Jo Siffert : biography
Life and career
In 1968, Siffert drove into the F1 history books by winning the 1968 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in Rob Walker Racing Team’s Lotus 49B, beating Chris Amon’s Ferrari into second place after a race-long battle. This is regarded as the last GP victory by a genuine privateer.
While Siffert’s status in F1 grew slowly, his fame came as a leading driver for the factory Porsche effort in its quest for the World Sportscar Championship. In 1968, Siffert and Hans Herrmann won the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring in a Porsche 907, marking the first major outright wins for the company, apart from a few earlier victories on twisty tracks.
Later on, Siffert’s driving displays in the Porsche 917 were legendary, earning him several major wins in Europe. In addition, Siffert was chosen by Porsche to help launch its CanAm development program, driving a Porsche 917PA spyder in 1969 and finishing fourth in the championship despite few entries.
In 1970 he teamed up with Brian Redman to drive a Porsche 908/3 to victory at the Targa Florio. That same year, Porsche bankrolled Siffert’s seat in a works March Engineering F1 since the German company did not wish to lose one of their prize drivers to rival Ferrari. His association with March in F1 was disastrous, so he was delighted to join rival Porsche racer Pedro Rodriguez at BRM the following season.
Siffert won the 1971 Austrian Grand Prix, but then was killed in the non-championship World Championship Victory Race at Brands Hatch, Kent, England, the scene of his first and greatest victory in 1968. The suspension of his BRM had been damaged in a lap 1 incident with Ronnie Peterson, and broke later. This was not admitted by BRM until much later when this fact was accidentally divulged by a BRM ex-mechanic. The BRM crashed and immediately caught fire. Siffert could not free himself from the burning car.
This accident led to a rapid overhaul of safety, both in-car and on circuit. In the subsequent Royal Automobile Club (the UK organising and regulatory representative of the FIA at the time) investigation it was discovered that the crash itself caused non-fatal injuries but Siffert had rather been killed by smoke inhalation. None of the trackside fire extinguishers worked, and it was found to be impossible to reach the car and extract Siffert because of the extremely intense fire. On-board fire extinguishers (using BCF—bromochlorodifluoromethane, an aircraft product) became mandatory and piped air for the drivers, direct into their helmet. Thus, perhaps one of the sad epitaphs of Seppi was the focus on vehicle and driver safety in Formula One and lesser formulae and far better fire retardant driving overalls.
His funeral in Switzerland was attended by 50,000 people and a Gulf-Porsche 917 of Team John Wyer led the hearse and procession through the streets of Fribourg. A very comprehensive story about Siffert’s life and death was published in 2005 by Roger Benoit in the Swiss newspaper . Benoit was a period Formula 1 sports reporter and knew Siffert well. He was also present at Siffert’s last and tragic Brands Hatch race in 1971. The night before the race Benoit took pictures of Siffert, his wife Simone and his mother Maria as well as a friend Jean Tinguely at an evening victory celebration . He then also took the very last picture of Siffert alive as he sat waiting in his BRM in the pole position on the starting line five minutes before the start of the fateful race. Siffert’s mother died in 1988, surviving her son by over 17 years.
In 2005, a very informative 90-minute documentary about his life was made by director Men Lareida: Jo Siffert – live fast, die young "DVD".
In the final round of the 2007-08 A1GP season, at Brands Hatch, the A1 Team Switzerland car carried the message:
Jo ‘Seppi’ Siffert
This commemorated his 1968 British Grand Prix victory at Brands Hatch.