Monaco 1989: Brabham’s final fling and Brundle’s heartache

On May 7th 1989 Brabham secured what would be the team’s final podium when Stefano Modena finished third in Monaco, but the real hero of the race was Modena’s teammate Martin Brundle.

Brundle should have been the man joining Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost for the champagne celebrations. Instead the Englishman had to content with a single point for sixth – a result achieved despite the highly unusual sight of him standing next to his car in the pitlane for couple of minutes in the middle of the race…

Brabham featured on the Formula 1 grid over a 30-year stretch from 1962 to 1992, and along the way it was usually among the pacesetters, winning four World Championships with founder Jack Brabham, Denny Hulme and Nelson Piquet.

The team took a sabbatical from F1 in 1988 after BMW quit the sport and even team owner Bernie Ecclestone struggled to find enough sponsorship with which to continue. 

Instead the company spent that season building an Alfa Romeo for the stillborn Procar series. Then in the winter Ecclestone oversaw a re-boot of the F1 programme and arranged a sale to Swiss businessman Joachim Luthi.

Brundle had also taken a year out in 1988 to race for Jaguar in Group C – where he won the World Championship – while keeping his hand in with a single Grand Prix appearance for Williams at Spa.

“It was mission accomplished in terms of regenerating my reputation,” Brundle recalls today.

“Tom Walkinshaw wanted me to stay in sportscars, but I wanted to get back to F1, having had a bit of a stellar year as Williams tester, Williams racer, World Sportscar champion and Daytona 24 Hours winner.

“I did the deal with Bernie and Luthi at Chessington. Bernie was still in residence, but he was busy selling it. I remember sitting in the quadrangle where his office used to be, next door to some nervous young kid, who turned out to be my team mate, Stefano Modena.

“Then I heard Bernie shout, ‘Brundle!’ from down the corridor, and I went running in. There sat Bernie and Luthi, and they made me an offer which I very happily accepted, because it was a very fair offer.

“Bizarrely we ended up in a shopping centre near Zurich being announced as Walter Brun’s drivers for the year ahead. Modena and me looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders like, why are we suddenly Brun drivers? It was all very confusing. Luthi was a Ponzi seller, and he ended up in prison…”

The relaunched outfit was led by long time team manager Herbie Blash, who had spent 1988 working for Ecclestone on the TV side at races.

“Luthi asked me to run it and said he wanted to be low profile,” Blash recalls. “The first race was in Brazil. He wanted to keep low-key – and he turned up with four hookers on his arms. And wearing a handkerchief tied in four knots over his bald head!”

“The team still had that feel of Brabham about it,” says Brundle. “Although people were beginning to leave. Gordon Murray was long at McLaren, and Charlie Whiting had gone to the FIA.”

Designers Sergio Rinland and John Baldwin produced a tidy new car, the BT58, which was equipped with a Judd V8 engine.

“It was a very good little car, quite nimble and driveable,” says Brundle. “And occasionally the Pirellis were particularly good.”

There was one major challenge, for having taken a year out the team was relegated to the ranks of pre-qualifying.

That year there were 20 teams, and as many as nine cars were eliminated in a frantic early Friday morning session. Even those who got through were not guaranteed a place on the 26-car grid, with four more drivers facing non-qualification.

Martin Brundle, Brabham BT58 Judd

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Both Brabhams sailed through in the opening race in Rio, and did so again in Imola. However the drivers had relatively low-key races, with four retirements between them. Then came Monaco, the third race of the season.

It was a track that Brundle always loved, but suffering with a cold, he only just scraped through pre-qualifying on Thursday morning. After that it got better and better as he dialled the BT58 into the circuit.

Despite a couple of mishaps on Saturday he qualified a stunning fourth, behind only the McLarens of Prost and Senna, and the Williams of Thierry Boutsen, and ahead of the Ferrari of Nigel Mansell. Modena backed him up in eighth spot.

“I do remember having a stunning qualifying lap, and everybody being amazed,” says Brundle. “I think the Pirellis were working well around there, and as I said, it was a nimble little car.”

“It was pretty amazing when you think about how quickly that team was put together,” says Blash. “And the level of competition. To be honest it was unbelievable.”

Martin Brundle, Brabham BT58 Judd

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Hopes were high in the Brabham camp for Sunday’s race.

“I remember on race morning I felt really good,” says Brundle. “My number one mechanic said to me, ‘We’ve renewed everything, I’ve even put a brand-new battery in. We’re going to have such a good result today.’

“Anything that we’d got new and fresh, any consumables basically, we’d replaced, including the battery. I was also told whatever you do, you must not do a practice start, to save the transmission and clutch.

“I’ve got my car’s full onboard coverage of that race. Some guy came up to me from FOM one day and said, ‘Don’t tell anybody, but you probably ought to have this.’

“You watch it and I’m creeping up to the start line, and you think, ‘What are you doing, Martin?’ I drop the clutch and inevitably I go nowhere, and Nigel nips past me, so now I’m following him.”

Brundle thus ran fifth for the early laps, keeping close behind the Ferrari. He moved up a spot when Boutsen pitted with a rear wing issue, and then passed Mansell for third on the pit straight on lap 27 when the Ferrari began suffering gearbox problems.

Ayrton Senna dominated the race from start to finish.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Senna was miles away in the lead, while in second place Prost was some 20 seconds clear of Brundle. However that gap was cut dramatically to 7 seconds after Nelson Piquet and Andrea de Cesaris tangled at the hairpin, and Prost was held up before he could thread his way through.

Brundle held that gap for several laps, but then lost time himself after an engine blow-up ahead dumped a lot of oil, and marshals were on track cleaning it up. He then began cutting the gap again, and for a while was the fastest car on the track.

He held onto third for over 20 glorious laps and then his Judd began to suffer a misfire. The new battery, one of the items replaced by his crew, had let him down.

“I don’t know if I could have caught Prost, but my car was so good, and suddenly the battery died. I crept home very slowly, and then I had to get out of the car, because the battery was under the seat.”

“I was saying to Martin we’re going to change the battery,” says Blash. “I remember as he was coming down the pitlane I was shouting on the radio, ‘Undo your seatbelts, undo your lap straps, you’re going to have to jump out.’”

The car was stationary for over two and a half minutes while a mechanic leaned into the cockpit and swapped batteries, not counting any time lost coming in and out of the pitlane.

Thanks to a high attrition rate, and his own early pace, Brundle still managed to emerge in 10th – four places shy of the points.

“They changed the battery, and I got back in,” says Martin. “It cost me at least third, if not something better.

“What I did have was a brand-new set of tyres on it. I took off like a scalded cat. It was like a video game after that, and I just drove like a man possessed on my fresh Pirellis.

“Whoever I came up against I just attacked, and sent one up the inside of, because I thought I’ve got nothing to lose here now. I caught and passed a lot of cars I unlapped myself against.

“I passed Eddie Cheever on the pavement, Stefan Bellof style! I really thought I was going up in the air at that point. You’ve got to wonder why you don’t drive like that all the time, but the risk factor was too high.”

Modena took third, securing Brabham’s last ever F1 podium

Photo by: Motorsport Images

By the closing laps Martin had recovered to seventh, and then right at the end Ivan Capelli’s Leyton House retired, promoting him to sixth and the final World Championship point.

He’d set second fastest lap, just 0.3s shy of Prost’s – and quicker than any by race winner Senna, who had been coping with (and not revealing to Prost) a gearbox issue for much of the race.

Brabham’s frustration was alleviated by the fact that Modena had inherited third, over a lap down on the winner. Everyone knew that the result should have been Martin’s.

“He really deserved it,” says Blash. “He drove an absolute blinder. And he was the one who put all the work in helping the team. He really was brilliant at strategies, and at the end of each weekend he’d always give a full report.

“From that point of view I would say he was the best driver I ever worked with like that, his attention to detail. Okay, Niki Lauda was great, but he was black and white, while Martin would actually come up with ideas.”

It seemed that the team was back as a serious force. However, while Brundle would qualify as high as fifth at Phoenix when the Pirellis came to the fore, his only decent results were fifth at Suzuka and sixth at Monza. Modena would regularly qualify in the top 10, but scored no more points after Monaco.

A once mighty team would gradually fade through 1990 and 1991, changing ownership again. Blash and most of the original crew had gone long before it collapsed completely in the middle of 1992, leaving Damon Hill without a drive.

Meanwhile Brundle would go on to log many other podium finishes, with Benetton, Ligier and McLaren, but Monaco 1989 still hurts.

“It breaks my heart to be honest,” he says. “But then most of my F1 career breaks my heart! You know how some people if they’re running third it’s the two in front of them that break down.

“You can’t change it, but that would have been one helluva day, to be up on the podium with Prost and Senna having performed like that in that car. What can you do? You can only drive them, you don’t manufacture the batteries yourself.

“Actually I’d forgotten I’d got that onboard footage until we started talking. During the lockdown I’ll have to dig that out and have a look at it. I haven’t seen it for years…”

Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, and Stefano Modena on the podium

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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