Jody Scheckter - Better than trophies
Silverware doesn't mean much to me but the cars I raced through the '70s do. They are prized relics of my old life and each has a story of its own. They're not a bad investment, either
By Damien Smith
The past is of little relevance to Jody Scheckter. He lives in the moment, so buffalo, mozzarella and ice-cream fill most of his waking thoughts — and probably his dreams, too. Laverstoke Park, his organic farm business, is an all-consuming passion.
But lack of enthusiasm for his racing past is patently an exaggeration. Bound volumes of motor racing magazines line the book shelves of his magnificent stately home, and while he's kept only one trophy — his 1979 title-winning silverware — there are jaw-dropping treasures to be discovered. Behind the house, in a converted stable block, sit 10 of the single-seaters in which he built a formidable sporting reputation, firstly as a wild youngster in a Merlyn Formula Ford and latterly as a wily old stager who could deliver a coveted championship for Ferrari.
The 312T4 is the obvious choice as his most prized racing 'relic'. "I bought the Ferrari after I won the title, and it was the only car I had," he says. "When I came back to England in the mid-1990s I started buying the others. Kerry Adams, who uses a workshop up the road, helped me collect the cars. They came up for sale, and Kerry would seek them out. But he'd keep quiet about the buyer's identity, to ensure I didn't have to pay too much.
"I thought they'd help my sex life!" he jokes. "Bring some young girls here to show them what I used to do... but it doesn't seem to have worked. I use them to show customers when they come around, and they seem to enjoy looking at them."
There's one car notable by its absence: the Tyrrell P34 six-wheeler in which Jody won the 1976 Swedish GP. His apathy for it is well known, although he says: "I wouldn't mind one. But I've spent all the money on the farm now. The cars are a good investment. I've also got the Porsche 917/10 I raced in Can-Am and that's nearly restored. It's just an incredible car. It's a seat put on an 1100 horsepower engine. I bought it for £500,000 and it's probably worth about £4m now. When I die the kids will probably flog them all off. The younger ones don't really relate all this to me."
As we walk around his collection, the familiar nonchalance fails to hide his connection to these machines. They do mean something to him. "Maybe I look back more as I get older," he admits. "I suppose I should write a book some time. But I'd find it very boring because I'd have to spend time looking back."
Still, he agrees to indulge us today. For a few minutes, he allows farming matters to take a back seat to reminisce on his old life and the cars in which he courted both fame and infamy.
In March 1971, 21-year-old South African Jody Scheckter pitched up in cold and wet Britain on the back of a 'Driver to Europe' scheme. He'd shown promise in Formula Ford at home, but now he'd really find out what he was made of. First, he needed a car. Step forward Colin Vandervell, who'd just come off the back of a successful season with this neat and tidy racer, built by the little constructor from Colchester.
"I bought the Merlyn from Colin Vandervell, second-hand. This is the 'Magic Merlyn', which Emerson Fittipaldi drove before Colin and I. Back in '71, I said to Colin, 'Deliver it to Brands Hatch, please'. I didn't have any spanners, nothing at all. We did the first race at the Race of Champions. I think I was on the second row, spun and came through the field to second. That was the first time I'd run in the rain. My style made people interested in what I was doing. I crashed a lot in the Formula Ford, and getting to the circuits was always a task. In South Africa you had such open roads. A journey that would take 30 minutes there would take two hours here. I was learning the circuits in 20 laps to get on the grid. It was all good practice."
Jody didn't hang around long in Formula Ford. Finding work at Merlyn's workshop, he was soon eyeing a step up into Formula 3. He'd already earned his wild man reputation, but there was no doubting his speed. Wins at Oulton Park, Mallory Park and Thruxton would follow.
"I was a bracket-maker for Merlyn, then became a welder. This car was lying around so I asked if I could use it. I borrowed a set of tyres from Firestone, Holbay lent me an engine, I put it together and it was very quick. I also raced an Ehrlich that year and won a heat at Silverstone, but then switched to this."
At the end of a promising first year in England, Scheckter was on the establishment's radar. Both McLaren and Team Surtees offered him Formula 2 deals, and he chose the former, attracted by the prospect of a quasi-works campaign that would concentrate on him alone. But the Ralph Bellamy monocoque design would prove a tricky proposition. Formula 1 aces Denny Hulme and Peter Gethin would be drafted in to help sort the car, but plans to put
the M21 into production were shelved and Scheckter would win just a single race.
"It was my first car after joining McLaren's, and it was a big step for me. I have good memories, despite it not being an easy time. There was a guy who used to shine the cars every day, which was nice but we weren't competitive. We went to test at Goodwood and they said I was taking the wrong line, that I was coming into the corners too early. Eventually they found that one shock absorber at the back was broken. But at least the car was very shiny...
Then Denny (Hulme) went out and did a 14.2sec lap. My best was a 15.5 or something. Then I got in, and did a 13.8. Boy, this car was much better now. He'd set it up properly, plus we'd found the broken shock. The next race was Crystal Palace, which I won.
Even in Fl I benefited from Denny's experience, although he didn't tell me everything. We had no data then, it was all on the driver. One of my skills was that I could drive around anything, but that was both good and bad, looking back."
Jody's first F1 car enjoyed moderate success in 1971 and '72, in the hands of Denny Hulme. The Kiwi took one win and a string of podiums in the Ralph Bellamy design. At the end of '72 Lotus had come knocking at the door, and to prevent Scheckter opening it McLaren offered him an F1 debut at Watkins Glen. Barely 18 months after his UK Formula Ford debut at the Race of Champions, Jody conjured a third-row grid slot. He ran as high as fourth before a sudden shower caught him out. Still, he recovered to finish ninth — not bad. He'd reappear in a revised M19C at the start of '73 for his home GP at Kyalami, where he qualified on the front row.
"Watkins Glen, 1972. That was my first one, and nobody knew who I was, which was nice. This was a good car. I came in right at the end of its race life, of course. McLaren was one of the more advanced teams. At Tyrrell I felt they were behind McLaren. And if you look at the cars now you'll see how refined they were compared to cars that came even much later."
Despite the promise shown in Kyalami, Scheckter had doubts about how '73 would turn out. McLaren had canned its F2 programme, and with Hulme and Peter Revson the first choices in F1, only occasional GP outings were on offer. When opportunities arose, he needed to make the most of them.
At Paul Ricard — just his third GP — Scheckter found himself in Gordon Coppuck's new M23, a car that would turn out to be one of the most successful in F1 history. In France, Jody led sensationally until 12 laps from the end, when Emerson Fittipaldi made a move and the pair ended up in the catch fencing. If they hadn't already noticed before, they knew now: Scheckter had arrived.
But his rise would be pulled up short at Silverstone in July, when he triggered the infamous nine-car pile-up that decimated John Surtees' team. Jody hid in the team motorhome.
After a couple of late-season appearances, Scheckter moved on from McLaren, frustrated by the lack of opportunity. As for the M23, it would rack up 16 GP wins over four seasons and carry James Hunt to the '76 world title.
"People think of me in this car at Silverstone, with the big pile-up, but I prefer to think of Paul Ricard that year. I was competitive. It was the only time I had a senior driver in the same team as me, in Denny. When I got to Tyrrell in 1974, I was the senior driver. That didn't worry me at the time, but I wonder if I could have become more competitive by al continuing alongside someone like Denny."
Perhaps the most surprising car to find in Scheckter's collection, given how brief his encounter would be with this pug-faced Formula 2. Without a full-time F1 deal, Jody signed to join Ron Dennis and Neil Trundle at Rondel Racing for some F2 in '73. The smart, ambitious multi-car team had performed strongly in previous years with customer Brabhams, but its step up to constructor status would prove Rondel's undoing. A lack of funding stymied Ray Jessop's design, named in deference to the team's title sponsor — which didn't pay up. Scheckter would withdraw after just two races, although Henri Pescarolo and Tim Schenken would win a race each. Bob Wollek, Tom Pryce and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud were also on the driving strength.
"It wasn't great. I don't really remember working with Ron, but I remember there were five cars and Tim Schenken was the lead driver. He was always joking around, which I thought was a pain in the arse. I wanted to be serious. The car never seemed to work, it had no downforce at all. I don't have any good memories. I thought it was horrible."
After the Silverstone debacle of '73, Jody flew out to the US, back to his dual campaign in Formula 5000 and Can-Am. The F5000 Trojan, run off the back of a trailer by Sid Taylor, would bring his first major international title after a season-long battle with Brian Redman. Scheckter's wild reputation would follow him across the Atlantic — and he didn't exactly dispel it with his antics in the big single-seater. In all, he would complete 19 races in the States during the most varied season of his career.
"You could really throw this car around. It was a time in my career when I was wild as hell, I suppose. I got to America and we won the championship, but crashed a lot too. At one race Brian Redman caught me up and I kept that thing sideways the whole time to keep him behind me. But a bolt had come out of the rear suspension, which was why it was sliding so much. And you had the tyres to do it in those days, too.
I didn't compare it to F1. I just drove it as fast as I could. American tyres seemed to be different from those in Europe. But with this, I was very fast in the and it would stay like that for the rest of the 9, opening laps. So I would pull 10 seconds ahead race. That's how I won the championship."
Without a permanent berth at McLaren in F1, Jody had welcomed Ken Tyrrell's advances for '74. It was all hush-hush, but Jackie Stewart was about to retire and Tyrrell wanted a promising youngster to join new team leader Francois Cevert. But after tragedy at Watkins Glen, everything would change. For Scheckter, the apprenticeship was over.
In the circumstances — following in the footsteps of a three-time champion and in the wake of Cevert's devastating loss — Jody was little short of brilliant in 1974. Victories in Sweden and Great Britain were the highlights and Scheckter finished an impressive third in the standings. A third win in 007 would follow in South Africa in '75, but little did he know that Tyrrell's long, slow decline to mediocrity had begun.
"Derek Gardner wanted to build a car that was easier to drive than the 006. Was that a mistake? I don't know. But we were competitive. We left Italy one point off the World Championship lead in that first year with Tyrrell.
Following Jackie Stewart wasn't easy. Ken would say 'Jackie did this, and Jackie did that', which I guess is normal. I was a young driver, after all. But look how sophisticated the M23 is compared to the 007. For example, how the engine cover is flush to the block compared to the Tyrrell, keeping the airflow to the back wing clean. And how the radiators are tucked away neatly on the McLaren. With what they know now about aerodynamics, I'm sure one of the modern guys could come and make a couple of tweaks and find a couple of seconds on either of these cars."
The six-wheeled P34 was the final straw for Scheckter at Tyrrell and by the end of '76 he was ready for a change. Enter eccentric Austrian-born Canadian Walter Wolf.
He pieced together the equivalent of an Fl `superteam'. Peter Warr was hired from Lotus to run the operation, with former Hesketh designer Harvey Postlethwaite producing a conventional, but tidy, Fl car. A young Patrick Head assisted him, before leaving to rejoin Wolf's ex-partner Frank Williams, who'd quit the team or been forced to leave, depending on who you believe (they went on to enjoy quite a bit of success at their next team). Jody completed the picture for a one-car attack, bringing with him Roy Topp, his mechanic from Tyrrell. None of them could have guessed what would happen next.
The striking deep blue and gold car caused a shock by winning on its debut in Argentina. Further wins in Monaco and Canada, plus a string of podiums, left him a distant runner-up in the championship to Niki Lauda's Ferrari.
But in these early days of ground-effect Fl cars, Wolf was about to be left behind. Jody would be winless in '78 for the first time since his maiden part-season with McLaren, five years earlier. Still, from the third race in, he had a new deal in the bag — the biggest and most important of his career.
"It was fabulous in 1977, because there were just 20 people in the team. It was so tightly knit, but we were leading the championship halfway through the season. It was a lovely little car.
We won first time out, but we were consistent rather than fast. I came up behind Carlos Pace, who was taking funny lines, but he'd been sick in his helmet. I was very fit and we won the race by keeping going. I remember James Hunt saying it didn't matter, that those points wouldn't make any difference. At Long Beach we were very competitive. We should have won there. We were leading most of the way, then I got a slow puncture eight laps from the end. The rubber squeezed over the hole, so I kept going but eventually Andretti and Lauda passed me. I had something like eight pounds of pressure in the tyre by the end.
I worked really well with Patrick Head. He did quite a lot of th design for this car. I got along well with Harvey, too. We seemed to relate to each other."
In the era of ground effects, Mauro Forghieri's T4 was forever compromised by its 'boxer' flat 12 engine. Still, it was effective. The combination of Jody, Gilles, the proven 312T series and, vitally, Michelin rubber proved the class of the field. Lotus lost its way after the dominance of '78 with its porpoising Type 80, Renault and Williams scored their first wins, but couldn't string together enough form to collar the championship, and Ligier started strongly with a pair of wins for Jacques Laffite, but then faded badly as the season progressed. Scheckter asserted himself over team-mate Villeneuve as Ferrari's title hope with back-to-back victories at Zolder and Monaco, while strong reliability allowed him to score regularly and well.
"Ferrari didn't have the magic for me when I came over, but it was something I discovered. I had a fantastic time and it was great fun. Everybody said I was a difficult guy and it would be the most disastrous combination, and it was the opposite. I suppose I'm as full of bullshit as they are. The food was fantastic, and Gilles (Villeneuve) and I got on really well together. It was hard work, but fun. In Italy they try to make you fight each other, but Gilles and I were close enough to avoid that. We were mature, I suppose.
There was one time at Silverstone where they gave me one lap to go and it wasn't right. John Watson passed me because of it. I complained when I came in and the next thing, it was all over the Italian papers. So the Old Man called us all in for a team meeting on Monday morning. I'd spoken to Gilles and we used this meeting to our advantage. We didn't have much in the way of ground effects on the Ferrari with the flat 12 any space under the car was taken up by the exhaust pipes. But (Mauro) Forghieri didn't want to listen. So I said to the Old Man that we shouldn't be fighting among ourselves. He asked what we needed and I replied 'ground effects'. No one else would say it because they were all scared of him. Then we went to Monza and found we had more revs and more downforce. People don't realise what that means to a driver it's the most exciting thing you can get.
The feeling of being World Champion lasted all of a week because Ferrari wanted me to drive at Imola in a non-championship race, and I really didn't want to. I'd spent eight years trying to win the championship. Now I'd won it, there was relief more than anything else. But looking back today, I'm glad I bought the car."