NIGEL ROEBUCK’S GRAND PRIX GREATS

JO SIF­FERT The fight­ing spirit of For­mula 1

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS -

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

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