Jody Scheckter: Celebrating 40 years since the F1 Title

2019 will go down as one of SA’s most memorable years on the sporting front after the Boks brought home the Webb Ellis trophy for the third time. It was a spectacular triumph that united the country. And for motor racing fans, it brought back memories of another ‘world champ’ moment exactly 40 years ago: Jody Scheckter being crowned F1 World Champion!

By Graeme Hurst

Images from Kyalami the Book, by Andre Loubser

Unlike our 3-time champion Springboks, Jody remains the only South African to win racing’s most coveted title. At the wheel of a Ferrari, nogal. And he’s the only local boy to have won the South African Grand Prix!

Fittingly, Jody’s F1 glory was cemented at the Italian GP in September 1979, a race which also delivered the Constructor’s title for Ferrari…Enzo must’ve been euphoric! More so when you consider it was the last time il Commendatore (as Mr Ferrari was known) would see his beloved Scuderia at the top of its game; he passed away 12 years before Schumi scooped up the first of his five championships (for Maranello) in 2000.

Jody with Piero Ferrari and Mattia Binotto on a recent visit to Maranello.

Jody’s win capped a spectacular career for the East Londoner who local fans had adored ever since he sprayed champagne at Kyalami at the 1975 SA Grand Prix. The 25-year-old Scheckter was driving for Tyrrell that first Saturday in March (not a Sunday to comply with SA’s strict laws at the time) and his epic battle to out-pace the previous year’s winner thrilled a 110,000-strong crowd. One can only imagine how the sight of his Elf-liveried Tyrrell tearing through Crowthorne must’ve had the fans on their feet! (and downing their Klippies ‘n’ Cokes in sheer jubilation).

Taking the chequered flag was certainly a taste of things to come but it hadn’t been easy: Jody wrote off his Tyrrell in practice and blew the motor in the team’s training car on the morning of the race. After a record 3-hour engine swap, he was good to go and rewarded the team by taking the lead (after starting third on the grid) from Carlos Reutemann on the second lap. The Argentinian gave chase in his Brabham BT44B (designed by South African Gordon Murray!) but simply couldn’t reel our Jody in.

In action with team mate Gilles Villeneuve (top) at the 1979 South African GP (photo credit Andre Loubser, Kyalami The Book). 

Standing on the podium was a dream for the curly haired East Londoner who acquired his racing track skill as a young apprentice in his father’s Renault dealership. And who only knew one mode behind the wheel: foot flat! His love of speed soon led him to racing, first on motorcycles and then saloon cars, where he cleaned up the competition at local circuits.

A move to Formula Ford followed and he won the 1970 South African series, along with a driver scholarship to race in the UK. Formula Ford led to Formula Three, although Jody quickly developed a ‘bad boy’ reputation for creating carnage on the track, thanks to some spectacular prangs.

1975 South African Grand Prix Poster.

But, as is the case with many hot-headed youngsters in F1 today, his raw talent didn’t go unnoticed. Cue a drive with McLaren at the 1972 US Grand Prix and an impressive debut in F1: he ran third for over half the race until a spin saw him finish ninth.
There were more spins the following year, most memorably at Silverstone where he took out eight of the 28-strong grid on the opening lap! Various F1 authorities called for Jody’s head before McLaren agreed to take the keys away for a while to force him to ‘cool off’.

Photo Credit - Andre Loubser, Kyalami the Book.

A crash at the Canadian GP (in which he put himself and Francois Cevert's Tyrrell out of the race) didn’t stop Ken Tyrrell from offering him a drive in Jackie Stewart’s place for ’74. He racked up two victories that year to finish an impressive third in the Championship, although by then Jody’s track antics had been tempered after witnessing Cevert’s gruesome death during practice for the US Grand Prix.

Back behind the wheel at a recent Ferrari event.

The home victory at Kyalami was a highlight of ’75 but the year after was arguably more memorable for racing fans abroad after Jody campaigned the six-wheeler Tyrrell P34 – arguably the most radical-looking F1 car ever! Despite its supposed traction advantages, Jody was never a fan of the P34 (although he won the Swedish GP in it) and the year after he moved to Wolf Racing to up his game.

That he certainly did, finishing second in the Championship to Ferrari’s Gilles Villeneuve, which caught Enzo’s attention for ’79….and put him on course for that unforgettable world championship!

A world championship which, unlike this year’s epic rugby result with the nation-wide cavalcade (and pics of Faf de Klerk’s Speedo going viral) evidently wasn’t entirely endorsed by the government of the day; the Minster of Sport’s office reportedly declined a request for an official ministerial welcome at Jan Smuts (as it was then) for Jody on his arrival home. The reason? Well, the good Minister’s office required six weeks written notice!

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