When I was young, Jack Brabham, who died yesterday at 88, was the kind of Aussie bloke we all wanted to be: a tough, resourceful character whose combination of extreme determination and skill with spanners was every bit as important to his success as his ability behind the wheel.
Not for him the silvertailed start of others, financed (as so often in top motorsport) by rich connections. Black Jack, as he was known for no reason I ever heard explained, was the kind of bloke who would repair his car with fencing wire, if necessary, then physically carry it over the line to win.
Brabham started driving speedway midgets in the late 1940s on dirt tracks where cornering in constant oversteer was the only way to win. Some say what he learned on the speedway had lasting effects: photographs of him in grand prix Coopers a decade later still show him crouching low in the cockpit (evidently to dodge the flying stones). He was also more inclined to slide the car in big-time racing, it was what he grew up with.
Apart from the three world championships, Brabham’s special claim will always be that he won his third in a car with his own name on the nose. The truth is it was designed in partnership with two Aussie mates: designer Ron Tauranac, his partner in the Brabham team who had the same practical turn of mind, and Phil Irving (famous in other quarters as the inspiration behind the Vincent motorcycle vee-twin), who played a vital role in producing — quickly, and at Brabham’s request — the Oldsmobile-based 3.0-litre Repco V8 for F1.
Everyone knew it was never going to be the most powerful engine going, but was torquey and reliable when others were struggling to make more advanced designs work, and it delivered Brabham’s third world championship in 1966.
I met Jack Brabham once, at a meeting at the old Calder circuit in Australia some time in the mid-1970s. Brabham was already a three-time champ, and was on hand to do a few parade laps for the crowd. While he waited, he leaned on a fencepost yarning to Irving, also present.
As a young hack who’d heard Brabham didn’t much like under-briefed journalists, I couldn’t think of anything to do but hover, which I did. In the end, it was Irving who turned to me and said “What’s on your mind, matey?”, which provided the opening to a friendly conversation with the pair of them about the day’s events that lasted through the next sports car race.
Don’t remember Brabham saying anything that stopped the traffic (the pair had been discussing a Peugeot V8 Irving once built from two 403 cylinder blocks grafted into one crankcase) but I do remember what he was like. He was down to earth and friendly, and he made some wise observations about the racing lines of some of the sports car drivers we watched.
At the end, his minders came to prepare him for his own parade laps. He half-grinned, patted me on the arm, and said: “Have a good time, son” and wandered off with Irving in tow. That was my first and last meeting with a triple world champ, but it was more than enough to confirm for me his hero status for good.