As the motorsport reels from the recent deaths of Dan Wheldon and Marco Simoncelli, it probably provides little comfort to note that the safety standards have improved in recent decades.
If one rewinds the clock forty years, death on the track was sadly an all-too-common occurrence, and today we remember former Grand Prix winner Jo Siffert, who was killed on this day in 1971.
Well-known as a wild driver, Switzerland’s Siffert was adored by fans as a result. Nicknamed ‘Seppi’ by his peers, he is perhaps best remembered for a brilliant win at the 1968 British Grand Prix.
Piloting Rob Walker’s dark blue Lotus 49, Siffert withstood repeated attacks from Ferrari’s Chris Amon to claim a hugely popular victory.
In 96 starts, Siffert claimed victory just once more, but he deserved far more than that, having often been forced to make do with second-rate equipment. But he never complained, for he simply enjoyed being part of the action.
After starting out and winning in motorcycles (he claimed the 350cc Swiss title), Siffert switched to four-wheeled competition in 1960, joining the Formula Junior series. The following year saw him gain proper attention when he jointly won the European title alongside Tony Maggs.
He made the jump into Formula 1 in 1962, driving a Lotus 21 run by Ecurie Filipinetti. He stayed on in 1963, albeit buying the Lotus 24 the team had itself just bought, and running it under his own name. He claimed a point for sixth place at the French Grand Prix, finished on the podium at the non-championship Imola Grand Prix, and won the (poorly-contested) Syracuse Grand Prix.
A decision to buy a Brabham BT11 in 1964 improved his competitiveness, and he placed fourth at the German Grand Prix, as well as beating Jim Clark to victory at the Mediterranean Grand Prix.
It was then that he joined forces with Rob Walker, and the two would forge a relationship that would remain until 1969. The going wasn’t always easy, and his best finishes were four fourth places between 1965-7.
It finally came good in 1968, when Walker persuaded Colin Chapman to sell him a Lotus 49, and after his glorious day at Brands Hatch, Siffert was a regular frontrunner.
But the following year proved a disappointment, and despite the attentions of Ferrari, the bosses at the Porsche sports car team (for whom he also drove) paid for him to drive with the works March outfit in 1970. It was a disastrous year, and he had to fall back on his successes in Formula 2 and in the sports car wins he achieved with co-driver Brian Redman.
Determined to dovetail his efforts in 1971, Siffert continued his involvement in Formula 2 and sports cars, while also racing in CanAm. He signed on to the BRM F1 team, and claimed his second a final Grand Prix win at Austria with a sublime drive.
He had much to look forward to ahead of 1972 as he made his way to Brands Hatch for the end-of-season Rothmans Victory Race. But a suspension failure tipped him into an embankment during the race, and his BRM P160 caught fire, with Siffert trapped, upside-down in the wreck.
Once he was finally removed from the car, he was dead of asphyxiation, having sustained little more than a broken leg in the smash. Formula 1 had lost one of its more charismatic ‘hard chargers’.