David Brabham, 44, an Australian by way of England, had a stellar year in 2009, winning his first American Le Mans Series title (including a victory on the streets of St. Petersburg) and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The son of three-time Formula One champ Jack Brabham talked to us recently about sibling rivalry, family cars, long commutes, a 20-year wait for a trophy, and why he needs a new favorite St. Petersburg restaurant.
Q: What were your impressions of how the Sebring test went?
David Brabham: For us it's gone very well. We ran a different car last year, the (Le Mans Prototype) 1 car, so we've now moved over to essentially what we had the year before. So it's good in a sense because we know the car although we hadn't run it for a year. So things have changed a little bit. But we ran over 200 laps and we didn't have any problems which is always good leading up to Sebring. … Sebring is the toughest race we go to. It's the longest and it's the toughest, and it's our very first race. If you haven't got you act together it can kill your whole season right there.
Q: In going back to a car you ran in '08, what will it mean as a spectator to see essentially one LMP class now?
DB: For the fan it's not going to make a huge amount of difference, the cars are going to look pretty similar, just from a technical point of view they're not so similar. … At Sebring you're going to have a P1 and a P2 class.
Q: Is there any trepidation after winning the LMP1 title last year to have a new set of circumstances?
DB: You know, it was such a great year for the team last year, winning the championship was on the to-do list for some time and we've achieved it in a fairly short period of time. Going into the new season … I wouldn't say it's a disruption at all, obviously we'd like to try to keep some continuity but the only thing that's different really is the car although like I said it's not that different because we do know it. If we were going to a completely different concept and we had to try and learn and understand it, I would say having the testing we've done so far, we'd be in trouble. … We're all pumped as a team, we're all ready for the year, we can't rest on our laurels with just one championship. Our to-do list is to win again.
Q: Looking back at last year, between winning the ALMS title and winning at Le Mans, was that your best year in racing?
DB: Yeah, definitely. I have had a lot of good years in racing but the pinnacle in sports cars is the Le Mans 24 hours. To win that overall last year was a fantastic feeling. Lots of emotions when I was standing on the podium or even leading up to that point where we were just about to finish and realizing that we had just won Le Mans, it was a big deal for Peugeot and a bit of a family thing with my brother (Geoff) winning 16 years earlier with Peugeot as well. We had an absolute perfect race the past three years actually (including GT1 class titles the previous two years). That and winning the American Le Mans Series title, which I had been trying to win for some time now.
Q: So did you get a chance to remind Geoff that you matched his Le Mans feat in that special way that siblings do? Is there a bit of a rivalry there?
DB: Yes, there is a rivalry. He was really pleased that I had won Le Mans, my whole family were. But of course he's very quick to say, 'Well, how many championships have you won in sports car racing?' I've got one, I've got three to go to even match him.
Q: But now you have an even better answer for him.
DB: Well, I can say I've won them both in the same year. (Laughs) But Geoff and I get on very well, it's a very friendly rivalry. But he's now focused on his son Matthew, who's racing in Australia.
Q: Speaking of Australia, you had a rare chance to go back there to help mark the 50th anniversary of your father, Jack, becoming the first Australian Formula One champion. How was it to revisit, and to help mark, that anniversary?
DB: We talked about such a great year last year for me in terms of winning Le Mans and the American Le Mans series. But to do it in the 50th anniversary just made it that little extra special.
Q: What did your dad's accomplishments in Formula One do for racing in Australia in terms of perception and the fans there?
DB: I wasn't around in those days (David was born in 1965) but it really put motor racing in the forefront in Australia. From what people tell me it really motivated a lot of people to go over to Europe and to race abroad. It gave them the inspiration whether it was drivers, mechanics, engineers or whatever because it was a real Australian effort to win the world championship in 1966 with his own car (Jack drove and owned it, the car was designed by fellow Australian Ron Tauranac and the Repco engine also came from there). That had never been done before and actually hasn't been done since. So it was a huge thing for Australia.
Q: And in between all they did was change the course of history in F1 and Indy (with the first rear-engined car in the Indy 500).
DB: Absolutely, yeah. I suppose dad's been part of a lot of pioneering in many senses. He is an engineer by trade. Certainly coming over here to the States in 1961 with a rear-engined race car, that in itself was a big moment for America because it did start the ball rolling for massive change. They'd already proved the car to be very successful with two world championships before they got to Indy. So it was the way of the future.
Q: You've been in St. Petersburg the past few years but not this year.
DB: Yeah, I'm gutted!
Q: Especially since you won it last year.
DB: Yeah we won it last year and it's always a great event here. I was talking to my wife on the way here and I said we've just gone past your restaurant … Pacific Wave, I think it is.
Q: Actually, I think they may have closed. (We checked, and it has).
DB: Have they? Well, I told her I went past, I didn't look at it. I knew I was on the (right) street. But we really liked it here, we brought the family out last year. A lot of the people in the team bring families here because it's such a great place to come. Obviously with the race now a week after Sebring now it really makes it tough for the teams, the cars get such a beating over that course there's a big job after Sebring as well as before to rebuild all the cars.
Q: And do you prefer street racing or purpose-built road courses?
DB: It doesn't really matter to me. I've always enjoyed street courses and always have done pretty well on them. What I love about street tracks is that you're in the city and nine times out of 10 when we go to an event in a city, the city gets behind the event. It really become the fabric of the whole city on the weekend. And that just adds that little special feeling you get when you're competing. I think the fans that come to the track feel that as well. So I've enjoyed both.
Q: Can you talk about the difference in mental preparation between a 12-hour or 24-hour event versus Formula One where you're there for the whole weekend but the race is two hours or less?
DB: I've been fortunate enough to compete in both areas. Formula One is much more intense. For me it's not an environment that I liked so much.
Q: In terms of the racing or the politics?
DB: Just the politics. No one really talks to anyone. Where in sports car racing, in particular the American Le Mans Series, there's sort of a community feel that you get at the racetrack. Everyone talks to each other, everyone gets on. But when you get on the track, it's tough. But off the track there's really good spirits among the people. For me when I go home, I go home to my family. When I come back I come back to a bigger family in a sense. And I've always felt that with the series. … But with the mental aspect of it, both can be quite intense because to win in endurance racing takes a lot out of you mentally as well as physically. Preparation by the team leading up to that event is quite tough as well. You've got to have good endurance mentally and if you have a setback it's just a minor setback and you keep looking forward. Where Formula One if they have a setback, like an accident or something like that, they're pretty much out of the race. If we can drag the car back to the pits and get it fixed you just never know. … So it's very much a never-give-up attitude.
Q: I also see you got a trophy that was a little bit overdue? Like 20 years overdue? What was the story on that?
DB: (Laughs) In 1989 I won the British Formula 3 championship. But there was, let's say, some controversy during that year. My sparring partner at the time — Allan McNish, who has remained a bit of a sparring partner throughout our career — he and I were the two dicing for the championship. My team protested their team and then they counter-protested. They deducted points away from us and then Allan's team decided to appeal so he got his points back. My team didn't appeal. So we got through the season and I lost like 24 points. I went from leading to being like sixth. We got to the last race and I was about six points behind even with that deficit. I was so keen to win the championship! But I crashed so that didn't happen. But they gave us a window to appeal again, I don't know how, but that's what happened. And we did, it went to a tribunal and they basically chucked everything out and said everyone gets their points back. So I won the championship. And I never got a trophy from it. Early this year at the Autosport International show (in England) I was on stage talking about the year ahead and they said: 'Just wait there' and all of a sudden this trophy arrives. Although it wasn't THE trophy, it's being made, but they presented me with the British Formula 3 championship winning trophy from '89. Twenty years overdue! It was kind of funny to have that.
Q: What street car or cars do you drive?
DB: It might shock some people but I'm just not into cars. They don't mean anything to me. They're a transport vehicle and if they're efficient and if they get you from A to B and fit the kids in, great. So we have an Audi Q7 at home, that's the family (vehicle), dump everyone in. And for the last year I have had a Peugeot 407 which they now want back because I'm no longer part of that (racing) program so it's back to the (VW) Golf.
Q: One would think that's a cool part of a racing driver's job, that companies would want you to drive cars that most people wouldn't have access to or have the means to drive.
DB: Well, I don't chase it. It means not a great deal to me. There's more important things to life than a fancy car, I suppose. It doesn't mean I'm against them. If I get in one I can always appreciate good quality. I think that actually comes from my dad.
Q: So your dad wasn't the guy with 30 cars?
DB: No, no, no, no. All my schoolmates used to say, 'Oh, has your dad got a Ferrari?' or whatever. And it was like, 'You've got to be kidding me.' It was always a four-door sedan, a Ford Falcon or a Ford Fairlane in Australia.
Q: Because he had kids to drive around.
DB: Well, he always said, 'I need something practical.' I drive around in my little Golf and I can leave it and I don't have to worry about it. If it gets scratched, okay, you get it fixed. I've had nice cars before and all I did was worry about them. So that's a big waste of time and energy.
Q: You live in England?
DB: I do.
Q: What part?
DB: I live in a place called Henley-on-Thames. Sounds very British, doesn't it? Not far from London. Not far from Heathrow (Airport), which is a good thing.
Q: You live there and do most of your racing here except for Le Mans. How does that work out? The ALMS schedule is only nine races, but is it a strain?
DB: It's not too grueling, to be honest. I did take the whole family to Fort Lauderdale for a year but that all stopped because the Panoz contract stopped (in 2002). We were supposed to have another two years into it and it only lasted a year. So I was like, well, I have to go back to England because I ended up then getting the Bentley drive for Le Mans. So that was a bit of an upheaval but it was a nice experience to live in Florida for a year. But my (two youngest of three) kids are 15 and 10 and they're in school and my wife has a business in Henley as well. So it makes more sense for me to just pop in a plane, come and do the race and go home.
Q: One last thing: If you had access to the phone booth from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and could go anywhere and race in any race at any time, what would you want to race in?
DB: Ooooh. For me, I race in what I would call the big race and that's Le Mans so I can't really mention that. But I suppose the one thing I haven't done is the Indy 500. That would have been pretty cool to have done. But I'm not laying awake thinking about it. It's just that I've got other priorities.