LONDON (Reuters) - Jack Brabham remains in a class of his own as the only man to have won the Formula One championship as a driver and constructor, and he also stood out for securing his first title on foot.
Leading the season-ending 1959 U.S. Grand Prix at Florida’s Sebring Raceway, Brabham coasted to a halt some 90 metres short of the chequered flag when his Cooper ran out of fuel on the last lap.
The Australian stepped out, removed helmet and goggles and, despite the dehydration and physical near-exhaustion of 350km of racing, began the uphill push.
Under the complicated scoring system of the time, Brabham would have emerged as champion anyway due to the results of others but he was competitive to the core and the calculations could wait.
“My heart was pounding. It was hot and humid. I was aware of marshals around me, urging me on,” he recalled in an autobiography published in 2004.
“I could hear the crowd shouting, cheering, and clapping. I’m told they went wild.
“Motorcycle cops arrived. It was really bizarre. Here I was trying to push my Formula One car to the finish of the world championship-deciding grand prix, with a motorcycle escort.”
Brabham, who had pushed his car to the line in Monaco two years earlier, finished fourth to become the first Australian Formula One champion while New Zealander Bruce McLaren celebrated a first win.
The title was also the first in a rear-engined car.
Brabham, who was knighted for services to motorsport in 1979 and died at the age of 88 at his Gold Coast home, won the title again in 1960 and 1966 — the last at the wheel of a Ron Tauranac-designed Brabham.
The trail blazed by the son of a Hurstville greengrocer would be followed by Alan Jones, world champion in 1980, and race winners Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo.
Brabham made his debut in Britain in 1955 and the last win came at the 1970 South African Grand Prix, after which, aged 44 and with 126 races behind him, the triple champion retired to Australia.
The now-defunct team was sold to future Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone while Ron Dennis, Brabham’s erstwhile chief mechanic, went on to transform McLaren.
“On track he was always the toughest of tough competitors, tough sometimes to the point at which I’d wonder how could such a nice bloke out of a car grow such horns and a tail inside one,” the late Stirling Moss observed.
“But the greater side of Jack’s character was always his natural sportsmanship.
“He was everything we Poms have come to expect of a great Australian sportsman — play the game as if your life depends on it, no quarter asked and absolutely none given.”
As much an engineer as a racing driver, with wartime experience working as ground crew in the Royal Australian Air Force, Brabham was never one to hog the limelight or seek attention.
Known to rivals as “Black Jack” and the “Quiet Australian”, or even “Chatty Jack” to an ironic media, Brabham may not have been a big talker or particularly flamboyant but he was as shrewd as they come.
The current prospect of racing without spectators, in a season blighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, would have been no big deal for him.
“I was just interested in driving and if there had been no people there at all, it wouldn’t have affected the way I drove in any way,” he recalled.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ed Osmond