Flying the chequered flag: The Brabham Formula 1 Team
Nelson Piquet celebrates victory in the British Grand Prix during his championship winning 1981 season with Brabham
Bernie Ecclestone in his office in Chessington
Another local company flying the flag for British engineering on the world’s stage was Motor Racing Developments Ltd. Better known as the Brabham Formula 1 Team, it was established by the world-renowned Australian racing driver Jack Brabham and British-Australian engineer Ron Tauranac in 1960.
Brabham had risen to fame driving for The Cooper Car Company, which was based in nearby Surbiton – this is where the technology that made the Mini Cooper a 3-time Monte Carlo champion was developed. He went on to become the first and only driver to win a Formula 1 championship in a car of his own design; he remains only one of two to have triumphed in a car bearing his own name (the other being Bruce McClaren - who also worked at Coopers Cars in Surbiton). Upon retirement in 1970, Jack had three Formula 1 championships to his name: 1959, 1960 and 1966.
The Brabham F1 team, meanwhile, is the 8th most successful F1 racing team of all time (as of 2023), winning two constructors’ titles and four driver championships. After retiring in 1970, Jack Brabham sold his shares to co-founder Ron Tauranac. The following year, Tauranac sold the team and company to motorsport magnate Bernie Ecclestone, who would later rise to fame as the head of the global Formula 1 franchise.
Brabham designer Gordon Murray and Bernie Ecclestone in the Chessington workshop, 1982
It was Ecclestone who would move the team to Chessington in 1978, manufacturing and developing racing cars in its 35,000 sq ft workshop on the corner of Cox Lane and Roebuck Road. Brabham won two Formula 1 championships whilst based in Chessington, with Brazilian Nelson Piquet triumphant in 1981 and 1983. At the 1982 Montreal Grand Prix, Brabham also became the first and only Formula 1 team to have 1st and 2nd on a podium with two separate engines (Brabham-BMW driven by Nelson Piquet and Brabham-Ford driven by Riccardo Patrese respectively).
Prior to these triumphs, Brabham had sparked a racing controversy at the 1978 Swedish Grand Prix where they showcased for the first and last time their BT46B – otherwise known as the ‘fan car’. With the unprecedented use of a fan above the engine, the BT46B sucked the air from outside and pulled the car down to the ground to devastating effect: in Sweden, driver Niki Lauda finished a good 34 seconds ahead of his nearest challenger. However the racing authorities were concerned that all other teams would now have to copy this technology, and ultimately Bernie Ecclestone agreed to never race with it again (but insists it was never ‘banned’).
Other high profile drivers to race with Brabham included John Watson and Damon Hill. But in 1989 Ecclestone decided to sell the team and it struggled under subsequent ownership: Swiss financier Joachim Lüthi was jailed for fraud, and subsequent owners Middlebridge were unable to continue financing the team after an economic crisis in their native Japan. Jack’s son David raced with the team in the 1990 season but the team’s demise was irreversible and Brabham ultimately collapsed midway through the 1992 season.
Some of the old Brabham connections continued to use the Chessington site, with Bernie’s longtime business partner Herbie Blash using the space for Activa Technology Limited, part of Yamaha Motor Sports. But by the mid-2000s, developers had carved the large space up into seven self-contained units, which remain today and are occupied by businesses such as Screwfix and the Chelsea Flooring Company.
Racing through the generations
- David Brabham
David Brabham is the son of Sir Jack Brabham, born in the UK and raised in Australia. Despite his father's attempts to shield him from motorsport, David continued in his father’s tradition, eventually making his Formula 1 debut in 1990 as part of the Brabham team when they were based in Chessington.
Working at the Chessington workshop
- Tony Jardine
Tony Jardine is a motorsports journalist and commentator with an extensive background in racing. From 1977 to 1979, he worked for the Brabham F1 team on the Chessington estate in several roles, including as an engineer, a race coordinator, and assisting designer Gordon Murray in the drawing office.
Tony’s role at Brabham was featured in a 1978 Liverpool Echo article.
Brabham in the Chessington years - David Tremayne
David Tremayne is a motorsports journalist who has covered over 500 Grand Prix for publications such as The Independent and has written a book on the science of F1 race car designs. He also worked briefly for the Brabham F1 team in 1991, writing press releases.