NIGEL ROEBUCK’S GRAND PRIX GREATS
JO SIFFERT The fighting spirit of Formula 1
Grand prix winner and sportscar ace Jo Siffert remembered
world, many of his Formula 1 colleagues have looked askance at Fernando Alonso’s decision to compete last year in the Indianapolis 500, and now in the World Endurance Championship. Alonso is untypical of his generation in regarding a weekend without a race as a weekend lost, but in times past there were many like that, and none more so than Jo Siffert.
If Stirling Moss naturally remained Rob Walker’s favourite among those who drove for his private team, ‘Seppi’ was next up, and Walker loved to talk about him.
After Moss’s career-ending accident in 1962, Rob’s team continued, with Maurice Trintignant, then Jo Bonnier, but the spark was gone: “They were competent enough, but after all those years with Stirling – incomparably the best – it was a bit flat, really…”
In the meantime Siffert, born in Fribourg, Switzerland, was trying to make his way in the sport. From a very poor family, he was a natural wheeler-dealer, which served him well in his chosen career. After two years in F1, first with Scuderia Filipinetti, then with his own shoestring outfit, he was seconded into the Walker team in late 1964.
Although Seppi had won the Syracuse Grand Prix in 1963, more significant by far was his victory the year after, at ultra-fast Enna, for a few feet behind him was Jim Clark, no less. In 1965 they put on a repeat performance – with the same result.
Siffert may have been driving for Walker ostensibly as number two to Bonnier, but invariably he outpaced him. “Bonnier didn’t like that,” Rob recalled, “and suggested that for ’66 we revert to just one car. ‘I quite agree with you,’ I said, ‘and it’s Siffert...’”
Now the new 3-litre F1 was under way, and for the next couple of seasons Seppi drove Walker’s under-powered Cooper-maserati. For 1968, though, Rob bought a Lotus 49, complete with the newly dominant Cosworth DFV.
It was all Siffert could dream of, but it began disastrously. Shortly before the car’s debut, at the Race of Champions, it was taken to Brands Hatch for a shakedown, and on a greasy track Seppi was caught out by the ‘light switch’ power delivery of the early DFV. The car was destroyed, and in his mortification the laconic driver made himself a badge, which he pinned to his jacket. ‘Merde alors,’ it said. Swallowing hard, Walker ordered another 49, and back at Brands, in July, Siffert more than made amends, winning the British Grand Prix after a race-long duel with Chris Amon’s Ferrari. It was the only home victory for Rob’s team, and he counted it his favourite. In today’s world, competing only 20 times a year, Seppi would have been at a loss. For him, a typical season meant F2, sports cars and Canam, as well as the grand prix schedule, and in this he was similar to Pedro Rodriguez, with whom history tends to bracket him.
For most of their careers the pair excelled particularly in sports cars, and they became team mates in 1970 when John Wyer’s team took over the running of the factory Porsches.
Team manager David Yorke, formerly of Vanwall, remembered Siffert with great fondness. “For Seppi a typical day’s testing meant driving all morning, then sinking two platefuls of goulash at lunchtime, washed down with a couple of steins of beer, then driving again all afternoon.
“He was extraordinarily single-minded. I remember once when 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 realised Brian was in, he ran to jump over the pit counter, caught his foot on it, and went sprawling on the road. His knees were torn to pieces, but he never gave them a glance – just hurled himself into the cockpit, and was gone! Amazing bloke...”
By now Siffert had regretfully parted ways with Walker to drive for the newly formed March team. Earlier he had turned down Ferrari, which would have meant severing his ties with Porsche, and that was out of the question.
The season with March, though, was disappointing, and Siffert left to join BRM – as team mate to Rodriguez, already established there. If both continued to have success with Porsche, in F1 Seppi was somewhat in Pedro’s shadow, but everything changed in July when the Mexican was killed in an Interserie race at the Norisring. Siffert, stricken by the news, rose magnificently to the occasion at Silverstone the following weekend, qualifying on the front row and running second to Stewart until electrical problems intervened. At the Osterreichring, though, came his day of days: from pole he was peerless, leading all the way.
At the last grand prix of the year, Watkins Glen, Seppi finished second to Francois Cevert, and – happily remarried, a new BRM
contract signed – all seemed right with his life. That said, he was tired after a tumultuous season: a late addition to the schedule, the Victory Race at Brands Hatch, would be his 41st race of 1971.
Sunday, October 24, was about as sublime as an autumn day may be, but Siffert, on pole, made a bad start, and it was his team mate Peter Gethin who took the lead. After 14 laps Seppi was up to fourth, but suddenly we became aware of silence, then dense black smoke on the far side of the circuit.
On the run down to Hawthorns, Siffert’s BRM had abruptly pitched left into the bank, somersaulted over a marshals’ post, and exploded. If there was any mercy that day, it was that the driver knew nothing of the fire.
At his funeral in Fribourg more than 50,000 lined the streets as the coffin was borne past on the back of a Porsche 917. A while later someone at Marlboro conceived the idea of an award, in recognition of ‘fighting spirit’, to be presented to a driver after each grand prix. Appropriately, it was named for Jo Siffert.
Siffert rose to the occasion after the death of team-mate Rodriguez, leading the 1971 Austrian GP from lights to flag