Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Jack's Monaco

We lost Sir Jack Brabham just a few days ago, at the age of 88, the greatest - certainly the most important and successful - Aussie Formula 1 driver of all time. His career culminated in three World Championships, one hard-fought and worthy of a movie (1959), one as dominant as a Schumacher or a Vettel (1960), and the one that will follow the comma after his name forever more, won in a car he designed and built himself (1966). Jack's teammate Denny Hulme took the title in 1967 as well, and after he sold the team to a certain Bernard Charles Ecclestone, they went on to take two more drivers' titles with Nelson Piquet, including the first to be won with a turbo engine. His son David also won Le Mans with Peugeot, and his grandson Matthew absolutely wiped the floor with last year's Pro Mazda Championship, stepping stone to the Indy 500.

Via leblogauto (I know, wat?!)

No shortage of silverware for the Brabham name, in other words, but by a handy coincidence, it all started on the streets of Monaco, the upcoming race in this year's F1 World Championship. There's no point embedding a Google Maps image for Monaco - if you can find the route on a map, you don't need it anyway - so instead I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone and combine my Monaco preview with a tribute to Jack. This is the story of Jack Brabham's maiden Grand Prix victory...

Quick biography first: unlike the rest of the Commonwealth drivers, who universally learned their trade in 500cc Formula 3 Coopers, Jack had got his start tearing up Australia’s quarter-mile dirt speedways in midget cars. Nowadays that's how you breed NASCAR drivers, not F1 World Champions, but success had brought backing from the Redex fuel additive company, and a banged-up Cooper-Bristol that Jack Frankensteined back into an awesome car (mechanical trade picked up in the RAAF) and rechristened the Redex Special. This special machine had taught Jack how to identify and correct your machinery’s most severe faults, an essential skill if you wanted to go Grand Prix racing, and soon Australia was forsaken for the lure of Europe. He left behind his wife Betty, young son Geoff, and a workshop he knew intimately: “The thing I missed most,” he sighed, “was my lathe."

Via Foxsports

After fart-arsing around for a year or so, he invested every penny he could scrape together into a Maserati 250F, painted a patriotic green and gold. Jack had fallen in love with its classic Italian lines, but sadly the Mazzer didn't love him back, spending 1955 emptying his wallet with expensive engine failures. Then Reg Tanner of Esso said the magic words: “He told me, ‘You’ll never be able to afford to run this Maserati, why don’t you drive for Cooper?’” So Jack was offered a full-time drive with the team in September 1956, with Esso support. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Jack.

Cooper were a father-and-son concern run by Charlie and John, respectively. That they had also built the Cooper-Bristol that became the Redex Special was not prescient; their business was customer racing cars, and business was good. Between 1951 and 1955 they'd sold over three hundred of their beautiful little Formula 3 cars, and won 64 out of 78 major F3 races. Charlie was a survivor of the Great Depression, who understandably viewed his bottom line as the bottom line, so when Jack suggested they build a new F1 car with the engine in the back, just like those jewelish F3 cars, Charlie's response was: "There's the workshop, go and build one."

So of course, he had. And that was how Cooper Cars Ltd came to do business through the late 50's: Jack driving the racecars and twirling spanners in the workshop, virtually for free; John Cooper fudging expense reports so his father wouldn't notice; and Charlie Cooper, when he found the piggy bank mysteriously empty, bleating, "Why change it when we're winnin'?!"

The crucial breakthrough came at the tail end of 1958, with the arrival of a new engine called the Coventry-Climax FPF. Strictly speaking it wasn't new, having been in use for a couple of years now. It was, believe it or not, a repurposed firefighters' pump, but since they had to be light enough for two people to carry between them, that had made them pretty sweet for racing. Lots of enthusiasts had got into the habit of buying FPFs and modifying them to improve the rev range and get them closer to F1's maximum capacity; first 1.5-litres, then 2.2-litres was the limit the block could take. Climax themselves, realising there was a market, eventually agreed to build a full 2.5-litre version for Formula 1, provided Cooper themselves covered the cost of developing it. Charlie baulked, so in stepped Rob Walker, scion of the Johnnie Walker whisky dynasty and gentleman team owner who was one of their best customers, and agreed to fund the engine provided he got dibs on the first one delivered. Which he did, in time for the for the start of the 1959 season.

And with the Argentine Grand Prix cancelled, the first championship race of 1959 was, of course, the Monaco Grand Prix.

Via thejudge13 (on a personal note, I just love that it opens with a verse from The Man From Snowy River!)

So Cooper Cars Ltd arrived in Monte Carlo with their new cars, new engine, and some old rivals. On one side they had Rob Walker and his driver, Stirling Moss. Moss was certain to be quick and was driving a Cooper that was almost - almost - identical to Jack's own. On the other side was Scuderia Ferrari and a brace of drivers including the English dentist, Tony Brooks, and the French hothead, Jean Behra. None were going to be a pushover.

Funnily enough, although Monaco has always been a unique circuit, it was a bit less unique in 1959 than it was in later years. It probably reached Peak Unique in the early 80's, when most of the Formula 1 season ran on permanent circuits and Monte Carlo had barely changed since the 50's. Since then it's become more and more modified and more like a modern Tilke-drome, but ironically in Jack's day it was pretty similar to the average circuit for the opposite reason. More than half the races each year (most of which didn't even count for the championship) were in either France or Italy, and run on open roads or city streets - Pescara, San Remo, Reims, Pau, stuff like that. So Monaco wasn't quite the culture shock in 1959 it was in later years, but still, we need to get this out of the way:

The road was a normal street like the one outside your house, so it wasn't flat, it was crowned to sluice off rainwater. When you're right on the limit, that means a hell of a lot, because turning the car you'll have extra resistance right up until you reach the middle of the road, where it will suddenly fall away and you'll crab across and probably hit the barriers. Except there were no barriers in Jack's day - if a spot needed protecting, they did it with haybales, but even they were to protect the crowds, not the drivers. From the climb from Ste Devote to Casino Square, one of the faster bits of the track, you had to be careful not to break a wheel off on a lamp post. If you even made it as far as the waterfront, you'd find a flimsy wire fence that would do nothing to keep you out of the harbour if something went wrong, and the surface was smooth white concrete which could, in high winds, easily cop a splash from a wavelet. Imagine arriving at Tabac and finding the concrete was now wet concrete, slippery as ice. This was the environment in which the XVII Grand Prix de Monaco was flagged away.

In the early laps it was a race between Jean Behra and Stirling Moss, two lads who never backed down from a fight. The power of the Ferrari had given Behra the advantage off the line and he'd taken the lead, but the battle went on until lap 22, when a faster Stirling finally squeezed past. Brabham's nimble Cooper gave him the edge over Behra's Ferrari as well, and he managed to elbow his way past soon after - which turned out to be rather pointless, as Behra's engine died on lap 23. So today the customer really was coming first, as Stirling's private Cooper led Brabham's factory Cooper around and around the streets of the beautiful people's paradise. It didn't look like Jack was going to catch Moss today. Wrote Gregor Grant for Autosport:
In truth, on a circuit such as Monaco, Moss is now in a class by himself. At no time did he appear to be caning his motor car, and his passage around the circuit was as smooth and delightful to watch as anything ever witnessed. It was an exhibition of virtuosity in Grand Prix racing such as few drivers can ever display.
But it wasn't quite over yet. If Moss was better a straight-up driver than Jack, Jack knew his car far better, down to the last nut and bolt. Since both Rob Walker and the Coopers had found the new full-size Climax engine was a bit too muscular for the flimsy gearboxes they'd been using, both had sought solutions. Walker had commissioned a Modenese ex-Maserati designer named Valerio Colotti to build them one, and that proved a mistake.
Colotti was a pretty good designer and, when it was working, it was a beautiful ‘box to use. The trouble was the metals: at that time they didn’t have very good materials in Italy, so it kept on breaking. – Stirling Moss
Cooper, on the other hand, had sent Jack to see ERSA who made them, an accidental stroke of brilliance.
I could hardly believe my eyes! We came across hundreds of Citro├źn gearbox cases fresh from casting. It suddenly hit me: it’d be dead easy to modify some cores before they were cast. Luckily the foreman was a bit of a racer, and he agreed to the modifications if I did the job myself. So I spent the rest of the day putting in ribs of plasticine and adding metal in all the places where we’d had trouble. – Jack Brabham, The Jack Brabham Story
On lap 81, Stirling's Colotti 'box came back to bite him, and he was forced into the pits to retire. For the next 19 laps, Jack's hard work paid off as his gearbox held together, and he didn’t make a mistake for the rest of the race - which in itself was quite an achievement, as heat from the radiator pipes was spreading to his pedals and burning his feet! #AussieGrit didn't start with Mark Webber, kids...
Late in the race, John began signalling that Tony Brooks of Ferrari was catching up. I just couldn’t press the pedals any harder, the soles of my shoes were sizzling, the heat all but unbearable. But there was too much at stake, too much within reach, to give in. I just managed to hang on, and suddenly here was the chequered flag. Glory be, we’d won the Monaco Grand Prix! – Jack Brabham, TheJack Brabham Story
He'd never win it again, either, although funnily enough the year he came closest was 1970, the year he retired. What a nice bookend that would've made... but all that was a long way in the future, and today was for celebration.
I found myself limping up to accept the trophy and laurels from Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. Old Charlie Cooper was beside himself, quivering with glee. That night we had an uproarious celebration at the race dinner in the Hotel de Paris, including a strawberry fight. – Jack Brabham, The Jack Brabham Story
It laid the foundation for Jack's first World Championship, which set him up to win it again in 1960, which in turn led to starting his own team and all the hard work and triumph to come. This was the first domino, the one that set Jack Brabham on a path to becoming a legend of the sport and the only man to become champion in his own car. And it doesn't hurt that Australia couldn't have asked for a better ambassador, either.

We'll miss you, Jack. Australia and I can only say, from the bottom of our hearts: Thanks, mate.

Sir Jack Brabham, AO, OBE. 1926 - 2014 (via Wikipedia)

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