Jo Siffert: Nigel Roebuck's Legends
The clocks go back soon, and whenever that happens Jo Siffert always comes to my mind, for they did so on October 24, 1971, the day of the Victory Race at Brands Hatch. I forgot, and arrived very early. It was the day Siffert died.
Rob Walker loves to talk about ‘Seppi’, his driver for many years, and it’s clear that, in terms of affection, he brackets him with S Moss. In 1962, after Stirling’s accident, RRC Walker Racing Team continued, but in a somewhat low-key fashion, first with Maurice Trintignant, then with Jo Bonnier. The spark, Rob says, was gone.
“You never really set off with much hope Bonnier was going to do anything special. He was a competent driver, but after all those years with Stirling it was a bit flat, really.”
By the end of 1964, Siffert had been seconded into the team. For two years he had been in Formula One, first with Scuderia Filipinetti, then with his own shoestring team. His road there had been unusually hard. Born in Fribourg, Switzerland, he came from the poorest of the poor, and in adolescence became an adept wheeler-dealer.
It was a matter of survival, and Seppi never put away the habits of youth. How did you check in an overweight suitcase without paying ‘excess baggage’? Simple: you smiled, chatted up the girl on the counter and put your foot on the other side of the scale.
Siffert first went motorcycle racing, then graduated to Formula Junior. Once into F1, he scored his first victory in the Syracuse Grand Prix of 1963, but it was against thin opposition. More significant by far was his win, the following year, in the Mediterranean GP in Sicily.
Enna was a flat-out blind. You needed a good engine, and you needed to be brave. A few feet behind Seppi at the flag was Jimmy Clark, then reigning world champion, and the following year the two of them duplicated the race precisely: Siffert from Clark by a nose.
This time he was driving for Walker. “Seppi really brought back my enthusiasm,” Rob says. “He was the sort of chap to give his all every time he drove, which I always liked. But, on top of that, we got on tremendously well from the start I was much closer to him than I ever was to Bonnier.”
In 1965 Siffert signed as number two to Bonnier, but through the season consistently outpaced the patrician Swede. Coming up, the following year, was the new 3-litre F1.
“Bonnier didn’t really like being beaten by Siffert all the time,” Rob recalls. “At the end of the year, he suggested we revert to running just one car for ‘ 66. ‘I quite agree,’ I said. ‘I’d rather come to that conclusion myself — and Seppi’s driving it.’ I think he was a bit put out…”
For the next couple of seasons, Siffert drove Walker’s Cooper-Maserati, not a strictly competitive proposition, but for 1968 Rob bought a new Lotus 49, complete with the then dominant Cosworth DFV. Seppi was entranced.
Then embarrassed. A few days before the car’s debut, at the Race of Champions, the team went to Brands Hatch to shake it down. On only his second lap, Siffert was caught out by a combination of greasy track and the `camminess’ of the early DFV. The blue-and-white car was trash, Seppi close to tears. Rather than tell the story endlessly he made himself a badge, for his jacket `Merde alors’, it said.
Still, Rob got him another 49, and back at Brands, in July, he more than made amends, winning the British Grand Prix after a race-long fight with Chris Amon’s Ferrari. The British car had it on horsepower, the Italian on handling. As they left the stadium, Amon would threaten, but by the time they were back to Clearways Siffert would be clear again. It meant more to Walker than any other victory.
Seppi would have been at a loss in today’s racing world. The notion of doing F1 alone, racing only 16 or 17 times a year, would have been anathema to him. In a typical season,he would routinely compete in F2, sports cars and Can-Am, as well as running the full grand prix schedule. A weekend without a race was a weekend lost.
In that respect, as in many others, he was very similar to Pedro Rodriguez, whose path he often — physically and metaphorically — crossed. For most of his career Siffert was regarded primarily as a sportscar driver; good in an F1 car, outstanding in a Porsche. And the Porsche with which he belongs in my memory is not the fearsome 917, but the open 908 of 1969.
This was one light race car, a mass of tiny tubes and fibreglass, and I remember practice for the BOAC 10001kms at Brands Hatch that year, the way Seppi danced it round to pole position, three seconds inside any other Porsche time. Mesmeric.
Siffert and Rodriguez became team-mates when John Wyer took over the running of the factory Porsches in 1970. If Pedro had the greater natural talent, there was rarely much between them. And they excelled particularly at such as Spa-Francorchamps, places where a driver needed at least two of everything.
The late David Yorke, their team manager, was another who relished conversation of Seppi. “Amazing bloke. A typical day’s testing for him would entail driving all morning, then sinking two platefuls of goulash or whatever at lunchtime, washed down with a couple of steins of beer, then driving again all afternoon.
“Siffert was incredibly single-minded,” Yorke said. “I remember one occasion when Brian Redman came in to hand over to him earlier than expected. Seppi wasn’t even in the pit, but somewhere out the back. When he saw what was happening he ran to the back of the pit to jump over the counter, caught his foot on it, and went sprawling on the road. His overalls were ripped, and his knees torn to pieces, but he never gave them a glance. Hurled himself into the cockpit, and was gone! Amazing bloke…”
By this time Siffert had sadly parted ways with Rob Walker, for a drive with the new March team had been offered. Twice already he had turned down Ferrari, as this would have meant severing his ties with Porsche, but this new offer left him free to drive sportscars for whomever he wished.
The year with March, though, was something to be forgotten. Stewart and Amon were among the others who did battle with the unwieldy 701, and no one had a good word for the thing. Seppi left at the end of the season, joining BRM as team mate to Rodriguez Every weekend, it seemed, these two were working together.
Well, not every weekend. Even by Pedro’s standards, Seppi raced a lot Sixteen races a year, you say? Siffert’s 16th race of 1971 was the Formula Two Eifelrennen at the Nurburgring. On May 2.
At BRM, he was somewhat in the shadow of Rodriguez, who was established there, but everything changed in July, when Pedro was killed in a meaningless Interserie race at the Norisring. Siffert, for once taking a weekend off, was stricken at the news.
At Silverstone he rose to the occasion. Now with the shaken morale of BRM to sustain alone, he put his car on the front row, and if electrical problems dropped him to ninth, for much of the way he ran second to Stewart
At the Osterreichring came his day of days, for he started from pole, and led all the way, despite a slowly deflating rear tyre for the last 101aps. It was a peerless drive, and there was great rejoicing for BRM, emerging from a dark time.
The final grand prix of the season was at Watkins Glen, where Seppi placed second to Francois Cevert. Everything looked finally to be right with his life. Second time around, he was happily married, and for 1972 there was a new contract with BRM.
He was tired, though, after the most hectic season of his career, and would happily have passed up the Victory Race at Brands Hatch, his 41st race of 1971. It was to be the last of his life.
On a sublime autumnal afternoon Siffert took pole, but got away badly. While BRM team mate Peter Gethin forged away at the front, he set about retrieving the situation, and after 14 laps was up to fourth, but on the fastest part of the circuit — the run down to Hawthorns — the BRM pitched left into the bank, somersaulted over a marshal’s hut, and exploded.
There was absolute stillness suddenly, and then that thick black smoke which means a fuel fire. Much later the other cars droned slowly to the pits.
Five days later, at Seppi’s funeral in Fribourg, more than 50,000 turned out in respect for their hero, their fighting man, whose coffin was borne past them on the back of a Porsche 917.
A year or two later, someone at Marlboro conceived the idea of special award, to be presented to a driver after each grand prix, in recognition of ‘fighting spirit’. Fittingly, it was named for Jo Siffert.