It’s not the name, it’s the genes. Meet David Brabham
He is the son of World Champion Sir Jack Brabham, F1 constructor, and the youngest of three racing brothers who are all champions in various categories. Now there is the next generation
Interviewing David Brabham has to be one of the easiest jobs in the world. But where do you start on topics? Father, son, brothers, sons of brothers, Formula 1, sportscars, racing at Bathurst, winning Le Mans?
So let’s start with the start. “I’ll just rattle on and you can pick out the pieces,” he laughs. “At the end of 1987 I was racing all over the world. I was doing races in Argentina, America, New Zealand, did the Tasman Series and was racing in Formula Atlantic out there, and they were fast cars.
Dad sat me down, (remember his Dad is a three-time Formula 1 World Champion) and said ‘how serious are you? Do you want to go to Europe?’ And I said yes, because I was doing well in Australia.
“He said ‘there may be an opportunity, because I’m working on something’. So obviously he’d had contact because Camel was sponsoring the sons of famous drivers. He eventually said, Camel is sponsoring it, and they want you to drive. That was my ticket to England.”
Jack and David Brabham
His ‘famous name’ teammate was Justin Bell, son of Le Mans legend Derek.
“I went from Australia via America, and met up with Justin in Miami because my brother Geoff was racing there, and I think Derek was as well. Justin and I were just a couple of kids when we met up. Since that day he has always taken the piss out of my dress sense from those days! Grey plastic shoes, tight piped jeans and some weird top.”
The team was to run in the junior Vauxhall and Opel Lotus series in 1989. Those years were not only super-competitive, they spawned a whole host of racing stars.
Not for David! “It was my first time in England, and I thought ‘Derek Bell Racing’, this will be a really big team,” he says. “I arrived there and met everybody, and very quickly realised that they were… let’s say… not as experienced as I thought they should be.
“We went testing at Goodwood, which was actually really cool for me. Every member of my family – their first ever test was at Goodwood. Just by chance, my first run was there as well.
“Brother in arms”
“I tested the car, and of course having then recently raced an Atlantic car,” he adds, “jumping into the Opel Lotus was like jumping from F3 back to Formula BMW today. I hated it. I really thought: “Oh my God.
“We went to the first race, and we were suddenly way off the pace,” he says. “I was like ‘what the hell’s going on here?’ We were quick in a test one day, and then crap at the next. The season was going downhill very quickly, and my motivation was getting less and less.”
That’s again honest, which isn’t a word you would apply to many drivers, especially in this PR day and age.
“I was racing against Allan McNish and Mika Hakkinen, people like that.
McNish and Hakkinene battle in Formula Vauxhall Lotus
I only did half a season, and I really had to dig deep to find the motivation. Knockhill in Scotland was the low point. I was really slow, and it was totally because I just didn’t want to be there. The team changed the structure a little bit, and got some more experienced people in, but I could see my career going downhill big-time.”
Again, he is open and honest. “I always felt with our team that we weren’t cheating enough…”
“My last race with the team was at Paul Ricard in mid-July. The team sat down with me and said ‘what the hell’s going on with you? You are an extremely talented driver, and we’ve just been to Knockhill, and you were two seconds off the pace. You’ve got to dig deeper than that.’
“I went to Paul Ricard thinking that I had to do something, and as they said, dig deep. I had my best result, in fourth. Hakkinen won.”
After that race, Brabs left, and set on a career path that I doubt even he would have predicted.
“Even though my time in the series was not what I wanted it to be,” he says, “in a strange way it actually helped me to prepare, not only for a professional career, but when I got the opportunity to change to Class B Formula 3, it was almost like I climbed out of death’s bed, and I had a new life. To be honest I did a better job going into that from my Opel Lotus experience, than if had gone to England and straight to F3, because I grabbed it absolutely with both hands. I still didn’t know where my future was, or even how long I’d be in Europe.
“I did enough in Class B to be recognised, went for a shoot out, got the Jewson drive, and won the championship overall. The EFDA series got me into England, but it taught me a lot about myself as well.
“In 1988 I was doing Opel Lotus, not doing very well, with no idea of how I’m going to move forward. Two years later I was in Formula 1.” Ironically he debuted for Brabham, although his father was far from involved by then. “That was totally unexpected,” he admits. “I thought it would take five years – two years of F3, two years of F3000.”
Brabham’s F1 debut came at the wheel of a Brabham in 1990
It is fair to say that his Opel Lotus days were far from happy ones, and the team wasn’t what the Australian expected. ‘Amateur’ is a word he used. A harsh comment, but fair when you read on.
“I remember one funny thing was Dad coming to a race and it was wet, and he said to me: ‘why haven’t you got new tyres on?’ He was trying to explain to the team owner why we should have new tyres. Dad left, and Graeme (Burrows) said: ‘Your Dad’s a little bit out of it now, he doesn’t know these things anymore. Bless him, Graeme was a property developer. That kind of sums up where we were at, and in that situation. Justin and I have remained best friends. I was best man at his wedding and he was at mine. I also seem to have raced against Allan McNish for most of my career!”
David Brabham and Justin Bell. Still good mates
What he failed to say – and will rarely – if ever talk about, is what he did at Imola in 1994, when his Formula 1 MTV Simtek teammate Roland Ratzenberger died on the Saturday of that awful weekend. The team wanted to withdraw. It was a new team, and the guys were naturally devastated. Brabham saw that, rounded them up and said he would still race. It was the pick up they all needed.
Racing in F1 for Simtek 1994
He won the Le Mans 24 Hours overall in 2009, has three class wins there. His son, Sam is karting and predictably showing pace, his nephew, Matthew Brabham, has just won the US FF2000 championship. It’s safe to say the Brabham name will be around for a while…
Brabs win Le Mans 2009. Image Terry Griffin
He also runs a kart race at the Autosport International show each January which raises loads of money for charity. It gets the stars of yesterday, today, and tomorrow to compete, they have fun, but they are racing drivers. So guess the rest…
David himself hasn’t stopped yet either. Now racing with JRM in the World Endurance Championship, his fire is still lit.
My special thanks to David Brabham follow him on twitter @brabsracer
Emma Spearing at www.hazelpr.com for many of the photos