SPORT Unsung heroes: Jo Siffert
It’s ironic that the story of a man who lived a fast and furious life began in the relatively slow moving Swiss town of Fribourg. The man in question, Jo ‘Seppi’ Siffert, was the son of a dairy farmer. At the age of 12, Siffert’s father took him to see the 1948 Swiss Grand Prix at the Bremgarten circuit in Bern. It opened the young boy’s eyes to a whole new world. From that moment on, Siffert couldn’t think of anything else but racing. That became the dream. The dream that would drive Jo Siffert to greater things.
A tough start
Siffert’s rise was slow but steady. Before he got behind a professional steering wheel, he raced motorcycles. Since he didn’t come from wealth, he had to hustle. To finance his career, he sold shells back to the Swiss Army for recycling. If that wasn’t enough, he would buy and sell cars. It was far from the flashy life of motorsport. Fast forward to the year 1959. Siffert muscles his way to becoming the Swiss 350cc champion. He then moves up to Formula Junior and is crowned the European champion. Things are looking up.
Speed and endurance
In 1962, Formula 1 came calling. Over the next 5 years, Siffert jumped around, driving for various teams with mixed results. One of his highlights was winning the Mediterranean Grand Prix in 1964. He swept past the finish line, a tenth of a second ahead of second place. It was, however, during the years 1966 and 1967 that Siffert switched to higher gears. These years marked his transition from Formula 1 to endurance racing. This change came good in 1968, Siffert’s landmark season. He won 24 hours of Daytona, 12 hours of Sebring and the Nurburgring 1000 km race. An incredible feat. And if that wasn’t enough, he also won the Austrian 1000 km race. It seemed as if Siffert was unbeatable in a sports car. In 1969, Siffert swept the BOAC 1000 km, the Monza, Spa and Nurburgring events as well as a Watkins Glen 6-hour race. He also won the Austrian 1000 km race again. The dairy farmer’s son was milking endurance races dry.
Heuer’s first brand ambassador
At around the same time that Siffert was making waves, Jack Heuer was looking for his first brand ambassador. Someone who could promote and sell his chronographs within the world of motorsport. And so, he chose the perfect ‘influencer’: Jo Siffert. Jack Heuer remembers his decision as “one of the best marketing moves I ever made, since it opened the door to the closed-off world of F1”. Siffert was a natural salesman. Legend has it that he would persuade his fellow drivers to buy the brand’s watches while they were on the grid, seconds before the race start. Siffert was so good at his role that by the start of the 1970s, most people involved in Formula 1 had a Heuer on their wrist.
Inspiring a screen legend
In 1970, screen icon Steve McQueen was preparing for his role as a race car driver in the film Le Mans. As an actor devoted to his craft, McQueen decided to find inspiration for his character by looking to the best drivers of the time. That’s how he met Jo Siffert, and a great friendship was born. By then, most drivers wore the Heuer uniform, first introduced to the track by Siffert. And so, McQueen chose the same suit for the film. “I’m driving the same car as Jo Siffert, and I also want to wear the same suit as him,” said the actor.
An enduring legacy
On 24 October 1971, tragedy struck. Jo Siffert was killed doing the thing he fell in love with as a 12 year old boy: motor racing. But his death didn’t diminish memories of his character, his grit and his determination. From Fribourg to Formula 1 to friendships with screen legends, Siffert’s sparkling story lives on.