Ask Nigel Roebuck: October 2

Our Grand Prix Editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions every Wednesday. So if you want his opinion on any motorsport matter drop us an e-mail here at and we'll forward on a selection to him. Nigel won't be able to answer all your questions, but we'll publish his answers here every week

Ask Nigel Roebuck: October 2

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To read Nigel's opinion on the controversial finish to the United States Grand Prix, see Fifth column in this week's AUTOSPORT magazine, on sale from Thursday.

Dear Allan,

Sadly, I never got to know Jo Siffert properly, for he was killed in 1971, my first season of covering Formula 1. All who knew him well, though, had only good things to say about him, and none more than the late Rob Walker, for whose private F1 team 'Seppi' drove for six seasons.

Siffert's association with Rob Walker began in 1965, but the story of his racing career goes back way beyond that. More than virtually any racing driver I can think of, he really had to fight to make it, and the road was long and hard.

He was born in Fribourg, Switzerland, in 1936, and his family was poor - poor in the sense that they frequently went short of food. Seppi hated school and spent his formative years perfecting the art of doing deals, swapping, trading and nearly always getting the better of the exchange. It stood him in good stead for his later life, and he never forgot it.

After leaving school, Siffert worked as a mechanic, by now besotted with cars. He had been to Bremgarten in 1954, had seen Fangio, Moss, Ascari et al in the last Swiss Grand Prix ever run, and the day had left its mark upon him. There and then, he decided, he was going to be a Grand Prix driver. But where and how to start? After the Le Mans disaster of 1955, motor racing was banned, in Switzerland. And Seppi's father was much opposed to his son's aspirations. If he were to become a racing driver, he would have to get there on his own.

Accordingly, Seppi decided to tread a time-honoured path, one already followed with success by Nuvolari, Ascari and others: he would start by racing motorcycles. Never able to afford the latest machinery, he compensated by being on or over the limit more often than not. He took crazy chances, but he was very quick, and he got noticed.

Towards the end of 1958, Edgar Strub, at that time one of the top motorcycle combination riders in the world, was looking around for a new passenger, and he approached Siffert. Seppi agreed immediately. He would ride his own bike in the 350 race, and then leap onto the sidecar. The partnership with Straub was successful in 1959, winning several races and winding up third in the World Championship. That year, Siffert also won the Swiss 350 Championship. But he had had enough of bikes.

By now, he had a business going, involving virtually anything to do with cars, be it panel beating, rebuilding engines, or just buying and selling. The thing ticked over nicely, and he began to make tentative plans to buy a race car. Finally, in June 1960, he took delivery of a second-hand Stanguellini Formula Junior car. It was not at all competitive, but Seppi learned a lot with it, and for 1961 he replaced it with a Lotus 18 and then a Lotus 20. Seven major FJ victories came his way that year, and journalists everywhere made a note of his name.

In 1962, Siffert was again a big success in Formula Junior, and took part in a handful of Fl races. At Monaco, he came face to face with the hard facts of life, qualifying quicker than Jo Bonnier, Tony Maggs and Trevor Taylor, but being refused a start because he wasn't seeded.

The early sixties were hard for Seppi. His was the original shoestring operation, and everyone in it would always go to prizegiving ceremonies, largely because there would be food there! Often this would be the first time they had eaten since leaving home.

Once in a while, though, there were chinks of light. At Syracuse in 1963 Siffert scored his first Fl victory in the Lotus 24. Opposition was thin, frankly, but a big hurdle was behind him.

At Enna, in 1964, Siffert won the Mediterranean Grand Prix. Enna, it must be said, was a flat-out blind where ability counted for little, where what you needed were a good engine and a very brave driver. With his Brabham-BRM, Seppi took the race and made the headlines, for, in second place, mere feet behind, was Jimmy Clark, at that time reigning World Champion. And a year later, the two of them acted out the same scene with exactly the same result: Siffert by a nose.

By this time, Seppi was racing in the colours of Rob Walker, and it was the start of a long and always happy relationship. In 1966, at the outset of the 3-litre Formula 1, Rob bought a new Cooper-Maserati for Siffert to drive, but it was a disastrous year, the Swiss finishing only one race, the United States Grand Prix, where he was fourth.

Many began to wonder why Walker had so much faith in Seppi, but Rob believed in him, and liked to go racing with him. They became close friends, and he was quietly certain that all would come right.

All those who had seen Seppi at Syracuse in 1965 agreed. Had he not been the moral winner? Had he not, in the Walker Brabham, had the beating of John Surtees's Ferrari and Jimmy Clark's Lotus?

The Cooper-Maserati was retained for 1967, but the car was thoroughly uncompetitive. The new Lotus 49 had appeared, and everything else was suddenly obsolete. But the year was not a total loss for Seppi. He had joined the Porsche works team, possibly the most significant step in his racing career. Through all the F1 retirements, consistent sports car success came his way.

Throughout his career, Siffert's maxim was always to race as much as possible. He would drive anything, any time, any place. Every year he would arrange himself an F1 ride, a sports car ride, as much F2 and CanAm as he could fit in, hillclimbs in Switzerland... "I am only really happy in a racing car," he would say. Once into the big time, a typical season for Siffert would involve 35 races or more.

It had happened for Seppi in 1968. His prospects for the season were distinctly promising. For F1, he remained with the Rob Walker team. The old Cooper-Maserati had gone, and to replace it, there was a new Lotus 49, complete with Cosworth DFV. As well as that, he re-signed with Porsche for sports car racing, and the 3-litre 908 was on the way. For the first time, the German team would be contenders for outright victory every time out.

Siffert couldn't wait to get his hands on the 49. At last the chance had come to pit himself against the best in equal machinery. The first was to be the Race of Champions, but during a shakedown test everything went at Brands it all went horribly wrong. On his second warm-up lap, a combination of a greasy track and the 'camminess' of the early DFV caught Seppi out at South Bank. In an instant, the new car was a heap of wreckage.

Back in the pits, the Swiss was close to tears. As the whole world came up to commiserate, he said nothing, merely pulled from his pocket a card on which he had written "Merde Alors!"

Rob Walker, of course, was sad at the loss of the Lotus, but vastly relieved that Seppi was unhurt. Another Lotus 49 was ordered.

In this, Siffert was instantly competitive, but the Lotus's reliability was lousy, and it was rarely running at the end of a race. In sports cars, though, Siffert was winning virtually time out with the Porsche 908.

For the British Grand Prix, at Brands Hatch, Siffert had a new car, a Lotus 49B, completed just in time for practice. He qualified fourth, behind the two works Lotuses of Graham Hill and Jackie Oliver and Chris Amon's Ferrari. Both the British drivers led the race before retiring, and Siffert moved into a narrow lead from Amon. It was half-distance.

During the remaining 40 laps, the two drivers were right at the limit, rarely separated by more than a second. Earlier, Amon had passed Seppi, and it seemed that he was biding his time, but during the last few laps the gap began to grow. Amon's rear tyres were almost down to the canvas, and he could challenge no more. At the finish, the gap was over four seconds. Siffert had won his first Grande Epreuve, and a Rob Walker car had won the British Grand Prix. Even Stirling Moss had never done that for Rob.

The rest of the year reverted to normal. At Monza, Seppi led and retired; at St. Jovite, there was a renewal of the Amon-Siffert rivalry, which ended with the retirement of both; at Mexico, the dark blue 49 was conclusively the quickest car on the circuit, leading easily until an accelerator cable bolt broke.

There was no longer any doubt that Siffert had reached the status of superstar. Ferrari wanted him for 1969, for F1 and sports car racing, but once more he elected to stay where he was. With the Lotus 49, he took a third at Monaco and a second at Zandvoort. With the Porsche 908, now partnered by Brian Redman, he won everywhere.

Siffert on the limit was not the beautiful sight which one would associate with a Clark or a Prost. With Seppi, it never looked easy, but he used to get there in the end, in his own way, and mighty spectacular it was.

Towards the end of 1969, it was all change. Ferrari renewed their offer, but Siffert was unwilling to leave Porsche. BRM made him an offer. And then, suddenly, onto the scene came March. Max Mosley and Robin Herd had done their conjuring trick; they were in business. So desperate were Porsche to keep Seppi from going to Ferrari that they offered to pay for a March ride for him.

In the end, Siffert opted to accept it. Walker, of course, was heartbroken, but understood that a works drive was a works drive. He and Seppi were to remain close after the parting of the ways.

Siffert's 1970 F1 season was an unmitigated disaster. After a very competitive start to the season, the March 701 cars slipped from serious contention. Stewart and Amon gave all they had, but this was the year of Jochen Rindt and, later in the season, the two Ferraris of Ickx and Regazzoni. Only rarely did Seppi figure as a serious contender. In Spain,
he failed even to qualify.

Through 1970, Siffert drove a Gulf Porsche 917, again with Redman as co-driver. It was a good year, but Seppi's position as the team's leading driver was under severe threat, thanks to the arrival of Pedro Rodriguez. Generally, the Mexican was a mite quicker.

Rodriguez and Siffert, always bracketed in the mind. As individuals, they were not alike. Pedro's introduction to racing had been painless his father had paid for everything, but the racing qualities of the pair were very similar indeed. Both were real racers, and each deeply admired the ability of the other.

In 1971, the tie-up was even closer, for Siffert left March and accepted the offer of a BRM drive, at the same time maintaining his position in the Gulf Porsche. Every sports car race that year was a foregone conclusion: Rodriguez or Siffert, always one of the two.

Team manager David Yorke's recollections of Siffert were interesting: "Jo was an amazing person. Testing with him was a matter of driving the car all morning, sinking a couple of platefuls of goulash and a couple of steins of beer at lunchtime, and then driving again all afternoon!"

Siffert's single-mindedness also stuck in Yorke's mind: "Once Redman came in to hand over to Jo a lap earlier than he expected. In fact, he wasn't even in the pit, but out the back somewhere. Anyway, he saw what had happened and ran through the back of the pit to jump over the counter. As he jumped, he caught his foot, and went absolutely sprawling into the road. His overalls were ripped and his knees torn to pieces. But he never even gave them a glance, just hurled himself into the cockpit, and was gone..."

Seppi liked the BRM P160 a lot, and made a good impression with it everywhere. In July, however, driving a Ferrari 512M at the Norisring, Rodriguez lost his life. Siffert was shattered by the news, but rose to the occasion superbly. BRM were now dependent on him alone. At Silverstone, he put the car on the front row, ran second to the inevitable Stewart and then retired. At the Nurburgring, the story was the same, but finally, in Austria, it all came right. Seppi took the pole, and led from flag to flag.

At Monza, he retired after leading, but then placed second to Francois Cevert in the final Grand Prix of the year at Watkins Glen.

On October 24 there was a non-championship Fl race at Brands Hatch, and it was one of those perfect autumnal days. How lucky we were to have yet one more opportunity of seeing Grand Prix cars in action.

In practice, Siffert's BRM took the pole, but he made an awful start, and was way back at the end of the first lap. While his team mate Peter Gethin battled with Emerson Fittipaldi for the lead, he began to move up through the pack, taking fourth spot on the 12th lap and closing on third man Stewart.

And then, quite suddenly, there was that dreadful sense of apprehension when you know something appalling has happened. Fourteen laps into the race, and there was complete silence, with not an engine to be heard. Into the sky, on the far side of the circuit, rose a pall of black smoke.

Eventually we learned that Siffert's BRM had gone out of control, somersaulted and exploded, and that the driver had died almost at once. Probably it was tyre failure that caused the accident.

The race in which Seppi died was his 41st of the season. Although, in his later years, he made a lot of money from his motor racing, that was an aside, a bonus. To race was the thing, as often as possible, be it at Mallory Park in an F2 Chevron or at Spa with a Porsche 917. An absolute racer, if ever there was one.

Dear László,

It's true that in the CART Series they have one-at-a-time qualifying - but only on the ovals. On road and street circuits, qualifying is much the same as in F1, with everyone out at the same time, looking for a clear lap.

If we were to have one-by-one qualifying in F1, God alone knows how many punch-ups we'd have every weekend, with drivers and team owners moaning that the ambient temperature had varied through the session, so that conditions were quicker for some people than for others, etc. It would not be a pretty spectacle.

These days, when the Grands Prix tend, for the most part, to be processional, very often the high point of the weekend is the single hour of qualifying on Saturday afternoon - not least because, in these conditions, the Ferraris can be challenged, and actually sometimes beaten. Juan Montoya's one-lap pace with the Williams-BMW has been something to savour in 2002, even if, in race trim, the Ferraris have been unapproachable.

For a long time, though, I've seen the merits of having one-at-a-time qualifying at a place like Monte Carlo, where a great deal of luck in involved in getting a clear lap - in fact, I have no doubts that it would be a great deal more exciting than the Grand Prix usually is, given the fact that overtaking really is as good as impossible at this circuit.

The problem is, of course, that it would take a hell of a long time. How many runs would they be allowed? How many sets of tyres would they use? If, as is the case in conventional qualifying, each driver effectively has 'four runs', would this mean every driver going out - alone - on four separate occasions? See what I mean about its taking a long time?

If something could be worked out, though, I think it would be worth going a long way to see.

Dear Hamish,

Yes, Bernie has talked about buying Ferrari, and not in the sense of that you or I might talk about it - acquiring a few shares - but actually buying Ferrari. The whole deal. One or two team owners of my acquaintance have expressed some disquiet on the matter.

I hadn't heard his remarks about Valentino Rossi, but I'm not really surprised that he made them. Although I've yet to meet Rossi, by all accounts he is something of a character, and I entirely agree with Bernie about drivers' personalities being these days 'neutered' by the demands of their teams and sponsors. There seem to be as many 'spin doctors' in F1 as there are in Whitehall.

As far as Rossi's one day driving for Ferrari is concerned, I don't really know what to say. For one thing, while there have been many great motorcycle racers - notably John Surtees, a World Champion in other disciplines - who went on also to make the top level in cars, so there have also been those who did not, and there is no guarantee that Valentino's extraordinary skills on a bike would be matched by his talents in a car. In fact, now I think about it, what I've been told is that his real passion lies with rallying, rather than racing...

Dear Darko,

That's a very good point you make about Stefan Johansson - if I'd written a list of good number two drivers last week, I would certainly have included him.

You may be right about his never having had a real chance, although stints with Ferrari and McLaren rather suggest otherwise. I think there's no doubt he was often unlucky in his drives with Ferrari, but he often produced some very good performances, notably in the Canadian and Detroit Grands Prix in 1985. Usually, though, he was not quite on Michele Alboreto's pace.

He was unfortunate, I think, in that his year with McLaren, 1987, the team was not at its most competitive, for it was the last year with the TAG-Porsche turbo engine, and development had virtually stopped. Far and away the strongest engine of the year was the Honda - which came to McLaren in 1988, of course.

Along with the Honda engine, of course, Ayrton Senna came to McLaren in '88 - and that was always the plan. In other words, Stefan knew, when he joined the team, that it was for one season only.

As you say, he did indeed fly in the Onyx at Estoril in '89, but by that time his days as a potential driver for a top team were done, and he knew it.

I know Stefan well, and like him a lot, not least because he has a marvellously irreverent sense of humour, and is a great mimic. You wouldn't think a Swede would be able impersonate Nigel Mansell brilliantly, would you? But take my word for it, he can...

Some drivers have an inflated idea of their own abilities, but Johansson was never one of them. He was an extremely good Grand Prix driver, but not a great one, and he readily acknowledged it. "When I was at McLaren in 1987," he said to me once, "my team mate was Alain Prost. When you're driving the same car as someone like Alain, and you look at what he can do with it, compared with your own performance, you very quickly learn what a truly great driver is..."

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