"...The little Mexican bastard tries to kill me!"
That was Jo Siffert's semi-serious comment about racing team-mate Pedro Rodriguez. But though they traded paint, they never swapped insults. Andrew Frankel portrays two friends and rivals who competed on the ragged edge
This was one of those moments Spa seems to produce. It ranks with Mika Hakkinen's move on Michael Schumacher last year, or the first lap of the 1963 GP when Jim Clark, having qualified a mere eighth, and polesitter Graham Hill put 15sec between themselves and the rest of the field by the end of lap one.This moment was the start of the 1970 1000km race. On the front row sat two Gulf Porsche 917s. On pole was Pedro Rodriguez, to his right the sister car of Jo Siffert. Pedro's 917 had already won that year at Daytona and Monza, and while Jo had captured the Targa Florio, it was in a 908/3. He had not yet beaten his team-mate in a 917. Regarding what happened next, Ferrari's team manager, Franco Lini said simply: "It was not so much a. battle of drivers as a conflict of personalities."
Back then the start was after La Source hairpin, pointing down the hill towards Eau Rouge, then as now the most fearsome comer in motor racing. They made near identical starts, arriving at the left-hander at the bottom of the hill side by side. Rodriguez had the line but, astonishingly, Siffert did not — would not — budge. Side by side at hideous speed they barrelled into Eau Rouge, banging wheels, banging bodywork, and uphill through the right-hander to come. Now Jo had the line but the Mexican was in no mood to defer. Again there was contact, harder this time; they drove as if first place was one of the more minor things that the driver who lifted first would concede.
How the two negotiated the corner without coming to grief remains a thing of wonder. Fifteen years later Stefan Bellof lost his life in similar circumstances at the exact same corner when his Porsche tangled with that of Jacky Ickx.
Back in 1970 it was a Ferrari-mounted Ickx who was alone in staying with the two flying 917s around the damp but drying Francorchamps circuit By the end of the race all three cars had lapped the entire field twice but it was Siffert who won. True, this was thanks in the main to his team-mate Brian Redman proving convincingly quicker than Leo Kinnunen, who drove with Rodriguez, but to Jo this mattered little: he had, for the first time in his life, beaten Pedro in a straight fight in identical machines.
But do not think Pedro was a little off colour that day. He may have come third but he did that day at least become the first man to lap Spa at an average of over 160mph, lowering the outright lap record by over 14sec in the process; a record, mind, that had been set by a Formula One car.
Pedro and Jo. The Mexican and the Swiss. Today they are remembered together as the tigers of their era, the two who drove flat out, come what may and damn the consequences. And this perception is not wrong; but it is woefully incomplete. Talk to those who raced with them, ate and drank with them and the picture fills to reveal two men not only utterly different out of the car but who also went about their race craft in distinctly different ways too.
How good were they? In the 1971 Autocourse annual review, its editor laments the fact that both drivers would have made it into its top four ranking had they not both disqualified themselves on account of being dead. Yet in grand prix careers that started in 1962 for Siffert and '63 for Rodriguez, each managed just two championship wins. But talk enough to those who knew them and you'll find that the reason for such seemingly unsupportable ratings is the one thing they truly had in common: both were at their best and getting better when they died.
We should feel robbed. Tony Southgate designed the BRMs they raced in their final season and is illuminating on both their losses and how needless they were. "Jo's accident at Brands [he was in a non-championship race when his BRM veered off the track, overturned and exploded] was inexplicable at first. But then we recalled that the wheels had been reduced in diameter to accommodate unusually tight fitting Dunlop tyres. We then switched to Firestone and I think that's what caused it The difference was only 20 or 30 thou but it was enough to give Peter Gethin a sudden deflation during practice at Monza, and I reckon that's what happened to Jo."
He feels the loss of Pedro even more: "We had this BRM sportscar which we were going to race in the Interserie event at the Norisring. But we only had one engine and we blew it up on the dyno. I had to ring Pedro and say, 'Very sorry, but we haven't got a car for you to race.' He replied, 'Don't worry, I've been offered £1500 to drive this Ferrari.' Had that engine held, we might have had him for a little longer." In the event, driving Herbie Miiller's Ferrari 512S, Pedro shot off into the lead when something, some say mechanical failure, others a baulking backmarker, pitched him into the accident that claimed his life.
The source of their rivalry lies, at least partially, in the all-consuming competiveness but also their respective positions in the Porsche sportscar and BRM grand prix teams; here there is a curious symmetry. The coincidence that they both wound up racing for the same teams in both disciplines at the same time is obvious and, on its own, as much excuse as any real racer would need to set the competitive juices flowing. But there was more to it than this: at BRM, Pedro was part of the furniture, having first driven for the team back in 1968, been fired at the season's end and rehired at the end of 1969. Jo did not arrive until 1971, and was very much the new boy.
At Porsche, the reverse was true. Siffert had been racing the Stuttgart machines since 1966, and with huge success, winning five major races in 1969 alone before Rodriguez turned up.
Their respective reactions to the other's appearance on home turf, however, could hardly have been more different Howden Ganley drove the third factory BRM in 1971 and saw the Fl side of it first hand. "They were both super guys in their own way, but by the time Jo turned up Pedro was the absolute darling of the team and Jo the interloper. No question, regardless of who was quicker, Pedro was the Number One in the eyes of the team. Not only was he bloody fast but he was also always to be found with the mechanics, passing the time; and they adored him for it. Jo kept himself to himself rather more. He wasn't offish or aloof but he kept his distance more than Pedro."
Yet things were not resolved in Sifferes favour at Porsche either, as Jo might have expected them to be. Richard Attwood, the man who gave Porsche its first Le Mans a win, in 1970, was team-mate to Pedro and Jo in 1971: "Jo was rooted as a Porsche driver and had been for years, and naturally this counted for something — at first. The thing was, however, was that Pedro came along and was furiously competitive and unbelievably quick. Remember Brands in 19702 [In the wet, Pedro was delayed by a black flag penalty, rejoined in 12th place and finished five laps clear of the field] I defy anyone to drive a car as quickly as that. Jim Clark, had he been alive, anyone you can name in fact, would not have matched Pedro that day. And at Zeltweg the following year, a fortnight before he died. I was his team-mate for that race and well, no-one other than Pedro even counted that day.
"The point is," Attwood concludes, "it all rather got to Jo."
And it's true. While Siffert has been quoted as saying he and Rodriguez were the best of friends on and off the track, when asked again of the state of play between them he memorably replied, "Fine, except every time we get on the track the little Mexican bastard tries to kill me."
The truth, as so often, lies somewhere between these poles.
Brian Redman was another Gulf 917 driver and, on his day, as quick as any of them. More often than not he was Siffert's team-mate and was closer to his relationship with Pedro than almost anyone.
"Their characters were very different. Pedro was quiet, considered and very thoughtful, while Jo was extremely volatile. He lived on nervous energy, always seemed to have deal going on — existed at 100 per cent all of the time."
Nor were these characteristics left behind in the pit garage. The late John Wyer best summed up Siffert's on-track attitude, "If there is a car in front, Seppi has to pass it." He left it to us to infer that this included those of his team-mates too.
Never did this cost Wyer or Siffert more dearly than at Le Mans in 1970. Pedro retired after an hour, leaving Jo as the sole JWA representative and leading the field by miles. Redman, his hapless co-driver, takes up the story: "Coming past the pits in the night, he came across a few backmarkers overtaking each other. Rather than wait for the track to clear, he kept his foot buried, dived into a gap, went to grab another gear, missed it and blew the engine." Game over. Wyer, looking fora Le Mans hat-trick, having won with GT40s in 1968/69, was not amused. Nor was it lost on anyone that one of the Ford's drivers in 1968 was one P Rodriguez.
Pedro, by contrast, charged because it suited his strategy. Wyer admired the way he'd pace a race, timing his push to perfection and, for all his speed, he was neither a car breaker nor a car crasher. He was simply brilliant unless it was raining; then he was other worldly.
The picture, thus far, paints Pedro as the golden boy and Jo as the man trying too hard and, ultimately, failing more often than not, to keep up. Southgate refers to Pedro as being "something unusual, one of those few people who genuinely seem to have an aura around them." But even now it is not so simple. Howden Ganley sees it differently and was well placed to judge: "I have always thought that, head to head, Jo was the quicker driver and I quite accept that the results don't show that. But then you look at how Jo went when Pedro was gone."
This is a point worth returning to. But Ganley makes another observation and it probably offers the most accurate insight into the depth and nature of their rivalry. "At BRM I was just the boy, a complete nobody, the third driver in a team with two superstars. What each of them liked more than anything was WI was faster than the other one. It happened a fair bit, because while they were off racing sportscars I'd be testing non-stop and spent much more time in the car. And when I was faster, for whatever reason, they each thought it was hilarious. And yet it was all healthy — there was no bitterness between them at all."
And so it seems. I failed to find one person who reckoned they even disliked, let alone hated, each other.
What does seem beyond dispute, however, is that Jo found it infinitely harder to come to terms with Pedro the driver than vice versa, and some kind of proof is provided by Ganley's reference to the miserably short sliver of life left to Jo after Pedro's death. There is no doubt Siffert was devastated by the loss of Pedro but, as this weighed down on him, so the pressure of the last two seasons lifted. In sportscars, Siffert did just one more race, at Watkins Glen, heading the JVVA team to a two-three behind the Alfa of Andrea de Adamich and Ronnie Peterson. But if that is indeed slim evidence of a revived Siffert, the remainder of the F1 season was anything but.
There were 11 rounds to the F1 World Championship in 1971, five before Pedro died, and six after. With Pedro in the team, Jo's average qualifying position was a little worse than eighth; thereafter it was third. During that time he scored in Austria the second of his two GP wins and his second pole position. And in the last race of the championship, he came a fine second at Watkins Glen, beating all save Francois Cevert, whose Tyrrell was the best car on the grid.
Then came the Rothmans Victory Race at Brands Hatch. He'd scored his first GP win there, in 1968 driving Rob Walker's Lotus 49, but this time the outcome was tragically different
Pedro and Jo. In the two seasons they were team-mates, the world of Formula One lost not only them but Bruce McLaren,Jochen Rindt, Piers Courage and Ignazio Giunti. It was a criminally dangerous era to be a racing driver, too dangerous by far for two as committed as these. But Pedro was a self-confessed fatalist, accepting his time would come when it did, while Jo knew no other way than the right-foot-through-the-bulkhead method.
The last words are a racer's perspective and belong to Brian Redman, the man who got out and survived. "They were always civil to each other out of the cockpit. But it's not easy to be friends when you are that competitive and fighting for the same thing and with the same equipment"
In the modem era, where genuine rivalry at top level never stays solely in the cockpit, it is telling to see the dignity with which they not only fought their war, but did so on two fronts, something no driver today would countenance.
Who was better? Pedro, probably, but it seems now hardly to matter. Whatever their relative skills and abilities, it is the qualities they shared that matter most: they were men of courage, honour and integrity. Such gifts may no longer be required to excel in the sport, but 30 years on, that is not to say they are not missed.