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Earlier this week, on Wednesday 24 September 2014 Project Brabham was launched in a bid to come back as a world-class racing team. Carla Schot spoke with David Brabham, former Grand Prix driver, Le Mans winner, youngest son of the late three-time world champion Sir Jack Brabham.
David, you aim to return to the track in the FIA WEC 2015 season with a three-year LMP2 programme. Then, in the fourth year you plan to return as a designer and constructor by way of LMP1. You consider participating in the FIA Formula E Championship and then in the end hopefully be back on the grid in Formula 1. You were quoted saying you’ve always wanted to see the Brabham name back in F1. Why do you choose this multiple year path to reach that goal? Why not fully focus on F1 since that is the ultimate dream?
We are starting from scratch. You can’t just start from scratch and go straight into the world of Formula 1. That is just not realistic. Formula 1 is a dream. It’s down the road. It could take five, ten, fifteen years, I am not sure. This whole story is a journey. Join in, be part of our journey and let’s see where it takes us. To embark on this path we need a bit of a structure. First, we need to get the team up and running, then get into a championship which is still quite a stretch to go and do the World Endurance Championship for the first time, but it is doable. We know enough people in the industry, it’s a championship I know, it’s a type of racing I know. It gives us the springboard to enter into a world championship straight away.
The plan is to do a three year LMP2 programme and, already during those three years we will start to look at the possibilities of developing an LMP1 car, because we have got to learn how to do that for this particular purpose. We want to use a collaborative design method meaning engineers can contribute ideas to the project. Of course, all those things need to be tried out and tested, developed, analyzed. It’s an elaborate process. This is the start of our journey and we feel confident that this is the best way to move forward. As we build momentum we get more and more people engaged and the Formula 1 goal gets closer, but will we reach it, who knows?
Do you wish to learn from designing, building and racing an LMP1?
Absolutely! It is a big learning project. Not just for us, but for everybody involved. It’s a road of discovery. What do we do next, how do we do it? What does it take to actually put a race car on the track. Our chosen development process is a bit new in itself, in terms of getting a lot of people in to help design certain parts of the car. Like I said it is a project that takes shape as we go along.
Do you consider it possible in the future to be active as a racing team in various series simultaneously?
We will have to wait and see how our model develops. I wouldn’t say we will and I wouldn’t say we won’t. Three years down the road the decisions we are making will be very different from what we decide right now, but that is part of the mystery.
The ultimate dream is Formula 1. What makes Formula 1 so special? Is it your own experience as an F1 driver or is it because of your father, Sir Jack Brabham who is seen as one of the greatest racing drivers of the sport’s golden ages?
I think it is a combination of a lot of things to be honest. I was in Formula 1. Obviously dad was one of the legends in Formula 1. Then there was the Brabham Formula 1 team for many years. It is kind of the ultimate target. It is quite easy to sit here and say ‘yeah absolutely, number one, fantastic’ and to see Brabham back in that arena of Formula 1. But I am not making promises because I don’t know what the future brings.
Formula 1 is very expensive at the moment. There is a gap between the fans and the team. Our model is very different. It is very much about fan, driver, and engineer involvement, thus creating a learning platform and moving forward with that idea.
Maybe Formula 1 has to head that way as well, don’t you think?
Well, possibly. I am sure a lot of eyes are on what we are doing. There is no doubt about it. Formula 1 is very strictly controlled commercially, so it has a lot of restrictions. When we approached the WEC about our model, they were very open to our ideas and understood what we are trying to do. The WEC also wishes to engage the fans more and sees what we are doing is going to benefit them and the sport. Having this conversation about our model in Formula 1 right now, would be unthinkable. So Formula 1 is down the road, it would not fit us at the moment anyway.
What about Formula E then? They are pretty interactive with the fans. Could that be an option as well?
I was actually planning to be one of the first teams to enter. I was negotiating with an investor and was very close to make it happen, but at that time and then he was working on rather large deals, much bigger than mine that he needed to focus on, so that did not happen. I think Formula E is an interesting concept. It is different from the other series out there. They can develop batteries quickly and all of a sudden you have got more power, more range, so it will still be exciting racing.
Your father passed away earlier this year. You mentioned that your dad would always talk with anyone, he was never an elitist. That probably inspired you in terms of the openness and transparency of the project, right?
I think that is kind of our way as a family to be honest with you. One of the reasons I think Brabham as a brand has never really been developed is because we just got out and did our own thing. We see ourselves as quite normal people. We don’t see ourselves as somebody great or better than anyone else than we are talking to. So, the model is very much part of our DNA. Once I got the name back I did some brand research to understand what people really thought and felt about the name and there were some key things that came out of that. Brabham is inspirational, it is pioneering, innovative and engineering. We looked at all of that and then decided on the best model that really is the core basis of our values. And that is what we are working with.
When did you start thinking/talking about launching Project Brabham? Have you been able to talk about it with your father?
He has always been updated up until six months before he passed away. He was deteriorating quite a bit. His hearing was really difficult. He could not really hear me when I was talking to him on the phone. So, I gave email updates and his wife, Margaret, would read it to him in a loud voice. It made it much more difficult for him to tune in with what we were doing. It is sad that both my mom and dad can’t be here to see it. In some way though, dad’s passing has helped our project. It was a bit like his last gift to us. He put Brabham back on people’s minds around the globe when he passed away. Once we got through the pain of his loss we started to realize there was a gift here. I always like to look at the positive in a negative and this has made me feel more comfortable with his passing.
You will utilize crowdfunding to raise money for the project. Do you think this will enable you to attract truly talented drivers instead of well sponsored (and sometimes less talented ;-)) drivers?
The theory behind the crowdfunding model is opposite from a normal race team .They go out there and put a team together based on what money a driver can bring to the table. You may not get the drivers you might want, but they have got the money to help you to build a race team and off you go and start racing. Then you have to get to a level where you are competitive and start to create a kind of following, a community that notices and follows you for what you are doing and that is what the corporate world wants to see. I am doing it the opposite way. Crowdfunding for us is a great opportunity to get people involved and engaged and feel like they are part of Brabham on its return to the top, one of the most iconic names, enjoying the journey with us. Basically, we start to gather our fan base before we even got going. So when our fan base is growing we will have our conversations with investors or corporations who want to get involved in our programme. I feel confident that we will gain enough money to do the job properly and do it the way that we would like to do it.
How did you come up with the idea of utilizing crowdfunding?
It is something that I have looked at for over a year and it served the purpose of giving people the opportunity to buy into what we are doing. It is a great way of engaging people. The comments that we have had from people around the world; it has just been staggering. They love the idea, they love the fact that Brabham is coming back and they love even more that they feel involved and can be part of it. So obviously people are contributing and what they are contributing to is the gateway access of information throughout Brabham-Digital portals in the future. It is like a normal crowdfunding project in the sense that if you want to buy into a certain technology that you would like to become a marketable product in the future, you need to contribute to make that project a reality. That is what we are doing as well. So it serves many purposes and from the success so far it shows that people like the idea.
Is the project open to other types of sponsoring as well?
One: you are building a community. Two: we are doing it in an open and transparent way. I have had conversations with a few companies leading up to the launch to gauge their interest in the model. All conversations have been very positive. They like the idea that people can engage and see right through to the race team. We will be highlighting particular products through the team, so people can see how they are tested, how they are being used. This way there are many different opportunities which in a normal race team I think are quite restricted. So because of this secrecy there is this gap between the audience and what you are doing. Or model kind of flips all that round and opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
Supporters can get access to data and can even contribute to how the team is developed and run. Does the amount of influence depend on the amount of money a person or company contributes?
It will depend on the crowdfunding package they choose. There are different packages that allow you certain access in the future. So obviously with the digital platform we have one for fans, drivers and engineers, because we want to inspire those people so as we grow they grow with us. So, if you are a young engineer and have never been able to have a look in the world of racing like this, there is so much to learn that will also benefit their own lives. The same goes for a driver and also for a fan. Everybody has goals they want to achieve in their lives. We are showing them the sort of mechanisms in how we are able to do it and hopefully, people will be able to take something from that and go ‘I could do that as well in my own life’ and make a difference in their own lives that way.
I have been in the industry a long time, 31 years as a driver and the stuff that most people don’t see is the most fascinating to me. Not just the racing on the track, but to build a team and get it running and operational is a big task and challenge. There are so many things that happen. Things that go wrong, or go right. It is about analyzing why it did go wrong and then knowing it did not work because of this or that. We learn from it and move forward. We are trying to win Le Mans 24 hours and the preparation and everything that is needed to accomplish that. There are so many stories going around and things going on. I think many people are missing out on the opportunity to see that and see what they can take from it.
Your son, Sam, and your nephew, Matthew, both have the ultimate ambition to become a Formula 1 World Champion. Can we expect to see a Brabham racing for Brabham?
Well, I have said this before to other people. If I put my family hat on, I go “Oh, wouldn’t that be great”. If I put my team principal hat on, I have a responsibility for the team and I’ll remove my emotions from the decision-making process and I’ll ask myself “Okay does it work for us or does it not work for us?” If it works for us, then great. If it doesn’t at that particular time, well, then it won’t. It’s that simple.
So, how many years do you think you need to get Brabham back on the F1 grid?
It is impossible to say. You just never know what happens. If this community and model starts to grow quite rapidly and other series or Formula 1 start to look at it, then, obviously, the opportunity for us to be in Formula 1 starts to increase. It could even be with an existing team for example. Our model grows, someone buys a team and thinks “hey, you know what, let’s get Brabham involved in our team in Formula 1 and see if we can join forces.” You just don’t know what might happen in the future. It is too early to say at the moment, other than it is a dream. Then again, a lot of dreams do come true. We just do not know what path it takes us on.
For full details on Project Brabham visit www.brabham.co.uk.