No ordinary Jo

Brands Hatch was a special track for Jo Siffert. He claimed his first Grand Prix victory at the Kentish circuit in July 1968, driving Rob Walker’s privately-entered Lotus 49 and setting a new lap record at 1min 29.7sec. Less than a year later he qualified his Porsche 908, giving away 100 horsepower, in 1min 28.8sec for the BOAC 500 World Sportscar Championship race, which he won with Brian Redman. 

It was an extraordinary achievement in a dominant season, and had there been a World Championship for sports car drivers in 1969 Siffert would have won it at a canter. British fans took the Swiss to their hearts, cheering his successes, but there was to be no happy ending. In October ’71, driving a BRM in the Rothmans World Championship Victory Race, Siffert’s car crashed in flames at Hawthorns Bend. 

The column of black smoke that we’d learned to dread signalled the death of Switzerland’s leading sportsman. The passing of 40 years does not diminish his lifetime achievements, which included another major Grand Prix success in Austria in 1971 and especially his mastering of the brutal 620bhp Porsche 917.

Siffert was at his best on ultra-fast tracks like the old Spa-Francorchamps, Enna-Pergusa and Monza, the ones only the bravest of drivers could master, but he also got good results at the slowest circuit, Monaco. He was an all-rounder, a popular figure in the paddock, sporting a Clark Gable moustache and distinctive in the cockpit with his cherry-red helmet carrying two white stripes and the white cross of the Swiss flag.

Joseph Siffert, dubbed Seppi or ‘Jo’ by his family and friends, was born to a poor family in Fribourg in 1936. He had a deformed right foot and it took two operations to correct it, leaving him with a pronounced limp.

Aged 12 Jo was taken by his father Alois to the Swiss Grand Prix at Bremgarten, and he decided that day that his one ambition was to become a racing driver. Siffert had a strong entrepreneurial spirit, attaching a trailer to his bicycle and collecting old clothes which he sold at the local flea market. Leaving school at 16 he was apprenticed to the Carlo Frangi coachbuilding company, where he had a good grounding in making and repairing panels. Soon he was moonlighting, repairing cars on a freelance basis, and later, trading them. 

He earned a reputation as a hard bargainer, but every cent was saved to buy his first racing car, a tired Formula Junior Stanguellini for the 1960 season. The car was uncompetitive but it was all experience, and the following year he bought a Lotus 18 from Colin Chapman, on easy terms. His first fairy-tale season featured a number of victories, the most satisfying being when he beat the works Ferraris of Giancarlo Baghetti and Lorenzo Bandini at Enna. At 25 Siffert won the 1961 European Formula Junior Championship, despite being underfunded.

Swiss entrant Georges Filipinetti put Siffert under contract for F1 racing in 1962, in a BRM-powered Lotus 24, but success was harder to come by against single-seater racing’s elite and 10th in the Belgian GP was his best result.

Siffert did not work comfortably with the autocratic Filipinetti and bought himself out, expensively, to form his own team in 1963, still with the Lotus BRM. Paul Blancpain managed the Siffert Racing Team with engineers Jean-Pierre Oberson and Heini Mader, men who would help him throughout his career. Season highlights included having a huge scrap with World Champion Jim Clark at Imola, losing by a fraction, and then winning the next race at Syracuse.

Siffert earned his first World Championship point by finishing sixth in the French GP at Reims, another ultra-fast circuit, and was proud to be accepted by the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, proposed by Jo Bonnier, a Swiss domicile, and seconded by Clark. 

By now Siffert had a wide circle of friends and admirers, among them Rico Steinemann, the Swiss journalist who founded Powerslide magazine. As a GPDA member Siffert thought he should file entries for the full World Championship, and duly applied for acceptance to the US and Mexican GPs. The Americans were offhand, but Bonnier chivvied them up and had Siffert’s Lotus BRM accepted.

The team was broke, but Steinemann made a deal with BOAC for cheap tickets in return for advertising space in his magazine. Once there Siffert swept his entourage into the official reception on Friday evening where they fell ravenously on the buffet, stuffing their pockets before they left. The fare would have to last them the weekend!

The Lotus chassis cracked in practice and the gearbox failed in the race, and it was then freighted to Mexico. How would the Swiss get there? Siffert did one of his deals, renting an old Pontiac from a used car lot in New York for a month. The intrepid team journeyed south, covering 7500 miles in 15 days. There was no money for hotels so they slept in the car, dining on cornflakes and hamburgers. Another reception, another feast, but Siffert earned just enough in start money to get his entourage back to New York after finishing ninth. 

A year later, now driving a BRM-powered Brabham, Siffert again struggled to get his entry accepted for the US GP. Bonnier, then driving for Rob Walker, persuaded him to file an entry for Siffert, who would present his Brabham in Walker’s dark blue livery with a white stripe across the nose. He rewarded the British entrant with a fine drive to third, behind Graham Hill’s BRM and John Surtees’ Ferrari.

This was the turning point for Siffert. Walker was highly impressed and took him into his two-car team for 1965, as number two to Bonnier. In fact he took Siffert in preference to Jochen Rindt, who’d been offered a works drive with Cooper. Walker took over most of the assets of the Siffert Racing Team, plus Mader and Oberson, leaving Blancpain to look after Siffert’s flourishing used car business in Fribourg.

His second race for Walker, at the Easter Monday Goodwood meeting, ended in disaster as he clobbered the wall at the chicane and crashed headlong into the outer wall, suffering a broken leg and several crushed vertebrae. 

Walker ordered a new Brabham and six weeks later Siffert drove through the pain barrier at Monaco to complete the 100-lap race distance
in sixth place.
The Mediterranean GP at Enna was the high point in Seppi’s season, where he repeated the previous year’s feat of capturing pole and beat Clark by 0.3sec. This was a real slip-streamer, the pair swapping the lead time and again.

Walker was walking on air, and no wonder. It was his team’s first victory since Moss’s triumph at the Nürburgring in 1961, and he was now convinced that Siffert was made of the same stuff as Stirling. His two best World Championship results in ’65 were sixth in Monaco and fourth in Mexico, for a haul of five points.

Walker decided to enter the 1966 World Championship when the regulations changed to 3-litre capacity, but he could only afford to run one car. As diplomatically as he knew how, Walker told Bonnier that the car would be for Siffert, who was the younger and faster driver. Bonnier accepted the decision with good grace and formed his own team, employing Mader and Oberson.
It wasn’t all roses, though. Walker bought a Maserati V12-powered Cooper, which proved to be overweight and underpowered… and unreliable. The team’s only results were fourth in the US GP and a minor victory in the Les Rangiers hillclimb. Nine retirements from 11 starts was not the stuff of legend. 

The ’67 season was little better, the Cooper-Maserati outclassed by the lighter and more powerful Lotus 49s, Brabham Repcos, Ferraris and BRMs. Third at Enna, third in the Race of Champions at Brands, and two fourths in the French and US GPs earned Siffert six points.

His career took a new and significant turn in 1966. At the insistence of Ferdinand Piëch Siffert was offered a place in the Porsche factory team at Le Mans and drove beautifully alongside Colin Davis, the pair finishing fourth behind three 7-litre Fords in a six-cylinder 906 and claiming the prized Index of Performance. Seppi was offered a full Porsche sports car contract for 1967 in a 910 with Hans Herrmann, with excellent results.
Ferrari and BRM were dangling contracts for ’68 but Siffert wanted to remain with Walker. Franco Lini was pushing Jo’s name in Maranello but Enzo Ferrari was unwilling to pair him with Chris Amon, and the matter was decided when Walker placed an order for a Lotus 49, powered by the Ford Cosworth DFV. It was to be the car that Jim Clark drove in the South African Grand Prix, handed over on its return. Siffert drove the Cooper-Maserati for the last time at Kyalami, finishing seventh.

The arrangement started disastrously. Walker hired Brands Hatch for a shakedown of his new Lotus the day before the Race of Champions. Siffert began carefully, getting used to the DFV’s sudden power surge, then equalled the lap record… then lost the back end and crashed into a marshals’ post at speed, wrecking the Lotus.

Siffert was unhurt, and Walker took news of the accident well. Asked by journalists how he felt, Seppi wrote two words on his lapel badge: merde alors! The next day Walker’s Dorking workshop was gutted by a fire, taking all the race gear and a collection of fine old cars. 

At a low ebb, Walker talked things over with his brother-in-law, who put up £15,000 to give him a new start. Then Walker’s partner in racing, Jack Durlacher, offered to finance a new Lotus 49. Chapman agreed to supply the car that Clark was racing in the Tasman Series. 

But before Siffert could even sit in it came news that Clark had been killed at Hockenheim. Jo was reduced to tears, and the 49B became a special car for the Walker team.

On to the Nürburgring where he shared a Porsche 908 with Vic Elford, the pair generally reckoned to be the best two drivers around the Eifel track. They both had big scares in the new ‘Flounder’, which flew and landed on its tail at Brunchen; the mechanics didn’t believe how high the car had flown until they saw the damaged jacking points. The duo started in the older 908 and achieved the first of many international victories for the car.

The new Lotus arrived in time for the British Grand Prix at Brands, where Siffert qualified fourth behind the two works Lotuses of Graham Hill and Jackie Oliver and Amon’s Ferrari. Hill retired with a broken driveshaft and Oliver’s car lost so much oil that Siffert had to drop back, only to be passed by Amon. Then Oliver retired with transmission failure and Siffert repassed Amon to lead a World Championship race for the first time.Amon attacked again and again, but lost tyre grip in the closing stages, allowing Siffert to win by 4.5sec. He had established a new lap record for the Grand Prix circuit at 1min 29.7sec.

It was a hugely popular victory, the fans responding with cheers. They were celebrating Rob Walker’s first GP win for seven years, too, and the team was euphoric. “Of all my dreams,” Siffert told Betty Walker, “the best one was that I had won the British Grand Prix, in the home of motor racing.”

“Jo was a gentleman,” recalls Jackie Stewart. “He had good manners and dressed well, fitted in well with Rob Walker. Rob did everything with style, and Jo was a credit to him.”
The remainder of his Formula 1 season was patchy, with Siffert finishing in fifth place at Watkins Glen and sixth in Mexico, but his second career with Porsche was only getting better. He was part of the team that finished first and second at Daytona and won the Sebring 12 Hours with Herrmann (both in the 907), won at the Nürburgring with Elford in the 908, and had further success at Hockenheim, Enna, Les Rangiers and Zeltweg.

There were changes at Stuttgart, where Rico Steinemann was appointed to run the competitions department in place of Huschke von Hanstein. Now Siffert was the golden boy, with Porsche’s resources behind him.

The 908/2 was highly developed and as reliable as a Porsche should be. The new 12-cylinder 917 was still in development, and as a bonus Porsche agreed to a request from Richie Ginther to develop an open-top version of the car, designated the PA (Porsche-Audi) for the bulk of the Can-Am Championship. Including his F1 programme, still in Walker’s Lotus 49, Siffert contested no fewer than 36 races in 1969, covering 20,000 racing miles without mishap. He scored five World Sports Car Championship victories in the Porsche 908, ably backed by Redman, and one more at the new Österreichring in the 917. 

Everything would change in 1970, in some ways for the worse. The newly-formed March Grand Prix team offered Siffert a ‘works’ drive, a status he had always hankered after, and he left Walker with a heavy heart. The running of Porsche’s official team was handed over to John Wyer’s JW Automotive outfit, with backing from Gulf Oil. Siffert was to be the number one driver with Redman, while Pedro Rodríguez and Leo Kinnunen were contracted to JWA. 

It should have been a high season for Siffert, but his one year with March yielded zero points. The 917 had no equal on track, though, and
the ultra-light 908/03 gave him and Redman a fine Targa Florio win. Yet there were strong undercurrents of tension within the team, exacerbated as Rodríguez and Kinnunen won the first three rounds of the 1970 World Sportscar Championship at Daytona, Brands Hatch and Monza.

Neither Siffert nor Rodríguez would yield an inch of track space to the other, and since they were driving identical cars at the head of the grid, their rivalry became heated at times.
It was not hard to detect a bias towards the Mexican within Wyer’s team. Wyer himself, team manager David Yorke and technical director John Horsman all leaned towards Rodríguez, and Siffert knew it. I take Wyer’s comment in his biography That Certain Sound as an example: “The rivalry was somewhat one-sided, because Siffert believed that he was the better driver and must demonstrate the fact, whereas Pedro was quite sure that he was superior and didn’t think any proof was needed.”

They had a well-publicised clash at Eau Rouge at the start of the Spa 1000Kms (see p64-65), which left the Mexican with the imprint of a Firestone tyre on his door. Siffert and Redman won the race at an average speed of 149.2mph, while Rodríguez set the fastest lap at 160.53mph before retiring with a broken input shaft. They clashed again at Watkins Glen in July. Rodríguez made a poor start, caught his team-mate and, in the words of Horsman, “started a real banging match that made Eau Rouge look tame”. Siffert collected a flat tyre but he and Redman still claimed second place, 44sec behind Rodríguez.

The two defined their relationship in interviews for a German television broadcast. Asked if there was any bad feeling between them Rodríguez said, “No, it is not true. There is no rivalry. Seppi and I are great friends on and off the track.” Asked the same question, Siffert replied: “Of course it’s true! Every time we get on the track the little bastard tries to kill me!”
I would say that good manners were the order of the team. The rivalry was played out on track, not in the paddock, as was the enmity between Prost and Senna. Indeed, had Siffert harboured a real dislike of Rodríguez, he would not have accepted an invitation from BRM for 1971 as the Mexican’s team-mate.

The fact is that Rodríguez had the upper hand in the Gulf Porsche team, winning four World Championship races in 1971, while Siffert and Derek Bell won one, in Buenos Aires. Controversially, Bell was forbidden from passing Jackie Oliver in the final hour of the Spa 1000Kms to Siffert’s annoyance.

Nor did Siffert ever enjoy victory at Le Mans, one of his great ambitions. An overheated gearbox in his 908 Longtail in 1969 was followed by massive disappointment in 1970 when, with a five-lap lead, he missed a gearshift and damaged the 917’s 12-cylinder engine. “What could I say?” asked Redman. “If he had a fault as a racing driver it was that he only had one speed – flat out!”

Siffert’s reward was victory in the Austrian GP on the magnificent Österreichring, a circuit on which he excelled. He started his BRM from pole (BRM’s first since 1962) and led from start to finish, beating Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus by 4.1sec – and with a rear tyre that was almost flat by the time he reached parc fermé.

Then Rodríguez was killed at the Norisring, to be mourned both by Porsche and BRM. “Jo was very upset when Pedro died,” says Bell. “Seppi was always competitive and sometimes
I had to walk a tightrope when Pedro was around. If there was any dispute about a piece of track Seppi would make sure it was his. He would never back off.”

There was another car failure at Le Mans but Siffert earned three podiums in Can-Am and was being lined up by Porsche to contest the full series in 1972 with Roger Penske’s team, alongside Mark Donohue.

That was not to be. John Webb organised the Rothmans World Championship Victory Race at Brands Hatch in October, in honour of Jackie Stewart’s second title success. 

Siffert was tired, having come straight from Laguna Seca, after contesting no fewer than 40 races that season and crossing the Atlantic 15 times. He claimed pole in his BRM but made a bad start, and was running fourth after 14 laps when what is believed to be suspension failure pitched him into the barrier at Hawthorns. The BRM reared up, rolled and landed with a ruptured fuel tank. Siffert was said to have succumbed to asphyxiation.

An estimated 50,000 mourners lined the streets of Fribourg and Stewart, a personal friend, attended the funeral. “Jo was not only a first-class Grand Prix driver but a first-class sports car driver,” he says. “His death was very sad. It was supposed to be a celebration of my championship and Ken Tyrrell’s first as a constructor, but it turned out so badly.”

The deaths of Rodríguez and Siffert, who enjoyed legendary status with the Porsche 917, brought a sad end to one of the supreme eras of endurance racing.