Flashback: The decline of Brabham team in F1

Nelson Piquet was reigning F1 world champion for Brabham in 1982

Nelson Piquet was reigning F1 world champion for Brabham in 1982

The early 1980s were something of a purple patch for Brabham – between 1980 and 1985 the team picked up 14 race wins and twin Formula 1 world championships for Nelson Piquet. The good times were not to last however, and by 1992 the team was extinct.

After a slightly less competitive season in 1985, Gordon Murray and Brabham came out of the gates with a revolutionary new design for 1986. The Brabham BT55 was built around a specially designed BMW motor which was effectively placed on its side. This was done to allow for tighter packaging at the back of the car, to lower the centre of gravity and allow smoother air-flow to the rear-wing. With the talented Elio de Angelis joining Riccardo Patrese, it should have been a good year.

It was not. It was a disastor. While the design did achieve the desired effects, the negative by-products were abundant. The aerodynamic package delivered far too much drag, while Murray later revealed that the complicated engine setup had “incurable oil surge and drain problems”. Reliability was poor, and a pair of sixth places were all the team had to show for their efforts. But worst of all, popular de Angelis was killed in a testing accident at Paul Ricard mid-season.

Nelson Piquet with Gordon Murray

Nelson Piquet with Gordon Murray

At the end of 1986 Gordon Murray had departed for greener pastures at McLaren, leaving David North, John Baldwin and Sergio Rinland to design to the BT56. BMW had wanted to pull out of Formula 1, but Brabham team owner at the time – Bernie Ecclestone – made them fulfill their contractual obligations and supply factory motors for 1987. BMW did hang around, but they would only supply the unsuccessful lay-down engine from the previous year, rather then the classic upright units.

The result was another underwhelming season. Perhaps the most telling statistic is that of 32 starts, the team notched up 25 DNFs. The news off the track was not good either, for Ecclestone was starting to lose interest and money was starting to become a problem.

With BMW withdrawing for good, and no engine deal on the table, Brabham did not lodge an entry for the 1988 championship. Ecclestone elected to sell the team, which was purchased by Swiss businessman, Joachim Luhti.

The Luhti-owned Brabham returned to Formula 1 in 1989, with a tidy little car designed by Sergio Rinland and driven by Martin Brundle and Stefano Modena. The performance of the car was inconsistent, and while Brundle finished third at Monaco, on two occasions he did not make it past pre-qualifying.

Elio de Angelis in the Brabham BT55 during the 1986 Monaco Grand Prix

Elio de Angelis in the Brabham BT55 during the 1986 Monaco Grand Prix

There was high drama when Luhti was arrested half way through the year for fraud. An attempted sale to Mike Earle and Joe Chamberlain was vetoed by Peter Windsor (who had been part of the original Luhti bid), and the team fell into the hands of the Japanese engineering firm, Middlebridge Group.

Really, it was never going to be a success. The Middlebridge Group had borrowed heavily from Landhurst Leasing to fund their take-over, and with hardly any sponsorship, the debt was always going to catch up. By 1990 Brabham were almost failing to qualify more often then not, and a solitary fifth place for Stefano Modena was the only points-paying result of the year. With Yamaha engines in place, 1991 was a bit better, but scoring three points in total was not going to arrest their demise.

The team could not afford to build a new car for 1992, and so Brabham wheeled out the old BT60 again, fitted with Judd engines (Yamaha had left to power Jordan). Eric van de Poele and lady-racer Giovanni Amati were hired to do the driving. Amati was clearly not there for her talent. Her Formula 3000 performances had been miserable and it was obvious she was only there to attract sponsorship and help pay the bills.

The 1992 was the  Brabham team's last race in F1 with Damon Hill at the wheel

The 1992 was the Brabham team’s last race in F1 with Damon Hill at the wheel

However, her sponsors never paid up, and after failing to qualify three times in a row, there was no reason to keep her and she was replaced by Damon Hill. Van de Poele and Hill were both talented drivers, but they fared little better, only making it beyond pre-qualifying and on to the the grid three times that year.

While all this was going on, the director of Landhurst, Ted Ball, had been taking corrupt cash payments from the Middlebridge Group to keep the money flowing in and keep Brabham afloat. To raise the money required, Ball and David Ashworth, Landhurst’s finance director, doctored the company accounts and defrauded banks into lending money.

In August, the Arthur Andersen accounting firm uncovered the corruption – there was a $75 million black hole in the accounts. Landhurst went into receivership, and Brabham closed their doors forever. The Serious Fraud Office investigated the collapse, and in 1997 Ball and Ashworth were jailed on corruption charges.

Brabham’s last race was the 1992 Hungarian Grand Prix. Damon Hill came home in 11th, four laps down. Less then a decade before they had been world champions. (Chequered Flag Archives)