An indomitable will to win
IN 1948 at Bremgarten a 12 year-old Swiss boy watched, entranced, as a Frenchman wove his magic driving a Gordini. The boy’s name was Joseph Siffert, the Frenchman’s Raymond Sommer. Coeur de Lion, they called the latter, Lionheart. It was his name long before anyone ever thought of coining it for Nigel Mansell, and Sommer was an artist, a man to whom the manner in which the game was played was more important than the result derived, provided he could always look himself in the eye and know he had driven his machinery to the utmost.
Sommer then had barely two years to live, perishing at Cadours when his 1100cc Cooper crashed, but his spirit would live on in the skinny boy. Already he knew what he wanted to do in life. He would race. “I shall drive like Raymond Sommer,” he said to his father Alois that day. “I shall attack!”
And attack Seppi always did, just as he was attacking right to the very end of his life, 20 years ago at Hawthorn Bend at Brands Hatch this month. He knew no other way.
He came from a poor family, and supplemented his income by selling rags before he graduated to trading in motorcycles and then cars. As an under-age driver he was twice chased by the police, and neither time could they catch him! Even as a professional racer, he still loved buying and selling.
Swiss F1 writer Adriano Cimarosti was close to him in those difficult years. “I liked him very much, and the thing I will remember most was his very strong will. He could make the impossible things happen in life because of his will.
“In 1961 he had just bought his Lotus 18 in Britain and was bringing it home to do the hillclimb at Ollon-Villars, and he came to the border on the Sunday morning of the race. They said they could not allow him to bring the car in that day, come back tomorrow. Of course, that was no good, but they would not budge. So Seppi called the Swiss President President Bourgknecht who was also from Fribourg and asked for his help. It was all arranged! That was typical of Joseph, that ability always to find a solution.
“His prize money was all that took him to the next race. His group would buy satchels of food because it couldn’t afford to eat in restaurants. The first time he went to Enna and beat Clark they had just enough money for the fuel to get to Sicily. They put the car on the ferry and ran off, hoping to avoid paying for their ticket, but they announced over the loudspeakers that the ship wouldn’t leave until the owners of the racing transporter had paid up! After that they had absolutely nothing left. When Seppi won the race they went on a wild party in a restaurant!” “He had to pay for his racing so he sold road cars — he would drive right through the night and arrive just in time for practice, tired,” recalls his former chief mechanic, engine builder Heini Mader. “Then he’d practice and if he didn’t qualify he’d be off in his car to sell more cars, to pay for the next race.”
“He was a very positive and optimistic character,” said his biographer and close friend, Grand Prix writer Jacques Deschenaux “He had had such a hard life as a child, but even when he had big money problems he was always positive. He was an incredible worker. Sometimes we would drive together right across Switzerland just to find a special door for a car he was selling, just to win him 50 Swiss francs.”
Jo Siffert was an easygoing, impulsive racer. At times situations upset him, but there was never any side to him. He spoke his mind, said what needed to be said, and then it was forgotten. He was too competitive to make close friends with his rivals, but his friendships away from racing were strong. The sculptor Jean Tinguely also came from Fribourg, and when he died just before this year’s Italian GP, his funeral emulated Seppi’s through their native streets.
“Jean was a good influence developing Seppi’s mind beyond motor racing,” says Deschenaux. “He would often arrange his own calendar around Seppi’s racing commitments.”
“15,000 people turned up for the funeral and Jean’s cortege followed the same route. He wanted people to be emotional, but not sad. Seppi’s funeral had been so sad. After Jean’s ceremony all of the people were fed — there was a fantastic spirit.”
Winning was everything to the spontaneous Siffert, the man who brought Marlboro into F1, but Mader remembers: “Seppi took his racing seriously but liked to laugh and have fun. He didn’t ever want to turn into some sort of sad professional.”
One of Deschenaux’s stories encapsulates Siffert’s racing philosophy. “At the 1971 Spanish GP I arrived in Barcelona on the Friday at six in the evening and Seppi, of course, was already there after first practice. He said: ‘Come with me. No questions,’ and rushed me to Porsche’s private plane. We flew to Le Mans and the next day he calmly took part in the April test and hit 400km/h on the Hunaudieres in the 917, before we jumped back into the plane and flew back for the final practice in Barcelona! There was never enough driving for him!”
From motorcycles he graduated to Formula Junior, then F1 with a 1500cc engine in his Junior Lotus. It was clear he was quick, and when the organisers of the American and Mexican GPs in 1964 refused him an entry unless he could align with a team such as Rob Walker’s, a fresh die was cast.
“Seppi was one of my greatest friends,” says Rob without hesitation. “We used to have such parties together. At the opening of his garage in Fribourg we had a rip-roarer until five in the morning, and then by six thirty he was off on work somewhere.
“His first race for me was Watkins Glen in 1964 alongside Jo Bonnier. He finished third. I was highly impressed and signed him for 1965.
“At Goodwood that April he had this dreadful accident when he thought the whole of the chicane was movable but only half of it was and he hit the other half, which was brick. He kept complaining about a stiff back, and it turned out that if he hadn’t been on his back the whole time he’d have been paralysed. He had damaged a vertebrae but initially the doctors had told him to stop moaning. He was determined to be ready for Monaco and wanted to get back home to his own doctor. I followed the ambulance to London Airport and there this enormous matron looked at this skinny little driver and said: ‘Did you have a little accident on your bicycle over the holiday weekend?’ Seppi’s English wasn’t very good then and he just smiled at her, but then the head of Swiss Air arrived and threw up his hands and told him he had cleared the whole aircraft for him, the whole back end. The matron was just amazed. The man was bowing to Seppi, whom she had thought was just a boy. It was one of the funniest sights, her eyes were popping out!
“The great thing was that having had Stirling in the team I had learned everything I knew from him. Before him I had had no experience. Having learned it all from Stirling I could tell Seppi and he’d listen.
“At Syracuse Stirling always said that if you got a break, just go for it. Seppi led John Surtees and Jimmy Clark there in April 1965 and there was a fast corner after the pits which it was just possible to take flat. Bonnier managed to let Seppi through before it as they lapped him, and then held them up a little. With a two second lead Seppi really went for it and was pulling away until he jumped too high over a brow 10 laps from the end and the engine blew when the car jumped out of gear.”
Later that year he repeated his 1964 triumph over Jim Clark in the Gran Premio del Mediterraneo at Enna, beating the Scot to the line by three tenths of a second, precisely three times the previous year’s margin! There were some nasty suggestions on both occasions, but Mader refutes them quickly. “Both times when he beat Jim Clark Colin Chapman just couldn’t understand. There was all sorts of talk, but there was no way BRM would have let me do 2.2 litre engines! No, the secret of the first year was luck. And the second time we knew from the first year how the engine had progressed. We had just the right gear ratios. The BRM was better adapted to the circuit than the Coventry Climax. Even Jim Clark could do no more than put his foot down flat on the throttle there…”
Rob and Seppi always had a full relationship, and after struggling with the awful Cooper Maserati in 1966 and ’67 Seppi was rewarded as Rob bought a brand new Lotus 49 for the 1968 season. In practice for the Race of Champions, however, he crashed it, and to make matters worse the remnants, plus Rob’s 1.5 litre Grand Prix Delage, were then destroyed in a garage fire. Seppi was mortified by his mistake.
“After 40 laps of testing he was right on the lap record. Then in practice it had been raining but had dried out, all except a patch at Surtees. He was literally warming up his tyres when he just lost it there and split the car in half. He had a message pad on a bit of elastic that he carried in his overalls pocket and he’d pull it out and write things on it. When people asked him what had happened he just pulled it out, and on it he had written: ‘Merde alors!”
The Kentish circuit was to bring him better fortune later that year when he vanquished Chris Amon’s Ferrari to win an emotional British GP. The new 49B had literally been finished in the paddock.
In Canada there was another flash of his brilliance when he qualified on the front row with Amon and Rindt and diced for the lead and set fastest lap before retiring. Then in Mexico he started from the pole.
“He was fastest by half a second,” chuckles Rob. “He had won pole because on one lap his throttle had stuck and he’d had to take the corner at the end of the pit straight flat. When he found it was possible he did it every lap.”
He made a bad start, but pulled back into the lead in a superb drive, until a screw worked loose in the throttle slides and he lost two and a half minutes in the pits. After that he smashed the lap record on his way to sixth place.
Brands Hatch 1968 apart, Jo Siffert’s greatest day came at the Osterreichring on August 15 1971, when he drove his Yardley BRM to a stunning victory from pole position after leading every lap, setting fastest lap, and fending off a late challenge that saw Emerson Fittipaldi carve 24s from his majestic lead when the BRM developed a puncture.
“That was a wonderful race,” says Deschenaux warmly. “It was the first time his mother had flown to a Grand Prix, and he told her to wear something on her dress to let the cabin staff know she was a first time flier, so they would be nice to her. He was always joking, but only nice jokes. It seemed such a long race, and of course he did everything, made the Grand Slam!”
1971 had taken him into the camp of Pedro Rodriguez when he joined BRM. The two were already team-mates in the JW Automotive Porsches, and it was an uneasy alliance.
“They didn’t really like each other,” Deschenaux confirms. “They were too alike! At the Spa 1000kms in 1970 they clashed, and again in 1971 they rubbed doorhandles going down the hill to Eau Rouge and for the first 500 kilometres they were never more than a second apart, at 250 km/h! After that they switched to their co-drivers; Pedro to Leo Kinnunen, Seppi to Derek Bell. Derek lost 10s to Kinnunen in the first lap and then David Yorke signalled him to hold position. Seppi told Yorke he wanted to win, what was he doing? He was really mad! He dragged me down the pit lane — JW’s pit was at the top — and down to Claude Haldi’s pit. We grabbed his signalling board and so Derek got an official board from Porsche at the top of the hill and another from us at the bottom, urging him on! Seppi was ready to take over from Derek when the two Porsches came in again, but where Pedro resumed from Kinnunen, Yorke wouldn’t let Seppi out. He told him he had already driven for 500 kilometres, and that he couldn’t drive again that day.
“I’m sure Yorke was right, but Seppi was so disappointed. He was crying with frustration when Pedro and Leo won…”
“Seppi and Pedro never actually hated each other,” says Rob Walker, “because Seppi never hated anyone. But Seppi had come into JW and BRM and pushed Pedro to his limit. They were just very similar characters, too similar to become friends, really.”
When Pedro was killed at the Norisring in the week between the French and British GPs, Siffert was left to don the Mexican’s mantle at BRM.
“He didn’t want to do the race,” says Deschenaux of the event at Brands Hatch in which he perished. “We were together in Fribourg and he told me he was too tired. He was doing F1, sportscars with JW, CanAm with Porsche. Three series! That year he did 45 races!”
October 24 1971 was a beautiful day at Brands. After an awful start from pole position he was fighting back in fourth place, demonstrating for the last time that indomitable will, when the BRM crashed going down Hawthorn Hill.
What went wrong? “He had a brush with Ronnie Peterson on the start-line,” said former BRM team manager Tim Parnell. “I was there, and it was one hell of a bump,” recalls former MN Editor Alan Henry. “He had all four wheels off on the inside and for a moment it looked like the Lafitte accident later did.”
“We think that clash broke the bracket that held the radius arm,” continued Parnell. “It broke going into Hawthorn. You know, the thing was I had a lot of letters from fans afterwards, and one was from a spiritualist who said something broke behind Seppi’s left shoulder. And that’s exactly what did happen. It was spooky. He hit a bank, the car rolled over in flames and he died through lack of oxygen. His only injury was a fractured ankle.”
On that stark autumn day the sky was utterly clear. Those who were there recall the chilling silence that fell when the racing engines suddenly stopped, and the thick, vertical column of black smoke that reached up into the blue. The little Swiss with the darting eyes, the nose for a deal and the famous red helmet with its white stripes and white cross, was gone.
The fans held him in genuine affection. “He was,” said Parnell, “a wonderful man. When he’d come into the pits you’d see the aggression just drain away and he’d become again the gent that he always was.” — DJT