Last Thursday I had the privilege of sitting down to afternoon tea with Australian racing driver John Harvey. While John might not be a household name across the pond, he holds rarefied status in Australian motor-sport as a master of speedway, touring car and open-wheeler racing. Harvey competed at the Australian Grand Prix no less than five times, finishing eighth in 1966 behind the podium winners of Graham Hill, Frank Gardner and Jim Clark in a Brabham-Ford BT14.
We had met to discuss John’s 1987 Spa 24 Hour race, but after enquiring as to what he was up to these days, John’s eyes began to widen…
“Oh I’m working with a friend of mine who has a race workshop at Kinglake West and we have restored a number of old open-wheeled race cars… We’re just tidying up the very first MRD…”
MRD (Motor Racing Developments) were the first cars to be born from the combined genius of Jack Brabham and good friend and aircraft engineer Ron Tauranac. The cars were originally named MRDs until somebody pointed out that if spoken quickly enough it sounded like “Merde” – the French for “shit”’! As a result Brabham agreed to use his own name instead, going on to become the only driver to win the Formula One World Championship in a car – the BT19 – bearing his own name – a feat unlikely ever to be repeated.
John’s anecdote took me back to March when Sir Jack was honoured alongside the BT19 at this year’s Australian Grand Prix as the latest recipient of the Engineering Heritage Awards – established by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1984 to celebrate excellence in mechanical engineering.
As the latest recipient of this award, the Repco-Brabham BT19 joined the elite company alongside other winners including the world’s first vertical take-off/landing aircraft the Hawker Siddeley Harrier Jet and the world’s fastest steam locomotive, the Mallard Class A4 4468.
You simply could not move as Sir Jack was brought on stage for the momentous occasion, with the assembled gallery being thicker than rush hour at Mecca. But this was hardly surprising given that Jack was in effect, our ‘Mecca’. With Jack in poorer health the hordes had come out of the wood-work like lapsed Catholics to pay their respect.
Surprisingly it was only a year ago that Sir Jack slipped largely unnoticed through the Formula One paddock whilst the current ‘movers and shakers’ sipped cappuccinos and engaged in general pretence. Ironic given their shaky status has been largely built on the broad shoulders of Sir Jack and so many of his contemporaries. That the foundations of the Ecclestone empire were built on his purchase of the Brabham team – by dint of coercing Ron Tauranac into a counterproductive sale – only further serves to remind how twisted the sport has become since those glorious days.
Without Jack it is unlikely men like Alan Jones, Tim Schenken, Larry Perkins, Vern Schuppan, Frank Gardner, Mark Webber or Daniel Ricciardo would have even considered planting their bum in a single-seater. It also questions whether Ron Dennis (an ex-Brabham mechanic) would have gone on to set up his own F2 team Rondel Racing, which became the foundations of Project 4 and ultimately the rebirth of the McLaren behemoth.
Today, Australian Football legend Tommy Hafey was farewelled in a moving funeral at the Melbourne Cricket Ground which also houses the National Sports Museum. As helicopters circled overhead, I wonder how many would have spared a thought for the BT19 sitting silently within the museum’s confines?
Not only has Australia lost our greatest sportsman alongside Don Bradman, but today Formula One has lost a crucial part of its DNA. In the 1840’s, Thomas Carlyle argued that great men could have a decisive historical impact through their charisma, wisdom and intelligence. In the 1860’s Herbert Spencer argued that great men are the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetimes.
No-one would argue that in Sir Jack’s case both these views are true. The anomaly is that his feats are unlikely ever to be repeated. Let us make sure his immeasurable accomplishments live on.
Rest in Peace Black Jack.
Images courtesy of RichlandF1 and MotorsportRetro.com