Imagine being the person who taught Steve McQueen to drive a racing-car. Actually, no imagination is required. This was no act. It was a matter-of-fact. McQueen’s tutor in the art of speed was Jo Siffert (1936-1971), the Swiss racer whose family owned a dairy in Fribourg.
Switzerland banned motor-racing after the terrible Le Mans catastrophe of 1955 when 83 spectators were killed. But hunger is the best sauce. They say in Switzerland what is not compulsory is forbidden, and Siffert found his own compulsion towards speed. The Encyclopaedia of Swiss Racing Drivers is a thin volume, but Siffert’s is a big entry.
Now that Formula One has become a coruscating global media business with team budgets in hundreds of millions, it is difficult to imagine the days when a private entrant could contest a Grand Prix. That was Siffert: in 1968, he won the British Grand Prix in a Lotus 49B run by Rob Walker. He will perhaps forever remain the last privateer to do so.
Siffert’s predecessor as Walker’s star driver was, by the way, Stirling Moss. But while Siffert was to win another Grand Prix – Austria in 1971 – his reputation was really based on his record with Porsche sportscars.
There was a time when Porsche was a minor player in sportscar racing, entering modest, efficient cars that did well in the minor categories. But driving with chronometric consistency, Siffert took Porsche to win the 1969 World Championship of Makes outright. And he scored the first win for the Porsche 917, the ultimate expression of the Porsche ethic and aesthetic… and regarded as one of the most fearsomely brutal racing cars ever to belch smoke and deafen the crowds.
Siffert is in Porsche’s Valhalla, but there was another significant liaison in his tragically short career. This was with Heuer. Before the takeover by TAG in 1985, Heuer was a specialist manufacturer with limited marketing resources. But Jack Heuer had the nerve and flair to strike a personal deal in 1969 with the rising star that was Jo Siffert. In exchange for a modest retainer, Siffert would have a Heuer decal on his car, a Heuer patch on his overalls and, additionally, was quaintly given the rights to sell watches on friends’n’family terms.
The historic moment came when corporate sponsorship was entering the hitherto genteel Grand Prix world and Colin Chapman painted his Lotus cars – once British Racing Green – in the colours of a cigarette pack. But Heuer’s inspiration paid unexpected dividends. When filming the Le Mans movie in 1970, Steve McQueen had admired his teacher Siffert’s overalls. The Swiss obligingly gave him a set with the Heuer patch sewn over the heart. In this serendipitous style, the great McQueen-Heuer relationship was made public.
The following year, at Brands Hatch in an insignificant event in an ill-sorted and damaged BRM, never anyone’s favourite racing-car, Siffert crashed and did not survive the resulting fire.
To say he was Switzerland’s greatest racing-driver sounds like faint praise. But
it is true. Maybe only motor-racing nerds nowadays recognise his name, but everyone knows TAG Heuer and Porsche. And that recognition was a part of Jo Siffert’s achievement.