In a racing car Jack Brabham could be many things, yet most often he was under-rated. And that was just how he liked it. While the dominant Jim Clark, indefatigable John Surtees, mercurial Jochen Rindt and flamboyant Jackie Stewart frequently earned the headlines, the taciturn grocer's son from Sydney was more than happy to get by with a quick grin and, outside his circle of confidantes, rarely used two words when none would do.
Yet he was a fearsome contender who on his day could beat the best of them. Right up until his final season, in 1970, he was capable of winning grands prix at the grand age of 44. And his legacy is a mighty footprint in motorsport.
After winning two world championships with Cooper in 1959 and '60, in 1966 he became the first man to win a grand épreuve, and then to win a world title, in a car bearing his own name. That feat is never likely to be matched.
He was the first man to be knighted, in 1979, for his achievements in grand prix racing (as opposed to the knighthoods Henry Segrave and Malcolm Campbell received in the interwar years for breaking the land speed record) and in 1961 he was instrumental in kick-starting the switch to rear-engined cars that revolutionised the famed Indianapolis 500 race.
But though he was fiercely competitive, when he found himself fighting his team-mate and employee Denny Hulme for the 1967 crown he never once considered giving the New Zealander inferior equipment. When Hulme triumphed, Brabham was gracious in defeat as the car bearing his name also won a second world championship for constructors.
Born in Sydney in 1926, Brabham left the Royal Australian Air Force in 1946 as a flight mechanic. After spectating at a Midget car race in Brisbane with Australian-domiciled American racer Johnny Schonberg that year he was struck by how dangerous the rough-and-tumble dirt-track sport was. But after Schonberg had persuaded him to build him a car, Brabham found himself racing it in 1947 and went on to win the New South Wales and South Australian championships in 1948 and '49, and the South Australian Championship in 1951 and '52.
When his first wife, Betty, persuaded him to give up Midgets when they married in 1951, he won in hill climbs and then terrorised the Australian scene in 1953 in a Cooper Bristol known as the Redex Special. That led to the decision to race in Europe in 1955, and to a works drive in Formula 2 events with Charles and John Cooper's eponymous company for 1957. That in turn led to grand prix appearances in the diminutive machines. Even though they gave away half a litre to the pukka grand prix cars of Maserati, Ferrari and BRM, the handling of the rear-engined Coopers conferred compensatory advantages that enabled Brabham to make his mark. In particular, an heroic performance saw him finish sixth at Monaco after having run third and then pushed his car home when it stopped with a lap to run.
In 1958 he shared the winning Aston Martin with Stirling Moss in the Nürburgring 1000 kilometres and won the Autocar Formula 2 Championship in a Cooper. But his best years with the latter marque came in 1959, when he won his first grands prix in Monaco and Britain to clinch his first title, and again in 1960 when five consecutive victories, in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Britain and Portugal, meant that he retained his crown.
For 1962, however, he set up his own team, with his friend Ron Tauranac as the designer. Moss's legendary mechanic Alf Francis once said of Brabham: "He is that unusual combination of a first class engineer and a first class driver," and the Brabham-Tauranac alliance earned an enviable reputation for the pragmatic excellence of their machines. After the inevitable growing pains, the American ace Dan Gurney scored the new marque's first grands prix successes in France and Mexico in 1964.
When the formula changed from 1.5 to 3 litres for 1966, Tauranac served up a light, stylish car called the BT19 which was propelled by a relatively underpowered Repco V8. While rivals forgot the basic tenets of good design, Brabham took his third title. He was nearing 40 at the time and amused onlookers by walking to the grid at Zandvoort leaning on a stick and wearing a false beard; he won. The following year the BT20 and BT24 were sufficiently competitive for Hulme to repeat the success.
Brabham opened the 1970 season with victory in South Africa and could have won several times more but for ill-fortune – most notably at Monaco, where his great friend Rindt pushed him into a rare error in the final corner – then hung up his helmet at the end of the year. The team was later sold to Rindt's ambitious friend and manager, Bernie Ecclestone, who would take the Brabham name to further success.
Brabham's Midget racing background endowed his driving with its distinctive tail-out style, and with a toughness that did not always sit easily with his competitors. He was renowned for putting wheels in the dirt as he battled to stay ahead, often to the detriment of those chasing him. In the 1960 Dutch GP Moss elected to follow him while trying to play down an undeserved reputation as a car breaker; his Lotus was delayed by a puncture and suspension damage after Brabham's Cooper had hurled up a rock.
But he also had a kindly side; when the journalist Alan Brinton learned that his wife had died while he was reporting the French GP in 1966, Brabham dropped everything to fly him back to the UK in his private plane.
Ever the Aussie battler, he had been undergoing kidney dialysis three times a week for several years. His three sons, Geoff, Gary and David, all distinguished themselves in their racing careers, and he lived to see Geoff and David's sons, Matthew and Sam, break through recently to perpetuate one of the sport's greatest names with respective successes in Indy Lights and British Formula Ford.
"The word 'legend' is often used to describe successful sportsmen, but often it exaggerates their status," said the McLaren chief Ron Dennis, who cut his teeth at Brabham. "In the case of Sir Jack Brabham, however, it's entirely justified."
Jack Brabham, racing driver, car builder and team owner: born Sydney 2 April 1926; OBE 1966, Kt 1979; married firstly Betty Evelyn Beresford (marriage dissolved; three sons), secondly Margaret Taylor; died Surfers' Paradise, Gold Coast, Australia 19 May 2014.Reuse content