Obituary: Sir John Arthur ‘Jack’ Brabham, AO, OBE, racing driver and businessman

Jack Brabham: The only Formula One world champion to win in a car that he owned, designed and built. Picture: Getty
Jack Brabham: The only Formula One world champion to win in a car that he owned, designed and built. Picture: Getty
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Born: 2 April, 1926, in Hurstville, New South Wales, Australia. Died: 19 May, 2014, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, aged 88

IN THE golden era of Grand Prix racing, the two Scots who became world champions, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart, found themselves racing against a host of international stars, but only one of them, Jack Brabham of Australia, had the distinction of winning the Formula One world championship in a car bearing his own name. His death at the age of 88 after a long battle with kidney and liver disease has seen a host of tributes paid to a great Australian and a legendary figure in motor racing’s history.

A sportsman who was the archetype of Aussie grit and determination, Brabham came late to Formula One, being 29 when he first raced in an F1 Grand Prix, but went on to win the world championship three times, the last of them in 1966 at the age of 40. He had been written off by the media so often that after winning one race in that championship season, he pulled on a set of whiskers and hirpled along the track with a walking stick to mock those ageist comments.

Born in Hurstville, a suburb of southern Sydney in New South Wales, Brabham was the grandson of a Cockney who had emigrated to Australia in the 1880s.

His father owned a grocery business and by the age of 12, Brabham had learned to drive and was already fascinated by all things mechanical. Nicknamed “Black Jack” on account of his dark hair and swarthy complexion, Brabham left school at 15 to work in a local garage, studying mechanical engineering at night classes.

On turning 18, he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force, aiming to become a pilot, but with the wartime influx of trainee pilots and a shortage of trained mechanics, the RAAF put him to work on maintaining Bristol Beaufighters.

On his demob from the RAAF in 1946, Brabham started his own business servicing and repairing cars from a workshop at his grandfather’s house.

It was shortly afterwards that he discovered motor racing, but not as a driver. He was taken to a meeting for midget cars, known as speedcars, which raced on dirt ovals similar to speedway tracks. It was a very popular sport in Australia at that time, and Brabham teamed up with an American friend, Johnny Schonberg, to build a car that Schonberg drove.

In 1948, Brabham took over at the wheel and soon found that he was a natural racer. He won that year’s Australian Speedcar Championship and repeated the feat twice more in the next three years. Brabham always credited this time in the midgets as the apprenticeship he needed for Formula One, and the cornering skills he learned then would be his trademark for the rest of his career.

Moving up to road racing, Brabham was soon winning major races, and showed his knack for innovation by gaining a sponsor, the Redex fuel additive company, whose name was emblazoned on the side of his Cooper-Bristol car. The Australian racing authorities promptly banned this form of advertising, but Brabham just went on winning and by 1953 he was effectively a full-time professional racer.

In 1955, he came to Britain to take part in Formula One, Formula 2 and sports car races, and linked up with the father-and-son car builders John and Charlie Cooper. He made his Formula One debut in the British Grand Prix at Aintree and had to retire with a broken clutch, though many experts spotted the potential of the rear-engined Cooper-Bristol Bobtail car that he drove and had helped to build.

Engine trouble dogged the car, but Brabham persevered and his first finish (in fourth place) was at Charterhall near Duns, the home town of Jim Clark – against whom he would soon be racing. In November, however, Brabham returned home where he won the Australian Grand Prix.

In 1956, he returned to Britain by boat with his wife Betty and son Geoffrey, financed by selling the Cooper in which he had won the Australian GP. For two seasons, Brabham raced for Cooper in sports cars and Formula 2, with occasional outings on the Grand Prix circuit. The Cooper cars he drove then were underpowered, though Stirling Moss was able to win in a modified Cooper and Brabham won the Formula 2 championship.

All the time Brabham was working with the Coopers behind the scenes to develop a car to match the new 2.5 litre engines which came into the sport in 1959.

Brabham promptly won the Monaco Grand Prix and later added the British equivalent before a frightening accident ended his participation in the Portuguese Grand Prix, his car being shunted into a telegraph pole and Brabham being flung on to the road. Typically, Brabham said the ambulance ride to hospital was more frightening than his accident. Amazingly he had suffered no serious injuries and saw out the season to win his first world title, pushing the car over the line to finish fourth in the US Grand Prix after running out of fuel on the last lap.

The next Cooper car, the T53, was almost unbeatable at first and Brabham duly won the first five races of the 1960 season, setting himself up for another championship.

In 1962, Brabham set up his own team with the help of his Australian friend, the brilliant engineer and car designer Ron Tauranac. It took time for them to come up with a winning design, however, and it was not until the 1964 season that the Brabham-Climax took the chequered flag, American Dan Gurney winning the French Grand Prix.

Brabham had thought about retiring to concentrate on managing the team, but he carried on driving and in 1965 he managed only one podium finish as Jim Clark dominated the season, with Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and Gurney the next three in the standings.

Again an enforced engine change, this time to a 3-litre size, worked the oracle for Brabham, who with Tauranac designed and built the Brabham T19 and T20 cars with Australian engines. The new car revitalised Brabham and a run of four wins in succession gave him the title and the distinction of being the only man ever to win the championship in a car owned, designed and built by him.

Brabham raced on until 1970 when he won the South African Grand Prix before retiring at the age of 44. He continued to run the Brabham Racing Organisation for several years, but also had interests in a farm, car dealerships, an aviation business and an engine development company. He later sold his team to Bernie Ecclestone, who went on to run F1.

His three sons, Geoff, Gary and David all followed him into motorsport with varying degrees of success, while Brabham himself enjoyed taking part in classic car races into his seventies. Knighted in 1978 for his services to the motor industry, Brabham had previously been invested with the OBE in 1966 and in 2008 was made an officer of the Order of Australia.

He is survived by his second wife, Lady Margaret, and his three sons and grandchildren.