LAT Archive: Brabham’s F1 rise and fall

On the anniversary of the Brabham team’s first Formula 1 race victory, AutoClassics and LAT look at key points and stunning photography of the famous squad’s history

In association with

In this week 54 years ago Dan Gurney took the first ever Formula 1 world championship race win for Brabham, one of F1’s most famous constructors.

Sir Jack Brabham was of course the first and so far only person to take a world championship in a car bearing their name, but there was much more to the team even than that. Thirty-five Grand Prix wins, six world championships, and plenty of memorable moments along the way before the team entered decline and then went out of business in 1992.

Thanks to the LAT Archive, AutoClassics looks at a few seminal moments from Brabham’s rise and fall.

See also...

1964 French Grand Prix

Gurney takes Brabham’s first win

The Brabham constructor started in 1962, and its first F1 win arrived two years later in the French round at spectacular Rouen. But rather than it being provided by the team’s founder and driver Sir Jack Brabham it was his team-mate, the great Dan Gurney, who took the honours. Habitual pace-setter Jim Clark in the Lotus led from the off but Gurney in second – 'a study in concentration and determination' according to an observing Denis Jenkinson – all alone kept him honest and within range. It was said that Clark respected Gurney like no other rival, and likely he to some extent had this day in mind. Then at half distance Clark dropped out with his Climax engine down to one cylinder and Gurney was set fair to win. Proving it was no fluke, Gurney took a second win for Brabham before the year was out in Mexico.

1966 French Grand Prix

Sir Jack reacquires his taste for winning

By ‘66 Sir Jack was close to becoming a forgotten man. He’d won two world championships with Cooper in ‘59 and ’60, but by now it was six years since his last world championship Grand Prix win. But a big regulation shift to the 3-litre engine formula for ’66 was his and his team’s opportunity. Former front-runners Lotus and BRM were woefully unprepared for the new rules. Ferrari was prepared but was doing its usual trick of tearing itself apart – its lead driver John Surtees had just walked, fed up of the treatment of combustible team boss Eugenio Dragoni. Brabham had a Repco unit meanwhile, which by no means a classic had the benefits of being ready and reliable. And in the French round at Reims Sir Jack reacquired his taste for victory, cleaning up after Lorenzo Bandini’s leading Ferrari dropped out. This was the start of the Australian’s Indian Summer which concluded at the end of that year with his third world championship and the unique status of winning it in his own team.

1967 Monaco Grand Prix

Bear hug

The following year Brabham repeated its driver and constructors’ title double, but the identity of the drivers’ champion shifted to team-mate Denny Hulme. Hulme perhaps is the ultimate forgotten F1 champion. Possibility it’s a matter of style in and out of the car – ‘The Bear’ as he was known was a gruff character, shunning limelight and his race results were won via consistency and reliability rather than spectacular pace. He indeed took only one pole in his career and even that laid six years in the future. His first ever win came at Monaco in his championship year, and it was an inappropriate calling card as that time he flamboyantly fish-tailed his Brabham to victory. Sadly though – and returning to where he came in – the win is scarcely remembered as the day is recalled much more for the harrowing and fiery death of Lorenzo Bandini in his Ferrari, crashing on the harbour front and being trapped in the burning car for five minutes. He died three days later.

Classic cars for sale now

1974 Austrian Grand Prix

Lord of the Osterreichring

In late ‘71 Brabham incarnation one gave way to Brabham incarnation two, as a certain Bernie Ecclestone took over the team from the perennial Ron Tauranac. And with Ecclestone in charge and genius designer Gordon Murray penning the cars Brabham eventually had an upturn, not least in ‘74 when Carlos Reutemann took three wins in the beautiful BT44. Few drivers can have existed in the peaks and valleys like Reutemann, as it seemed he either drove off into the distance or faded so that you’d hardly know he was there. All three of his ’74 victories were cut from the former cloth and not least that at the spectacular Osterreichring in Austria. He beat poleman Niki Lauda in the Ferrari off the line, and while Lauda gave good chase his engine failed at a third’s distance. Thereinafter Reutemnan was untroubled, even altering his cornering style to preserve a blistered front tyre. He still won by over 40 seconds.

1978 Swedish Grand Prix

Fanning controversy

Brabham for ’78 attracted twice world champion Lauda. It seemed a marriage made in heaven – the BT46 had all sorts of trick stuff that Lauda would relish making work. They had a problem though, the ground effect and the Lotus 79’s masterly exploitation of it. Murray nevertheless had an idea, and turned up at the Swedish round at Anderstorp with the BT46B – more commonly known as the ‘fan car’. The fan in question (unconvincingly hidden behind a dustbin lid between sessions) literally sucked air from under the car, improving grip – yet the team argued with success that the fan’s ‘primary function’ instead was to cool the Alfa Romeo engine. This was within the rules. Lauda won as he liked even with trying to hide the car’s potency, yet the fan car was never seen again. Contrary to common claim it was never banned, rather Ecclestone withdrew it in fear that he’d lose his political power as head of the constructors. Brabham went back to following Lotuses at a respectful distance.

1980 Long Beach Grand Prix

Street fighting man

In late ‘79 Ecclestone at last gave the green light to ditch the large, complex and fuel-thirsty Alfa engines and replace them with the more standard Cosworth DFV. And the benefit was multiplied as it allowed Murray to create an all mod cons full ground effect car, which he did in a matter of weeks. The BT49 immediately was a classic, and it was Nelson Piquet that made good on it. At the tight Long Beach street track in early ‘80 he took his first win and imperiously, and this in only his second full year of Grand Prix racing. He nearly bagged that year’s title, and may have done had the team not forgotten to replace the high-revving but not long-lasting qualifying engine in its spare car in the penultimate round in Canada. Piquet did make amends the following year by taking the championship though ironically was less impressive in doing so, somewhat falling over the line in an absurd championship decider in Las Vegas.

1983 South African Grand Prix

Crowning glory

This season likely was witness to this Brabham team incarnation at its peak. In the classic dart shaped BT52 and having invented then mastered the modern F1 planned fuel stop – Brabham alone had a half-tank car that year – it blew away all rivals and did it with an inimitable swagger and joie de vivre. Moreover late in the year it twisted while its Renault rival stuck and Piquet seized the title with a devastating run. He won in the third and second-to-last rounds at Monza and Brands Hatch then in the Kyalami decider in South Africa scampered off again, running a light fuel load with an early stop planned, hoping to demoralise rivals. It did just that and his chief rival Alain Prost retired at half distance with turbo woe in any case. Piquet thus was able to ease off to finish third to ensure his second championship, leaving his team-mate Riccardo Patrese to take the race.

1985 French Grand Prix

The last win

Yet as is often the case, the crowning glory was the start of the decline – for Brabham certainly and many observers reckon it of Piquet too. The Brazilian though did by consent drive even better the following year in ’84. Indeed he bagged nine poles and led it seemed everywhere, but the car became woefully unreliable. And in ’85 things got worse as Ecclestone did a deal to run Pirelli tyres which were no match for its main rivals’ Goodyears. That was apart from in the French round at Paul Ricard, when in baking south of France heat the tyres’ balance of power was turned on its head. Piquet suddenly Pirelli-assisted won comfortably, but it was to be Brabham’s final F1 victory. Piquet at the season’s end left for Williams seeking more titles - and perhaps more cash than the infamously spendthrift Ecclestone would offer him – and the team started to unravel.

1992 Hungarian Grand Prix

Brabham’s inauspicious end

Brabham took 1988 off then at the year’s end Ecclestone sold the team. The squad passed subsequently through a succession of owners, some of whom were not of absolute probity, and come ’92 the team was in a desperate struggle to survive. Not even the driving skills of future world champion Damon Hill could do much, and non-qualifications for races were frequent. In Britain and Hungary Hill at least got into the race, indeed made the finish albeit four laps adrift in both. But Hungary was the death knell; afterwards the team collapsed. The group that by now owned the team had secured a £6 million loan from Landhurst Leasing to keep going, but when Landhurst Leasing went into administration the team’s assets were effectively frozen. The Serious Fraud Office investigated and people at Landhurst were found to have been accepting bribes in return for cooking the books and giving further loans. It was an inauspicious end for a once great team.

Images courtesy of LAT Archive

Classic Cars for Sale