Formula One, in recent years, has become synonymous with hyperbolic wealth and glamorous locations. Think of the jewel in the racing calendar crown, Monte Carlo – a veritable playground for the rich and famous. Think of the multi-million dollar sponsorship deals per car. Think of the hefty paychecks and winners’ bonuses. It’s become something elite; opulent. It’s every bit as luxurious as it is dangerous.
But it wasn’t always this way. Yes, there have always been fast cars and famous drivers. But the modern Formula One, as we know it, has only really come into its own within the past few decades. Prior to this, the cars were – quite frankly – death traps and the sport was perhaps not as beloved as it is now.
Whilst you can’t necessarily argue that one man changed all of this – modern Formula One is a culmination of investment and innovation from a number of talented and wealthy individuals – but you can’t argue with the impact that driver and visionary Jack Brabham had on the sport. And it’s Brabham who is the subject of Akos Armont’s directorial debut. Offering a whistle-stop tour through his adolescence and professional motor sport career, Armont mixes animations, archival footage, talking heads and TV shows with limited success.
Brabham – a three-time Formula One World Champion – sparked an interest in cars when he became an engineer and mechanic in order to serve during World War Two. From there, he took an interest in billy carts, both racing them and tinkering with their design. He was a hobbyist, with a clear talent behind the wheel. Initially making his debut in Speedway motor racing – with no breaks, no seatbelt and a helmet made of soft cork – Brabham displayed ingenuity as a driver and as a creator, having built his own car (a piece of history that would repeat itself during his Formula One career).
The documentary focuses on Brabham’s time spent in Britain and his partnership with engineer and designer Ron Tauranac. Years before Niki Lauda was shaving inches off his car and generally defying physics, their partnership launched “the rear engine revolution”, easily seeing off world leaders Ferrari. At a speed many racing drivers would hope to emulate, the film rattles through defeat and glory; rivalries and partnerships; professional success and personal lows. It never really offers you anything in-depth or new – you can glean most of this information in books or online.
Throughout the film’s relatively short 84 minute runtime, there are also a series of strange cutaways and animations. When Honda is mentioned, there is a cutaway to a man dressed as Genghis Khan. Motor sport impresario Bernie Eccleston is animated as some sort of Skeletor rip-off, complete with glowing red eyes and black nails. The cartoon images feel really out of place, particularly when the talking heads are discussing the various accidents and fatalities that plagued the 1960s. There are also clips of Paul Newman’s Once Upon a Wheel and shots of glowing TV sets sitting in the middle of the forest. It’s odd and adds nothing to the viewing experience.
More than this – for a documentary with a relatively short run time – less than sixty minutes is actually dedicated to the life of Jack Brabham. It stops dead upon his retirement in 1970 and we find out nothing about his life between then and his death in 2014. From there, the documentary focuses on two of his sons and their own dalliances with motor sports. It really falls completely flat in terms of pacing – two grown men moaning about how tough it was to have a famous dad – and offers up absolutely nothing in terms of further insight into the man himself. In fact, both of his sons sound very embittered and jealous. It’s not a good look.
However, Armont rounds off his debut with the resurgence of the Brabham brand. Son David unveils the Brabham BT62 (in a colour reminiscent of British Racing Green) to much success. Having bought back the family name – there were issues over copyright – he is determined to make Brabham a force to be reckoned with once more. So, the film does end with a sense of legacy, history and family. Whilst there isn’t currently a Brabham car on the Formula One circuit, you can see how respected and revered the name is – a testament to everything Jack fought for and achieved.
Brabham feels like an incredibly light documentary (and surely that cannot be owing to a lack of material). If you’re expecting the emotional pull of Senna or the light-hearted camaraderie of F1: Drive to Survive, you’ll find none of that here. Instead, it all feels a bit too flat and lacking in personality – something that the late Jack definitely was not. Perhaps, in a different pair of hands, this would have been a different documentary; one more fitting for the man who helped to shape modern Formula One.
Brabham is released on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital from 14th June, 2021