Hopping Into Jack Brabham's Seat

Competing with vintage racing cars hard is something every car lover should try at some point in their lives. Owning and racing legendary cars of champions is a completely different dimension. Meet Jon, who does exactly that.

Formula One legend, Sir Jack Brabham is - sadly - no longer with us, but his legacy is very much alive and even tangible for anyone visiting a Historic Grand Prix race.

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Jon Fairley is a driver at the HGPCA (Historic Grand Prix Cars Association) and owns not one, but two of Sir Jack's Grand Prix cars - a Cooper T53 and a Brabham BT11 - and races them on a regular basis. I was interested to find out about these cars, how someone gets into vintage racing and what are odds of the challenge.

Competitive racing pretty much comes first over everything else in my life, apart from the kids - but I have to say that! I work to race and in between race weekends I spend the majority of my spare time planning for future events, testing and trying to improve the performance and handling of the car with my father who carries out all work to it.

When I was younger, I would have given anything to go out on track and drive round and round all day long. In fact, when I first started working after college, the first car I bought was a Westfield SEI in which I put a heavily modified 2.0 pinto (powerful in its day).

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not actual car pictured

The reason I did this was I could get to work, practice on my way home from work - although I would never condone hooning your race craft on public highways - and then on a weekend take it to the track and compete in sprints and hill climbs. Nowadays, whilst I still enjoy racing round a circuit, race weekends are far more important to me - the intensity of build up and the amazing highs that can follow - probably 10% of the time the when things work and the other 90% is pure misery when it doesn't - is like no other feeling I have ever experienced.

That leads us to the question what drives somebody to all the joy and pain of vintage racing.

I was testing with modern cars such as BTCC touring cars, Formula Renault, Formula Fords etc. It was carnage, the sessions were stopped every two minutes with cars crashing and with bits of carbon fibre strewn across the circuit. I finally realised it was a waste of time trying. That day however, I had for the first time ever been aware of real acceleration. As I planted the throttle everything in my peripheral vision streaked away pretty much like the Millennium Falcon does when the turbos kick in. Having loads of torque, no down force and relatively little grip from the tyres makes the handling of the car a very specialised skill to master. This is what draws me to historic racing. I've driven modern cars and they haven't given me the satisfaction that getting a historic car right does, although I would never turn down a drive in anything.

Racing vintage cars is one thing, driving - and eventually owning - such legendary ones with rich history behind them is another.

Both my father and my uncle competed in vintage racing when I was young so I have been brought up with older vehicles. In 2007 I was lucky to get the opportunity of driving the Cooper at Donington. The bug was caught instantly and I competed throughout 2008 with the HGPCA. I was lucky in 2009 to be in a position to buy the Brabham which I fell in love with at first sight.

Jon and David Brabham

It is the BT11/19 chassis number F1-2-64. The car was the development car for the BT19, which Jack Brabham won the World Championship with in 1966. In fact, it was raced by Jack Brabham in the first race of the 1966 season which was actually on 4th December, 1965. It was the Rand Grand Prix and the Repco engine wasn't quite ready, so a 2.7 FPF Coventry Climax was fitted. Jack won the event from pole position.

The car was the property of Scuderia Scribante (Aldo Scribante) and after this Dave Charlton drove the car for several years in South Africa, achieving a great deal of success. The car was brought into the UK by ex-F1 star and Le Mans winner Richard Attwood who won the Gold Cup at Oulton Park in the car.

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The Cooper is a T53 with a 1.5-litre FPF Coventry Climax engine. It was sent to the States as Jack Brabham's spare car for the Indy 500. This would also mean that the car was a 1960 works car (unfounded) and Cooper won the World Championship in 1960 with T53s. It never turned a wheel at the Indy 500 but was bought by the Texan oil tycoon and founder of Chapparal cars, Hap Sharp, who drove it in the 1961 and '62 USA and Mexican GPs. He finished 10th in the underpowered 4-cylinder car.

Presumably, 50-year-old vintage race cars don't turn a wheel without a team maintaining it 24/7.

The maintenance and upkeep of these cars is a real labour of love. My father - who maintains and prepares the car - works full time hours on it to make sure it's ready for each event. We have had a lot of bad luck over the last few years and have gone through one breakage to another and finally this season have almost got there with it. The problem is a Catch 22 one. If you don't test enough you don't know about the problems but testing too much shortens the life time of the components. Effectively, you test at the next race event. If it breaks, parts aren't always readily available, so they have to be made. The time it takes to get bits made might mean that events can be missed because they aren't ready. We have learned that we get 2 or 3 of everything made now.

That being said, the end result and the joy one can take out of driving these cars is immeasurable.

This year I have won twice at Silverstone, which was my favorite circuit right up until winning at Brands Hatch at the next event. That was a special win, mainly because it was a few days after Jack Brabham's passing away. It was nice to put the Brabham name on the top step again so soon after. I love Spa because of what it is, fast, long and brilliant when you get it right. Portimao is also another great circuit which is exhilarating due to its changes in level, blind apexes and also technical sections. Pau is amazing and scary!

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However, I think Imola is my personal favourite. It's steeped in history and I'm lucky to have almost raced there (the car broke in qualifying) as well as visit the Senna memorial with Ayrton Senna's mechanic from his Lotus days. That was a very moving moment to be with someone that was very close to the legend and something that I could have only been part of through motor racing. I'm sure there will be many more memorable moments to come.

On one occasion I was taken under the wing of the legend Stirling Moss at sign on for an event in Portugal when we were both in completely the wrong place. I was already in awe that I was sat in a room with him waiting to be told where to go and then to have him tell me to go with him (and be treated like royalty) to get to sign on and then for him to recognise me afterwards and be interested in how I was performing all weekend just shows what sort of world historic racing really is when complete unknowns such as myself rub shoulders with the greatest names of the sport of all time in the world!

If interested, you will be able to see either of these cars racing where they belong.

Hopefully we will be competing at The Goodwood Revival this year but the next outing for the Brabham is the Silverstone Classic in July.

All images are of Creative Commons licence except of the Brabham car that are property of Jon Fairley

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