Doug Nye: Jack Brabham – 1959 British GP 60th Anniversary

Sixty years ago, on Saturday, July 18, 1959, Jack Brabham won the British Grand Prix at Aintree, Liverpool.  That was his second Formula 1 World Championship-qualifying victory of that memorable year – the year in which he would clinch the first of his eventual three Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship titles, and in which the Cooper Car Company’s works team – which he led – would also win the Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship.

The Aintree circuit was a 3-mile loop of asphalt-surfaced roadway, laid out around the legendary Aintree Grand National horse-race venue.  It used the same main grandstands as the horse racing there and it had been built and opened in 1954 as the ‘Goodwood of the North’.

The British Grand Prix had been run there for the first time in 1955. Aintree then alternated with Silverstone as the home of the British GP. British hopes for the 1959 edition back at Aintree rested upon two main protagonists.

One was Stirling Moss, who had chosen to drive a pale-green liveried front-engined BRM Type 25 on loan to his father’s British Racing Partnership team. His normal regular Rob Walker-entered Cooper-Climax had been set aside while its troublesome Italian-made Colotti gearbox was being perfected. Why was he using the Colotti five-speed gearbox?  Because Cooper could only offer their own Citroen-ERSA ’box, which had just four speeds and which was itself so over-stressed by the toque of the latest full 2 1/2-litre Coventry Climax 4-cylinder twin-cam engine that its own reliability was almost equally suspect.

Tony Brooks – on his day Moss’s equal on track – was driving for Ferrari that year. He had won the French race in effortless style, but industrial troubles in Italy meant the Maranello team’s entries for Aintree were withdrawn. Instead he drove an essentially obsolescent front-engined Vanwall – which would prove uncompetitive.

Pre-race practice began at Aintree on the Thursday, July 16. It rained. Stirling lapped in 2mins 08secs in the BRP BRM.  Friday was dull and humid, but the rain stayed away for the Grand Prix session. Jack Brabham fled round the course in his Cooper, taking pole position at 1min 58secs. The RAC timekeepers were still rooted at that time in pre-war Brooklands tradition. They issued times down to only one-fifth of a second, never mind today’s three places of decimals and Valtteri Bottas beating Lewis Hamilton to 2019 pole by six one-thousandths of a second. Oh no – racing was different then.

But the sensation of 1959 British GP practice was that Roy Salvadori’s new Aston Martin DBR4/250 matched Jack’s pole time, setting it later so taking centre-spot on the three-wide front row of the grid. Completing that rank was Franco-American extrovert Harry Schell in his factory BRM Type 25, with a 1:59.2.  Maurice Trintignant equalled that time in the Rob Walker Cooper-Climax, followed by Jack’s works Cooper team-mate Masten Gregory on 1:59.4, then Carroll Shelby’s second Aston Martin, Moss’s BRM and Cooper third-string driver Bruce McLaren – the timekeepers crediting all three with best laps in 1:59.6 for row three.

Race day, July 18, dawned wet, grey and miserable. A fierce rain storm enveloped the supporting sports car race, but skies were clearing and the sun blazed down as the GP drivers completed an introductory tour in a fleet of matching white Austin-Healey Sprites.

The start was flagged at 2.30pm and the 24 cars ripped away, with the exception of privateer David Piper who trundled his front-engined Lotus-Climax 16 into the pits to investigate ignition trouble.

It was Jack Brabham – ‘The nut-brown Australian’ as Denis Jenkinson of ‘Motor Sport’ had nicknamed him – whose rear-engined Cooper Type 51 found the instant traction to bullet him into an immediate lead. On only the second lap Shelby was in the pits, reporting an oil leak from his Aston Martin. Team-mate Salvadori was also in trouble, falling down the field. After five laps Jack Brabham led Harry Schell’s works BRM by 11.2secs. His Cooper was averaging over 88mph on the demandingly sinuous circuit. Gregor Grant in ‘Autosport’ reported “Cool, calm and collected, Jack Brabham continued to increase his lead. His driving was immaculate, and showed why he is leading the World Championship table…”.Moss slipped the pale-green BRM into third place behind Schell’s dark metallic green works car. On lap 9 Stirling sliced past Schell for second place – and set about cutting into Brabham’s 14 second lead.  By lap 11 the back markers – including runners in the concurrent 1500cc Formula 2 category – were being lapped. And after 12 laps Jack’s Formula 1 Cooper was right on the tail of Chris Bristow’s leading Formula 2 Cooper-Borgward. The Australian star was maintaining his comfortable cushion ahead of Moss, no matter what Stirling tried. Maurice Trintignant had displaced Schell for third, and Bruce McLaren was catching the BRM driver for fourth place.

After 20 laps Brabham led Moss by 15.2secs, with Trintignant, Schell, McLaren and Jo Bonnier’s second works BRM 3-4-5-6 in their wake. Jack was lapping in near qualifying pace of 1:59. Bruce McLaren at last displaced Schell.  On lap 24 Moss lapped in 1:58.6, 91.06mph, yet by lap 30 Jack’s Cooper was 16secs ahead.  

On lap 32 Harry Schell spun in a cloud of smoke at Tatt’s Corner, leading onto the start/finish straight. Bruce McLaren was third “…driving like a veteran”. On lap 28 Moss set yet another new lap record – 1:58.2, 91.37mph – and next time round he clipped another fifth-second off that time. At last he was cutting into Brabham’s Cooper lead.  With 40 laps completed Jack led by 12 secs and the Australian had pushed the race average speed up to 90mph.  Only seven cars remained on the same lap, but on lap 41 Jack lapped Salvadori’s Aston Martin, leaving just six.

By lap 45, Stirling Moss was just 10 seconds behind Jack Brabham. Schell wrested fourth place back from Trintignant, but Jo Bonnier’s BRM engine had expired. Moss was inexorably gaining on Brabham. By lap 48 the gap was down to 8.5secs but BRP chief mechanic Tony Robinson and ‘Pa’ Moss in the pits flashed an urgent tyre-change warning signal to Stirling. The big and relatively heavy front-engined BRM was burning its tyres more rapidly than the smaller, lighter and more nimble tera-engined Cooper.

Two laps later the ‘British grazing green’ BRM flurried into the pits to have both rear wheels and tyres changed. That precautionary – and necessary – stop cost Moss 34 seconds. Jack Brabham’s lead became 51 seconds.  Schell was catching McLaren. Masten Gregory – in sixth place – lost a lap stopping for water. Trintignant was in gear change trouble, his pace slowing as the Walker Cooper faltered.  

On lap 53 leader Brabham lapped the veteran French star, leaving only four cars on the same lap.  Salvadori spun off at Anchor Crossing, but regathered his travel-stained Aston Martin and rejoined. Jack equalled Moss’s lap record. Stirling struck back with a new best of 1:57.8, 91.68mph.

Ron Flockhart’s BRM spun at Village Corner, and retired. Fritz d’Orey ran out of brakes in his Scuderia Centro Sud Maserati 250F and crashed into one of the stout gateposts at Anchor Crossing. The sun-baked crowd roared at 60 laps, just before leader Brabham flashed between grandstands and pits, Cooper team chief mechanic Reg James brought out a ‘BRA TYRES’ signal while brandishing a spare wheel and tyre for emphasis. But as Jack passed, both were hidden from him – then displayed as – 45.8secs later – Moss rocketed by… 

Here was Formula 1 kidology – probably inspired by Stirling’s non-stop victory in the 1958 Argentine GP, when Walker team mechanics ‘Alf Francis’ and Timmy Wall fooled Ferrari into thinking he was going to stop, waving a signal and spare wheel more for the rival Ferrari team’s benefit than for their driver’s. It worked then – and it would work again now. Still Jack was more than sufficiently wily to ease back. Moss began to gain 3secs per lap. With 65 laps completed he was 35secs behind.  But the BRM had burned too much fuel. Why more had not been added at his lap 50 tyre stop mystified many. Swirling into the pit lane the BRP boys sloshed in 4-gallons – and he lost a further 19secs to leader Brabham.

Harry Schell swept in, fresh rear wheels and tyres going onto the works BRM.  As Moss rejoined Bruce McLaren slammed past into second place – a works Cooper-Climax 1-2 beckoned in this British Grand Prix. Stirling responded, megastar and Kiwi youngster beginning a squabble for second place which would endure to the chequered flag. This duo shared the new lap record at 1:57.0, 92.31mph. And as the chequered flag swept down to greet Jack Brabham’s British Grand Prix victory – all eyes turned to Tatt’s Corner, for the second-place duel. Bruce’s Cooper was faster out of the corner, and he tore almost level with Moss’s BRM as they flashed across the finish line – Stirling taking the place by the smallest increment the timekeeper could measure, one-fifth of a second. Gregor Grant: “The crowd rose to Brabham, who had driven one of the most heady races ever witnessed in this country, to win the second Grande Epreuve of his career…”. 

Returning to the Walker Cooper – with its Colotti gearbox woes corrected – Moss would later win both the Portuguese and Italian GPs, to clinch their first Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship title for the Cooper Car Company. Into that year’s final Drivers’ World Championship round – the inaugural United States GP at Sebring, Florida – three drivers retained a chance of winning the title; Jack Brabham, Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks (who had won both the French and German GPs) of Ferrari. Jack memorably led until the final lap, only to run out of fuel, leaving team-mate Bruce McLaren to become at that time the youngest ever Championship-qualifying F1 race winner. But both Moss and Brooks had struck trouble – and Jack Brabham won the Drivers’ World Championship title…the first of his three…

By Doug Nye, renowned motor racing journalist, historian and Jack’s friend.

Images copyright: The GP Library