Damon Hill, Kevin Magnussen, Marco Andretti. Three names synonymous with those that went before them. In 2015, Matthew Brabham is the next in line to step up to such a plate.
Lining up with that prestigious name on the side of his cockpit, Brabham enters 2015 on the back of a successful 2014, with the Australian-American picking up fourth in the Indy Lights series as well as logging a noticeable couple of performances for Andretti Autosport in the Uruguayan and Malaysian Formula E rounds.
Wind back the clock a few years (however not so far back to the time of Sir Jack, Brabham Jr’s Grandad), and you’ll find that Matthew’s career started in Australian karting, with success soon followed by similar fortune in Australian Formula Ford. Talking to The Checkered Flag, Brabham reminisces of his when he started racing, aged just nine-years-old, but not for the sake of wanting to emulate his elders. “When I was racing karts it was more of a hobby for Dad (Geoff Brabham) and I to get out of the house and spend time together.
“Obviously we took it very seriously due to our super competitive nature, however, when I got into Formula Ford for the first time, that was the moment I really decided that this is what I wanted to do and this is what I was born to do.”
Despite being born in Boca Raton, Florida, Brabham spent much of his childhood growing up in Australia, before motorsport began to pave a path for the next generation of Brabham – this time, sending him back to America in 2012, aged just 17.
“It was a massive move for me! I graduated from high school in Australia and a few weeks later moved straight to the US on my own. I was used to my parents doing everything for me to some extent and I had to start cooking, cleaning and doing laundry for myself; this was a bit of a shock. There are some cultural differences between Australia and the US, but I’m glad that it was nothing as bad as learning a new language.”
As well as the language, Brabham’s speed on-track also translated smoothly, with his return Stateside instantly offering up success in the U.S F2000 Winterfest, with third overall and a handful of wins preceding a full-season campaign with Cape Motorsports. Brabham won the title on his first attempt by just seven points ahead of team-mate Spencer Pigot. Pigot won more races, eight to Brabham’s four, but the latter’s ability to keep on the black stuff at the head of the field confirmed him as a class act and one to watch.
Indeed, one man who spotted Brabham right from the get-go in the U.S was Dave Popielarz – Team Manager of Andretti Autosport’s Pro Mazda efforts. “February 6th 2012 was the first time I saw Matty run a USF2000 car. I soon figured that the Capes had done their homework and imported another ace.”
That they had, and it was Popielarz’s eye for talent that helped sow the seeds of a relationship between Andretti and Brabham that has, and continues to be a highly successful one. The following season team and driver combined for an assault on the 2013 Pro Mazda Championship under the stewardship of Mario Andretti himself and Popielarz. Brabham returned their faith in him with utter domination, taking thirteen wins out of a possible sixteen to storm to the title, finishing off the podium just once. Popielarz for one, was left in no doubt about his drivers star quality.
“Matt has a heap of talent and an unflappable demeanour that could take him to the top. I can see him running well in IndyCars in the future.”
With his stock rising by the minute, Brabham graduated to Indy Lights with Andretti in 2014 alongside Zach Feach. An impressive season saw him pick up his first win at Indianapolis on his way to fourth in the championship, one place behind Feach in third. What followed was yet another compliment from Andretti – a team so impressed with their star youngster that they drafted him into the teams inaugural Formula E fold, with Brabham marking his début with an impressive 13th in the Putrajaya Grand Prix.
The following round in Punta del Este saw Brabham announce himself to the world further, running as high as fifth after storming rise through the field. However, a late crash on the exit of one of the circuits violent chicanes brought to an end his charge, and with it one of the hardest moments of his career so far.
“Obviously I was quite devastated and angry at myself”, Brabham reflected. “However, the advice passed down (from Mario Andretti) was that I wasn’t the only one. There were extremely experienced Formula One drivers that made the same mistake as well. It happens and I have moved on, but it’s also something you must learn from.”
2015 sees both Andretti and the now 20-year-old Brabham resume their attack on the Indy Lights series- the pairing well placed as favourites ahead of the first round at St.Petersburg in March. The teams role in his progression from karter to Stateside star is unquestionable, as ‘Matty’ is all to eager to point out.
“They (Andretti) have been incredibly generous and helpful. I am very fortunate to be a part of their organization and they have done a great deal in developing me as a driver. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”