The Decline of Brabham

Blundell 1991Piquet 1983Bernie at BrabhamVan de Poele 1992

Written by Gary Slevin

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The Brabham team was set up in the 1960s, born out of a partnership between Sir Jack Brabham and his engineering chum, Ron Tauranac. Sir Jack remains, to this day, the only driver to win a world championship behind the wheel of his own car. Others tried and failed Graham Hill, Arturo Merzario and Chris Amon to name a few. Tauranac took control of the team full time following Jack's retirement, but soon sold the team to one Bernie Ecclestone in the 1970s.

The Decline of Brabham

This story begins in the early 1980s, when Brabham peaked and reached their pinnacle - Nelson Piquet taking the drivers championship in both 1981 and 1983. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Brabham had something of a reputation as an innovator, due to the work of the brilliant South African designer Gordon Murray. In the space of a few years, Murray came up with some ingenious ideas. Admittedly the radiatorless BT46 with its heat exchangers on its flanks didn't work, but the 1978 BT46B "fan car" was a revelation.

That was the year that ground effect took off, with the Lotus 79 beating everything in sight. Brabham's wide flat 12 Alfa Romeo engine did not lend itself well to being adapted with under car aerodynamics. So Murray thought out of the box by bolting a giant fan on the back, driven off the gearbox, which sucked the car onto the ground. Ostensibly this was to cool the engine, but it also had the added benefit of sucking the car onto the track.

Lotus were less than impressed. In the pits at Anderstorp, Mario Andretti complained to Niki Lauda that the car was throwing debris at him on the circuit. Niki's reply was typical: "If you don't like it, you should overtake, or f*** off!" Then in the world championship years, Murray came up with a hydro-pneumatic suspension system which meant that the car was legal in the pits, meeting the FIA's ride height regulations, but not necessarily legal out on the circuit.

In 1983, Murray's BT52 was nothing if not radical, with virtually no side-pods, and looked like nothing that had come before. It obviously worked as the team took four wins. 1984 saw Piquet take two wins at the Canadian and USA East grand prix, but his team mate Teo Fabi could not better one third place. For a driver who had been champion the year before, fifth in the championship must have been a disappointment for Nelson.

1983 brought Brabham its last world championship victory. 1983 brought Brabham its last world championship victory.

1985 was a watershed for the team, and the beginning of a long slippery slope to oblivion. Bernie, perhaps for reasons of financial expediency, signed the team up for Pirelli tyres, at a time when Goodyears were the tyres to have. It is difficult to judge just how good the 1985 BT54 was the tyres were no match for what Goodyear produced, and the team was for the first part of the season effectively a one car team. Aside from Riccardo Patrese, none of Piquet's team-mates in the early 1980s had been a match for him.

Francois Hesnault started the 1985 season, but was replaced after four races, and Marc Surer did a much better job by scoring five points. Piquet took the lion's share of the team's championship points 21, nine of which were for a victory in the French grand prix at Paul Ricard. This win was down to the Pirelli rubber, which worked exceptionally well in the extreme heat of the south of France. This was the last win for the Brabham team, despite them carrying on for another six seasons.

Whilst his employees undoubtedly enjoyed working for Brabham, Bernie was not one of the best payers in the pit lane. It did not go unnoticed in the Piquet camp that the retainers being paid to the likes of Lauda, Prost and Senna were beginning to outstrip what was being paid to the double world champion. So Piquet accepted a megabucks deal to go to Williams for 1986 which with hindsight was probably the right decision, given what would befall Brabham that year.

The loss of Piquet affected the team in a way which is difficult to comprehend in modern F1. Nelson had grown into a world champion with the team, and was remarkably popular with his mechanics. The Nelson Piquet fan club was actually run by some of the team's mechanic's in their own time something which is hard to imagine happening in modern F1. And so it was in 1986 that Brabham entered their fourth season with BMW turbo power, with a line-up of Patrese, back from Alfa Romeo, and the Roman gentleman Elio de Angelis.

Elio had reached the end of the line with Lotus, and was in need of a new challenge. Overshadowed by Senna, his rebirth at Brabham would be the opportunity he needed to kick start his career again. Similarly, Murray and his team needed to look for a new unfair advantage to make the team competitive against the likes of Williams and McLaren. He looked at the four cylinder BMW engine, and considered how he could lower the centre of gravity and frontal area of the car.

The Brabham BT55 was radically low to the ground, but it was not a success. The Brabham BT55 was radically low to the ground, but it was not a success.

The unfair advantage that Murray came up with involved going back to BMW and asking them to rethink their engine. Munich re-engineered the engine so that it was cantered over at 72 degrees. This should have had the effect of lowering the centre of gravity, improving the handling, and improving the flow of air over the rear wing. To house the engine, he designed the long, sleek Brabham BT55, which used a bevel drive transmission. It was an attractive car from most angles out on the circuit. It was so low and sleek that the drivers were effectively lying down when in the cockpit.

Usually, if a car looks good it goes well, but the Brabham was something of a lame duck. The long sleek deck of the engine improved the airflow over the rear wing, but the major problem was that the engine simply did not work well lying down at 72 degrees. Oil scavenging problems became a major issue, with several engines simply seizing up out on the circuit. The inordinate amount of time that was taken to build the new car and engine from the ground up meant that the car was also short on development.

Mid-season, the team brought out a BT54 to compare with the BT55 in a test and at the British GP, but it was difficult to see how this was of any value. The old car, which had not been developed for several months, was no better than the BT55, so the team stuck with the newer car for the balance of the season. In 1986, Brabham's dire reliability cost them dearly. They scored just two points, and finished 9th in the constructor's world championship.

All of the team's points were scored by Patrese, by dint of two sixth places, and one of those was by default he wasn't even running at the end of the San Marino race but was classified in the points. But undoubtedly the biggest blow to the team though was the loss of De Angelis. The Italian had been testing the car at Paul Ricard, when he went off the circuit, flipping the car. There was a fire, and Elio was trapped, ultimately succumbing to asphyxiation.

Safety facilities at the circuit were less than satisfactory. Alan Jones, who was on the scene, said that some of the marshals were wearing shorts, and their fire fighting equipment had been inadequate. De Angelis was the first (and only) driver to die at the wheel of a works Brabham. Derek Warwick filled in for the rest of the season, but was unable to finish a race in the points.

De Cesaris was classified 3rd at Spa in 1987, although he never saw the chequered flag all season! De Cesaris was classified 3rd at Spa in 1987, although he never saw the chequered flag all season!

Ironically, a BMW engine did win a race in 1986, Gerhard Berger winning in Mexico at the end of the season, using a "customer" upright unit in his Benetton, rather than the 'state of the art' BMW in the Brabham. After the disappointing year, Murray left the team at the end of 1986, accepting the invitation to go to Woking and work for Ron Dennis at McLaren. It was Sergio Rinland who was lumbered with the lean-over BMW engine, with all the problems that involved.

Brabham and BMW could not revert to an older engine design because the intellectual rights to the upright units last used by Brabham in 1985 had been sold to Megatron, who supplied Arrows, Benetton and Ligier for 1987. Meanwhile, Brabham also employed the hapless Andrea de Cesaris to partner Patrese. De Cesaris was undoubtedly a rapid driver, but his ultimate inconsistency was a handicap.

In terms of points finishes, Brabham did have something of a recovery in 1987. Both drivers finished on the podium third for Andrea in Belgium (despite running out of fuel at the death) and another third for Patrese in Mexico. But it was again the team's lack of consistency that was the problem. Aside from that third place, De Cesaris was only classified in one other race that year and never actually saw the chequered flag all season. Ten points equated to 8th place in the constructors championship.

At the end of the year, Bernie Ecclestone, now increasingly caught up in the governance of the sport, was unable to find a suitable engine deal for the team. In the end, he chose to rest the team for a year in 1988. It was with no surprise that Bernie ultimately announced he had sold the team for significantly more than he paid for it, to Joachim Luhti, a Swiss businessman. But Brabham's no show in 1988 meant that they would have to enter the lottery of pre-qualifying when they came back in 1989.

Because of this, Rinland designed a car, the BT58 which was deliberately conventional. The last thing the team needed were complicated unreliability problems if their weekend could end before qualifying. For an engine, the team opted for the Judd V8, which had been used by Williams in 1988 to little competitive effect. The driving pair was a mixture of youth and experience. Martin Brundle had returned to F1 after a year out following a difficult 1987 at the German Zakspeed outfit. A year off in sportscars in 1988 had only served to feed his hunger.

The Brabhams were arguably the second best cars around the streets of Monte Carlo in 1989. It was arguably their last great team performance. The Brabhams were arguably the second best cars around the streets of Monte Carlo in 1989. It was arguably their last great team performance.

His partner was the fast but enigmatic Stefano Modena. He had retired from his first race for Brabham at Adelaide in 1987 not because his car was handling badly, or on the verge of breaking down. He withdrew simply because he was fatigued and felt unable to continue - hardly an auspicious debut. He was back at Brabham in 1989 after a year with the recalcitrant Eurobrun outfit in 1988 which had netted him no better than an 11th place.

Modena was also highly superstitious. He would insist on his car being on a certain side of the garage, and when the mechanics put something down, he would move it as part of his bizarre race preparation rituals. But despite Modena's eccentricities, the Brabham boys had a good year though, with Monaco undoubtedly being the high point. Brundle was running third at the end of the race, with Modena an impressive fourth. The team were on for a handy haul of seven points.

But Brundle was in trouble. The battery in his car was not holding its charge, and the car was slowly running out of power. He had to pit to change the battery, which was not the work of a moment as the battery was housed beneath the driver's seat. A spirited charge by Martin eventually brought him back to sixth place, whilst Modena came in third. The team's performances were good enough to get them out of pre-qualifying by mid-season, and by the end of the year, the team finished a creditable ninth in the constructors championship with eight points.

But Luhti's tenure as an F1 team owner was short-lived. He was arrested on charges relating to tax fraud in mid-1989, and the team was bought by a consortium called the Middlebridge Group, which had borrowed money (millions of pounds) to buy the team. In other changes, Brundle had gone off to have another crack at the world sportscar championship for Jaguar in 1990. Modena had stayed on board, and was joined by Gregor Foitek.

Brabham's first choice of driver had in fact been Gary Brabham, but the Australian had signed to drive for the hopeless Life team. When Foitek was dropped after a collision with Olivier Grouillard in Phoenix and transmission problems in Brazil, the call went out to Gary's brother David Brabham, who saw out the remainder of the season, while Foitek moved to the execrable Monteverdi outfit, part-owned by his father.

David Brabham bails out of his car in the 1990 Belgian GP. It was emblematic of Brabham's decline as a Grand Prix team. David Brabham bails out of his car in the 1990 Belgian GP. It was emblematic of Brabham's decline as a Grand Prix team.

The team started the season with the BT58 from 1989, and early season reliability won the team two points in Modena's hands at Phoenix. Yet that was to be the team's entire points tally in 1990. David Brabham only qualified for eight races, and his best finish was 15th place. But moving into 1991, Brabham looked in good shape. They started the year again with the previous year's car, now designated the BT59Y the Y standing for Yamaha. Brabham had a works engine deal again, their first since 1987.

It wasn't exactly a world beating engine, but beggars could not be choosers in the early 1990s, when the worldwide recession was in full swing. It would eventually be succeeded by the BT60Y, which was the last design made by the team. Brundle was back, fresh from winning the world sportscar championship, and he was partnered by Mark Blundell. Blundell scored Yamaha's first world championship point with sixth place in Belgium, and Brundle went one better with a fifth place in Japan. 3 points were good enough for ninth place in the championship.

Going into 1992, there was little positive to say about Brabham. The team were using the year old BT60 chassis, rebadged as the BT60B, with a leased Judd V8 in the back. Yamaha had taken their engines off to form what would be a disastrous partnership with the Jordan team. Brundle, in what was the biggest break of his F1 career, had gone off to accept the call-up from Benetton. The team were unable to pay Mark Blundell's retainer, and he went off to test for McLaren, winning the Le Mans 24 hours for Peugeot along the way.

The Belgian Eric van de Poele signed to drive one of the cars. He had a sound background in touring cars and junior category and had driven for the hapless Lambo outfit in 1991, but by now Brabham were no longer up to the job of providing him with the tools to show what he could do. The driver in the other car, however, promoted a flurry of interest from the press. Brabham signed the lady racer, Giovanna Amati and given her lack of any decent results in any motorsport discipline, you can only conclude that the team was more interest in publicity than results.

But Amati, a feisty and charismatic character, quickly proved that she could not deliver results, and was summarily dropped from the driving line-up. Her replacement was one Damon Hill, son of the late Graham Hill and future world champion. Damon was using his drive with Brabham to gain F1 race experience. He was already in the enviable position of being the Williams test driver, in a year when the Williams was the car to have and dominating the championship.

Despite the ghastly new paint job, Damon Hill managed to qualify for the 1992 British GP - Brabham's second-last race start. Despite the ghastly new paint job, Damon Hill managed to qualify for the 1992 British GP - Brabham's second-last race start.

Damon was therefore testing the best car on the grid, and racing what was probably one of the worst. His first weekend with the team was to be at the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona. However, en route to the circuit, the team's equipment and transporters were impounded by the authorities on the Spanish border. The team had been issued with a court summons regarding their lack of payment for their hospitality facilities at the 1991 French Grand Prix. For reasons of expediency, the team chose to leave behind the spare car, as a deposit against the outstanding amount (some 30,000).

Both cars failed to qualify in Spain. In Monaco, the team had more problems. Brabham were behind in their payments on the leased engines from Judd. As a way of grabbing the Brabham team management's attention, and convincing them to pay the outstanding amount, the Judd mechanics removed vital control systems from the engine, which prevented them from being fired up. The matter was resolved, but all the team achieved was another two DNQs.

The last two Brabham qualifications for a grand prix were both courtesy of Hill. The team had found some money to fund improvements to the engine and a bit of wind tunnel work to improve the aerodynamics. But an inspired lap in the Friday qualifying session, and a wet second session on the Saturday preventing anyone from improving their times, led to Damon making the grid for the British Grand Prix. In the year of Mansell mania, Nigel won as he pleased, but down in 16th place, Hill took what was a good result for the Brabham team.

Hill made the grid again in Hungary, and in an uneventful race, finished in 11th place. That was to be the last qualification or race finish for a Brabham F1 car. Two weeks later, the team folded the repayments on the loan which had been used by the Middlebridge group to buy Brabham ultimately broke the team. The team also took Landhurst leasing the group which had loaned the money to Middlebridge with it into liquidation. The case was ultimately investigated by the authorities, and several people were jailed for accepting bribes to provide loans to the team.

The 1990s were not a good decade for the 'old guard' teams of F1. Lotus would disappear two years after Brabham, and Tyrrell would succumb to the millions of BAT some six years later. Brabham were without doubt, one of the greatest and most innovative teams to grace the Formula One grid. In some respects the outfit had ceased to truly exist after 1987, and the decline that followed was a sad reflection on a team that had once been the best on the grid.

Article written by Gary Slevin © 2008

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