An interview with Jody Scheckter

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Although his career in Formula 1 spanned a relatively-short eight years, Jody Scheckter’s name will be forever-cemented into the history books as not only a Formula 1 World Champion, but the only one that South Africa has produced to date, and was Ferrari’s last driver’s champion for 21 years before Michael Schumacher’s first for the team in 2000. I had the fortune of being able to interview Jody recently and he spoke to me about his career and his views on Formula 1 today.

An interview with Jody Scheckter

Jody Scheckter was born in East London, South Africa, on January 29th 1950, and his interest in cars began at a young age. ‘I was useless at school,’ he told me, ‘but my Dad had a garage, and I loved working in the workshop, and I was more interested in mechanics at that time, but it started from there.’

After being in England for only eighteen months, he was picked-up by McLaren – for whom he was already driving in Formula 2 – and made his debut at the 1972 American Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, where he finished a creditable ninth after spinning whilst in third. He soon developed a reputation amongst the sport’s anoraks for being a fearless driver with an exciting style, but to some of his fellow drivers, he developed a reputation for being dangerous. After an incident with Emerson Fittipaldi at the French Grand Prix – only his third race – whilst in the lead, Fittipaldi declared that Scheckter was “a menace to himself and everybody else – he does not belong in Formula 1”, and went as far as calling Scheckter “a young hooligan” in a heated exchange in the McLaren pits after the race. After a multiple-car pile-up at the British Grand Prix which Scheckter was adjudged to have caused, McLaren rested him for four races, after the Grand Prix Driver’s Association demanded his expulsion from the sport. After being the first driver on the scene of the fatal accident of Tyrrell driver Francois Cevert, Scheckter said that although he knew drivers could be killed in that time, the crash “brought it home” to him more than it had before.

For 1974, Scheckter moved to Tyrrell, replacing the retiring three-time World Champion Jackie Stewart, alongside French rookie Patrick Depailler, who replaced his late compatriot Cevert. The move was a breakthrough for Scheckter, joining what was the team to beat at the time. I asked him if he felt any pressure about driving for such a prestigious name and for such a respected figure like Ken Tyrrell. ‘I didn’t really think of it like that. All I really thought was “can I drive fast enough?” and “can I win?” The unfortunate part about it was I didn’t become a team-mate to someone that had a lot of experience and I probably lost out as I didn’t have the help of someone setting up the car. At McLaren I was team-mates with Denny Hulme, he would help me set the car up as he had more experience than me.’ He went on to tell me that he felt Tyrrell was never truly happy with him at the wheel, and would often attempt to educate him to drive the car like Stewart. ‘He would say to me “Jackie went round this corner like this”, and “Jackie would drive the car like this”. At Paul Ricard once, he was telling me how to drive the car; to drive it smoother through the corners, which I did, and I was slower that way.’ Despite his supposed inexperience, Scheckter was able to amass a respectable twelve points after five races in 74 – including a third place at the Belgian Grand Prix and second at Monaco – and at round six in Sweden, he took his first career win, leading home a Tyrrell 1-2. Another win followed at Brands Hatch, and finished second at the German Grand Prix at the old Nurburgring. His consistent performing gave him an outside chance of winning the title at the last round at Watkins Glen, but retired with fifteen laps from the end, and the title went to Fittipaldi.

In 1975, Scheckter finished sixth in the final standings, winning only one race – his home Grand Prix at Kyalami – with two other podium finishes in Belgium and Britain. In 1976, Tyrrell entered the first three races of the season with their 75 car, but in Spain, Depailler was given a new model – the six-wheeled P34. Despite finishing third in the title with the car, and admitting that it was “fun to drive”, Scheckter admitted to disliking it overall. ‘I didn’t like the concept,’ he told me. ‘The idea was for it to be better aerodynamically with the four small wheels. The problem was that when you went into a corner quickly, one of the little wheels would come up in the air so you had to back off.’ Jody told me that another of his bugbears with the car was its reliability. ‘It used to break a lot. I remember driving at Zandvoort, and that was a sort of circuit where if you went off you probably wouldn’t walk away from it, and all I remember thinking was “is it going to break down?”’

Scheckter took a gamble by leaving Tyrrell and joined Wolf for 1977, and convinced team owner Walter Wolf to bring in Peter Warr from Team Lotus as the team’s new manager, replacing Frank Williams. I asked Jody what he reasons were behind his request. ‘The previous season, Wolf had only qualified for half the races and in those days, if you couldn’t qualify for races in those days, you weren’t much of a team,’ he told me, ‘so I wanted Peter Warr to come in instead of Frank. Wolf had Patrick Head as well and he left to join Frank and I thought “what a loser!” but he then made cars for Frank that were soon beating us!’ A key figure who did stay with Wolf was Harvey Postlethwaite, and it was the car that he designed that Scheckter drove to victory in his first race for the team. Despite six retirements, Scheckter took a string of podium finishes, and won in Monaco and Canada, and finished runner-up in the championship behind Niki Lauda. 1978 was a less-successful season, finishing seventh in the championship but still finished on the podium four times. Then came the biggest honour for any racing driver – an offer from Enzo Ferrari himself. Jody told me about his meetings with Mr Ferrari, and how he wanted to sign him sometime before he eventually joined the Scuderia.

‘I went down and saw him a few times before I signed, the first was about four years before I signed. I was living in Monaco at the time, and drove up to Italy, and I was picked up on the side of the motorway and was driven to Modena. I went into his office which I remember very always a bit dark, with lots of white 1920s furniture. He asked me “how much money do you want?” I told him I was too young to think about money and I didn’t join at that time. Then before 79 he asked me again and we did a deal.’

Despite a retirement at the opening round in Argentina and a sixth-place finish in Brazil, Scheckter’s season picked-up with two second-place finishes in South Africa and Long Beach, both won by team-mate Gilles Villeneuve. At round six in Belgium, Scheckter took his first win of the season with Villeneuve out of the points. Another win in Monaco followed, with Villeneuve retiring when in hot pursuit. Villeneuve endured a disappointing period during the middle of the season, whereas Scheckter was able to secure a number of consistent points finishes. At the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Scheckter was able to win the race and secure the World Championship. I asked Jody if he felt that Villeneuve’s devil-may-care style of driving cost him the title. ‘He took a lot of risks, and the way he drove could hurt the car. In Monaco he would drive flat out over the bumps, and he then broke an axle on the car and I was able to beat him. He out-qualified me in most of the races but at Monza I tried some different tyres in qualifying and was able to out-qualify him which helped me win the race.’ I asked him if he felt that Gilles stood-out amongst all his team-mates. ‘He was a great talent, and he liked the image of being a daredevil. Mr Ferrari was very fond of him.’

In 1980, the team’s fortunes took a downturn, and the car was uncompetitive, and in the middle of the season, a few races after a huge shunt in qualifying for the San Marino Grand Prix, Scheckter announced his retirement from the sport. He told me: ‘If I felt that my heart was no longer 100 percent in it, then it would not be worth taking the risks and I would quit.’

After some considerable financial windfall from founding a company which built firearms training simulators for military, Scheckter relocated to Hampshire and became a biodynamic farmer, founding Laverstoke Park Farm, which produces a wealth of organic food and drink products, and makes a number of television appearances as an expert on organic farming, as well as still offering his valued opinion on Formula 1. I asked Jody what he thought about modern Formula 1, and what could be done to revive dwindling worldwide TV audiences.

‘They need to cut the number of regulations. They try to help smaller teams, but they’re then given a five-place grid penalty for changing a gearbox – it’s pathetic. If you get a five-place penalty at somewhere like Monaco, you might as well go home.’ I rounded-off the interview by asking him who he felt were the best drivers on the current grid. ‘I like Lewis [Hamilton] a lot; I think Alonso is a great racer. Vettel is a good driver, but last year he was getting beaten by Ricciardo most races and now Ricciardo is getting beaten by his team-mate [Daniil Kvyat] a lot. It does make Formula 1 very interesting.’

It would have been incredibly easy to listen to Jody tell stories and give his opinions on Formula 1 past and present. A driver whose discernible and unique talent enabled him to beat some of the sport’s greatest drivers in one of its most dangerous eras, to become a great himself, and live to tell the tale.

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