Australian Sir Jack Brabham founded his racing team in 1960; New Zealander Bruce McLaren, Brabham’s Formula 1 team-mate at Cooper from 1959 until ’61, launched his in 1963.
Brabham’s team claimed championship titles in 1966 (for Brabham, pictured below) and ’67 (with Denny Hulme driving). McLaren won drivers’ titles in 1974 (Emerson Fittipaldi) and ’76 (James Hunt).
Both teams were reinvigorated under new ownership: Bernie Ecclestone bought Brabham in 1971, Ron Dennis seized control of McLaren a decade later.
It was in the 1980s that their paths diverged. Nelson Piquet won the 1981 and ’83 titles (below), driving Brabhams designed by Gordon Murray. But with Ecclestone increasingly focused on seizing F1’s commercial rights through his role with the Formula One Constructors’ Association (FOCA), the team began to flounder and, in 1986, Murray switched to McLaren as technical director.
As Brabham faded away – Ecclestone sold it in 1988; it folded in 1992 – McLaren thrived, growing rapidly using the cash Ecclestone was helping bring into the sport. With Murray’s input, the team dominated in 1988 and ’89, before he switched over to design the seminal McLaren F1 road car. It was a precursor to McLaren’s now fast-growing road car division.
Things could easily have turned out differently. What if Ecclestone had remained focused on Brabham, not FOCA? What if Murray hadn’t switched teams? Could it now be Brabham that was an established automotive company, one that’s now arguably as well-known for road cars as F1 racers?
It’s an interesting ‘what if’ – but, ultimately, that’s all it is. And that’s not to say that Brabham Automotive, which has just unveiled the 700bhp Brabham BT62 track car, aspires to emulate McLaren Automotive (although the BT62’s stats pitch it against the recently launched McLaren Senna).
But it perhaps explains why David Brabham, Sir Jack’s son, truly believes the new company can become a respected, established manufacturer of high-performance vehicles. Except, unlike McLaren, the Brabham marque has effectively been dormant for 26 years. It has the heritage, but does it have the brand recognition?
I’m sure – I’d hope – that anyone with more than a passing knowledge of F1 will know of Sir Jack Brabham, but a whole generation of motorsport fans have never have seen the firm’s cars compete (I can vaguely remember spotting Damon Hill get frequently lapped by Nigel Mansell in the 1992 British Grand Prix…). That will make it tough for Brabham Automotive to quickly capitalise on the pedigree of the badge.
The first step is in place, of course: the Brabham BT62 looks the part, and on paper it has the performance to match. It should appeal to those who enjoy and can afford £1m track-only hypercars. Where Brabham Automotive goes next is the big question. Will it settle for filling a track car niche, or aspire to grow into something bigger?
The BT62 is a bold statement of intent. Whether it can return the Brabham title to prominence in this timeline will be fascinating to watch.