Autocar's Matt Burt with Paul Birch, Brabham's technical boss, and David Brabham, the company's owner
Twelve years. That’s how long it has taken David Brabham to reassert control over his famous family name and then formulate a solid strategy to re-establish it as a credible player in the automotive industry.
Now, following last month’s launch of the new-look Brabham Automotive and its £1m-before-tax BT62 track car, he says he’s determined to put the foundations in place to ensure the name is never allowed to fade back into obscurity.
Brabham was a mighty force in Formula 1 and other racing formulae from the early 1960s, when David’s father, Sir Jack, first entered his own team in grand prix competition, to the mid-1980s, when it vied for dominance against McLaren, Lotus and Ferrari. But whereas those other famous names remained consistently active, Brabham as a racing constructor faded into obscurity.
After long-term owner Bernie Ecclestone sold up at the end of 1987, a succession of people played pass-the-parcel with the team until Brabham finally disappeared from the grid for good before the start of the 1993 grand prix season.
The equity in the name never diminished — something that didn’t go unnoticed with others with no connection to the Brabham family. In 2009, a tuning company in Germany christened itself Brabham Racing and launched a heavily modified BMW M3 Coupé (E92), heavily playing on the grand prix legacy not least by naming its car ‘BT92’, implying a link with the original Brabham company’s ‘BT’ model naming code. Around the same time, an attempt was made to enter F1 with a team called Brabham Grand Prix for the 2010 season.
It was unsuccessful, but it prompted David to seek legal protection for the name, which was finally achieved in 2013 when ownership of the trademark passed back into Brabham hands.
By the time that decision was handed down by the German high court, David’s racing commitments were becoming fewer and he was already turning his mind to what would come after he called time on a professional driving career stretching back 30 years.
“I was 40 at the time, thinking about the future,” says Brabham, now 52. “I thought we had this iconic name with so much history and success behind it and we should be doing something with it. So I went on a quest to bring it back to the world stage.
“Of course, a lot of that was down to trying to get Brabham back racing, because I felt that’s where it wants to be, but I’ve been around long enough to know that race teams on their own are a hard thing to keep alive.
“To do something, it had to be right. We’ve been approached by lots of different crazy people wanting to do things that just were not going to work for the brand. In the back of my mind, I always knew I needed something more significant for the name to come back and it’s turned out as well as I could have hoped 12 years ago."
The BT62’s technical package was determined by the intent of going endurance racing, from the relatively understressed naturally aspirated V8 engine through to the carbonfibre body panels that shroud the spaceframe chassis and the installation of a roll cage. Then there’s the Michelin slick tyres riding on 18in wheels with a central wheel nut, the as-standard carbon-carbon brakes and integrated air jack points so the car can be elevated during pit stops.
The 5.4-litre V8 comes from a supplier whose identity the company is coy about revealing. It is thoroughly reworked for the BT62, in which it produces 700bhp and 492lb ft, and bears the Brabham name on its cover.
This initial track version does feature some options that owners might want, such as different wheels, a choice of seats and the possibility of a conversion to right-hand drive, but in essence the BT62 is ready to go racing.
“Having racing in our minds helped to dictate the car,” says Brabham. “It was a case of ‘we want to do endurance racing, so we need to have a product that will make a great statement of who we are and what we represent’. Also, the architecture of the car leads in to the next variants, which could go either towards a road car or racing.
“So there was a lot to consider and, for me, it was a case of considering, from a driving point of view, what did I want to get out of the car on a racetrack for excitement and to push myself? Having driven lots of different vehicles in my 30-odd years of racing, I had a pretty good idea of an ‘unrestricted GT car’ as the sort of thing that I thought would offer good performance.”
Brabham dreams of lining up against Ferrari and Aston Martin on the Le Mans 24 Hours grid with factory-run BT62s in 2020, but the company is hesitant to confirm its competition plans until it has taken stock of the track car’s success — in what is a busy but small market — and has had time to study how the regulations for GT car racing might change in the interim.
Paul Birch, Brabham Automotive’s technical boss, says: “When you start with a blank sheet of paper, as we did with the BT62, you don’t know where the regulations might move. We wanted to make a big step over the current GTE competitors in terms of performance, because everyone else will probably make that step as well.”
He says the modifications from track car to either a road car or a full competition machine would be relatively simple: “If you’re going to go to Le Mans with a GT racer, you have to produce some road cars for homologation, so you have to have one eye on it anyway. The car already has headlights, tail-lights and you can see out of the windows, so it has all those road elements to it.”
The broad outlines of GT car racing regulations also informed the mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive BT62’s proportions, although the team was careful to create a car that balanced functionality with aesthetically pleasing styling.
“If you look at the current GT racers, there is a formula of a certain size in terms of wheelbase and engine position and two seats,” says Birch. “We very quickly got to that point and then had to decide what we were going to do with the distinct elements.
“For instance, we went to a large capacity eight-cylinder engine for endurance racing rather than going with a small capacity and highly pressurised engine. We want it to be under-stressed so that it can run a 24-hour race very easily, but give a huge amount of performance and driveability to owners [of the track versions] so that it is engaging. It’s also a lovely echo back to the Brabham-Repco V8 days.
“Active aerodynamics was another decision point: we could have added it but there’s no point because the current regulations don’t allow it. If the regulations change, then we’ll adopt it.”
Competition intent is also the reason why the car has been created so light and with a power-to-weight ratio of 720bhp per tonne, eclipsing even the McLaren Senna.
“For endurance racing, the lighter the car, the less stress there is on the engine, gearbox, brakes, suspension and tyres, plus fuel consumption is lower, so it makes a better endurance car,” says Birch. “So weight was a target and then the output of the engine was a case of ‘how much do we need?’ as opposed to ‘how much can we achieve?’. The technology today allows you to do whatever you in terms of engine tuning.”
Although the BT62 employs a V8 mated to a six-speed sequential Hollinger gearbox when rivals are increasingly moving towards turbocharged units, Birch stresses that it is “very much a contemporary car in terms of its use of composites and electronic driver aids”.
Aerodynamics and suspension are fixed, but traction control, an anti-lock braking system, engine response modes and brake bias are all adjustable. “It has all the adjustability of a GTE racing car,” says Birch.
Having conducted the lion’s share of the testing himself, Brabham is satisfied that the BT62’s basic dynamic flavour will appeal to enthusiasts and make a good basis for a racing version: “It’s a quick GT car, there’s no doubt about it, but it is very driveable. You have 1200kg of downforce, it’s light and a lot of the performance is down to the power-to-weight ratio. So it rockets away from the corners and sticks pretty well around them too.
“The car has a wide grip window and that’s what you want from a race car. Over 24 hours of racing, you want a car that you can just lean on the whole time because your confidence in the car needs to keep growing.
“If a car is nervous or doesn’t do what you want it to do, your confidence can get hammered, especially around Le Mans. You can lose two seconds per lap and you don’t even know what’s going on. You need a pretty solid car that’s predictable.”
The cars will be produced at a 15,000-square-metre facility owned by Brabham Automotive’s parent company, Fusion Capital, in northern Adelaide. The site is part of a high-technology manufacturing park that’s emerging as the Australian industry seeks to reinvent itself in the wake of high-volume car production ceasing in late 2017.
“The facility is already an advanced manufacturer centre,” Birch explains. “What we’re leaning on there is that the big tier one companies that were there, such as Holden and Ford, have recently shut down so there’s a massive supply base and resources.
“This is a specialist car rather than a mainstream saloon, so there are unique parts that we source globally, but to have that manufacturing facility there and be able to choose the cream of that is fantastic. It’s how we can get the car to manufacture so quickly.”
As an example of the 'timing being right', Brabham points to the fact that, just months before the official launch of the BT62, an FIA-standard race circuit known as The Bend has opened about 80 miles from Brabham Automotive’s factory. Shakedown of finished cars will take place at the track.
Brabham says: “Everyone in Australia has been waiting for something like this to arrive, but the funding and the vision has never really been there until now. It’s fantastic for the state and perfect timing for us.”
With much of the groundwork for Brabham Automotive being laid in Australia, where the automotive media was focused on the collapse of domestic car manufacturing, the company was able to develop largely out of sight (although Autocar correspondent Joe Saward got a sniff of it more than year ago). However, the low level of public scrutiny gave it the advantage of launching with a completed car.
“We needed to say ‘Here we are, this is the car'. It’s not a styling buck; it’s not a clay model or a render. We’re real,” says Brabham.
Birch adds: “We’re well aware that every other week there is a new wannabe car manufacturer which shows a render but then says ‘I need to go and find the money in three years' time’. We didn’t want to do that. We want to be credible from the start.”
There are plenty of nods to the inescapable past, not least the fact that the relaunch coincides with 70 years since Sir Jack made his racing debut. Then there’s the new corporate logo that amalgamates elements of the ‘V’ that appeared on the Brabham-Repco BT19 and the fangs of ‘Hissing Sid’, the emblem that adorned the F1 cars in the 1970s and 1980s.
“We want to honour the past without being a servant to it,” says Birch.
The liveries of the first 35 of the 70-strong production run of BT62s will echo those of each of Brabham’s F1 winners, ranging from the green and gold of its earliest cars through to the blue and white of the BT54 that Nelson Piquet drove to victory in France in 1985.
Those will be known as ‘Celebration’ cars; the rest will be ‘Signature’ examples bearing custom liveries created to an owner’s specification.
Brabham wants the 70 owners to be part of “the journey” of rebuilding the brand. That journey will start with the customer specifying their BT62 via a virtual reality system. When the car is ready, the owner will have a fitting to create the moulded seat insert, as a racing driver would, although the seat structure itself has three positions and the pedal box is adjustable.
Each owner will be offered a tailored driver development programme to help them get the best out of the BT62. Brabham Automotive has worked with Microsoft to create a telemetry and data analysis package that will help the customers develop their skills.
“We want a very personal experience with those initial owners,” says Birch. “We want to be engaged with them rather than say ‘There’s the car, do what you like’. We’re very fortunate that the Brabham family is intimately involved in the car bearing its name. There’s no other brand you can say that about, so we want to have that very personal attention to all of the clients and all of the cars, and that’s why it is such a small production run.
“It also draws a parallel with how Sir Jack worked with his racing car customers. He did a lot of the shakedown testing of the cars before they were delivered.”
Birch expects the cars to be sold to enthusiasts all over the globe: “There are a pretty serious group of people who already have similar types of cars for use on the track and they want to add this as something beyond what they have at the moment. It will be a step up from most other cars. There is also a groundswell of Brabham enthusiasts who perhaps own one of the old racing cars and have been waiting for something like this.”
Brabham says the project has re-energised his competitive instincts: “When I tested the BT62 for the first time, I hadn’t driven on track for almost two years. I felt rusty and just wanted to take my time. After a few tests I felt like I was back and I’m enjoying it, too, because there’s a real purpose to it. It’s not just about driving for another race team. This is my deal, so it’s great to be able to drive at the limit and contribute feedback as a driver.”
As much as Brabham Automotive is looking to the future, there’s also a sense of closure for David. The previous car in the model line, the BT61, was a stillborn F1 design that never reached the track as the once-great team whimpered out of the sport. That ignominious moment no longer marks the end of the Brabham manufacturing story.
The next chapter is to return it to the race track, where it truly belongs. Sir Jack remains the only man to win the F1 world championship in a car bearing his own name. David’s dream of emulating that feat in Le Mans 24 Hours is significantly closer than it was 12 years ago.