Banbury, Oxfordshire, UK - Thursday 9 May, 2019

Doug Nye: Sir Jack Brabham – The Breakthrough Victory – 1959 Monaco Grand Prix

Sixty long years ago - on May 10, 1959 - Sir Jack Brabham (in those days still simply ‘Mr’) scored the first Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship-winning victory of his long and supremely successful career.

As number one driver in the Cooper Car Company works team, he careered his rear-engined Cooper-Climax around the Monte Carlo street circuit no fewer than 100 times, to win the year’s Monaco Grand Prix.  That immensely tortuous, tough and gruelling drive covered 195.4 miles, and took him a fraction under 2hrs 55mins 51.3secs, an average speed of 107.361km/h, 66.71mph.

‘Black Jack’ - so nicknamed after his dark-shaven nut-brown Australian looks (and by some rivals for his occasional driving tactics) - had been driving Cooper cars since purchasing his first, an ancient 500cc motor-cycle-engined Mark IV, in 1951.  Having built his own BSA/JAP hybrid engine he soon decided that 500cc air-cooled, chain-driven racing held little interest. So he fitted a 1000cc twin-cylinder Vincent-HRD engine instead, and progressively enlarged it until it began to blow-up regularly.  He then acquired a Mark V Cooper chassis and shoe-horned into it an 1100cc JAP ‘big-twin’ power unit.

It was then that the intensely capable engineer-driver had the chance to leap further up the ladder, by acquiring a front-engined Cooper-Bristol Mark II.  It was a 2-litre 6-cylinder Formula 2 car which had been eligible for full-blown World Championship Grand Prix racing through 1953, until new technical requirements changed to Formula 1 for 1954-57.  

Jack gained sponsorship from the RedEx fuel additive company and as the ‘RedeX Special’ his Cooper-Bristol became Australia’s fastest and most effective racing car through 1954-55. Wanting to advance his racing career, Jack then took the mighty leap to move to England in the Spring of 1955. He invested all he had in a full-blown Maserati 250F Grand Prix car for ’56, but when it proved beyond his means he built upon his budding friendship with Charles and John Cooper and their Cooper Car Company to campaign their products, as a valued and ambitious works driver.

In 1957 he drove the very first rear-engined, water-cooled Cooper-Climax Formula 1 car in the Monaco Grand Prix, to which that under-powered but agile little hybrid F1/F2 car was admirably well suited. Jack scared the traditional front-engined opposition witless with the little ‘bug’, and ran third until a minor breakage left him to push the silent car across the finish line, sixth.

Through 1958 Cooper ran enlarged 2.2-litre Coventry Climax engines in their continuing Formula 1 programme, with Jack and Roy Salvadori as their regular drivers. They didn’t win at premier level, but customer Cooper cars campaigned by privateer Rob Walker’s team and driven by Stirling Moss and Maurice Trintignant won that year’s Argentine and Monaco Grands Prix.  That was the foot in the door for the rear-engined Cooper concept. The 2.2-litre cars were simply outgunned on faster circuits for the rest of that season, but for 1959 Leonard Lee of Coventry Climax authorised production of a full 2 1/2-litre version of his company’s lightweight 4-cylinder twin-cam racing engines, and they at last could compete with the full-house 2 1/2-litre front-engined team cars from Ferrari, BRM, Lotus and more…

‘Black Jack’s 1959 racing programme had opened ‘down under’ in New Zealand and Australia.  But totally aware of Leonard Lee’s move in up-sizing his Climax engines, Jack just couldn’t wait to get back to England, and to contest the new year’s heartland Formula 1 races.         

Roy Salvadori had accepted a good offer from David Brown – owner of Aston Martin – to drive for their new Formula 1 team, and Charlie and John Cooper engaged Jack’s youthful New Zealand protégé, Bruce McLaren, in his place.  

Jack: “Bruce had performed brilliantly in the ‘Driver to Europe’ scheme Formula 2 car the previous year, and now he was to join myself and the experienced American Masten Gregory in a three-car works team. 

“I was putting down real roots in England by this time and was opening a garage business in Chessington, not far from the Cooper works.  Bruce brought over a Kiwi friend of his named Phil Kerr and I employed him to run the garage while we were racing.  Bruce and Phil took a flat in Lovelace Gardens, Surbiton, and for road transport we sold him my wife’s Morris Minor 1000!  

“The prototype 2½-litre Climax engine was delivered to us in March, and mounted in a new car for me, while Masten and Bruce’s cars were fitted initially with 1958-style 2.2-litre units. 

“Compared to the conventional front-engined cars facing us, from Ferrari, BRM, Lotus and now Aston Martin, our latest Cooper was tiny.  It punched a small hole in the air, which would always make it pretty quick along the straights, and because it was light it braked well into the corners, and accelerated rapidly away from them.  I found it much easier to drive without throwing it sideways, unlike the distinctly tail-happy earlier Coopers which seemed to lap faster and faster the more you hung the tail out.  The new 2½-litre Cooper was the first you could make understeer in corners. And, as we would find, the greatest feature of Wally Hassan’s full-sized new Formula 1 engine was its reliability, and if we had an Achilles heel it was our gearbox which with the new 2½-litre engine’s increased torque was becoming very marginal indeed.  We would find, in fact, that after each race the gearbox internals were just about finished, so we just scrapped them and fitted brand-new, every time.

“We gave our new 2½-litre Cooper-Climaxes their debut at Goodwood on Easter Monday. Moss won in the Walker car and I was second, running F2-sized wheels and brakes and with 50mm Weber carburettors instead of the special new 58s we really needed. 

“The Aintree ‘200’ followed, where Masten used our second new 2½-litre engine, and my car was uprated with 58mm Webers, wider front wheels and tyres and bigger brakes.  Young Bruce would later write: ‘In practice Masten was warned not to do to many laps in case something fell off before the race…and broke the lap record!  ‘If that car’s bad’, he drawled, ‘…leave it bad!’.

“So he started from pole position, and led for a long way until his clutch broke.  My new engine let me down with a head seal failure while Moss’s latest invention – a Walker Cooper 2½-litre BRM engine – led after Masten’s retirement only for the poorly made Colotti gearbox to let him down. 

“The big May Silverstone meeting was the last of these ‘dress rehearsal’ non-Championship Formula 1 races before the serious business would begin with the Monaco Grand Prix.  Moss drove a front-engined works BRM there and promptly qualified on pole.  But I got a super start off the front row, Stirling had the BRM’s brakes fail and spun off behind me, and I was able to run away to score my first-ever Formula 1 race win and the first-ever for our works Cooper team.  Until that time every Cooper Formula 1 race win had fallen to Rob Walker’s private cars driven by either Moss or Maurice Trintignant.  We were happy for them, of course, but I can tell you we were a darned sight happier when we – at last – did the winning…

“That breakthrough victory was a real confidence booster, just in time for Monaco the following weekend.   Again we ran our three works cars, 2½s for myself and Masten and a 2.2-litre for Bruce.  But at Silverstone Masten had crashed a Lister-Jaguar sports car from which he had bailed out before it hit the bank, and he was battered and sore.  We stayed at Roquebrune, close to former driver Lance Macklin’s mother’s villa, where she gave us free run of her garage to prepare the cars. 

“In practice I had a brush with the straw bales and found the foot pedals getting uncomfortably hot.  Our mechanics Bill James and ‘Noddy’ Grohmann fitted radiator heat deflectors overnight to protect my feet.  In the race, Jean Behra’s BRM retired from the lead and Moss took over in his Walker Cooper-Climax – their BRM-engined car having been parked during practice.

“I was second behind Stirling but my car’s gearchange was sticky, costing me perhaps two seconds a lap in the tight hairpins and, far worse, my foot pedals were scorching again.  Stirling’s race ended when his Colotti gearbox again let him down, and as I inherited the lead I was wondering just how long I could keep going, because my pedals were so hot I could hardly bear to keep my feet on them.

“Late in the race, John Cooper began getting agitated in the pits, signaling me that Tony Brooks – driving for 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!  And I found myself limping up onto the Royal dais to accept the trophy and laurels from Prince Rainier and Princess Grace.  Old Charlie Cooper was beside himself, quivering with glee - and that night we had an uproarious celebration in the race dinner at the Hotel de Paris…including a strawberry fight.”

Aah what simple delights - sixty years ago - Jack Brabham’s maiden Grand Prix win, the first also for the works Cooper-Climax team, and all en route to shared victory in both that year’s Formula 1 Drivers’ and Constructors’ World Championship titles. 

‘Black Jack’ would go on to dominate Formula 1 in his updated works ‘Lowline’ Cooper-Climax for second consecutive World titles in 1960.  From 1962 he would campaign his own Brabham cars, and in 1966 he would win the Drivers’ World Championship for the third time, and adds a Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship title under his own name, and one which would be repeated the following year - in 1967.

Make no mistake, within the Formula 1 racing world Sir Jack Brabham really was a towering figure - and a hugely popular and respected one, to boot.

By Doug Nye, renowned motor racing journalist, historian and Jack's friend.


Images copyright: Sir Jack Brabham collection, Motorsport Images, The Grand Prix Library.