I guess it means different things to different people. To my father’s generation, Brabham was a person long before it was a racing car company. Jack Brabham, ‘Black Jack’, tough as they came both on and off the track, a no-nonsense engineer from Down Under who came to the UK and showed the Poms how it was done with back-to-back world titles.
To me, Brabham meant something else: a series of sleek and innovative grand prix cars of the late 1970s and early ’80s showcasing the mercurial talents of designer Gordon Murray.
Fan-assistance, surface cooling, hydro-pneumatic suspension… whether it worked or not, I loved the sheer inventiveness of those cars and the fact they always managed to look so – well, to my young eyes – cool.
So I wonder what Brabham will mean to the young of today? If you’re Jack’s son, David, he hopes the answer is staring you in the face right now. After years of legal battles simply to regain control of his family name and years more of fundraising and development, the first Brabham since the Formula One team slipped under the waves in 1992 is here.
Although just 70 Brabham BT62s are planned to be built (at around $2.26m if you’re in the market), it is absolutely not a Led Zeppelin one-night-only return to the stage. Brabham, David tells me, is back. Next will come a road car including unspecified design elements of the BT62, and it’s the car that will be homologated into the GTE category to be raced at Le Mans as soon as 2021.
So the BT62 is a stepping stone to bigger things – a large, powerful and conspicuously good looking stepping stone to my eyes – but a stone nonetheless.
“People need to understand our plans. My intention is for Brabham to be a manufacturer of high-performance road cars,” David tells MOTOR one sunny day at Silverstone. “But we have to be able to grow the business to a point where we can raise the money to build the road cars. Racing feeds off the back of that.”
So the BT62 will race, probably in invitational categories because it couldn’t be homologated as a GT3 car, just because David wants to see Brabham competing once more. “Racing is in the blood,” he says. “My initial idea when we got the name back was for Brabham to be a race team. But then I thought there was the opportunity to do something more substantial, more adventurous. Happily our partners at Fusion Capital in Adelaide (which Brabham Automotive is part of) agreed.
“If we can build an automotive group that will then support a race team, that would be the best of all possible worlds and mean a sustainable future for Brabham.”
David is not saying how many of the cars are sold but simply that he is “happy with where we are at, which is where we expected to be at this stage. We were never going to sell them all at once. People need to understand our long-term plans and be reassured that we’re not going anywhere.”
But all that is for later. Right now the BT62 is waiting for me, so I asked David what were his prime motivations when deciding on its specification. The answer is refreshingly honest: “I asked myself what car I’d like to drive.”
And what David Brabham would like to drive is a two-seat closed-cockpit sports car with less than a tonne of weight, more than a tonne of downforce, and a normally-aspirated V8 developing 522 kilowatts. Which sounds fair enough to me.
Unbound by any race regulations, Brabham has been able to design an engine entirely to its own specification, save the most basic component in the form of a Ford V8 block.
“It’s not unlike what Dad did,” David muses, referring to how Repco transformed an engine that started life powering an Oldsmobile road car into a Formula One powerplant capable of winning back-to-back constructors’ titles. By boring the 5.0-litre Ford block out to 5.4 litres and fitting new internals, an engine that produces a little more than 300kW in the standard Ford Mustang now yields the aforementioned 522kW.
Read more: How the BT62 came to be
It runs through a six-speed sequential Holinger race gearbox to the rear wheels where it directs its torque to the road via massive Michelin slicks located by double-wishbone pushrod suspension. Braking is via carbon discs. With 1200kg of downforce pressing a 972kg car into the track at 268km/h, this is a very serious piece of kit indeed. Serious enough to circulate Bathurst three seconds below the GT3 race lap record despite, “leaving a few seconds in our pocket”, as David puts it.
The car is still being developed, but if it ends up being five or six seconds a lap quicker than frontline GT3 pace I wouldn’t be surprised, although it might need then to be pegged back a touch before other GT3 manufacturers are happy to let it race alongside them.
It’s an easy car to access thanks to quite a low sill, a removable wheel, a sliding pedal box and a fixed seat. It feels very comfortable, reassuring even, with decent visibility and information clearly displayed on a colour, high-definition screen. I extend quite a lot further than David in all three dimensions but it feels like it could have been built for me.
“The car is quick. You’ll notice that,” David says with masterly understatement. “The only thing I’d advise you to do is try the brakes on the straight first, just so you know what they feel like.” Not one word about bringing his near priceless development prototype back in one piece. Right now the only other BT62s in existence are a show car and the first customer’s.
Read more: Brabham's best F1 cars
Master on, ignition on, thumb the starter and ka-boom! My whole world erupts as ground-trembling V8 thunder breaks out all around me. I know turbos give lots of readily accessible power and are terribly clever, but they can’t do this. It is a ridiculously brilliant noise, far closer to that of a Ford GT40 than most modern GT3 cars. I could sit here for some time but the water temperature is rising. So I clonk into gear, lift the surprisingly gentle clutch and head out to discover more.
The first point of note, which you detect almost at once and whose impression only grows as you gather speed and familiarity, is how unlike a GT3 racecar this is. Perhaps because it’s a Brabham with slicks and wings I’d expected it to be utterly uncompromising – unpleasant even – when not being driven fast. It’s not like that at all.
Not that you’d choose to, but this is a car you could probably drive quite slowly. This is more important than it sounds: Brabham is very aware that his customers are not likely to have GT3 levels of skill and experience straight out of the box. To that end he is putting in place quite a comprehensive driver tuition program where clients will be able to drive road and racing cars of different levels of performance.
“One of my passions is to help people get to the next level because that’s how you get to really enjoy it. And it’s as much about instilling the right mental approach as it is driving the car. But sooner or later they’re going to have to saddle up the Brabham and being able to ease your way into that experience will only bring benefits.”
I don’t have that luxury. Brabham has an extensive testing program to complete and my laps are limited. There’s no option but to drive it fast, straight out of the pits. There aren’t many cars capable of this level of performance in which I’d be happy to take such a leap of faith, but the BT62 is so instantly reassuring, driving it rapidly feels entirely natural.
Worthy Watch: BT62 sets Bathurst outright lap record
The engine is superb. It feels so different to the throttled-back turbo engines you find in most GT3 cars these days. Indeed, while straight-line performance is by far the most disappointing aspect of any GT3 car, the Brabham’s ability to move you from one end of the straight to the other, – like a table cloth has been ripped out from under you – feels entirely in keeping with the character of the rest of the car.
Okay, maybe not quite entirely but that speaks far more of the fluency of its chassis than it does of any shortcomings in the engine. What I loved most was its lack of a torque curve: it really builds as the revs rise, saving the real nuttiness until it’s past 4500rpm. From there to the 7500rpm redline it’s pure party time. The six ratios are close enough to keep the car on cam, and it’s so nice to be able to talk in such terms again.
Shift quality could perhaps be tightened up a shade, just so it feels as immediate and alive as the engine, but this is the much-thrashed prototype on which development work will continue until deliveries begin at the end of this year.
It would take a lot to cast that powertrain in a supporting role, but the chassis damn near does it. As ever it is the brakes that require the most mental recalibration, not just in the absurd stopping distances they provide but also the immense pedal effort needed.
The car has ABS but when I ask David what his recommended setting is he says “don’t worry, you won’t feel it”, though whether that is the power of his brakes or the puniness of my right thigh he is too kind to say.
But basically you drive past what appears to be a natural braking point, past the absolute last braking point, up to the point where you know you’ve just crashed, pause and then brake. And that should guide you neatly into the apex.
Of course with a car like this, you don’t actually need to lose too much speed, especially if the corner coming up is quick enough to get its wings working. But even through Copse – a blinding right-hander – it’s not the apex speed that impresses most but the precision of the car. All cars with meaningful downforce do this and if you’ve never experienced it, you simply won’t believe how floaty and vague even well-developed supercars can feel. But the Brabham has something else, too.
It is terrific over bumps and rumble strips – excellent on the way into a corner, borderline freaky on the way out. There are some quite noticeable undulations where Silverstone’s National Circuit spears right onto the Wellington Straight and while you can feel the BT62 articulating itself over them, power delivery remains entirely uninterrupted.
I’m so glad David Brabham decided not just on this specification for the BT62 but also developed it into the car it is today. People will say you can buy a hot Radical and go nearly as fast for a fraction of this car’s cost. And if that’s what matters to you, buy a Radical. That’s not what this car is trying to do.
Buy a BT62 and you are buying into the Brabham name, that of the Le Mans-winning, former F1-driving son and his triple World Championship winning dad. You’re also buying into a name that has adorned some of the most beautiful, innovative, and successful formula racing cars of all time.
Finally you’re buying just about the most fun I’ve had driving a modern racing car. I wish David and his team all the luck in the world with it. Jack would be proud.
All about the drive on MOTOR car reviews
2019 Brabham BT62
BODY: 2-door, 2-seat coupe
ENGINE: 5387cc V8, DOHC, 32v
BORE/STROKE: 94.0 x 97.0mm
POWER: 522kW @ 7400rpm
TORQUE: 667Nm @ 6200rpm
POWER-TO- WEIGHT: 530kW/tonne
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed Holinger sequential manual
SUSPENSION: wishbones, pushrods, adjustable coil-overs (f/r)
TRACKS: 1649/1597mm (f/r)
BRAKES: 380mm carbon/carbon discs, 6-piston calipers (f); 355mm carbon/carbon discs, 6-piston calipers (r)
WHEELS: 18.0 x 11.0-inch (f); 18.0 x 13.0-inch (r)
TYRES: Michelin competition slicks & wets, 27/65 R18 (f); 31/71 R18 (r)
PRICE: $2,260,000 (estimated)
PROS: Riotous engine; incredible grip; Le Mans looks; rare
CONS: Price; track only (at the moment); not much else
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Who is Jack Brabham?
Sir John Arthur (Jack) Brabham's improbable Formula One story has been told thousands of times but it never grows old. In a few years, Brabham went from dirt speedways in '50s Australia to the hallowed circuits of Europe, where he won three World Championships, including his unequalled 1966 title in a car bearing his own name.
Arriving in England in 1955 he quickly established a relationship with constructor John Cooper. In 1959, he won his first grand prix at Monaco, in a Cooper, and famously pushed his car across the line to finish fourth at the US GP and win his first World Championship.
He won the title again for Cooper in 1960 with five victories but Brabham, who was also an excellent engineer, knew he could do better and formed the Brabham Racing Organisation in partnership with brilliant Australian designer Ron Tauranac. It is legend now that Brabham convinced Repco in Australia to develop an engine based on an Oldsmobile road car block for the new 3.0-litre F1 formula for 1966.
With the Repco-Brabham V8 in Tauranac's outstanding new BT19 chassis, Brabham won four grands prix in 1966, and his third and most significant World Championship.
He was second in the points in 1967 (teammate Denny Hulme won the championship) and raced on until 1970 when he won his final grand prix in South Africa at the age of 44 before retiring.