Australian F1 world champion racing driver and car designer who was down-to-earth and possessed a dry sense of humour
Sir Jack Brabham, who has died aged 88, was one of motor racing's great practical heroes, a tough Australian who applied a down-to-earth attitude to his craft. Not only did he gain three world championship titles, in 1959, 1960 and 1966, but the third was at the wheel of a car bearing his own name. This was a unique achievement in Formula One history and it was made all the more satisfying by the fact that he was 40 when he took that third title crown and regarded as being over the hill by many motor-racing commentators.
During a Formula One career that ran from 1955 until 1970, Brabham competed in 126 grands prix, winning on 14 occasions. For the first six years he drove for the Cooper team, and then set up as a constructor in his own right. Brabham is recalled by all who worked with him as someone who never wasted words. He was shrewd to the point of cunning, a great mechanical improviser in the days when racing drivers still got their hands dirty helping on the mechanical front and an all-rounder prepared to turn his hand to any chore.
The grandson of a cockney who went to Australia in 1885 and the son of Tom, a greengrocer, and his wife, May, Jack was born in Hurstville, 10 miles south of Sydney. He joined the Royal Australian Air Force at the age of 18, very much wanting to fly, but by then it was 1944 and such was the progress of the second world war that there was more demand for mechanics than aircrew. He was demobbed in 1947 and then succumbed to the lure of motor racing.
After proving highly competitive on the Australian national racing scene, Brabham aspired to a professional racing career. He was well ahead of his time when he attracted sponsorship from Redex for his Cooper-Bristol, but the Australian motorsport authorities made him remove the advertising.
In 1955 he left for Britain and became involved with the father-and-son racing-car builders Charles and John Cooper, making his Formula One debut in the 1955 British grand prix at Aintree in a central-seater Cooper sports car. Thereafter Brabham rode the crest of the Formula One wave as Cooper rewrote the parameters of contemporary car performance, their rear-engined models superseding all their traditionally front-engined rivals.
Although Stirling Moss won the first Cooper victory in the 1958 Argentine Grand Prix, once Brabham hit his stride in the summer of 1959 there was no stopping him. With their rivals Vanwall and Maserati having dropped out of the scene, Ferrari still wrestling with their outdated front-engined Dino 246 and Colin Chapman's Lotus team yet to come to full flower, Cooper enjoyed a spectacular two-year run of success.
During that time Brabham won seven races and two world championships. It was perfect timing; the right machine, driven by the right man, at the right moment. Nevertheless, Brabham had been nurturing long-term plans to manufacture production racing cars for the junior international formulas in his own right. This project relied on the collaboration of his old Australian friend and engineer Ron Tauranac, and the process inevitably moved to its logical conclusion with the construction of Brabham's own Formula One car.
Brabham left Cooper at the end of the 1961 season, by which time their star was fading, and gave the first Brabham Formula One car its race debut in the following year's German grand prix. From 1963 to 1965 Brabham employed the talented American Dan Gurney as his team-mate, the Californian winning the 1964 French and Mexican Grands Prix. But with the advent of the new three-litre Formula One engine regulations at the start of 1966, Brabham pulled another masterstroke by arranging for the Australian Repco company to build him a Formula One V8 engine to power his car.
Brabham scored his first victory at the wheel of his own vehicle in the 1966 French Grand Prix at Reims and followed this up with wins in the British, Dutch and German races. Although a taciturn personality, Brabham memorably projected some dry humour just before the Dutch race at Zandvoort by hobbling out on to the grid wearing a false beard and leaning on a stick. It was the wry Australian's reply to those who thought he was past it.
The Brabham-Repco momentum continued into 1967, when Jack's team-mate Denny Hulme won the championship, although by the end of the season the writing was on the wall for the Repco V8. The new Ford-financed Cosworth DFV V8 had made its debut in the Lotus 49 in that year's Dutch Grand Prix and every other engine was suddenly reduced to the role of also-ran. Brabham soldiered on with Repco power until the end of 1968, then joined the switch to Cosworth power for the following season. He won his final grand prix victory in South Africa at the start of 1970 and at the end of it called time on his career.
In that final year Brabham's chief mechanic was a 22-year-old from Surrey – Ron Dennis – today the multi-millionaire chairman of McLaren, one of Formula One's most successful racing teams. Two decades later, Brabham's youngest son, David, would briefly compete at the wheel of a Brabham during the 1990 world championship season, but the team had long since changed hands and Brabham Jr only managed to qualify six times before being replaced mid-way through the season.
Brabham Sr contributed articles to racing journals and wrote three books: Jack Brabham's Book of Motor Racing (1960), When the Flag Drops (1971) and The Jack Brabham Story (2004). He was knighted in 1979 and appointed AO in 2008.
His first marriage, to Betty Beresford, in 1951, ended in divorce in 1994. He is survived by his second wife, Margaret Taylor, whom he married in 1996, and three sons from his first marriage, Geoff, Gary and David.
• John Arthur Brabham, racing driver and designer, born 2 April 1926; died 19 May 2014