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Jo Siffert

Jo 'Seppi' Siffert 1936-1971

Jo Siffert

Jo Siffert, born in Fribourg, Switzerland in 1936 was the son of a dairy owner. He and his father visited various motor sporting events when he was a boy where he became fascinated by the drivers of the time and became determined to be one himself. He had to finance this himself, which he did by dealing in scrap metal and used cars. He began his motor career on two wheels, winning the Swiss 50cc motorcycle championship in 1959 before switching to Formula Junior Championships in 1960 founding his own racing team, and buying a Lotus to race in the European championships which in his first season he tied with Toni Maggs.

Siffert began to make his name in endurance races (aside from the Formula races) and the prize money was used to finance his racing team. From the mid 60’s he had various successes driving Porsches with teammates Hans Herrmann and Brian Redman including 24 hours at Daytona, at Le Mans, and Targa Florio to name but a few.

In 1962 Siffert raced in F1 with the Ecurie Filipinetti team. He finished 10th in the Belgian Grand Prix. 1963 was filled with technical problems so he bought his way out of his contract, assumed possession of the Lotus 24 and raced for Siffert Racing in F1 and endurance events. These were tough times for privateers, funding themselves left them often hungry, in cheap hotels, farmhouses, or sometimes even sleeping under the stars. For 1964 he bought an F1 car with a BRM motor from Brabham. Despite some success he could not afford to travel overseas to the US and Mexico to compete at the end of the season so he signed up with Rob Walker Racing team. He got a podium finish in the US, just behind Graham Hill and John Surtes.

Siffert's first win in F1 was at Brands Hatch in 1968, beating the two Ferraris. This was to be his breakthrough season, finishing seventh in the world championship and winning two endurance races in a Porsche 907. This determined and popular driver was making quite a splash. This was also the year that Heuer introduced the world's first automatic chronograph. Seppi developed a friendship with Jack Heuer and become the first driver to be sponsored by a non-automotive brand; Heuer. For this Siffert earned himself CHF25, 000 and had the Heuer logo placed on his race suit. Siffert was reputedly good at selling Heuer's (and Porsche's) with his salesman background.

As Jack Heuer says "Jo, as you may know from his background, was a very poor guy and he was a born 'wheeler and dealer,'" said Heuer. "And he would always have a collection of watches, and he would place them with all of his friends on the circuit, and we didn't mind of course because it was in public. And so if you looked around the Formula One circuit, they all wore a Heuer Chronograph!"

The other significant contribution that Siffert made to Heuer was the role he played in getting Steve McQueen to wear a Monaco in the cult film, Le Mans. Siffert was actually one of the drivers on the film, as McQueen's insurers wouldn't let him drive, and they struck up a good friendship. He became his mentor and McQueen wore the same gulf stripe race suit of Siffert's, including the logo.

Siffert became known for wearing the Autavia White dial 1163T. And although McQueen is best known for the Monaco, he too wore this style.

Siffert switched to March Engineering in 1970 but soon realised his car was uncompetitive, so in 1971 he began what was to be his final yet most successful F1 season with the BRM motor team. He won the Austrian Grand Prix and ended up fifth in the World Championship. Just had 1970 had ended with the tragic death of Jochen Rindt, the F1 season of 1971 was to claim another victim. The Mexican GP had been cancelled due to safety concerns so a non-championship F1 race was held at Brands Hatch on October 24th 1971. A seemingly harmless run in with Ronnie Peterson of the first lap had actually harmed his suspension, which later broke at high speed on the 15th lap. The car left the track, crashed and burst into flames. The fire extinguishers were not working alongside the track and Siffert could not free himself. He was only 34 years of age, leaving a widow and two children behind. 50,000 people attended Siffert's funeral in Fribourg, Switzerland. He was a glamorous star with legendary status. Seppi is said to be in the top ten of best racing drivers ever, and after his death there was a mass overhaul of safety on the driving circuits including the introduction of fire retardant suits, on board fire extinguishers and piped air for drivers directly into helmets.