Black Jack Rolls a Seven in Champagne Country -- The 1966 French Grand Prix


While making the motion picture "Grand Prix" in 1966, filmmaker John Frankenheimer went to Reims, site of that year's French Grand Prix, poked around for a day or two, and decided that Champagne Country was too dull to be in his movie. So he sent his cast and crew (and a fleet of Formula Threes, rebodied to look like Formula Ones) to a circuit in Clermont-Ferrand, in the picturesque Auvergne Mountains of Central France, and staged his own French Grand Prix.

Only in Hollywood, where nothing is real.

But Reims dull?

There hasn't been a French Grand Prix at Reims that hasn't lacked for drama, whether it was the yearly mishap on the starting grid, or a spin at the Thillois Hairpin that decided the outcome. If Frankenheimer didn't see drama in race cars slipstreaming each other over a golden plane at 195 m.p.h., he could have staged scenes on a portion of the old circuit, where it encountered the quaint French village of Gueux, for some Monaco-like round-the-houses racing. And don't forget those champagne evenings in the caves beneath the streets of Reims, where everyone overate, drank too much champagne, and got a little crazy. Frankenheimer could have done a lot with Reims, had he known where to look.

As with all the old, great, storied Grand Prix venues of Europe, Circuit Permanet de la Marne, better known as the Circuit of Reims, dates from the 1920s. In the beginning, the triangular circuit ran through the village of Gueux, where, amidst the high, shuttered townhouses, made a sharp right turn into an alley, passed bars and restaurants, then cut a swath across a wheatfield, and joined the Reims-Soissons road. From there, it descended down a long straightaway, to the Thillois Hairpin, which was paved in cobblestones. Having reversed direction, the circuit made a mile-long dash to the start-finish line, and on to begin another lap.

In 1952, the circuit was revised to make it faster. The roads were smoothed out, the cobblestones paved over, and, sadly, Gueux was bypassed. In place of the sharp village corner, the circuit now made a sweeping right turn through a wheatfield, straightened, swept left, and at a new hairpin curve, joined the Reims-Soissone road, further back, thereby stretching the run to Thillois (pronounced "tee-la-wah") to nearly two miles, increasing lap speed significantly.

Now, in mid-summer 1966, with the cast and crew of "Grand Prix" on their way to Clermont-Ferrand, the real Grand Prix teams gathered in Reims for the third Formula One race of the season. Two weeks earlier, after Englishman John Surtees' convincing victory in the Belgium Grand Prix, the world of motor racing was turned upside down, with the news that Surtees had quit the team in a huff, after learning that he--Ferrari's number-one driver--had been relegated to role of alternate at Le Mans. What choice did a man as proud and passionate as John Surtees have but to leave? The irony of it was that no one in Modena had even tried to talk him out of it.

Up to this point, most of the pundits had concluded that 1966 was going to be a "Ferrari year", what with one of the fastest drivers (Surtees) piloting one of the fastest cars (the Ferrari 312). But with Surtees having quit Ferrari, and no driver of the first rank to replace him, a "Ferrari year" was now anything but certain.

Having joined Cooper Cars of England in the interim, Surtees was still the favorite. Sure, the Cooper T81 was overweight, and the handling suspect, and the aged Maserati V-12 lacked the brute horsepower of the latest Ferrari V-12 F-1 engine. Overall the Anglo-Italian machine looked cluttered and unfinished. But after having witnessed the audacious Austrian, Jochen Rindt, driving the same Cooper-Maserati T81, pass him in the Belgian Grand Prix, Surtees was now convinced the ungainly- looking Cooper-Maserati had the makings of a winner. An engineer at heart, and a born tinkerer, Surtees convinced himself that he could make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. And, unlike at Ferrari, at Cooper Cars, Surtees could pick up a wrench and work on his own car. Bliss!

The serious-minded Surtees, arrived in Reims actually smiling, something the motor racing press had seldom seen before. Perhaps he knew something they didn't?

Meanwhile, in Modena, the void created by Surtees' surprise exit had been filled by Ferrari's perennial number-two man, genial Lorenzo Bandini. For three years, the quiet, unassuming Italian had labored in Surtees' shadow, awaiting the opportunity to lead the team. Now, at midseason, it had come. Driving the sleek, powerful Ferrari 312, Bandini was assuredly the driver to beat at Reims.

After his hair-raising performance in Belgium, Surtees' new teammate, Jochen Rindt, too, was now considered to be a serious threat to win the world title. In a heavy downpour, on a truly frightening circuit (Spa-Francorchamps), with half the field having spun off course, Rindt braved the rain and pushed his tail-heavy Cooper-Maserati past Surtees' better-handling Ferrari to lead the Belgian Grand Prix. Had the rain continued, he likely would have won the race.

NEW YEAR, NEW FORMULA

Nineteen Sixty-Six was probably not the best year for filmmaker John Frankenheimer to be making "Grand Prix". It was the first year of the new three-liter formula, with all the team's scrambling to build new cars and new engines. As a result, last year's front-runners--world champion Jim Clark, Dan Gurney, and Graham Hill--all tied to engine programs that were slow in developing--arrived in Reims saddled with last-years cars, and were pretty much out of the hunt.

Dan Gurney, meanwhile (with backing from the Goodyear Tire Co.), had taken the bold step of forming his own team--All American Racers--and, like Clark and Hill, was awaiting development of a new 3-liter engine.

Nearly forgotten was a taciturn 39-year-old Australian, named Jack Brabham. Due to his perennial five-o'clock shadow, and his stealthy ways of often coming out on top, he was nickname "Black Jack". He's the guy at the poker table nobody notices, until the game is over, and he has everybody's money. After becoming the least likely of double-world champions, in 1959-60, the ex-RAF flight mechanic, departed the dominant Cooper Car Company, to strike out on his own, with a car of his own creating. Also, he hired the supremely talented Californian, Dan Gurney, as his number-one driver, and after that Black Jack took fewer risks than before, and failed to win another race. Four years later, at the end of the 1965 season, Brabham talked of retiring, and withdrawing his team from Formula One. What was the point of continuing? The rules had changed, Gurney had moved on to drive his own car, and Brabham's engine supplier--Coventry-Climax--was closing shop. Why continue, and have to start all over again? He was 39-years-old, successful and content as a businessman, building and selling Formula Twos and Threes, as fast as his small firm could make them. Twice World Champion, he had nothing more to prove.

Still. . . .

With everyone talking of 12- and 16-cylinder engines, and 400 horsepower, and building larger, heavier, and more complicated cars, Brabham's analytical mind got to working. Perhaps there was a chance for a straightforward, relatively simple, lightweight machine with perhaps 300 horsepower, winning a race or two, while the competition was preoccupied with sorting out complex new equipment. Everything he needed could be taken off the shelf, so to speak. Gathering dust in a corner of his shop was the Brabham BT19, a space-frame chassis he had built in early 1965, to accept the radical 1-5-liter Coventry-Climax flat-16, that had never materialized. Compared to the fully-integrated monocoque chassis everyone else was building, the BT19 was obsolete. Only that didn't faze Black Jack in the least. What counted was the BT19 was lightweight, strong, and easy to work on.

For an engine, there was a 2.5-liter V-8 engine that only a year earlier Brabham had commissioned Repco Engineering to build for his winter campaign down under, in the Australian Tasman Series. In reality, it was little more than an aluminum stock-block Olds F-85 engine, fitted with special, single-overhead camshaft cylinder heads, and four Weber downdraft carburetors. With a change of bore-and-stroke, and fuel injectors in place of carburetors, Brabham had himself a 3-liter engine that delivered an honest and reliable 285 horsepower, with killer mid-range torque. Brabham even agreed to share billing with the Australian parts supplier, by renaming his F-1 team, Brabham-Repco. For sponsorship, Brabham had arranged the financial backing of two large American corporations: the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, and Enco Petroleum.

Perhaps most important of all, Black Jack still had that old itch to mix it up with the fast boys on Europe's most-demanding circuits.

FRANKENHEIMER SURVEYS THE COMPETITION

Prior to shooting "Grand Prix", John Frankenheimer went around to all the Formula One shops to see firsthand what was in the works, and came away deeply impressed with BRM's new high-tech H-16 engine, and with McLaren's new aerospace-engineered F-1 chassis, coupled to a special destroked Indy Ford V8 engine, and, of course, with Ferrari's elegant F-1 chassis coupled to its classic V-12. Overlooked was Brabham's small outfit in Byfleet, Surrey, England. What did Brabham have to offer his movie? Last year's car, powered by a production American V8 engine? Plus a driver who hadn't won a Grand Prix in five years? Excuse me, am I missing something here?

Believing BRM (British Racing Motors), Ferrari, and McLaren, would be the teams to beat in 1966, Frankenheimer rebodied a fleet of Formula Threes to resemble BRM H-16s, Ferrari 312s, and the promising McLaren-Ford, and dressed his stars in uniforms and helmets that matched those of John Surtees of Ferrari, Jackie Stewart of BRM, and Chris Amon of McLaren.

Did Frankenheimer ever get that wrong! The season wasn't half over, and John Surtees was no longer driving for Ferrari; and the new BRM P83, had never made it to the starting grid (parked as it was in the garage, over a pool of oil, dripping from its over-engineered H-16 motor), while McLaren Cars' special destroked (and expensive) Indy Ford V8 had proved to be a world-class dud.

THE 1966 FRENCH GRAND PRIX

Come Tuesday evening, as the real Formula One teams began arriving in Champagne Country, Brabham's dark eyes had that look. It was the same look that said, you'd better check your wallet, mate, because Black Jack is about to pick your pockets clean. It's the same look he had back in 1960, at this very circuit, when he slipstreamed the more powerful (and heavier) Ferraris of Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips on the long straightaways, and out-braked them into the hairpins, with his lighter and more nimble Cooper-Climax. With the lead changing two-and-three-times a lap, Brabham wore down the red cars, until first Hill, then Trips, dropped out with over-heated brakes, shot gearboxes, and frayed nerves. Brabham won easily after that, and went on to win four more F-1 races, and be crowned 1960 world championship. Black Jack, indeed.

Wednesday afternoon in Reims, the first practice session began. But where was Scuderia Ferrari? The paddock behind pit row, was a sea of green. Amidst this parking lot of British F-1 cars, was the shiny new Brabham BT20, a refined version of the Brabham BT19 that finished fourth in Belgium.

In the relative cool of the late afternoon, Surtees and Rindt headed out in their Cooper-Masteratis, and recorded lap times in the mid-2:10s. No one believed for a moment that these times would hold up, once Ferrari arrived. Standing in the shade of pit row, Jack Brabham folded his arms and waited. He knew from experience, that until Ferrari arrived, nothing really mattered.

Not until Thursday afternoon, did the red cars from Modena, finally arrive. After the Italian machines were rolled off the transporter, and given a thorough check over by the Ferrari mechanics, were the familiar shrieks of the famed Ferrari V-12 heard on pit row. After that, Bandini, and his new teammate, Englishman Mike Parks, motored serenely out onto the circuit.

This is what Brabham had been waiting for: the chance to slipstream the faster red cars, and post a competitive starting time for Sunday's race.

But so had everyone else. Within the first couple of laps, a string of green cars latched onto the faster red cars. Bandini and Parks had been expecting this, and did their best to break free from the pack. They tried everything--slowing down, speeding up. At one point, on the long back straightaway, where speeds routinely top 195-m.p.h., Bandini slowed to a relative crawl of 70 m.p.h., and not a single English car passed him. On those rare occasions that Bandini and Parks managed to break free from the pack, they would find more green cars waiting for them, outside the Thillois Hairpin.

That's where Jack Brabham was waiting. When Bandinin rounded Thillois alone, Brabham saw his chance. He pulled out, gunned his engine, and latched onto the Italian's tail. Being sucked along in the Ferrari's slipstream, was like finding his engine had suddenly developed an extra 50 horsepower. Within two laps, Brabham recorded a lap time of 2:10.2, quicker than the times of both Surtees' and Rindt's more powerful Cooper-Maseratis.

Late in the afternoon, Surtees motored out to improve his time, by latching onto Bandini's Ferrari. On the approach to the time-and-scoring tower, Surtees used the boost of Bandini's slipstream to slingshot past the Italian, and record a sizzling 2:08.4. The following afternoon, minutes before the final practice session ended, Bandini let fly and bettered Surtees' time, with 2:07.9, to take pole.

As always on race weekend, after the final practice session, the organizers hosted a candlelight dinner and champagne tasting in The Caves, a Reims tradition. "The Caves" were a labyrinth of underground caverns and tunnels created for the storage and fermentation of champagne--wine cellars, on a grand scale. In the 1950s, when the spirit of amateurism was in full swing, the company of two fun-loving English lads, Mike Hawthorne and Peter Collins, plus the French-American jokester Harry Schell, and the suave and charming Italian, Eugenio Castellotti, would insure these light-hearted occasions stretched into the wee hours of the morning, the drivers knowing they had all day Saturday to sleep it off.

Alas, the days of the fun-loving amateurs had gone the way of the brutal front-engined F-1s they once drove. A concern with making lots of money, and winning at all costs--professionalism--marked the latest generation of F-1 drivers. They turned in early, watched their diet, and seldom drank. Among this ascetic group, Jack Brabham, Graham Hill and Dennis Hulme were scheduled to drive in Saturday's Formula Two race, and dared not set foot inside the caves, while others, such as John Surtees, planned to spend their free day preparing their machines for Sunday's main event, and would turn in early. As a result, the Champagne party was one of the least memorable in history, due to low turnout, and nary a jokester in the crowd.

Sunday afternoon, Champagne Country baked in the stifling July heat. As the clock inched toward the 3 p.m. start, the cars were rolled out to form the starting grid.

The first two rows looked like this:

Bandini Surtees Parks

Ferrari Cooper-Maserati Ferrari

Brabham Rindt

Brabham-Repco Cooper-Maserate

At 3 o'clock, the French Tri-Color was waved, and the 1966 French Grand Prix was underway. Bandini, Surtees, and Parks surged away cleanly, chased by Brabham and Rindt. They disappeared around the big curve, and did not reappear until slipstreaming like mad down the long back straightaway. Peering out from the timing and control tower, the distant cars looked like colorful bugs: out front, running close together, were two red cars, separated by a green car. Uh-huh. That would be Surtees' Cooper-Maserati, sandwiched between the Ferraris of Bandini and Parks. Braking for Thillois, the three cars bunched up, rounded the hairpin single-file, and came thundering up the front straight.

What's this? The green car was not Surtees' Cooper-Maserat. It was a Brabham-Repco. Somehow, Black Jack had managed to move up and squeeze between the two leading Ferraris. Trailing the three leaders was Surtees' smoking Cooper-Maserati, coming to a stop in to the pits. Despite working all day Saturday on his car, the Englishman's race ended after one lap.

It's 1960 all over again, with Brabham slipstreaming the faster Ferraris down the long straightaways, and harrying them into the hairpins. Within a few laps, it became a two-man race, as Bandini and Brabham, broke away from Parks. After a few more laps, Bandini's big horsepower advantage over Brabham began to show, as he opened a two-second lead over the Australian. By lap 24--the halfway point--Bandini's lead over Brabham had stretched to 13 seconds.

An easy win for the Italian? Surtees may have departed Ferrari, but it's still a Ferrari years. Or is it?

Eight laps later, on lap 32, Bandini stalled while rounding Thillois, due to the throttle cable having explicably snapped, causing his engine to go silent, thus ending Bandini's day.

This was extremely welcome news for Jack Brahbam, who would go on to win the first of four straight Grands Prix, and the 1966 world championship. It was a story far more dramatic and compelling than anything Frankenheimer could ever have dreamed up, a classic tale right out of the Bible, of an ill-equipped David having slain the mighty Goliath.

POSTSCRIPT

Much was made of Jack's "homebuilt special", as if the Aussie had designed it himself, with chalk marks on his garage floor, and cobbled it together from various pieces of scrap metal. The reality is not nearly as interesting. The car was designed by a gifted engineer and fellow Aussie named Ron Tauranac, and assembled by a staff of skilled fabricators, machinists, and mechanics. True, Jack Brabham started out as a mechanic, and still enjoyed turning a wrench, and routinely put in 15-hour days at his shop, but he was also a superb delegator and savvy businessman, who led by example. Brabham/Tauranac race cars may have been relatively simple compared with contemporary BRMs, Ferraris, and Lotuses, but that was not to say they lacked innovation. Jack and Ron resisted change for the sake of change, sticking with what worked best, rather than copying everyone else. In 1966, what worked best in Formula One was a simple space frame chassis, powered by a highly modified American V-8 engine. That, in itself, was innovative.

It's worth noting, too, that a Brabham Formula Two (driven by Jack himself) won the 1966 European Formula Two championship, while that same summer, in the United States, Mario Andretti won the U.S. National Championship in a race car that strongly resembled the Brabham BT20. In fact, Andretti's machine was an an exact copy of the 1964 Brabham BT12 Indy car, fabricated in the Arizona shop of Clint Brawner, Andretti's chief mechanic. Combined with Jack's Formula One and Formula Two championships, Brabham-designed race cars were three-for-three in major championships in 1966. Not bad for an obsolete design.

How great was Jack Brabham? Today, his name is rarely, if ever, mentioned with the likes of Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, and other multiple world champions. Nonetheless, Brabham exemplified all that was best in a professional race car driver. He was not only blessed with the talent to be competitive at the highest levels of motor racing, he was savvy about the career choices he made. He knew that it's not enough to be fast. To be successful, a driver must have the right car, the best suppliers, and must make wise career decisions. He must get with the right team at the right time, and move on when decline inevitably set in. Brabham was not the fastest driver in F-1--not even among the top five--but he was one of the very smartest. He was a three-time world champion who, in the mid-1960s, owned the winningest F-1 team in the world.

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