How David Brabham beat the odds in the new era of 'historic' race cars
As Le Mans cars of the 2000s such as the Peugeot 908 and Aston Martin DBR9 return to competitive motorsport, Brabham recalls what they feel to drive in anger
The arrival of the Masters Endurance Legends series cuts an odd shape in historic racing. Here is a grid catering for Prototype and GT cars that raced as recently as 2012. But the fact that organiser Masters Historic Racing has launched it in the first place shows that there is a genuine interest for these cars to be owned and raced – in some cases, less than seven years after they were considered absolutely state of the art.
Park a Porsche 917K and Peugeot 908 side-by-side and it’d be easy to distinguish the old-timer from the spaceship-like prototype. To even an ardent motorsport fan, there’s little to deny that the 908 shares much more than a passing resemblance to the LMP contenders for this year’s Le Mans. And yet it’s the 1960s sportscar and the ‘09 winner that are now both deemed as eligible historic racers.
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After the waters were tested with an exhibition race at Spa-Francorchamps last year, which was duly won by a 908 driven by 2011 Le Mans podium finisher Nicolas Minassian, a full calendar was announced for 2018. It kicked off in April at Imola, then raced on the rarely used Grand Prix layout at Brands Hatch. It will support this month’s French Grand Prix, and in July returns to the UK for the Silverstone Classic.
Current grid sizes are hovering around 15 entries – not to be sniffed at for a fledgling series that firmly hangs on the expensive end of the scale. But, in the first instance, why would people race cars whose maximum capabilities can be drawn out only by very few, and when the price of running out of talent and smashing the carbon fibre bodywork is so much?
David Brabham, who won Le Mans alongside Alex Wurz and Marc Gene in a 908 in 2009, can offer some insight by virtue of his first impression behind the wheel of the diesel-powered LMP1 car.
‘I remember my first time driving the 908. I drove out of the pits at Barcelona for a test and started accelerating, and I had the biggest grin on my face,’ he reflects. ‘I just knew that this thing was a monster. It had so much power. I was racing in America with the Acura [ARX-01a] and it literally felt like it had half the power of the Peugeot diesels. They had such an advantage that I knew then that I had a chance of winning Le Mans.’
But while the first impressions may have been blissfully sweet, it was soon followed with political sour. Although Brabham was back in a topflight LMP1 car that was backed by a major manufacturer and had a genuine shot at winning, the odds were stacked against him.
‘At Peugeot there was a hierarchy of cars that they wanted to win. It was car #8 with the French drivers [Franck Montagny, Sebastien Bourdais and Stephane Sarrazin], that was no doubt number one,’ he says. ‘There was a lot of politics, a horrendous amount. It was just obvious that from our point of view we were the third car.’
As is so often the case, however, what should have been demotivating instead added fuel to Brabham, Wurz and Gene’s Le Mans assault.
‘You could see Peugeot were making a lot of decisions that were going to trip them up. For our #9 car with Alex Wurz and Marc Gene, we were given an engineer who had never done Le Mans before. He’d never done any racing other than rallying. So it was like, “OK, that’s who we’ve got, let’s work with him, he’s a smart guy”. So we worked as a really good, tight unit.
‘They really wanted that #8 to win, and the pressure of all of that and the politics actually tripped them up as the drivers were so rushed. Peugeot, in my mind, were too obsessed with laptime, which driver was the fastest. Of course, if you weren’t one of the fastest you weren’t seen as a chosen one. So that put pressure on the other drivers to over drive the car which meant we could see leading up to the race that if we were too aggressive on the kerbs we were breaking the splitter on the front.
‘So we took the choice of not being aggressive which meant we were going to lose laptime, there was no doubt about it.’ Brabham’s #9 car qualified down in fifth, behind the two other works 908s and even the privateer Pescarolo 908 entry. ‘But we knew that if the others were doing that, they’d have to come in and replace their front splitters.
‘As the race went on, of course, it was like the tortoise and the hare. We were the tortoise and we just couldn’t run at the same pace as the other guys for whatever reason. We were told that we were burning more fuel so we had to stop a lap earlier than everybody else, and we had brake issues so we had to look after those. We kind of got the feeling that we were being slowed down, and I know the mechanics of the time were getting pissed off because they could see something was going on.’
But after surviving a near-miss when the safety car almost picked up the #9 car as it exited from its final pitstop – for the sake of 50 feet, the lead car could have lost half a lap – the ‘third choice’ instead reaped rewards for Peugeot’s reinvigorated Le Mans programme. Brabham, Wurz and Gene had won motorsport’s most prestigious and important race. With their names on the side of the victorious car, it became increasingly difficult for Peugeot to play hardball.
‘I think they embraced it, but because they had to. I think there was a little bitterness in some ways that their chosen car didn’t win, but all of a sudden we were in Paris, in different parts of the country and being shown off. It was huge for the company to win Le Mans. Of course, there wasn’t a French driver in the car but for Peugeot and the employees, it was Peugeot that won. That was a huge moment for them.’
Perhaps the GT1 class in the Masters Endurance Legends is easier to justify. Having some basis in the road cars that spawned them, it’s a brief spell of GT racing that is particularly fondly remembered. Exemplifying this was the Aston Martin DBR9 and its sonorous 625bhp V12.
‘I think the GT1 cars were a little more out there in terms of design and capabilities, and I think people like that,’ says Brabham of why it’s a revered period of regulations. ‘They were fast, and the DBR9 was a gorgeous-looking car, and we had such great battles at Le Mans and out in America with the Corvettes. The cars themselves were just very cool.’
Cool in one sense, but very far from it for those in the cockpit of the DBR9.
‘[The heat] was ridiculous. I kept complaining that the car was too hot for the driver, and because it was a fairly new programme the drivers always got put to the bottom of the list. So when it actually came to Le Mans, which I think at that time was one of the hottest on record, it was still in the high 20s late at night, the car was just so hot. I think the telemetry stopped at 74 degrees Celsius inside the cockpit. The rear window was melting, actually warped, and you’re in the car for two hours – so as drivers we suffered greatly.
‘Actually, towards the end of the race I had a massive cramp in my right calf muscle which meant I couldn’t drive anymore so I had to come in. Darren Turner had a blister on his foot so he couldn’t drive, and Stephane Sarrazin actually had double vision. So we had three drivers but none of us could drive.
‘Obviously Darren lost a lap at the very beginning by a couple of penalties, and even that early in the race when he was sitting in the pits for three minutes he got heat stroke and actually went into the first chicane and made a mistake. He just ran over oil and his brain wasn’t working properly.
‘After that race I went apeshit at Prodrive for not listening to us. Obviously, they changed the regulations in terms of the cockpit temperatures – they couldn’t be above 70 degrees ambient. So next time I got in an Aston we had air-conditioning and all sorts. It was a much more pleasant environment and your brain could operate and you could do your job properly.
‘They did what they should have done initially, which was to insulate the car a lot. There was an advantage at that time: if you had air-conditioning you had a big engine restrictor, so if you turned the air-conditioning off you had more power. So they insulated the car so well that, the next time I got it in 2007 and 2008, it was a much nicer environment to drive in.’
After extreme teething problems in the form of excruciating heat, the DBR9’s development paid off. In 2007 and ’08, Brabham and the DBR9 twice won their class at Le Mans, first alongside tin-top ace Rykard Rydell and Turner, and then with Antonio Garcia and Turner.
‘It was a really purple patch for me going to the Aston programme,’ reflects Brabham. ‘Driving for them at Le Mans was a huge thing for any driver. What was interesting for me was that it highlighted how important it was winning for Aston, and thinking “wow, if it feels this good, how much better does it feel when you win overall?” Of course, in ’09 I won overall, but the feeling was exactly the same. There’s no difference in the way you feel when you win a race.’
With evolutions of two cars, Brabham became a three-time winner at Le Mans – once overall, a further two class triumphs. He read which way the wind was blowing, decided against sticking with Aston Martin as they progress into LMP1 with a tie-in with Lola that ‘had disaster written all over it’, and survived the heat and the brutal politics.
Yet, oddly, with the passage of time these seem to have largely been forgotten. The rose-tinted glasses are already being worn. Now the likes of the DBR9, 908, and indeed the Lola-Aston Martin are celebrated and back racing in the Masters Endurance Legends. It doesn’t seem to matter that the Peugeot is diesel, that the Lola was deeply unreliable or that the DBR9 tried to cook its drivers. Nor does it appear important that they stretch the idea of historic racing to near-breaking point.
While at next month’s Silverstone Classic it’s a surefire bet that the Masters Endurance Legends will be among the least populated grids – if not the least populated grid – it’s bound to capture attention. Modern and brutally fast may not align with most people’s interpretation of historic racing, but it’s a fantastic juxtaposition to the Formula Junior and Historic Sports Car Club’s Road Sports races. That diversity should be celebrated.
Pictures courtesy of Motorsport Images
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