Against all the odds, Jo Siffert won the 1968 British Grand Prix in a private Lotus 49. Rob Walker recalls how they beat all the works teams in what proved to be the last privateer victory in Formula One.
The 18th British Grand Prix was to be held at Brands Hatch in 1968. I had persuaded Colin Chapman to sell me a practically new Lotus 49, which Jim Clark had raced once in South Africa and won the Grand Prix. When it arrived, we entered it first for the Race of Champions, also at Brands. Jo Siffert completed a warm up lap, passed the pits and disappeared. My head mechanic remarked to me that things had gone rather quiet.
Then Siffert appeared running down the road. He had got on the marbles and slid straight into a concrete marshal’s post The car we had pinned all our hopes on was now just wreckage. Jo was all right, although terribly depressed. He was wearing a Porsche jacket, which had a writing pad on elastic in the pocket; you could pull it out and when you let go it shot back. Whenever anyone asked what happened, he’d pull out this pad which had written on it “Merde alors” and let it flick back into his pocket It is good to have a sense of humour at such times.
I was watching practice the next day when there was an urgent call for me. It was my manager from the racing shop who said, “Bad news, Guvnor, the whole racing department has been destroyed by fire!” This meant my priceless 1927 Delage, a Type 52 Bugatti, what was left of the Lotus 49 plus the brand new £7500 Ford engine, a Cooper-Maserati and a host of spares — about £50,000 worth in all — and not a thing left. But worst of all, so many treasures and mementos such as the tire on which Stirling Moss won the Argentine Grand Prix with only two plies of fabric left out of five, and many autographed photos and albums and wreaths, all gathered over 34 years of motor racing.
After the disaster, Colin Chapman promised he’d get me a new car by the British Grand Prix. But Colin’s promises were always a little optimistic and left just three weeks to build the car. We always built our own cars, but in the factory of whoever was selling the car. In this case my mechanics had to work from 7 o’clock in the morning till 11 at night for three weeks to get the car finished. They got it done on the evening before practice at Brands. And by the time they arrived and had it unloaded and ready, practice had started. They still had to do the finishing touches like putting on mirrors and fitting the car to Siffert and putting the straps on and getting it scrutineered. We missed about an hour and a half of practice before we got out there.
The entry for the Grand Prix was very competitive and had all the best drivers in F1. Stabilisers were well to the fore and now only two teams were not using them — BRM and Cooper.<.p>
The organisers offered 100 bottles of champagne for the person who set fastest lap throughout the weekend. And so Graham Hill started off by setting the pace and kept this up throughout both days. As we had missed most of the first practice we thought we’d better get on with the second. The car actually wasn’t going too badly until the engine started smoking. Happily, Keith Duckworth came past, had a look, saw what was wrong and told us to replace a screw in the head. We finally got away for the last ten minutes of practice to finish eleventh fastest
This wasn’t anything marvellous, but considering we hadn’t set the car up at all, was satisfying enough. We were ready at the start for the second day’s practice and immediately knocked about a second off our previous time. Jo and I then went up and asked Graham Hill if he’d mind showing Seppi around the circuit for a couple of laps. Seppi obviously didn’t know the car or circuit very well and Graham was fastest. Ever the sportsman, Graham readily agreed.
Seppi followed Graham around for a couple of laps, then missed a gear and sent the revs soaring. We managed to save the engine and with what he’d learned was able to put in a quick lap, leaving us fourth overall, much to my delight as you can imagine. Graham was on pole with his 100 bottles of champagne, with the other works Lotus driven by Jackie Oliver in second. Third was Chris Amon’s Ferrari.
Before the race a chap asked if we would mind fitting Seppi with a heart counter. Seppi said he didn’t mind in the least and it gave quite interesting results. His highest heart beat was just before the flag fell which I gather is very usual. It was pretty steady but once flipped up to 180 on one spot when Seppi obviously had a slight moment but apart from that it kept very steady.
Just before the race, dark clouds came over. I’d made provision for this and rung the RAF station for a weather report. They told us there would be no rain and it would improve throughout the race. Other teams hadn’t been quite so careful; Ferrari gave Ickx wet tyres and Amon dries. Rindt, Rodriguez and McLaren all joined Ickx with rain tyres. Stewart was a mass of indecision. First he changed on to wet tyres and then at the 3-minute signal he went back on to dry ones, then finished the manoeuvre just before he went on to the dummy grid at the one-minute signal. If I can’t make a decision as to what tyres I am going to use before the start I always use two wets and two dries. This means that when we have to make the decision it’s going to take half the time because we only need to change two tyres instead of four.
At the start Jo got away beautifully, slipping into third spot. Jackie Oliver led, forcing Graham into second place.
At the end of the first lap the three Lotuses were in the lead but on the second lap Oliver was leaving a terrific smoke trail and oil must have been leaking from somewhere — either the tanks had been overfilled or there was a leak onto the exhaust.
On lap three Graham Hill overtook Oliver, Siffert staying in third. By lap 10 it was still the three Lotuses in the lead followed by Amon’s Ferrari. These were in a fairly tight bunch but Oliver’s car was throwing out so much oil that Siffert was having difficulty in seeing through his goggles. Consequently, each time he went past the pits he tried to wipe them clean. At first we were worried by this strange gesture. My head mechanic Tony worked out what was his trouble.
On lap 14 Lotus got worried about the stream of oil from Oliver’s car and gave him a signal to watch his oil pressure but Hill only had a lead of around 1.5sec, with Siffert and Amon running closely together but a little further back, trying to keep out of the oil. On lap 26 one of Graham’s driveshafts let go, the right-hand rear suspension collapsed and his race was run. Now Oliver led, 2.2sec ahead of Jo with Amon right behind.
The oil on Siffert’s goggles had troubled him very much and by lap 37 Oliver had a 10 sec lead. At this point, Seppi let Amon by and really took time off to wipe his goggles properly. He lost 4 sec on that lap and gave the owner a very anxious few moments. After that however, his lap times came right down and he began to catch Amon and close up on Oliver who, on lap 34, had made a new lap record.
Now with clear goggles, Siffert closed up on Amon, breaking the lap record and leaving it at 1:29.7. On lap 43, Oliver’s car began spewing oil out from a broken seal and both Amon and Siffert slid on it. Then Seppi out-braked the Ferrari and was back into second place. On the very next lap, Oliver’s DFV finally cried enough. A bearing had gone and a con rod had broken, ending a brilliant drive.
Now we were left in the lead with the might of Ferrari breathing down our necks. It had always been like this in our past victories: just us against the complete Ferrari team. Then the rear aerofoil on John Surtees’ Honda came adrift and the car, which had been handling like a pig, became an absolute beast and was weaving all over the road. So Ickx managed to slip past and was now lying behind his teammate Amon. Chris could now really have a go and if he overdid it then Ickx was still there to uphold Ferrari honour.
I wondered how I could stand the tension of being in the lead by less than a second for another 36 laps. The loudspeakers kept saying Amon was playing a waiting game, that he had passed Siffert once and knew he could do it again. I decided not to think what might happen to the car, whether it might come around or not, but just concentrated on my job of keeping accurate lap times and gaps and sending him good pit signals. My wife and Harold Theyer of Ferodo, who had been doing this most accurately since Stirling’s days, kept the lap chart. Lap after lap the gap wavered around the one-second mark. It was sometimes less, sometimes more, but I noted with satisfaction that when Chris closed, Seppi would always put in a faster lap and draw away. On the 50th tour they lapped Jackie Stewart, leaving just five cars on the same lap. I must say this was a feather in our cap to lap Stewart, but the rea reason was I think Ken had chosen the wrong tyres at the start. And then, on lap 55, with just 25 to go, Ferrari had hung out the ‘Faster’ signal to Amon. Always in the past I had considered this a most welcome sign as whenever it appeared it had meant victory to us. It stands to reason when a chap has been doing his nut for over 50 laps and is then told to go faster, it must be heartbreaking.
With 12 laps to go Siffert and Amon came up to lap the third placed Ickx. I wondered if he would hold up Seppi, who then had a 1.2-sec lead, but Jacky behaved very sportingly and let them both through.
Now we were down to 10 laps to go and Chris Amon put in his big effort in the Ferrari. He cut the lead to seven-tenths of a second, or about 30 yards, but Seppi gallantly responded by gaining a tenth the next lap. He held it the same on the next and then began gaining about ten yards each lap. With five laps to go he had a 100-yard lead and I began to breathe more freely. Then Tony brought the fuel can and funnel out on the pit counter and I began to have misgivings. It is always difficult to be sure about fuel consumption, especially when the car has been pushed to the limit throughout the race, even though we had started with full tanks. It took me a whole lap to pluck up the courage to ask Tony whether this was a necessity or merely a precaution and to my relief he answered the latter. He was just acting as every top rate mechanic would.
With two laps to go, Seppi had a 150-yard lead. The announcer was talking about Rob Walker not having won a World Championship race since the Nürburgring in 1961 and I wished he’d shut up; we hadn’t won yet. Then I heard the announcer say Siffert had one wheel in the dirt, he is sliding badly but he has held it. Actually, it was Amon who had had the moment, and Siffert soon came by and started his last lap.
Commentators who get hold of the wrong car and make these statements nearly give you a heart attack and it happens too often. There were feverish efforts by the announcer to keep excitement up with remarks like “I don’t think Amon can quite make it.” But he was 200 yards behind and Siffert came safely over the line with a 4.4sec lead over Amon with Ickx in the other Ferrari a lap behind in third place.
I just could not believe it; to win the British Grand Prix was a dream, and after the disaster of the last Brands Hatch meeting it was almost a fairy tale. Signor Forghieri of Ferrari was one of the first to congratulate us, they are such worthy and sporting rivals while Chapman was just delighted in spite of his misfortunes.
Then they drove us around the circuit on a trailer towed by a Ford tractor with the car, Seppi, his wife Sabine, the mechanics, Jack Durlacher and myself on it. The crowd gave us a tremendous ovation, almost blocking the road. I think they liked the David and Goliath act with the private entrant against all of those works teams. Earl Mountbatten presented the prizes and Prince Charles and the Duke of Kent were at the meeting. The Duke told me he had also been at our last victory in Germany in 1961.
I never thought that I’d win the British Grand Prix but I do find that when I’m going to win a Grand Prix I always feel sick in the morning and I had felt sick on this morning. So perhaps that was the sign. It was Siffert’s first World championship win and my ninth. I have always had an ambition to make it 10.
It was a convincing win of Seppi Siffert’s as he took the lap record, his race average was faster than the previous lap record and he never fell below third place. It is interesting to compare this victory with that of Stirling at the Nürburgring in 1961. They both had Lotus cars but Seppi’s was new whereas Stirling’s was a year and a half old with an engine at least 30bhp down on the Ferraris. Siffert’s engine was at least as good as the Ferrari. Stirling’s victory was all driver but this was a combination of car and driver.
Siffert said afterwards the aim of all the drivers is to win and the Swiss went absolutely mad about it. He flew straight back there to a hero’s welcome and he never lost that worship until his death. I felt it was our greatest Grand Prix win ever. After that terrible Brands Hatch meeting only a few months before when everything seemed to be wiped out, I thought I would have to give up racing. Now the whole thing turned round and I’d won the greatest Grand Prix I could hope for.