The ‘Jack Brabham Myth’ – Interviewing The Brabham Film Director
‘Brabham’. A man and a three-time Formula 1 World Champion that defined Grand Prix racing in the 1960s alongside the likes of Sir Jackie Stewart, Graham Hill, Jim Clark and Bruce McLaren. A Constructor that won the world title twice in ’66 and ’67, powered Sir Jack himself, Denny Hulme and Nelson Piquet (twice) to championship glory, and innovated mid-race refuelling in F1 and hydropneumatic suspension.
A father to David and Geoff, racers in their own right boasting two outright wins at Le Mans, four IMSA GTP-class championships, a Can-Am Cup in 1981, a 1997 Bathurst 1000 win, and 30 Grand Prix starts between them, among many other accolades. A dynasty, with grandsons Matthew and Sam cementing crowns and race wins in USF2000, Indy Pro 2000, and British Formula Ford. A brand name, following the debut of Brabham Automotive in 2018 and the launch of the Australian automaker’s first limited edition supercar, the BT62.
A legend. ‘Black Jack’ remains the only man to have won an F1 championship in a car bearing his name. He helped usher in the ‘rear-engined’ revolution in single seater following his mid-engined run to 9th at the Indy 500 in 1961. In 1978, he became the first F1 driver to be knighted for services to motorsport, an accolade emulated by only two other men.
That is a very, very short overview of the life and career of three-time F1 World Champion, Sir Jack Brabham, posthumous star of a brand new docudrama from Australian filmmaker, Akos Armont.
Akos (pronounced ‘Arkosh’, reflecting his Hungarian roots) actually began his film career almost a decade ago as an actor: look closely, and you may even recognise a certain ‘British Solider’ in 2017’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, shot on Australia’s Gold Coast. His passion for writing and production though soon came to the fore, one that, twinned with an equal enthusiasm for motorsport, was renewed when a friend introduced him to an Australian legacy in 2013.
“I grew up during the [Michael] Schumacher years, and one day, a good friend of mine mentioned Jack Brabham and his story to me in passing. I was surprised because I knew so little about the full story: I knew more about Phar Lap [Australia’s champion thoroughbred] than this three-time F1 champion, and I was really surprised that the Jack Brabham story hadn’t transferred to my knowledge base. So I started thinking, if that was the case for me, surely it must be the same for a whole generation.
“Here we had this incredible Australian export, who was not only an incredible driver but an astonishingly accomplished engineer, entrepreneurial, and a great mentor to a generation of Antipodean greats like Bruce McLaren, [former Brabham F1 team manager and McLaren joint managing director] Phil Kerr, and ’67 champion, Denny Hulme. I thought, if nobody else has done a definitive documentary on him, I might give it a crack.”
By his own admission, despite investing three years of his life into its development, the film’s Creative Producer and Writer never pictured himself in the director’s chair. Yet an 11th minute bow-out from the man originally at the helm left Akos with the proverbial Catch 22: take over the reigns himself with limited experience, or risk an extended hiatus from which Brabham might never recover.
“I was naïve enough that I wanted to do it, but humble enough to accept there were people with tremendous skill sets who could contribute so much more in the role. Unfortunately, our director became unavailable because his previous film ran over, and so I had to step into the breach.
“But I’ve never thought of it as a directorial debut, only because I’ve never really approached it in that way. I never intended to apply a specific aesthetic to the film. We felt more like forensic detectives trying to unpeel the mystery of the Jack Brabham myth and the legacy someone like Jack leaves behind for subsequent generations.”
The cast list for Akos’ ‘forensics’ reads like a Who’s Who of motorsport lore, including first-hand insight from three-time World Champion, and ‘Black Jack’ contemporary, Sir Jackie Stewart; 1964 World Champion, the now sadly departed John Surtees; British, and international, motorsport hero Sir Stirling Moss; nine-time Grand Prix winner, 2015 FIA World Endurance Champion, and compatriot, Mark Webber; former F1 magnate, and Brabham team owner from1972 to 1988, Bernie Ecclestone; and former McLaren team principal, and mechanic to Sir Jack himself, Ron Dennis. For a first project dedicated to motorsport, it’s an extraordinarily accomplished roster, for which Akos is incredibly grateful.
“Sir Jackie Stewart has been an absolute stalwart supporter of our efforts. He has been an event patron for us and introduced the film for our very first, private interview screenings to our stakeholders and supporters at the Australian Grand Prix. In the case of Sir Stirling moss, we were very fortunate that, in 2016, the Goodwood Revival was dedicated to the Brabham marque, so that interview was very timely.
“We were introduced to Bernie Ecclestone by the late Ron Walker, who was responsible for bringing the Grand Prix from Adelaide to Melbourne. He and Ron were firm friends for many years, and I can honestly say that, had it not been for Ron’s kind introduction, we would not have secured that interview with Bernie.
“It’s quite funny, he gave us an hour initially, and we ended up speaking for closer to two. Unfortunately, we probably only have about 3% of his interview in the film. But we have this incredible raw and unplugged footage that hopefully we’ll get to release one day as ‘Bernie Uncut’!”
One particular interview with former McLaren team principal and junior mechanic to Sir Jack himself, Ron Dennis, proved slightly less well-timed than Akos had expected. Ironically, it presents perhaps the most accurate representation in the film of life behind F1’s hallowed curtain.
“We didn’t know it at the time, but when we interviewed Ron Dennis in 2016, he was under a lot of pressure with the shareholders the day we interviewed him.” – after crossing swords with the team’s majority owners, Dennis officially parted ways with McLaren in June 2017 after a combined 37 years at Woking – “His contribution to the film ultimately is quite unexpected. He was a consummate professional, quite charismatic and charming, but was not an easy personality to interview simply because of the tremendous strain he was under at that time. Lots of people gave us valuable insights about Jack, but Ron was perhaps the closest we came to someone in a position Jack would have experienced personally in running a major automotive outfit. Ron’s manner, his temperament, and occasionally his impatience really gave us a first-hand insight into how Jack may have behaved, and I think Ron’s sequence in the film speaks to that.”
No support proved more crucial to the film though than the Brabham family itself, most notably Jack’s sons David and Geoff, and David’s wife, Lisa, and despite the difficulties of conducting interviews from quite literally the other side of world: for much of the initial dialogue in 2014, Akos was in Sydney while David was overseeing the then-named ‘Project Brabham’.
To Akos, the family’s contribution cannot be downplayed. Not just in what was said but in the realisations made while the camera was rolling. Far from being ‘just’ a Senna-esque chronicle of Sir Jack’s career, this arguably film goes much deeper. Despite the build, despite the promotion, and even despite its titular star, could Brabham, at its heart, actually be about David?
It’s an existential question Akos Armont hopes his first motorsport-dedicated film will leave his audience asking of itself when it reaches European and North American shores.
“People ask me, ‘Is it like Senna?’ ‘Is it like McLaren?’ On the one hand, I would love Brabham to be like other motorsport genre films because it’s a wonderful genre that motorsport fans are familiar with and enjoy. But on the other hand, motorsport is the vehicle through which we examine the family drama that’s at the core of the film. Had the family not invited us in and not come to the table with the candour and openness they did, we couldn’t have interrogated the deeper issues involved.
“If you look at Netflix’ Drive to Survive or Williams, they unfold in real time. We didn’t have that luxury, and for us, we were un-peeling, layer after layer, David and Geoff’s memories of their father, hidden in the recesses of their minds. It was bit like solving a cold case, and it was a really long time before we could put a camera on David and he could reveal these intensely personal thoughts and impressions. And that’s understandable because he’s re-launching a brand. But he’s also lived with the ‘burden’, if you will, of the Jack Brabham legacy his entire life. David is very much at a crossroads of trying to marry a legacy of the ‘60s golden era of motorsport with reality today, and how much has changed in the meantime. In a really interesting way, David became the central character of a film about his father, because the only way we could understand Jack was through David. That was perhaps the biggest revelation.
“I hope Brabham encourages viewers to look at themselves, to look at their heroes and icons, and the expectations that they have either placed on themselves or they feel our culture has placed on them, and to question what motivates the decisions they have made. I don’t think for example we should place Sir Jack on pedestal. His legacy and his myth absolutely has a place in public consciousness. But its real value is if we hold it up to the light and examine it, warts and all. That’s the real value of the Brabham ‘myth’.”
*Images courtesy of Motorsport Images, Aurora Films and Brabham Automotive