It's 6.30am in Banbury, England, but David Brabham is watching Formula One cars circle a racetrack half a world away. "I've been checking out practice at Suzuka," he says. "Normally on a Friday the place is packed. But not this year."
Getting up at the crack of dawn is not unusual for a racing driver, particularly one who's as busy as Brabham. Two weeks ago the youngest son of three-time F1 drivers' champion Sir Jack launched Project Brabham — an ambitious scheme to crowdfund the family name back into professional racing after a two-decade absence.
I went to dad and said, ‘Look, we’ve got this name and we actually do nothing with it'.David Brabham
Still, you can't help but fancy Brabham is trying to see the future in Suzuka Circuit's iconic sweeps and hairpins. Project Brabham's roadmap is straightforward: a three-year Le Mans Prototype 2 program beginning with next year's FIA World Endurance Championship, followed by a graduation in year four to an LMP1 constructor. But the ultimate dream is front-end loaded on the press release: a return to Formula One.
The seeds of an idea
The seeds of Project Brabham were planted almost nine years ago. "I went to dad and said, 'Look, we've got this name and we actually do nothing with it,'" Brabham says. "After Brabham (the racing car development firm and former F1 team) folded in 1992 dad had got rights back, but of course he was getting on and a few [trademarks] had slipped."
Almost immediately the younger Brabham hit a snag. A German car tuning firm had registered both 'Brabham' and 'Brabham Racing'. An expensive legal battle ensued, lasting seven years before the titles finally returned to family custody.
The upshot was Brabham now had a clean sheet of paper before him. "I first looked at the crowdfunding aspect just over a year ago," he says. "The last six months it really started to make more and more sense for us.
"Normally, you get the money together, you go racing and you obviously try and do well to attract a following, which gives you the substance to talk to sponsors. I've flipped it. I've used crowdfunding to get people on board at the beginning."
The campaign has met with a spectacular response. At the time of publication, Project Brabham's Indiegogo site had reached 69 per cent of its initial £250,000 ($458,000) goal with 25 days still to run in the campaign.
But despite its propensity to grab headlines, crowdfunding is only the first part of the online strategy. The second is a trio of web applications — Brabham-Fan, Brabham-Driver, Brabham-Engineer — named Brabham-Digital.
Brabham calls it 'Open Source Racing', the intention being to tap into community knowledge on the engineering side, in particular, to create a two-way street of expertise. "When we build and get involved in an LMP1 program down the road, that's when we start bringing in design from people around the world where we can get them to help that development," he says.
It's an approach that seems at odds with an insular sport in which teams often split themselves behind competing drivers. But Brabham learned the hard way the value of open communication in 2003, when he came second at Le Mans for Bentley despite having the fastest car, and folded that experience into his subsequent 2009 win for Peugeot at the famous 24-hour race.
"You could see straight away that the other two cars … were going to cause themselves problems," he says. "We were open and there were no hidden agendas."
The Bernie factor
Over the phone, the 49-year-old talks with a steely, practical positivity; you believe him when he talks about Project Brabham's World Endurance potential. But what about F1? In a weird irony, the man who arguably stands in the way of an F1 return for Brabham is Bernie Ecclestone, who in 1983 guided the team to their last world championship.
Ecclestone sold Brabham in 1987 and, as F1's chief executive, has subsequently tightened his grip on the sport's reins, building it into a multi-billion dollar industry.
But 2014 finds F1 in a funk, hampered by high costs, poor crowd figures and an inequitable prizemoney system. Asked if a return is realistic, Brabham replies: "Anything's possible. I would love to see us back in Formula One using our model. With the way the sport is [currently] run — that's not tenable. But in 10 years things might change.
"I think the pressure point for Formula One is getting closer … the financial concerns and worries are [spreading] like a virus."
Passing the torch
Brabham's innovative approach to owning a race team puts him firmly in the realm of his illustrious father, the only driver to win an F1 championship in a car of his own manufacture.
Sir Jack passed away in May of this year, aged 88, after a lengthy battle with kidney disease. Later this month David will organise a memorial at Silverstone Circuit, north of London, to celebrate his father's achievements. But with the timing of the launch of Project Brabham, it also feels like the passing of the torch. "A last goodbye," he says, "just as Brabham is being reborn again."
Beyond the success of the crowdfunding campaign, Brabham has received plenty of encouragement, both from potential partners and sponsors — "All the feedback was really positive: 'I think it's gonna fly. We really want to be involved'," — as well as the wider racing community in England.
And has he heard from Bernie? "No," he chuckles, "I think Bernie has bigger things to worry about."