When Brabham crashed on the last lap

Lynne M. Centeno

After winning the World Championship with his own car in 1966, Jack Brabham was content to play a supporting role within his own organisation, focussing on running the company alongside a strong teammate. Denny Hulme won the title for him in 1967, and then Rindt showed great speed in 1968, although results were few.

“Jochen was a great driver,” Brabham told this writer in 1999. “I’d seen enough of him to know that I’d like to have him in the team. He knew nothing about motor cars, which might have been an advantage to him sometimes!

“He was a real forceful sort of character, and a really good driver, and a driver I enjoyed driving with very much. We could race wheel to wheel together and there was no way we we’d put ourselves in an awkward situation, and then have a real good laugh afterwards about all the dices we had.”

When Rindt was tempted to Lotus in 1969 Brabham signed Jacky Ickx. The Belgian won two Grands Prix before returning to Ferrari the following year. Rindt meanwhile was unhappy at Lotus, and harboured thoughts about rejoining Brabham.

“In 1970 he was going to drive for us again,” Brabham recalled. “We’d actually done a deal, all signed up for him to drive for us in ’70. But when we got to Watkins Glen Colin Chapman offered him a lot more money, and he came to me and asked me if he could go off. We released him, and I drove for another year. I was going to retire at the end of ’69 if Rindt was going to drive.”

Instead the team signed rookie Rolf Stommelen. The German wasn’t as quick as the guys that he followed, and almost by default, Brabham became the number one driver once more.

For 1970 Ron Tauranac’s brand new BT33 replaced the outdated BT26, and the new car soon proved to be competitive. Brabham started the season with a win in the South African GP – his first success since 1967 – after surviving first lap contact with Rindt.

“That was good, that I was able to win that,” he recalled. “It was good to get back into it again. We were building production motor cars with tube frames for the private person… it wasn’t until 1970 that we actually built a monocoque F1 car and started catching back up again.”

Next time out Brabham took pole at Jarama, but a brand new Cosworth DFV engine suffered a crankshaft failure while he was battling for the lead with Jackie Stewart’s Tyrrell-run March. Fastest lap was small consolation.

Heading to Monaco, where Brabham had scored his first Grand Prix victory with Cooper in 1959, it was clear that he was a serious contender once again at the age of 44.

Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Meanwhile, Rindt’s season had got off to a low-key start at Kyalami. The new Lotus Type 72 wasn’t ready for the opening race, and stuck with the trusty 49C, he qualified fourth and finished well back with engine problems.

The prototype 72 was finally completed and shown to the press, rather unfortunately, on April 1. It was a dramatic looking machine, with an Indy-derived wedge shape and novel ideas such as inboard brakes.

At Jarama, Rindt had a crash caused by a brake failure, and he retired in the race. A second outing at the International Trophy proved equally disappointing, and he struggled with poor handling. In the Austrian’s estimation the car’s complex anti-dive/anti-squat suspension was more trouble than it was worth, so the team set about revising it.

For Monaco he switched back to the 49C, a model that was in its fourth season but which had, in Graham Hill’s hands, won the last two races in the principality. The addition of the latest “tri-wing” was an attempt to find a little more speed from the ageing design.

Jochen Rindt, Lotus 49C Ford leads Piers Courage, De Tomaso 308 Ford

Jochen Rindt, Lotus 49C Ford leads Piers Courage, De Tomaso 308 Ford Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Qualifying saw Stewart, who had won in Spain, put his March on pole, with Chris Amon in the works STP car alongside. Hulme was third for McLaren, while Brabham took a solid fourth, despite suffering badly with brake balance issues.

For Saturday qualifying Rindt made set-up changes that didn’t work, and with his car was handling badly, he was two seconds off the pace. He thus had to be content with a lowly eighth, using his Thursday time, set before an engine failure stopped his session. His struggling teammate John Miles didn’t even qualify for the 16-car grid.

In their temporary base at an Esso garage the Lotus guys set to work on improving Rindt’s car overnight, taking a step back on settings and changing ratios.

The Rindts, Colin Chapman and Rindt’s manager Bernie Ecclestone were among the big names to spend the race weekend aboard Crest Cutter, one of the most impressive yachts in the harbour.

A bonus of this arrangement was that it came complete with a speedboat, a fact which had immediate appeal to Rindt. He was soon offering people spectacular rides – one of his eager customers was Bernie’s pilot, who managed to fall over and break his leg on Thursday.

The Rahal family meanwhile had made it to the circuit successfully late on Saturday.

“We went to Monaco and got there in time for the F3 race,” Rahal recalls. “Tony Trimmer won that race. We went to the grandstands at the hairpin. Because there weren’t many people there to watch the F3 race my dad greased the guy’s palm and gave him some money and said, ‘We’re going to come back for the Grand Prix, so remember me!’

“We went back there on Sunday, and of course the place is packed. The guy remembered us, so naturally my father gave him more money. The guy sat us almost in the walkway of the grandstand, he squeezed us in. So we watched the race.”

Brabham joined his former teammate Rindt on the yacht for lunch – veal cutlets were on offer, but the Aussie veteran didn’t eat much. He also wisely declined Ecclestone’s invitation to try a glass of red…

Rindt was hardly optimistic about his chances for the afternoon’s race, pointing out that he’d never actually finished in Monaco. Chapman, Ecclestone and his wife Nina all offered encouragement.

Jochen Rindt, Lotus 49C Ford

Jochen Rindt, Lotus 49C Ford Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

When clerk of the course Paul Frere waved the starting flag, Stewart jumped into the lead from pole, with Amon following on. Brabham passed Hulme on the first lap, and settled into a solid third, filling Amon’s mirrors as he tried to find a way past. He finally moved into second on lap 22, squeezing past at the final hairpin.

Stewart was some 14 seconds ahead at this point, but then his engine started sounding rough, and on lap 28 the reigning World Champion slowed and crawled to the pits. With some 52 laps left to run, Brabham inherited the lead.

Amon continued to run second, but he didn’t seem to be a threat. Then on lap 60, with 20 to run, a bolt dropped out of the March’s suspension, and the frustrated Kiwi retired. Brabham now appeared to be home and dry.

However, attrition ahead had helped Rindt move up from eighth at the start to an unlikely second. He now had a scent of victory, and began lapping faster and faster, gaining extra seconds here and there as Brabham was held up by slower cars. The gap came down to 10 seconds with 10 laps to run, and the race was suddenly coming alive.

“With about seven or eight laps to go my parents wanted to go,” says Rahal. “I said, ‘No, no, Rindt’s catching Brabham’. So we stayed. Rindt was so relentless in tracking him down, it was pretty special to see. It was an impressive drive, for sure.”

Piers Courage, De Tomaso 505 Ford

Piers Courage, De Tomaso 505 Ford Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Brabham passed the de Tomaso soon after Tabac and now had fourth-placed Hulme immediately ahead, with the finish line just a few hundred metres away.

Taking an unusually tight inside line for the final hairpin, he locked his brakes. With his steering wheel turned hard to the right he skated straight on and into the barrier, crunching the nose of the BT33 – right in front of the spectating Rahal.

“I got a picture of Brabham sliding into the guardrail on the last lap,” says Rahal. “It all happened in a hurry! The road going in there was pretty wide. If you see the skid marks, they tell the story. He was way offline, and he braked too late.”

Rindt was so close that he was through and into the lead almost before Brabham had come to a halt, and his surprise appearance at the startline caught out the man with the chequered flag, who failed to wave it.

“We didn’t know we’d won,” Rindt’s mechanic Herbie Blash recalls. “In those days you saw the cars going into the last corner behind the pits, and Jack was in the lead, so as far as we were concerned he’d won it.

“We jumped on the other side waiting for Jochen, not even looking at Brabham, and we didn’t notice that Jack wasn’t there. We thought we’d finished second, so it was ‘Congratulations,’ and it was after that that people said, ‘You’ve won…’”

A chastened Brabham, his nose bearing the cars of contact with both the barrier and the official, crept past some 23 seconds later. His crew, including mechanic Ron Dennis, could hardly believe that their boss had made such a rare mistake.

Brabham would admit culpability, but he always took the view that Courage had tripped him up, although the lapping move itself took place some way before the final hairpin.

“On the last lap I came up to the back of the pits,” he reflected. “Poor old Piers Courage was coasting in the middle of the road down towards the hairpin. I had to make a decision which side I was going to go, the right or the left, it just flashed through my mind that because he was coasting he’d probably take a wide line through the hairpin.

“I decided to go down the inside. That was a mistake, because all the sand had blown up there during the race, and I got on the sand and couldn’t stop for the corner. Even then I could probably still have got there, except I nudged the fence, stalled the engine. It didn’t do much damage.

“I fired it up and as I fired it up a French flag marshal jumped over the fence and came to push the car away. I waved to him not to touch the car, and just as he got there he lost his balance and fell over the front of the car, with his arms over each side. What do you do?

“I had to wait until the bloke got up off the front of the car before I could move off. I couldn’t believe it – probably the worst thing that happened to me…”

Jack Brabham, Brabham BT33

Jack Brabham, Brabham BT33 Motorsport Images

Motorsport Images

Rindt’s final lap was recorded as 1m23.2s – he had blitzed the lap record, and was 0.8s faster than Stewart’s pole, and 2.7s up on his own qualifying time. He looked a little sheepish when collecting his trophy from Prince Rainier, but he had no reason to be embarrassed – his relentless, charging performance had put pressure on his former employer, and it had paid off.

The pair chatted that evening at the Prince’s gala dinner, and then in the morning Rindt’s yacht headed to Saint-Tropez. Monaco would be the kickstart to a remarkable season that would see him lose his life at Monza – and become the sport’s only posthumous World Champion.

For Rahal the weekend was an experience that he would never forget.

“It was an exciting race,” he says. “And here we were with zero plans, showing up, with my father belonging to the old school of you can go anywhere without a ticket, all you need is money! And in this case that proved true.

“For me going to Monaco was a huge thing. In those days the various teams were garaged all over the town. All of a sudden you’d hear the racket of some car coming down this little narrow street, and it would be a BRM or somebody. It was a hell of an experience for me as a racing fan.”

Just eight years later Rahal would be back in Monaco, competing in the F3 race in a Walter Wolf-entered Dallara – a car designed by the same man as Courage’s de Tomaso – in a field that included the likes of Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet, Elio de Angelis, Andrea de Cesaris, Stefan Johansson, Derek Warwick and Teo Fabi.

“How could I have imagined that? Then when I was there in 2001 with Jaguar on the Saturday night I was walking down to towards the harbour late at night.

“I called my dad and said, ‘Hey I’m walking where Scott Stoddard crashed!’ He’d taken me to the first showing of Grand Prix in Chicago. What a huge effect it had on my life, watching that.”

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