its category debut.
This combo also won the non-championship Austrian GP on the bumpy Zeltweg airfield circuit, a real car-breaker.
Brabham’s first world championship victory arrived in late June 1964, Gurney winning the French GP at Rouen. He also won the Mexican finale. BT7, suited to Dunlop’s new ‘doughnut’ tyre, was a match for any rival that season but was hobbled regularly by reliability issues that followed no discernible pattern.
Brabham slipped to fourth in the constructors’ standings.
It recovered a place in 1965 but scored no world championship victories. Gurney ended the season strongly – three thirds and two seconds in consecutive GPs – and Jack, approaching 40, was clearly preparing for his retirement, standing aside on occasion for F2 frontrunner Denny Hulme.
But Gurney, inspired by his boss’s route, decided to go it alone in 1966. As did Bruce McLaren, Jack’s former Cooper team-mate. Both would make a success of their teams – each winning a GP in a car of their own construction – but Jack remained the daddy.
In 1966, the maiden year of 3-litre F1, he became the first and so far only driver to win a world championship title in a car bearing his own name.
“I played a much bigger part from 1966 on,” says Tauranac. “After three seasons of no direct involvement and no feedback nor money for development I had lost interest. That’s why I said I didn’t wish to build any more F1 cars at the end, of the 1.5-litre formula .”
This admission cleared the air, however, and a new agreement was drawn up.
Jack: “I never actually fell out with Ron, but we had to make sure the F1 side was going to work. My driving had gone stale but, with Repco behind me, I was fired up again.”
Tauranac: “Jack and I had the partnership back to the way we had originally planned it.”
Much had changed in those intervening years.
Photography courtesy of LAT.