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From the archives: remembering Brands Hatch's stars of 66

Saturday, December 27 2014

This year the world lost two superstars from an era in which the term had true meaning. Motor racing legend Sir Jack Brabham passed away in May, followed by Hollywood actor James Garner just two months later. The pair were born just two years apart, and didn't just share the admiration of their generation.

Brabham was a late developer in motorsport, making his Grand Prix debut well into his thirties, but quickly rose to prominence, around the time that Garner was becoming a celebrity in the American TV series Maverick. Jack then became a double champion, and Garner an international star thanks to The Great Escape.

At the height of both of their careers they met at the motor racing circuits of the world during the filming of John Frankenheimer's classic movie Grand Prix. Garner played Pete Aron, who overcame being fired by his team manager to win the fictional World Championship for an unfancied Japanese constructor.

In many ways Brabham's triumph was even more unlikely, for he took his third title at the wheel of a car constructed by a team bearing his own name. It had been six years since his last championship and he was 40 years old, but his relatively conservative style of engineering had successfully trod the path laid by the new 3-litre regulations.

During that year both starred at Brands Hatch in July. Jack arrived on a high; he had just won the French Grand Prix at Reims, his first in six years and the first for a driver in a car of his own construction. This gave him a two-point lead in the title standings ahead of Ferrari's Lorenzo Bandini, but the Italian constructor wasn't present due to a metal workers strike in Italy. The British race had been dominated by reigning champion Jim Clark for the last four years, but his Lotus was hobbled by an underpowered Climax engine, so the biggest threat appeared to come from BRM's duo of Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart, who had only just recovered from a big accident at Spa.

On a damp but drying track, Brabham started the race from pole position, and Hill offered an immediate threat, in contrast to team-mate Stewart's race, which ended after just 17 laps. Hill was soon challenged by Cooper's rising star Jochen Rindt, and he was followed by team-mate John Surtees, both Coopers running wet weather tyres.

Hill fought back as the track dried, with Clark now keeping him close company, but both came under attack from Brabham's team-mate Denny Hulme, who rose to second place. Clark then pitted with brake issues and Surtees was forced into retirement. Brabham took the chequered flag with Hulme almost ten seconds adrift, and the pair were the only drivers to complete the 80-lap distance; Hill, Clark and Rindt all finished a lap behind. Jack now had a ten-point lead over Rindt in the World Championship and his team tied with Ferrari for the Constructors' title.

 

Much of the race had been filmed by Frankenheimer in 70mm Panavision for use in his forthcoming motion picture. The actors were all assigned a double in the races too, for despite attending the Snetterton-based Jim Russell racing school, almost all were unable to drive at significant speed in a single-seater. The exception was Garner, who, despite intense preparation, was considered a natural.

In the fictional British Grand Prix, Garner's character Aron ran in third place to the Ferraris after race leader Scott Stoddard retired from the race with exhaustion. Heading into the final lap he suffered a fuel leak but just as it ignited on his exhaust he passed second-placed Jean-Pierre Sarti. He took the chequered flag moments after winner Nino Barlini with his car on fire, and that's the real Garner slowing on the approach to Paddock Hill before bailing out just in time. He'd got fed up of waiting for the producers to find a stunt double, and suffered minor burns after a miscalculation led to a much bigger inferno than expected.

 

Garner's fictional alter ago won the championship at the following round in Italy, and the film had sparked a new direction in Garner's life. Brabham was reportedly one of the drivers that told Garner that he had enough talent to make it to the top and the actor competed where his insurance would allow, ran the American International Racers team, and drove the pace car at the Indianapolis 500. He returned primarily to television acting and became a household name in the Rockford Files, and also made occasional film appearances.

Brabham's career had also peaked in 1966 with the World Championship. His team won it again in 1967 with Denny Hulme, and there was almost a fourth title in 1970. By then he had been persuaded to quit by his wife and the family returned to Australia soon afterwards. His legacy to the sport assured him a place in the spotlight, however, through his sons' careers and the team that he started.

Britain may have led the world in the pop charts, the fashion world and the football field in 1966, but an American and an Australian impressed by displaying true grit in Kent that summer.