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When Repco challenged the world and won

The year 1966 was remarkable for motorsport down under as the Brabham/Tauranac driver and engineer combination launched a legacy that dominated the Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship for years to come. Jack Brabham and engineering partner Ron Tauranac formed the Brabham car constructor in 1962. It took just four years to conquer the world.

In 1965 Tauranac was hitting his straps as a designer with the BT19. Originally designed for Cooper Climax’s new FWMW flat-16 engine, some fast thinking saw it rejigged when the 16-cylinder engine was abandoned before it even raced, giving way to the new FWMV V8.

For 1966, the engine capacity limit was doubled in Formula 1 to three litres. Cooper Climax elected not to develop a new engine for the season leaving many teams, including Brabham, without a viable option. Brabham chose Australian-based Repco to develop a new unit. Project engineer Phil Irving and general manager Frank Hallam took on the Repco project.

Having serviced the 2.5-litre Coventry Climax four-cylinder engines, Repco was searching for a new competition engine when, at the insistence of Jack Brabham, the Oldsmobile F85 V8 was provided as an option. Having raced against the engine three years previous, Brabham noted its compact layout and low weight. Its results at Indy also made it a contender for Formula 1’s new regulations.

The first prototype was developed in the Repco Engine Laboratory in Richmond, the project transferring to its Maidstone factory where in December the first 3.0-litre iteration of the unit was tested. The differences between the first prototype and the E3 version were larger inlet valves, throttle bodies and ports, boosting power from 235bhp to 280bhp.

Brabham debuted the Repco RB260 engine at the non-championship South African Grand Prix in 1966, taking pole before retiring due to a fault in the Lucas injection system. The ‘International Cup’ at Silverstone gave Brabham and Repco a final chance to refine the chassis-engine combination before championship rounds, ending in a reassuring victory.

For the 1966 World Drivers’ Championship, Ferrari entered as favourite having both the V6-powered 246 for Lorenzo Bandini and the 312 V12 of John Surtees. Jochen Rindt led Cooper’s Maserati V12 challenge, Honda joined later in the season with V12-power for Richie Ginther, Lotus used Climax V8s, and BRM also utilised V8s before transitioning to its complex H16 unit debuted in Italy. That engine gave Jim Clark victory in the US, but was largely unsuccessful.

The Repco engine, while less powerful than the Ferraris, was more reliable and notched up a run of four Grand Prix victories. For ‘Black Jack’ Brabham the first victory at the French Grand Prix in Rheims sealed him a unique place in history as the only driver to win in a chassis bearing his name, which was also the first from a non-European constructor to win the World Championship. It also moved Brabham into a clear second behind the great Juan Manuel Fangio in most championship titles won, an achievement soon levelled by Jackie Stewart in 1973.

Proving the Brabham/Repco combination was no one-hit wonder, Denny Hulme won the next Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship for the team also retaining the constructors’ title. The success of 1966 sparked a resurgence in interest in Formula 1 for Australia and New Zealand, which was then spurred on by Bruce McLaren. Brabham had discovered McLaren in the late 1950s. McLaren became a constructor himself for 1966, winning his fourth career Grand Prix in a car bearing his name at Spa 1968. McLaren’s — and therefore the Repco Brabham’s — legacy continues to this day in Formula 1, the McLaren team going on to notch up eight constructors’ titles and 12 drivers’ championships.