SIR Jack Brabham, who died at the age of 88 yesterday, was famously a man of few words but his unforgettable actions on the Formula 1 track had a major impact on Australian motorsport that still resonates today.
The three Formula 1 titles that “Black Jack” won in 1959, 1960 and 1966 proved to Australians that they could beat the best in the world and blazed the trail for the likes of Alan Jones, Mark Webber and now Daniel Ricciardo.
“I think he was inspirational for any young bloke that wanted to go across overseas and race cars,” said Jones, who won the 1980 world title to become only the second Australian Formula 1 champion. “He was the man they looked up to and he was the man they wanted to emulate.”
Brabham’s last title came at the wheel of a car he helped design and build, an unprecedented feat and one highly unlikely to be replicated in the billion dollar high-tech industry that Formula 1 has become.
The sport he entered at the British Grand Prix at Aintree in July 1955 was very different, a high octane championship only five years old played out on mostly ramshackle tracks and, by any standards, extremely dangerous.
Competitive to the end, Brabham was running third 15 years later when a blown engine forced him to retire from his 126th and final Formula 1 race in Mexico.
Although a household name in Australia as the country’s first Formula 1 world champion, Brabham’s natural reserve meant he never became the stereotypical sporting hero.
“I would rather stand behind somebody than stand out in front of them. I have been like that all my life,” he wrote in his autobiography When The Flag Falls.
“It is not exactly shyness – I just don’t like the limelight directed straight at me. I have never been in motor racing for that reason.
“Right from the first day I drove a racing car, what other people thought, or whether they were watching me, has never been of any importance to me.
“I was just interested in driving and if there had been no people there at all it wouldn’t have affected the way I drove in any way.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Brabham’s interest in high performance machines, as well as perhaps his attitude towards extreme risk, was sparked by service in World War II, when he worked as groundcrew in the Royal Australian Air Force.
After his discharge, he started racing in midget cars on cinder tracks before making the move to Britain in 1955 to try his hand at Formula 1, leaving his family behind in Australia in case it did not work out.
It did, however, and in 1959 he had the first of his 14 race wins at Monaco, going on to seal the world title for Cooper at the US Grand Prix where he had to push his car uphill to finish fourth after running out of fuel.
His influence off the track was also evident with the part he played in developing the rear-engined Cooper that hastened the demise of the old front- engined cars.
A second title for Cooper came in 1960 but he was soonworking in secret with fellow Australian Ron Tauranac on the project that would become the Brabham team.
“He would only have to drive a car around one or two corners to decipher what component area was preventing him from making the car do what he wanted,” Scotland’s former world champion Jackie Stewart recalled in his book “Winning is not enough”.
“His genius was a rare ability to cut through the nonsense, pin-point the core problem in a car and solve it.”
Four race wins in nine rounds of the 1966 season were enough to secure him a third drivers’ title and a first constructors’ championship for his team.
The Brabham team also won the constructors’ championship the following year when his New Zealander team mate Denny Hulme took the drivers’ title.
Brabham’s final win came at the 1970 South African Grand Prix and at the end of that season, aged 44, he retired, sold the team to current Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone and headed back to Australia.
The Brabham team name lived on in Formula 1 until 1992 but his own involvement in motorsport was largely restricted to following the careers of his three sons, the youngest of whom, David, raced for the team in 1990.
Another former world champion, Stirling Moss, said Brabham was a competitor on a par with the greatest sportsmen that have emerged from Down Under.
“If you ever raced against Jack you’d really know you’d been in a race,” Moss wrote in the foreword to the The Jack Brabham Story in 2004.
“He was everything we Poms have come to expect of a great Australian sportsman – play the game as if your life depends on it, no quarter asked and absolutely none given.”