THE MAN FROM FRIBOURG

The Jo Siffert Story

> A Perfect Gentleman < (Tim Parnell)

Our language has changed dramatically since the end of the sixties. In everyday life we are not aware of this fact. What a workoholic is, nobody knew in 1967 or even in 1971; the newest term of those days was environmental protection. Joseph Siffert was a workoholic. May other Grand Prix drivers be involved in aviation, trying to improve their golf or were used to cultivate the dolce far niente in their spare time, Jo Siffert was of very different nature: "My favourite hobby is working." And that very often 16 hours and more a day. At the beginning of his career he had no other choice, later the massive engagement in working became a nice habit instead of necessity to survive. At that time, he had brought worldwide known companies like Heuer and Marlboro into Formula One and for Porsche he had prepared the gigantic project 917/10 for the CanAm series, that brought total triumph to the perfectionist team of Roger Penske with his drivers George Follmer (who later drove a Shadow Ford relatively successful in some European Formula One Grand Prix) and Mark Donohue in the years of 1972 and 1973. But at that time, Jo Siffert already had lost his life.

We sometimes have got the problem to imagine some much too young died men as older gentlemen. That is the same story with James Dean as well as Jochen Rindt. And also Gilles Villeneuve is of this quality, I think. Jo Siffert is the same case. He would have celebrated his 65th birthday on July 7th, 2001, and it had been only a quarter of a year after becoming 35, when he had to go forever. Without a minimum of a chance to survive.

From the early days of Grand Prix Racing, at the beginning of the 20th century, fire had been the great classical risk of the racing automobilist. Thank God, it does not exist any longer. "Fire takes away any reason, any common sense, " says American Mario Andretti, one of Siffert´s rivals, being his team mate at March in 1970, too, who retired from international single seater racing some years ago at the age of over 50 years. But his dream of a victory in the 24 Hours Endurance Race at French Le Mans is still alive. Pedro Diniz´burning adventure at the 1996 Argentinian Grand Prix, caused by a damaged filler, 2½ decades before, would heave meant the secure death sentence. The Brazilian however had simply burnt his fingers, in the real sense of these words. No doubt, Siffert´s inferno was not of greater effect.

The 24th October, 1971 was a beautiful day in autumn, when the Grand Prix elite met each other nearly completely for the last time that year; the grid saw also some Formula 5000 cars taking part. Brands Hatch in the English county of Kent, not far away of the famous Dartford Tunnel, is considered as the most beautiful circuit in the history of Grand Prix Racing by many people, maybe with the exception of Spa Francorchamps in Belgium. Jackie Stewart, in his first full season in the Tyrrell Ford, had won his second drivers´world title (Siffert had become 4th in the championship scoring the same amount of points as Jacky Ickx in the Ferrari), and the race celebrated to his honour (without the status of a worldchampionship round) was named Worldchampionship Victory Race. Nearly all great works teams brought their cars onto the grid and at Brabham a young Argentinian, who was called The Indian, gave his debut: Carlos Reuteman, after the end of his career becoming a politician and being elected governor of his home federal state of Santa Fé.

Siffert was on pole position, beside him Peter Gethin in a B.R.M. P160, too. Surely, on the sporting side nothing was of any value, everything was a question of honour at best and of prestige maybe, too. But for B.R.M. the sponsorship for the following year had not been clearly defined. Yardley, the British manufacturer of cosmetics with the young and cool image, owned the British American Tobacco group, thought of signing a contract with the Brabham team with Graham Hill, Carlos Reutemann and Wilson Fittipaldi (Emerson´s older brother) for 1972. The extremely popular Briton and both the young, good looking Latin Americans would have been much better for their advertising campaigns as the quiet, ever perfectly organized Swiss in the very, very conservative B.R.M. team. This enterprise once had been founded as the British answer to Mercedes-Benz as been documented by the four-edged star as their firm´s symbol, without any doubts. The performance of the Stuttgart based manufacturer never could be egalized, too often they ran into traps produced by theirown, and that in spite of respecting the personal engagement of men like Raymond Mays and Louis Stanley.

Yardley´s intensive flirtation with Brabham produced a lot of sorrows about the security of his job in Siffert, and with Geathin and the New Zealander Howden Ganley B.R.M. had got 2 English speaking drivers in the team possibly being much better for the sponsor´s interest. That afternoon Siffert had a bad start, he was only 9th after the first lap, when Gethin was leading. In lap no. 2 the man from Fribourg collided with the March Ford of Ronnie Peterson, obviously without getting any damage of his car, but the Swede had to come into the pits for a tyre change. Was that the first alarm signal? It seemed to be, that Siffert had also gear change problems, possibly the reason for the bad start. And why did he do the 14th lap a full second slower than the ones before, when already being on position no. 4 after a hard battle from the middle of the field? There had been no direct opponent to cost him time fighting with, neither ahead nor behind him! Was it a puncture, a broken suspension, a damaged gearbox, or at Lauda at the Nuerburgring in 1976, a chain reaction of negative aspects being responsible, to bring him to catastrophy? "Let fate decide," say some team principals, if they are in doubt of some questions knowing not to answer. In lap 15 fate decided finally, cruel and forever, but the reason for the accident is still unknown in spite of more than a quarter of a century passed.

The Hawthorn Bend lies outside in the forest, far away from the main grandstands at start and finish. It has got it´s name by Britain´s first world champion (1958 in a Ferrari), who had retired from active competition after having won the title, but had been killed shortly afterwards by a crash during an irresponsible private race with Rob Walker on a public road. But Hawthorn´s time had been over anyway, he suffered under kidney cancer and saw the end coming nearer and nearer. Before the braking zone of the Hawthorn Bend there is the feared valley of Pilgrim´s Drop, causing a lot of problems for many cars before. The high forces, when bouncing down, made the chassis touch the ground, suspensions break or at least split the car into 2 pieces. About half a year after Siffert´s traged history repeated itself at the same place, when Henri Pescarolo in the Politoys Ford FW01, Frank Williams´first car of his own, crashed during the 1972 British Grand Prix. But this time the fire extinguish and rescue system was well-organized and the Frenchman left the wreckage nearly unhurt.

1971 was a remarkable year in Grand Prix Racing under a lot of aspects. That Jackie Stewart had been the favourite driver for winning the title in the first complete season appearance of the Tyrrell Ford, became obvious at last after the Grand Prix of Monaco; then he had won 6 out of 11 Grand Prix that year. But also other had their moments of glory. Mario Andretti won the first Grand Prix of his career at South African Kyalami. As well as Peter Gethin in Monza and Francois Cevert in Watkins Glen, but those victories remained the sole ones of their careers. By the way Gethin produced two sensational records: The narrowest finish (one hundredth of a second) and the highest average speed (nearly 243 km/h) of all times - some weeks, before he had been fired by McLaren without notice, because the Colnbook team considered his performances not good enough! The Grand Premio was the last slipstream battle in the history of Grand Prix Racing; then in Monza chicanes were built, too. By Gethin so narrowly beaten was Ronnie Peterson, whose excellent positions during the whole season made him vice champion and crown prince of Formula One. Zandvoort in the Dutch dunes made us witness the gigantic duel between the best wet weather drivers of this period, Jacky Ickx in the Ferrari beat Pedro Rodriguez in the B.R.M.; Firestone tyres and V12 engines dominated all other competitors using Ford Cosworth DFVs and Goodyear rubber in most cases. At the Austrian Grand Prix on Zeltweg´s Oesterreichring a shy, small young man gave his debut in a March Ford 711 (de Adamich´s chassis with the spare engine of Mike Beuttler): It was Niki Lauda.

The Zeppelin field of Nuremberg in Bavaria has got a depressing tradition. It is the ground, where the Nazis had stage-managed their Reichsparteitag, the National Socialist party covention since 1927. On the platform above the giant stone made grandstands Hitler once had done his demonic speeches. Down between the Dutzendteich, an only 50 centimetres deep little lake and the Grundig television and radio plant, there is the Noris Ring, a typical street circuit with right-angeled corners, fast straights and a treacherous hairpin at the end of the start and finish straight. The braking zone of the opposite straight for the following right-left combination in front of the stone grandstand lies on a little bridge, behind the crash barrier only protected by a little wall as high as a man´s knee. Long before the Noris Ring became the Mecca of touring car racing, the prototypes and sportscars were driven here. On the front of the bridge wall a small plaque made out of cast iron existed for many years, not larger than a post card and hidden behind the branches of a big willow tree standing beside. Remembrance of Pedro Rodriguez, who died there in spring 1971 at a round of the Interseries championship, the European CanAm, - in a Ferrari 512M and caused by a German Porsche privateer being lapped twotimes. Louis Stanley of B.R.M. had lost both his top drivers in 1971. Yardley left the Bourne based team at the end of the year and went, in spite of Brabham, to McLaren (meanwhile joined by Peter Revson coming out of the family of US-American cosmetic group Revlon !), Marlboro became new title sponsor, but without Siffert, without Rodriguez, B.R.M. succeeded in only one Grand Prix the following season. Beltoise won in Monaco and it was B.R.M.´s last Grand Prix victory.

Siffert and Rodriguez also drove in the same team in the sportscar worldchampionship, for John Wyer and the Gulf sponsored Porsche 917s and 908/03s. Originally Siffert shared the cockpit with Brian Redman, Rodriguez first with Leo Kinnunen from Finland, later with Jackie Oliver. Siffert/Redman and Porsche were that at the endurance races, what Jackie Stewart and Tyrrell meant for Formula One: The team to beat. But at the end of 1970, maybe under the impression of the fatal accidents of Courage, McLaren and Rindt, the Englishman made a surprising decision - he himself had had a serious crash at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1968 driving a Cooper Maserati, when in the valley of Eau Rouge a wishbone had collapsed. He announced his retirement, emigrated to South Africa and only came back for one single race in 1971, the Targa Florio in Sicily. In the other events Siffert took part together with Derek Bell. Redman by the way revised his decision very quickly and in the seventies he drove single Grand Prix for McLaren and Shadow. Later he competed in American IMSA sportscar racing far into the eighties.

If there are two top drivers engaged in the same team, rivalry is always a topic of high quality. That can lead to fatal hatred like it did at Didier Pironi and Gilles Villeneuve in the Scuderia Ferrari at the beginning of the eighties, or to collisions and rude verbal attacks that influenced the relationship between Senna and Prost not only at McLaren for a long while. This situation is also not free of a certain risk Between Siffert and Rodriguez respect had been the determining factor. Only twice they collided, when being in direct battle, at the 1963 Mexican Grand Prix and the 6 Hours Endurance Race of Watkins Glen in 1970, both times with relative harmless consequences. In the 1000 Kilometres Race at the Nuerburgring in 1971 they even shared a common car, a Gulf Porsche 908/03. Siffert/Rodriguez finished second.

Already from their background Siffert and Rodriguez had more dividing than in common. The Mexican, born in 1940, had his origins in a wealthy family. Together with his two years younger brother Ricardo, who was killed in 1962 during the practice for the Grand Prix of Mexico in the infamous Peralta Curve, he competed in sports car races at the age of only 16. Like Siffert he won 2 Grand Prix in his career. He succeeded in Kyalami 1967 with a Cooper Maserati and in Spa 1970 in a B.R.M. - it was the last race on the ultra-fast, 14 kilometre long old road circuit in the Ardennes. Siffert however learned the job of a body-maker. To finance his first motor-cycle races, he dealt with scrap metal and also with used cars. His race with the 350 cc Norton on the Schleizer Dreieck, the well-known triangle track and Germany´s oldest cicuit with the countryside and atmosphere as fascinating as in Spa, is remembered by the inscription on the memorial at the rim of the original track leading through the town - before the new chicane was built. When he crashed at the Noris Ring 1957 with his bike, he was so much out of money for the following season, that he was forced to accept an offer for a co-driver´s job in side car racing to stay in the motorsport business anyhow. The money for his first Formula Junior cars he earned by his second-hand car market. Then he joined the team of a wealthy Swiss industrialist for 1962 and 1963, the famous Scuderia Filipinetti and drove their private Lotus B.R.M. in the Formula One events. There were the first succès d´estimes. But personal disagreements between him and the Filipinetti group management lead to the seperation in 1964. Siffert bought a Brabham B.R.M and became an entrant of his own rights! They spent the nights in the cheapest hotels, very often in a farm house and when there was not any money at all finally, they slept in a sleeping bag with the sky and the stars over them. Instead of having regular meals Siffert and his small team tried to deaden the hunger by smoking some cigarettes. Unbelievable but true, during these hard times Siffert was able to beat the great Jim Clark twice, surely in non-championship events, but very value successes from the psychological point of view: In Syracuse and in Enna, both on the Italian island of Sicily. Some time later two men gave Siffert´s career the impulses so very much needed to establish the hard working, but poor privateer into the world´s elite. Huschke von Hanstein signed him up as a Porsche works driver. Rob Walker took him under his roof for his successful private Grand Prix team, first with the Brabham B.R.M., then, for the new 3 litre formula with a Cooper Maserati like being driven by Surtees, Rodriguez, Guy Ligier and above all by Jochen Rindt. For 1968 Walker ordered a Lotus Ford 49 with the Ford Cosworth V8 unit, the same car, only in Walker´s dark-blue Scotish colours, as it was used by the works team with Hill and Clark, and after his tragic death in a Hockenheim Formula 2 race, with Jackie Oliver.

Both his Grand Prix victories were marked by pure drama, and the gap between him and each the second was less than 5 seconds. In 1968 at the British Grand Prix in Brands Hatch, it was Chris Amon in the Ferrari, who was beaten by Siffert in the Walker Lotus Ford by only 4.4 seconds, being the only competitor not to be lapped by the Swiss. Chris, the man, who never was able to win a sole Grand Prix, extremely weak in direct combat (for this reason the choleric Ferrari chief designer Mauro Forghieri went really wild publicly some day), but for many experts on the same level as Stewart, Ickx or Rindt, lives as a farmer in his homecountry of New Zealand for many years. To Europe he comes only rarely.

Siffert´s victory at the Grand Prix of Austria was hanging by a threat even more. From the lead of nearly half a minute at the beginning, at the finish line only remained a difference of 4.1 seconds to Emerson Fittipaldi´s Lotus Ford 72, because the left rear tyre lost it´s air pressure, the extremely dangerous slow puncture, in all possibility cost the life of Jim Clark. Fittipaldi became world champion in 1972 and 1974, produced and drove his own Brazilian cars (Copersucar-Fittipaldi) for some years, but went bankrupt. After a longer break, when he had been divorced from his first wife Maria Helena, he came back to single seater racing, won twotimes the 500 Miles of Indianapolis and an Indy championship, too.

Together with Jo Siffert a second Swiss driver came up to Formula One very quickly. Clay Regazzoni had won the 1970 European Formula 2 Championship before, driving an Italian Tecno Ford but in the slipstream battle of Rouen in France 1970, he was beaten by Sifferts (that´s monocoque had been constructed by aircraft manufacturer Dornier) by a tenth of a second. A win, so bitterly needed for Siffert, because with the March Ford 701 Grand Prix car he was not able to score a single point that year. Regazzoni however had won the Grand Prix of Italy driving for Ferrari and came home third in the worldchampionship in his first ever season. In Long Beach 1980 he had that accident caused by a broken brake pedal, that made him confined to the wheel chair forever, but not preventing him from taking part in the famous Paris-Dakar rally in Africa.

The heroes of a time gone by. Jo Siffert was one of them, polyglot, universal as an entrepreneur running a Porsche shop and a racing team (Jo Siffert Automobiles Racing with Jarier, Larrousse and Mazet) as well as his diverse marketing businesses. For a personal manager there was no need. "He was a chivalrous driver," said Jackie Stewart. Chivalry, courage, discipline but also fairness are values of an epoque being over, for many people of today absolutely without any meaning. But in the age of high tech they are more important than ever before. Historians are always maintaining, we are able to learn from the past for the present and the future. I think, we at least should make a trial doing so. We owe that to these men. Let us begin now.

Klaus Ewald

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Graphics: project * 2000

 

 

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