Monday, January 7, 2013

Matthew's the Man!

Is there no limit to the talent streaming through the Brabham family? Recently, I had lunch with Matthew Brabham, son of Geoff and grandson of the great Sir Jack Brabham. This wasn’t any old lunch meeting, our group was recognizing Matthew for an outstanding racing season in 2012, in which he performed very well in the UK in Formula Renault, but the icing on the cake was winning the U.S. Formula 2000 championship.

Matthew finished 8th in the final race, to clinch the title, and as the 'Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda'  is part of the ladder system leading to Indycars, he won USD$375,000 towards his 2013 season.

Only 18 years of age, but displaying maturity beyond his years, Matthew was delightful to talk to. He’s level-headed, a no BS sort of guy and appears to possess the trademark Brabham determination.

He was sitting alongside his famous grandfather at lunch, and whilst talking with Jack I could tell that he’s immensely proud of Matthew’s results.

“He’s a good kid, with a ton of talent, but a great personality.” said Jack.

Grandad is right. Matthew is straight-up, and whilst he does nothing to ignore his family lineage, he certainly doesn’t appear to trade on it in the hotly-competitive racing world in which he operates. He’s enormously pragmatic about his potential, his talent and his future.

Matthew said: “I don’t have any fancy ideas about being at the front of the pack, because I’m from the Brabham family. You only get to the front if you’re good enough, and determined enough.” I can see from this brief meeting, he’s all of that and more.

Expect to see this bright, young Brabham on the top step on more and more podiums in the immediate future.

Surfers Paradise 1966

It was good to catch up with Jack, whom I first met in 1966 at the very first race meeting held at Keith William’s Surfers Paradise racetrack.

He was friendly, and open and our interview was not just a thrill, but a pleasure. After we finished, one of his mates from Repco said: "The reason he opened up, was because he recognized you knew your stuff." Nothing's changed with Jack.

Although today his hearing problems make lengthy conversation difficult, I’ve learned over the years that concise, intelligent questions always get a straight answer.

I’m amazed at how well he looks, given that he’s on dialysis three days week, but I’m so proud to be able to say we’re friends. We reminisced about a meeting we had in Sydney in  1997 when the editor of the Honda Australia Owners’ magazine commissioned me to write the story of Brabham’s tilt at Formula Two in 1967.

Sydney 1997 - photo courtesy of Lady Margaret Brabham

I have to thank my good friend, Grahame Ward, for inviting me along to the lunch to meet Jack and Matthew. And, I’d also like to thank my old mate Max Stahl for taking the memorable photos of me with the two Brabhams. Thanks guys.

Been a Bit Quiet Round Here, Right?

That’s because Driving&Life has been on vacation (again?), and indulging in the pleasures of a cruise around the South American continent - starting from Valparaiso in Chile, passing Glacier Alley, around Cape Horn and finishing in Rio de Janeiro.

Cruising along Glacier Alley

What‘s always fascinating of course are the cars you see and the way the markets segment. What was really interesting (after visiting many cities in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil) was the almost total lack of visibility on the road of any form of luxury car!

I did find one to photograph, a matte finish Mercedes coupe! Shortly after I took the photograph, the owner rushed out from his Ipanema apartment, and moved it down to his locked, security garage under the building!

Of course most big South American cities have extensive, popular, cheap and accessible public transport. Buses are well subscribed and there’s lots of them, and they’re air-conditioned. Taxis are plentiful and cheap, but the drivers are basically rogues-in-disguise.

So the basic recipe for a private car in South America is a small-medium five door hatch, probably made by Volkswagen or Fiat, with lots of Renaults in Argentina. Of course Ford and GM are well-represented with oval or bowtie-badged models which emanated from somewhere in the Ford/GM global model program.

Volkswagen Gol

Volkswagen is a very interesting study. For many years, after it set up one of its most successful global operations, Volkswagen do Brasil, it built cars solely for South American consumption based on unique platforms, and sometimes even with engines shared with Joint-Venture partners like Ford.

Volkswagen Fox

Model names like Fox and Gol were cars unique to South America, and only recently have those variants been brought into the global family of platforms. However after all this talk about models based on various platforms you must not forget that there’s still a lot of old cars on the road in this huge continent. A couple of examples stood out.

In Montevideo, Uruguay there was an effort to maintain a very old Opel. 

In Buenos Aires I spotted a very well-worn Renault 12.

A very common sight among the taxi fleets is Renault's low cost production car, the Logan, It's very popular, but when you get up close, it's a pretty small car.

Renault Logan

Traffic Light Grands Prix is still a popular sport, but then these  are Latin countries with supercharged testosterone added to the fuel mix.

Traffic jams are just as common in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro as they are anywhere else, but on the day we arrived in Rio a spectacular accident at 3pm had completely blocked the three lanes from downtown Rio to the beach suburbs at Copacabana and Ipanema. A 13 km stretch, with no chance to divert!

Of course in Rio, in highly Catholicised Brazil, the statue of Christ the Redeemer watches over everyone from Corcovado, so I was hoping a little religious surveillance might have helped resolve the traffic issues. Not so, it still took two hours to travel from the main port to Ipanema.

I guess one of the biggest highlights for me was a real surprise, in Buenos Aires. At the end of a city tour the tour bus drove quickly past a bronze statue in a city park, before dropping us near an excellent Argentinian BBQ restaurant. After lunch I walked back to the park to find it was a fantastic bronze of Juan Manuel Fangio and a Mercedes W196, just opposite BA’s main Mercedes-Benz dealer.

My wife asked me; “If Buenos Aires can do this for JMF, why can’t London do the same for Sir Stirling Moss?” I decided to write to Boris Johnson on my return home and suggest that very idea.

The real reason I was keen to visit South America, was the final stop in Rio de Janeiro. For me, its special value is the Home of Bossa Nova music, my all time favourite jazz genre. I grew up on a diet of Tom Jobim's seductive rhythmns which of course began with The Girl From Ipanema.
Garota de Ipanema

As it turned out we dined in the restaurant named for the song, Garota de Ipanema, presumably where composers (Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes) watched the inspiration for the song, passing by each day.

Vinicius Piano Bar, Ipanema

After dinner we walked to the opposite corner to the Vinicius Piano Bar, a well-known hangout for fans of Bossa Nova.

Toni Barreto

We were lucky to catch local star Toni Barreto perform a string of Bossa Nova standards as well as some his own songs. What a great way to end the night!

Helo Pinheiro circa 1961
The girl of Ipanema is a real person, and today, still a stunner. Her name is Helo Pinheiro, and the much-publicised shot of her emerging from the surf was taken around 1961.

Today, she's a  beautiful, cultured ambassador for Ipanema, and her daughter, Ticiane, is working as a model. She's found the right niche! Right!

Helo & Ticiane Pinheiro

The beach at Ipanema was everything I expected it to be. The sand is soft, white powder (just like Queensland's Gold Coast beaches); it's long, broad and washed by seabreezes - however the locals tell me it's only warm enough to swim between February and April, due to the cold current which sweeps down the Brazilian coast from the middle of the Atlantic!

Ipanema Beach late Friday afternoon

Ipanema Beach on Sayurday morning

South America was interesting, fascinating and humbling because of its size, populations and cultural conflicts. Let’s not forget that the expeditions to this continent by the Spanish and Portuguese were some of the most violent and punitive colonial conquests in human history.

In addition the area was the beginning of the slave trade from Africa, so this mix of Africans, local native tribes and Europeans has truly compounded the cultural chaos that exists today. However, at a casual glance the South Americans seem to handle this diversity much better than the North Americans - where racial unrest still exists today, not far below the surface!

In a broad sense, when we look back at the era of discovery and conquest (1492-1572), there’s not a lot to be proud of, especially in how native peoples were treated. However, this is what we’ve ended up with and the people of these South American countries are making the best of their lot.

They’re great food producers and manufacturing centres, and of course they are now among the biggest producers of raw materials for the giant Chinese economy. In a sense, coping with that success, and how it translates to its people is the biggest challenge ahead.

Despite many years of poltical stability in Chile, Uruguay and Brazil, there is still trouble bubbling just under the surface in Argentinia - and that could blow, any time!

On an optimistic note, what you need to find in any city you visit is a positive, optimistic, happy and friendly guy like our cab driver in Rio, Heinrich. On our way to the hotel from the Port, he humbly suggested he could take us on a full guided tour of Rio and environs next day for a very modest sum.

Sugar Loaf, Tijuca Rainforest and Favelas (shanties)

What a day! We took in Corcovado, Sugar Loaf, Tijuca rainforest, Jardim Botanico and some real hidden spots in the city. It was worth every Brazilian Real we paid. Not only did we see stuff, with a local, but also a friendly and charming man who was very proud of his city.

Obrigado, Heinirich!