Few sports can boast a tradition as rich as motor racing’s – and few sports can say that Australians have been at the very forefront of a World Championship.
Jack Brabham and Alan Jones were, in 1966 (Brabham’s third title) and 1980 respectively, and patrons at the 2014 Formula One Rolex Australian Grand Prix will be able to admire the cars that carried those two great Australians to the top of the world.
Jack Brabham was being very modest about his team’s prospects in the 1966 Formula 1 World Championship.
As Grand Prix racing prepared to embrace three-litre engine capacity Brabham was concerned that recognized engine-builders might over-engineer the power units for 1966.
On the hunt for alternatives, Brabham bought an Oldsmobile block from a stillborn USA project and brought it back to Melbourne for assessment. In discussions with Repco boss Charles McGrath, he decided to use the block as the basis for his Brabham team’s 1966 campaign.
Brabham called it “a modest unit with chain-driven single overhead camshafts and two valves per cylinder” but thought it could provide decent torque and driveability. “We might just get lucky!” he concluded.
And how! In 1966 the Repco-powered Brabham BT19 won four races – not only that, but four in a row in a withering mid-season burst from France through Great Britain, Holland and Germany. Both titles were theirs.
The actual car that won those four Grands Prix is on display (specify location) under the watchful eye of Nigel Tait. Nigel knows a thing or two about the car: not only was he a young engineer at Repco helping to build the engines in 1966, he has owned the car himself and now prepares it for its many appearances in special locations around Australia.
“Virtually my first job was working on this car,” Nigel told us, “and in particular on the engine. I was a cadet but people have the misapprehension that I was somehow involved with the design. I wasn’t at all – but I came in at a good time!”
The car’s first race ever was at Sandown early in 1966 and Nigel was able to work alongside Jack and his then mechanic Roy Billington, then continued at Repco assembling engines and tuning them – in his first year as a cadet.
The car went to England to have its three-litre engine installed for European racing. A telex informed Nigel and his colleagues that it had won at Silverstone in a non-Championship event – but a second telex brought the great news of its victory in the French Grand Prix at Rheims on July 3.
“And then it won in Britain… in Holland… and in Germany,” Nigel adds, “and suddenly we were famous!”
Repco bought the car back in 1977. “It had an engine – but the wrong one – and it needed to be restored,” Nigel explained. “We got the right engine, rebuilt the car and took it for its first event back in Australia at Sandown.”
That was a ‘demonstration’ against the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio in his Mercedes-Benz W196 Grand Prix and title-winning car.
“Fangio made it clear that he hadn’t come all this way just to have a demonstration,” Nigel recalls. “He was going to have a race with Jack. It was a pretty hard-fought four events, they were pushing – and somehow or other they both won two.”
Nigel and a group of his colleagues bought the Repco engine division in 1986 – and it so happened that BT19 was on the asset register, as well as the Matich SR4 that won the Australian title in 1969.
The BT19 has done a lot more miles since it retired from F1 than it did in the World Championship, with regular visits to leading Australian circuits and displays at over 100 locations around the continent.
Though Repco bought it back in 2005, they charged Nigel with looking after it, which, he says, he did “with great joy”.
“A pretty hill-billy operation by comparison with what people will see at Albert Park this weekend,” Nigel recalls, “but we were the first to have an engine that was capable of finishing races and fast enough to beat the others.”
Later that year the car was semi-retired – but it kept being pulled out because its successors weren’t ready, which is why Jack Brabham dubbed it ‘the old nail’.
In Australia the car has been driven by Sir Jack, as he now is, by his fellow-World Champion Alan Jones and by other great Aussie drivers including John Bowe and Tim Schenken, Clerk of the Course at Albert Park this weekend.
While BT19 raced only in 1966, in 1967 Brabham backed up – though this time it was the Bear himself, New Zealander Denny Hulme, who took the title as he and the boss took two wins apiece and finished 1-2 in the drivers’ standings, with Brabham again the champion Constructors.