Triple F1 world champion, canny engineer and car developer . . . and pants’ man

Is there much we don’t know about Jack Brabham? As it turns out . . .  yes, quite a lot.

It’s a bold claim by the authors of this hardcover biography of Australia’s greatest motor racer to suggest this is the “untold story” of Formula One. 

After all, several books have been penned on the three-times world champion, including the autobiographical The Jack Brabham Story, written with help from the prolific Doug Nye. 

There are others too going back to 1972’s Jack Brabham – When The Flag Drops, written by journalist Priscilla Phipps writing under the name of Elizabeth Hayward (from tapes recorded by the racer).

Then there’s all the magazine and newspaper stories penned during and after Jack’s magnificent career. 

So, enthusiasts of the sport are entitled to suggest that, surely, everything that needed to be told about Jack has been documented.

Certainly getting fresh material about Brabham would appear to be a tough ask, especially since he died in 2014.

Generally a man of great economy with words, Sir Jack was always a hard subject to interview, a challenge more difficult in the past five years without the help of a Ouija board.

But Australian Financial Review journalist, screenwriter and author Tony Davis and his collaborator, film-maker Akos Armont, have plundered some virgin territory to unearth new tales and observations.

Davis acknowledges there is a load of already published material out there about Brabham, but suggests the prime sources – ghosted autobiogs – left out a lot  and offered no telling insights into JB’s guarded personality and  secrets. 

I must say Jack certainly became a little more chatty in his later years, especially when around motor sporting chums. 

But spotlight-averse Jack never actively courted the media, and was never a magnet for anyone seeking a killer quote.

Stirling Moss and Jackie Stewart were the go-to men of that era. Brylcreemed, beige Jack was the antithesis of a preening, mirror mad, mug lair like Lewis Hamilton.

Available now.

The authors have researched diligently, encouraging the oldest and youngest sons, Geoffrey and David, to give candid opinions about their father, warts and all. 

As well, there are bespoke interviews with old rivals Moss, John Surtees, and Stewart, as well as Ron Tauranac, the taciturn business partner in the Brabham race car construction business.

The lively, nicely written book delves more deeply than before into the guarded life of Australia’s greatest motoring hero, and the by-accident three-generation dynasty he founded (Jack and wife Betty certainly didn’t encourage their offspring to follow their dad into motor racing, but that’s where all ended up, with only token help from Jack).

It’s an oft-told tale: Jack was the lad from Sydney who got his start in dirt track speedway before taking on the world, winning a pair of drivers’ titles for Cooper and then uniquely bagging his third championship in 1966 in a car bearing his own name, powered by an Aussie Repco V8. 

So Jack became the only person in history to win both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championship in the same season in a car he co-engineered and developed.

We know that along the way he turned the Indianapolis 500 old guard apoplectic when he began the rear-engined revolution at the Brickyard in 1961, making the big front engine bangers obsolescent in a heartbeat.  

The “untold” parts of the Davis/Armont biography are largely the off-track insights by David and Geoffrey into Jack’s family life. 

Motor racers are by nature a selfish bunch and Jack never allowed his family commitments, as scant as they were, to interrupt or influence his ambitions. 

Black Jack was largely an absentee father. Only at Jack’s whim did Betty and the boys see Jack. 

He wasn’t a tyrant, but he knew what he wanted. He seemed at his happiest working on cars, and driving them.

So it is surprising that a man so chronically time poor found time to have dalliances with the opposite sex. New Idea alert: The book does touch on Brabham’s eye for the ladies.

A lengthy interview by writer Michael Stahl with Brabham’s old team-mate, the often equally conversation-limited Denny Hulme, also harvested a wealth of original material which was handed to a grateful Davis and Armont.

Lots of photos

We certainly glean more about Jack’s devious ways and some of the skull-doggery involved in keeping his secrets locked in and some of his wealth hidden in odd places around the world.

What we also discover is Brabham’s occasional generosity with team-mates, when he sometimes stepped out of his car to allow them a start. 

Such munificence is a rarity in the top echelon of motor racing.

Unseen before too are eight pages of photos from personal collections, including the Brabham family.

Jack’s greatest rivalry was with Moss, and this is extensively told. 

In fact Brabham admired many of his contemporaries and nominates Jim Clark as “undoubtedly the best driver around at the time”, adding tellingly, ”but to me he had no mechanical feel”. 

The book tells how Jack used the example of a 1967 F2 race when every competitor knew Clark had a slow puncture, bar Clark.  Such was Clark’s talent that he was able to drive around the issue, oblivious to a potential catastrophe.  

He got away with it that day in 1967, but it was almost certainly a slow puncture that led to Clark’s fatal crash at Hockenheim the following year.

Brabham not only helped re-invent the way racecars were designed and built, he also encouraged other drivers, particularly Bruce McLaren. 

The book explores their strong relationship.

Many readers will surprised by Jack’s contention that, at 44, he retired too early. He felt he could still win races, but reluctantly buckled under Betty’s pressure to stop.

Originally dismissed by many Europeans as an unpolished colonial, Brabham is now being accorded the recognition he deserves as a giant who played a huge role in revolutionising Formula One technically.

He was one smart, hard-nosed competitor, who rarely made mistakes as he swept to his championships.

His mechanical empathy and credo of winning at the slowest speed were outstanding attributes in that era of regular engine and transmission failures — and car breakages.

This a thorough, broad portrait of a motor sporting giant, an Aussie icon who rarely allowed outsiders to take a peek inside at a personality that offers more surprises than anyone might have guessed.  

Brabham: The Untold Story of Formula One, by Tony Davis with Ákos Armont (HarperCollins Australia).  

RRP $39.99 at significant bookstores, and even some small, ordinary ones.

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