Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Brabham/Honda/F2 - A Winning Formula

I first met Jack Brabham on April 17, 1966 (the day after I got married), when I was invited to be the lead commentator at the inaugural race meeting at the Surfers Paradise International Raceway.

I had made a commitment to the owner of the new circuit, Keith Williams months earlier, that I would be at the first event, and thankfully my new wife understood the value of a handshake agreement, and willingly spent the first day of her honeymoon at a motor race meeting.

The editor of Racing Car News phoned me and said, as long as I was there, could I collar Jack Brabham and interview him about his joint venture with Honda in Formula Two.

I said "Righto" and in the course of the day we sweated it out in his rental car for almost an hour. Because I had my facts straight, and asked (in his opinion) sensible questions we got along famously.

Although I saw him intermittently over the next 30 years or so, we remained friends, and he was always ready with a firm and welcoming handshake.

With his passing I would like to offer the full, unedited interview we conducted in 1998, 32 years after our first meeting:

“It’s amazing what you can do with sign language,”  says Sir Jack Brabham “We couldn’t speak Japanese, and they couldn’t speak English, but we got our message across. It must have worked, because we won every race that season, except one.”

It’s just over 32 years since Jack Brabham and I discussed his winning year in Formula Two using Honda engines. The first time, we were seated in his Ford Falcon rental car in the paddock of the Surfers Paradise International Raceway in Queensland. It was 1966.

Now, we’re reminiscing about the two years when he left his opposition gob-smacked by letting Honda gain an entrĂ©e to the exclusive world of formulae racing in Europe. This time we’re comfortably seated in the living room of his townhouse in Sydney, a far cry from the overheated cabin of his rental car.

On April 17, 1966 Jack Brabham agreed to bring his Formula One Repco Brabham racing car to the inaugural meeting at the Surfers Paradise International Raceway, to drive a few demonstration laps. He did it to support Keith Williams’ audacious gamble to establish a world class motor racing circuit on the Gold Coast. What a gesture!

In 1966 Jack was on his way to his third Formula One world drivers’ championship, and the first of two F1 constructors’ championships; and he was competing in Formula Two as well. He was more than a little busy, but as a proud Australian he was happy to return Down Under to lend his support to the opening of the Gold Coast circuit.

After he brought his V8 Repco Brabham back to the paddock I approached him, to discuss his Formula Two activities. Because most enthusiasts focussed on his Formula One exploits,  Jack was clearly happy that someone wanted to talk about his gamble with Honda in the junior formula. We talked for more than an hour and you would not have recognised the man who had a reputation for murmuring one word answers to most questions.

Jack Brabham came alive with passion and enthusiasm as he talked about the Formula Two team’s success. Not only was he happy to see his efforts noticed, he wanted to talk about the professionalism, dedication and commitment of his engine supplier.

This union began a relationship which has not only survived, but blossomed into mutual respect, affection and friendship between Jack Brabham and his friends at Honda. Jack happily lends himself to their promotional programs, and to this day he lends his input to the company’s racing activities.

As we sit together in his living room today, he talks not in a measured fashion, but with the conviction and admiration he holds for the Japanese company which helped him achieve a great victory in motor racing. Honda feels the same way about him.

In late 1963, Jabby Crombac, a Belgian motor racing journalist (who is still an institution in Formula One today) was contacted by a Honda engineer called Mr. Nakamura. He asked Jabby if he could suggest a team to run a Formula Two car, with a new engine Honda was planning.

Not a lot happened that year, but in early 1964 Jabby called Jack at the workshop he shared with fellow Aussie Ron Tauranac in Weybridge, Surrey.  Did he want to talk to a Japanese company which wanted to get into formula racing? Sure, said Jack.

I asked Jack if he had any reservations. “Not a one. We had been using Cosworth engines like everyone else, but as a racer I was looking for any extra advantage. As a businessman I was interested in meeting an engine supplier who would provide them free! At that time Honda were making a name for themselves in motorcycle racing, and were going pretty well. We’d have been crazy not to listen to their proposal.” So in October 1964 Brabham went to Paris to meet  Mr. Nakamura.

“Nakamura spoke reasonable English, and I could tell he was serious.” Said Jack. “He didn’t give us any indication about what engine he had in mind, but promised to get us at least two by the start of the 1965 season. We were pretty excited by the prospects. He said nothing, just took notes, nodded a lot, we shook hands and that's the last I saw or heard of Mr. Nakamura for nearly five months.”

Then, in early March 1965 two one litre, twin cam engines arrived at Weybridge, along with a couple of non-English speaking Japanese engineers. Jack believes the engines produced about 130 bhp, which was about 5 bhp down on the equivalent Cosworth engine being used at the time.

“What was your reception like in the pits at the first meeting?” I asked. “Pretty cool,” said Jack. “The Cosworth guys were pretty cocky, and the other teams, Cooper, Lotus and Lola  showed absolutely minimal interest in us. The enthusiasts crowded around, but the racing people gave the impression they couldn’t care less.”

By the end of the season there seemed little reason to change their views. The Brabham team had mixed results. Jack says: “We got better results toward the end of the season, as we got to know the engines better, but frankly, they were really unacceptable. In fact, they were not purpose-built racing engines. Ancillaries were in the wrong place, and they just looked like a passenger car engine, hastily redesigned to put out more power.”  

At the end of 1965, Jack and Ron Tauranac flew to Tokyo to meet Mr. Nakamura, and a team of about six engineers, led by Mr. Kume. As they talked in Honda’s corporate offices, Mr.Kume listened intently and sketched constantly. The group reviewed the ’65 season, and Jack says: “I told them, if they were serious we had to have a new engine, but I didn’t know what their capacity was to be able to produce the goods.” Mr.Kume told the Aussies he knew what they needed, and he would do his best to provide it.

I asked Jack what he thought was driving Honda at the time, to get into motor racing. Was it some secret marketing plan? “No, says Jack. They just wanted to train their young engineers. Remember Honda was a company with an incredible engineering focus, these guys were treated like gods.” After we got to know them we could see they just wanted to build engines to train their guys, and win races. They were incredibly competitive.”

For the new season Tauranac developed a revised version of their Formula Two car, called the BT18a. In late February 1966 Honda delivered a totally new engine to the Brabham team. With obvious admiration, Jack describes the scene: “I almost couldn’t believe it. Here we had a brand new racing engine, drawn by Kume himself. It had needle roller crank, mains and rods and produced 150 bhp, which was much more than the Cosworth engines. It also featured some incredible, tiny, torsion-bar valve springs. We’d never seen anything like it.”

From their workshops, located just a quarter mile from the historic Brooklands track, Brabham and Tauranac embarked on one of the most memorable racing seasons ever. The two car team, with Brabham and Denny Hulme driving, went to Goodwood for the first Formula Two race of the 1966 season. They won, and in fact they kept winning. That year the Brabham team won every round of the championship except the last race at Rouen in France.

I asked Jack how they worked with the Japanese; how they communicated; and how much the Brabham team was involved in the engine preparation? “Well, we never got near the engines. It was the same as 1965. When we had a problem we communicated by hand signals and a sort of international, engineers-only language. We drew sketches, we wrote out numbers – and the young engineers scurried around phoning back to Japan for guidance.”

In mid 1966 another young engineer, called Kawamoto joined the team in Europe. “He spoke reasonable English, says Jack. We got on well, he was very bright, and a really nice guy.” It’s obvious today, when Jack talks about Kawamoto that he warmed to the Japanese technician instantly. From this has grown a wonderful friendship marked by mutual respect and admiration.

To give an example, in 1996 a testimonial lunch was arranged in Sydney to honour Jack. One of the organisers who was researching probable guests discovered the Honda/Kawamoto connection, and wondered whether Mr. Kawamoto would record some comments on video, to be played at the event.

Kawamoto’s office replied: “Mr. Kawamoto does not want to do a video, he will come to Sydney in person!” On the day Brabham was clearly touched by Kawamoto’s greeting, and his salutation to the triple world champion. “I like Kawamoto very much, he’s become a good friend.” Says Jack.

Jack Brabham however, has become an equally good friend to Honda too. Over the past 30 years Brabham, and Tauranac have maintained their business and engineering relationship with Honda. They have consulted to the Japanese company on a whole range of projects and racing programs. Even now, it is nothing for Honda to fly Tauranac to the USA to intercede in discussions between Honda engineers and the mechanics in the Honda Indy Car team.

In October last year, on the exact day of Honda’s fiftieth anniversary the company flew Brabham to its new Twin Ring, Motegi proving ground in Japan, along with hundreds of other guests from around the world for the celebrations. But, according to Jack, he enjoyed a special moment during the festivities.

“They had my 1966 Formula Two car there, and Kume and Kawamoto wanted to pose with me and the car for photographs,” said Jack. “They were like a couple of kids. Then I was able to do some laps in the old car, and what a great time I had. It was fantastic.”

Thinking back to 1966, why did Honda choose the Brabham team? Well, Jack had been world champion in 1959 and 1960, and his team was obviously highly professional in its day. Honda insiders say Mr. Nakamura felt more comfortable teaming up with the Australian team, rather than presumably having to battle long standing prejudice from the established European or English teams.

Jack says now that he was not all that confidant in mid 1965 that he had made the right choice, but by the end of that year after he and Tauranac had been to Tokyo to meet Nakamura and Kume, he knew they were on a winner. “I was so impressed with their dedication and their professionalism.” Said Jack.

I distinctly remember part of the conversation from our interview in 1966, when Brabham told me that he was confident of winning the championship because the Honda engines “were just so bloody good.”

There was however a time when Jack thought Honda might decide not to continue. He says: “When we talked to them about the performance of the engine, in the first year 1965, Ron was really tough on them. You know Ron, he doesn’t mince his words. He told them what was wrong and what they should do to fix it. I thought, boy, are they going to cop this? Well, they did. They lapped it up. It was just what they needed to develop and hone their competitive spirit.”

Honda must have been greatly encouraged by the 1966 season outcome, after the disappointments of 1965. Brabham says that naturally, Honda paid all the costs associated with the Formula Two engine program, and he has no doubt it was considerable. He says today it could even have been as much as the whole budget for the combined Brabham Formula One and Formula Two activities.

Back in 1965-66 Brabham and Tauranac ran their teams ( 4 cars, 22 races, 2 drivers) for just under £200,000 (at today’s exchange rate, that’s roughly half a million Australian dollars). The money came from Esso and Goodyear, but they were also very successful builders of racing cars, and between 1963 and 1970 they sold over 900 customer cars, at an average of about £3,500 each (AUD$10,000). On this basis, the team was well funded in its day.

It’s worth noting that in 1965, when Brabham had just embarked on the Formula Two campaign with Honda, Jack was also competing in the British Saloon Car Championship, which he also won that year, in a Ford Mustang. Looking back, it was an incredible period of achievement for the boy from Hurstville, in suburban Sydney!

Not only a triple world champion in Formula One, but Formula Two victor, saloon car champion and highly profitable and successful racing car constructor. I asked Jack about the energy, and commitment required to realise their goals. He says: “We just did it. We didn’t think about it. We worked for as long, and as many hours as it took to get there.”

This spectacular achievement is a timeless role model, for anyone, even today. Remember, in the sixties budgets were smaller and there were no big time commercial sponsorships and advertising on the cars to make the task easier to fund. It was all down to the ability to deliver results.

Honda has never forgotten the contribution Brabham and his team made to the company. Even after the Formula Two program ended, Honda called on Jack and Ron to provide counsel and advice on the later programs, especially Honda’s first foray into Formula One.

At that time Brabham and Tauranac had joined up with British engine specialist John Judd. Their company, called Engine Developments, advised and worked with Kawamoto when he began the F1 quest. In later years, when F1 Hondas were driven by American Richie Ginther and later, British driver John Surtees – Brabham, Tauranac and Judd were often in the background. Honda had wanted Tauranac to design their F1 car, but as the team was already contracted to run the Repco-engined F1 car, they had to decline the chance to help Honda with its F1 aspirations.

So on October 3rd 1998, when Jack Brabham, now 72, joined the 50th anniversary celebrations at Motegi he was feted, and warmly greeted as one of Honda’s oldest friends. Mr Kawamoto paid tribute to his friend and colleague, recognising the vital contribution Brabham has made to Honda’s racing history, beginning with a championship-winning Formula Two season in 1966.
Now I pay my respects to the late Sir Jack Brabham. It was an honour and a privilege to know him. We last met at lunch on March 20, 2014, and once again I was greeted with a warm handshake, and "G'day JC, you going alright?"
Sir Jack Brabham (March 20, 2014 on the Gold Coast) Photo: Max Stahl


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