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The inside story of Brabham's dramatic first title win

Jack Brabham's first Formula 1 title in 1959 is remembered for the dramatic finale at Sebring, but there's so much more to his victory than that, revealed in the inside story that he related to Autosport two decades ago...

The inside story of Brabham's dramatic first title win

Sixty years ago today Jack Brabham clinched the 1959 Formula 1 World Championship for Cooper Cars after a dramatic United States Grand Prix at Sebring in which he pushed his out-of-fuel car across the line.

It was the first F1 title to be won with a rear-engined car, and also the first drivers' crown earned with a British manufacturer - although Vanwall had secured the inaugural constructors' version the previous year.

Brabham would go on to win again in 1960, a back-to-back success that wasn't repeated until Alain Prost managed it with McLaren in 1985-86.

Brabham would triumph for a third time in 1966, this time at the wheel of a car bearing his name – an achievement that earned him a unique place in the history books. When he retired aged 44 in 1970, reluctantly responding to family pressure, Brabham was still at the top of his game.

And yet for some reason, his remarkable career remains largely unheralded. In 1999, Autosport went to one of his Surrey car dealerships to conduct an interview ahead of the 40th anniversary of his first title. We're revisiting some of the 'outtakes' from several hours of conversation that help build the story of that first title success.

Brabham first made his name in his home country of Australia racing midgets on dirt tracks in the years after the Second World War. He moved on to hillclimbs and eventually road racing with a series of Coopers, gradually becoming one of the biggest names on the domestic scene, latterly with a Cooper-Bristol.

He recalled his encounters with 1951 Le Mans 24 Hours winner Peter Whitehead and sometime grand prix racer and architect of Aston Martin's move into F1 Reg Parnell.

Jack Brabham, Cooper T51 Climax, leads Stirling Moss, Cooper T51 Climax

Jack Brabham, Cooper T51 Climax, leads Stirling Moss, Cooper T51 Climax

Photo by: Motorsport Images

"They suggested that I should come over and get a year's experience," said Brabham. I sold the car I had and came for a year's experience, and stuck here for 17 years! All I was interested in was just doing some motor racing. I never even thought about a world championship, or whatever.

"It took me a year to find out what motor racing was all about over here; luckily I got in tow with John Cooper and he gave me a job at the works putting cars together and things like that. Eventually, I drove for him and that was really how it all started."

Brabham came to the UK at the start of 1955, initially leaving wife Betty and young son Geoff behind. He sold the successful Cooper-Bristol he'd raced in Australia to Stan Jones – father of 1980 F1 champion Alan – and bought a Cooper-Alta from Whitehead. It proved to be a disappointing choice.

"The car that I bought here wasn't any good. It was far from a competitive motor car. John Cooper let me build a car in the workshop, revolving around the little bobtail sportscar. I put a two-litre Bristol in it. That really became Cooper's first F1 car. We had a little trouble with it up at Aintree – the clutch fell out of it before the end of the race – but I then took it out to Australia and won the Australian GP in 1955 with it."

He sold the Cooper locally and when he returned to Europe for the 1956 season he bought a Maserati 250F, ironically from the BRM factory in Bourne. It seemed like a good idea at the time – indeed Juan Manuel Fangio would win the title with a works 250F the following year – but Brabham struggled. He ran it in several UK non-championship races, but his only world championship start with the car was at the British GP.

"Silverstone with the Maserati in '56. That was another one of my early mistakes. When I went to the NZ GP, Jean Behra won the race in one and I thought, 'Well, that's the car I want to have'.

"I soon found out that wasn't the motor car I should have and luckily I started driving for Cooper not long after that. I didn't require the 250F, so I sold it. It was a pretty nice sort of motor car to drive in those days, but it wasn't really the type of car that I'd been used to driving or wanted to drive."

Jack Brabham, Cooper T51 Climax, leads Bruce McLaren, Cooper T51 Climax

Jack Brabham, Cooper T51 Climax, leads Bruce McLaren, Cooper T51 Climax

Photo by: Motorsport Images

In 1957, Cooper began to sow the seeds of success while trying to prove that its rear-engined layout was the way to go. That year Brabham started five grands prix with a Cooper-Climax, sometimes in conjunction with private entrant Rob Walker. He was running as high as third first time out at Monaco before the fuel pump failed, but hard results were modest.

However, things stepped up a gear the following season with the T45, and Brabham recalled that year as a turning point: "It was 1958 really, we did one or two GPs with 2.2-litre engines. The performance was very good, but we just needed that little extra bit of performance, some improvements to the car, and we might get up there."

Brabham again showed well at Monaco, starting third and finishing fourth, and he had a couple of sixth places in France and Britain. He also had a new Cooper teammate in Bruce McLaren, who began to make a name for himself in F2.

"I brought Bruce over from NZ. He always struck me as a really nice chap, lot of ability, drove the cars very well. When Roy [Salvadori] was leaving the team I brought Bruce over and we put him in the team with me. He was a good engineer and knew a lot about motor cars."

Everything came together in 1959 when McLaren stepped up to a full-time F1 seat alongside Brabham and Masten Gregory.

"It wasn't long before we realised there was a lot of potential at Cooper, but even then we didn't think that we would win a world championship so quickly. The rear-engined car was obviously the way to go and luckily Coventry Climax built a 2.5-litre engine for us, which really put us in the driving seat."

Brabham's engineering skills and attention to detail would play a significant role.

"As far as Cooper was concerned I was really their development driver and luckily knew a bit about motor cars when I got there and was able to help considerably with the development of the car. It was a big advantage.

"There was another thing I managed to do, as far as winning races was concerned. The biggest problem with the rear-engined car was the gearbox. There wasn't a gearbox made specifically for the job.

"We were using in 1957-58 the modified Citroen-ERSA gearbox and that wasn't strong enough. It kept splitting the casing and all that sort of thing. Luckily [legendary motoring scribe] Jabby Crombac got me across to Paris to meet the people at ERSA.

Jack Brabham takes a well-earned rest after pushing his Cooper-Climax half a mile to the finishing line

Jack Brabham takes a well-earned rest after pushing his Cooper-Climax half a mile to the finishing line

Photo by: Hazel PR

"I managed to spend the day rubbing cores and putting ribs in and all that sort of thing. They cast 20 cases for us and those cases got us through quite a few years. Without those cases, and the 2.5-litre engine, we wouldn't have gone anywhere.

"The combination worked out so well that we were able to prove to the world that the rear-engined car was the way to go in grand prix racing."

The 1959 season began well with a victory in the International Trophy at Silverstone before the world championship kicked off in Monte Carlo. Brabham's main rivals were Stirling Moss in Walker's private Cooper, and the works Ferrari 246s of Tony Brooks, Jean Behra and Phil Hill. The Maranello cars and the BRMs were the last front-engined machines to really challenge the upstart Coopers.

Brabham would win in Monaco with his T51 after Behra set the early pace and Moss retired in the closing stages when his gearbox – supplied by Colotti – failed. When asked to recall a career highlight, Brabham didn't hesitate: "Winning the first grand prix down at Monaco and getting presented with the trophy by [Princess] Gracie. That was worth going there for, I'd say!"

Brabham finished second to Jo Bonnier's BRM at Zandvoort after another late gearbox-induced retirement for Moss, and was third at Rheims, behind the Ferraris of Brooks and Hill. He then won the British Grand Prix at Aintree, having secured his first pole position.

With four of the eight rounds run, Brabham had a handy lead in the world championship, helped by the fact that Ferrari didn't show at Aintree. However, things then began to go awry. He retired with clutch failure at AVUS, where Brooks won for Ferrari and Behra was killed in a support event. Then came the Portuguese Grand Prix at Monsanto – a race that nearly cost Jack his life.

"I really only had three accidents of any consequence in 25 years in motor racing. One that could have been really serious was in Portugal. I was dicing with Moss, and the organisers had a driver in one of the Centro Sud cars who'd never driven a single-seater before [Mario Cabral].

"We were lapping him for the second or third time, and I was right up Moss's exhaust pipe. He saw Moss going by and turned left and knocked me straight into the straw bales. I remember looking over and seeing a 30-foot drop with trees at the bottom, and that's where I thought I was going. The next thing I knew I was rolling along the circuit.

"Two things saved me. One, I didn't have a seatbelt; and two, I hit a telegraph pole. I knocked it over and brought down all the wires. I ricocheted off that back onto the circuit and as I did so, I fell out. The car landed on the track absolutely upside down and if I'd been in it, there was no way I could have survived it."

Moss won in both Portugal and Italy, but third place at Monza put Brabham in the driving seat in the world championship with just one race to go. He had 31 points to the 25.5 of Moss and 23 of Brooks. In those days eight were available for a win, and the fastest-lap bonus point was potentially critical, as dropped worst scores complicated the issue.

Giancarlo Baghetti leads Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Innes Ireland, Dan Gurney and Jack Brabham

Giancarlo Baghetti leads Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Innes Ireland, Dan Gurney and Jack Brabham

Photo by: Sutton Images

The series finale was a new event at Sebring and there was a wait of three months before its unusual December date finally rolled around. Practice didn't go particularly well for Brabham on the bumpy airfield track, but at the start of the race he was given a helping hand when Brooks was hit by Ferrari teammate Wolfgang von Trips and had to pit.

Then title rival Moss retired early from the lead with yet another gearbox problem. Brabham appeared to be safe in the lead, although Brooks was coming through the field and was still a title threat. Then on the very last lap, Brabham ran out of fuel and had to climb out and push the car for the last half mile.

His teammate McLaren held on in front to win the race, and third place was not quite enough for Brooks. An exhausted Brabham pushed his car across the line in fourth to claim the championship.

"I didn't fully realise that I'd won the title until I crossed the line. The team was enthusiastically waving at me to get it across, which I did. Unfortunately, it was a bit uphill, so it wasn't easy to do. Anyway, I got it there and then they told me I'd won the championship, which was hard to believe."

It wasn't a life-changing event, however: "It didn't really make a lot of difference in those days. Being world champion today is an awful lot better than it was in those days."

The string of gearbox retirements for Moss had vindicated Brabham's efforts to source a more reliable unit from ESRA. His skills always proved crucial in Cooper's success, especially in the development of the new 'lowline' T53 model.

He scored five straight victories with it in 1960 and won his second title in dominant style.

"It was a very interesting time for me, being so involved in it, being part of it. Going all around the continent with John was a lot of fun on its own, apart from the racing.

Jack Brabham, Brabham BT19

Jack Brabham, Brabham BT19

Photo by: Sutton Images

"It was a big advantage to me to have some mechanical knowledge, but there were times when I backed off in the car when I probably didn't need to and lost some races by doing that. At the same time at least I didn't drive it into the ground like some of the other drivers."

The switch to 1.5-litre rules in 1961 ended the magical run. After an unsuccessful final year with Cooper – shaking up the Indy 500 establishment with the rear-engined layout was the only highlight – Brabham decided to build his own car. Drivers had run their own teams before, but no established star had become a manufacturer.

"I had a friend in Australia, Ron Tauranac, and I talked him into coming over. We started our own company in '62. It was a gamble, but I had a lot of confidence in Ron's ability. The two of us were a good combination."

They certainly were. It took a few years to come together, but when the 3-litre formula arrived in 1966 Brabham would win a third title in his own car. His longevity was extraordinary.

He wasn't the only F1 driver to bridge the huge gap between the '50s and the '70s, but no one else started quite as early as he did. And only he could claim to have raced against the Mercedes W196 at the start of his career and the Lotus 72 at the end of it.

Brabham would eventually be knighted, yet over the decades his achievements have often been overshadowed by more glamorous names and he rarely gets a mention when the all-time greats are discussed. Not that a lack of recognition ever worried him.

"I think it's just that I didn't piss in the press's pockets as much as other people!" he grinned. "Being an Australian doesn't help over in this country. I never used to worry too much about the press, but probably that was a mistake on my part."

Jack Brabham, Cooper T51 Climax, leads Bruce McLaren, Cooper T51 Climax

Jack Brabham, Cooper T51 Climax, leads Bruce McLaren, Cooper T51 Climax

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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