To this day the Australian racing driver Jack Brabham remains the only man to have won the Formula One World Title in a car created by his own team. This title, won in 1966, was his third, having also taken the honours in 1959 and 1960 for the Cooper team. The Brabham team then took the drivers’ title in 1967, through New Zealander Denny Hulme.
To celebrate the man and his achievements, actor, writer and director Akos Armont has created the documentary Brabham. At 85 minutes, the work begins with his memorial service in 2014, this being interspersed with flashes of photos from his life. We then pick up with narration from Australian actress Aimee Horne, which is intercut with an impressive array of talking heads, including motorsport journalists and historians, Bernie Ecclestone (one time owner of the Brabham team, and eventual impresario of Formula One), the late Sir Stirling Moss (giving some idea as to how long ago this was all shot), Ron Dennis (still in charge at McLaren at the time of filming – he left in early 2017), Mark Webber (F1 racing driver in the 2000s and 2010s) and three times World Champion Sir Jackie Stewart.
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Starting with Jack’s early interest in motorsport, we would expect a run through of his early forays in life and sport. Instead, within five minutes he is 15 years of age, and right after he is a mechanic in the armed forces. Immediately, the problem arises that this is an Australian production, seemingly aimed at their domestic market, where he is a national hero, and his exploits and talents are common knowledge. Newcomers to the sport and the man are given little insight into his motivations or his early achievements. Within eight minutes of the film commencing, Jack is in his 20s and making his name in speedway (same principle as UK speedway, but with cars). In this abrupt, weak opening, we meet Ron Tauranac, his mechanic, and the man responsible for the technical elements behind his success. There is some interest to be found in their unusual way of working together, eventually thousands of miles apart, yet still collaborating, but we are learning little of either man’s personality or temperament at this point.
Intercut with some nice visuals, and playful animation to illuminate events – such as Jack’s failed approach to Ferrari – the story quickly moves on to Brabham’s relocation to the UK. Within a quarter of an hour of runtime, he has raced at Le Mans (result: who knows?) and we are straight on to his sportscar career. At this point Jack is a ghost in his own film, with no archive dialogue from him, and the continual reuse of footage of him sat with his wife on a TV show, circa 1970. It must be said that the archive footage, in general, is clean and well-employed, with Monaco looking very fresh, for example.
The film feels expensive, and is meticulously assembled, but the first act, in particular, seems to forget there is a human being at the centre of the story. Achievements are listed with little respect to timeline (although with clues given by soundtrack choices), and little to no insight into the work behind this success, and no insight into the man’s abilities. The viewer will finish the film with little understanding of his driving style, or as to what, if anything made him special – or, indeed, if he was really special at all. We learn from Sir Jackie that Brabham had a slightly wild way of doing things that would induce accidents in others, whilst leaving him unscathed, but there is no counter-point to this: none of the illumination provided, for example, in Asif Kapadia’s Senna, where the driving incidents were contextualised to the man. Exacerbating this is a general lack of race footage. We see him take the chequered flag, but see little of how he got there.
From here, there is a whistle-stop tour through his relationship with fellow racing driver-turned team owner, Bruce McLaren. Bruce never drove for Brabham, but if you didn’t know that, it isn’t clear from the film: he drove with him at Cooper. By the time Jack takes his second world title, in 1960, we are less than half an hour into the film, the man is 34 at this point, and we know nothing about him.
The film’s second act deals more with the forming of his own team, and the early struggles he faced – at least in terms of results. He races at the Indianapolis 500 (result: who knows?), and he is now in the position of being able to refuse Ferrari’s overtures. The story makes brief yet moving acknowledgement of the dangers of the sport, with the death of of Wolfgang Von Tripps and 15 spectators at the 1961 Italian Grand Prix, a race Jack led briefly, before retiring the first edition of his own team’s car.
The film spends a lot of time with Jack’s son, David. David was a racing driver in his own right and, although not mentioned in this work, he was team mate to Roland Ratzenberger on the weekend that the latter, along with Ayrton Senna, died at Imola. There is some attempt to examine the difficulties in their relationship, with Dad always being at work.
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A brief exploration of the nature of gamesmanship – or cheating – is of interest about halfway through, but this is abandoned in seconds. The film becomes a slog, and spins its wheels in the fallow seasons without beginning to explain how he began to turn it around. Surely the pedestrian, unengaging, distancing nature of this must have been noticable in the edit. There is not even any tension in his final title win that year at the age of 40, years on from his last success. He just… wins, and it’s his own team. Great.
Then we are straight back to reports of his death at 88 years old, and the final half an hour is the overall look at what he achieved. The effect of Jack’s choices on his family are looked at in this section, in a way only hinted at earlier, though the family are so buttoned up, that it plays more as a tease than an exploration. Though this is the only somewhat engaging section of the film, as we see how much he was away in the early years of their lives, though retirement (and sale of his team to Ecclestone) and a move back to Australia sees no slowing down as he entered Touring Cars and continued to work 18 hour days, and his sons struggled to develop relationships with him. Even this section is somewhat spoiled by the final section focusing heavily on David’s career ambitions and his attempts to bring back the Brabham marque through a road car. Why? Who knows. The most damning observation is that sports writers and historians that have read every word written about him confess to knowing almost nothing of him; nor will the viewer after this disappointing biopic.
Brabham is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from Dazzler Media.