Jody Scheckter: On the limit, off message

Jody Scheckter is the most misunderstood and under-appreciated Champion. He's remembered mostly via a handful of snapshot moments, but now it's time, writes David Malsher, to pull his career into focus

Jody Scheckter Tyrrell driver F1 1974

Scheckter: straight-talking and rapid behind the wheel

Grand Prix Photo

Ferrari had romanced him. He had joined as its number one; Gilles was its number two. All seemed in order… until South Africa, of all places. The third grand prix of the 1979 season witnessed the debut of the 312T4. And Villeneuve won in it.

“I had put on slicks in the semi-wet conditions,” recalls his team-mate, “and when Gilles, who was leading at the time, had to pit to change his wets for slicks, I think that left me with a 30sec lead. But then my tyres started tearing up so badly that I had to pit for more slicks. When I came out of the pits, I caught Gilles very quickly and, for the only time in my career, I thought about overriding team orders and passing him. I just felt that it should have been my win.” Less than half a second behind at the finish, Jody Scheckter bit back his annoyance.

Matters got even worse one month later. At Long Beach, Villeneuve trounced everyone with a quixotic display; Scheckter was a distant second. Both on and off the track, the momentum definitely lay with the Canadian. Scheckter was under the cosh: Enzo, understandably, adored Gilles, and it was clear that ‘number one’ was an interchangeable title at Maranello. “I was number one driver,” asserts Scheckter, “but now I was in a massive pressure situation. I was the underdog. Gilles had won two races; I hadn’t won any. I decided to concentrate and work even harder.”

But had he stumbled across a desire to succeed that exceeded even his own?

Jody Scheckter McLaren driver F1 1973 Monaco GP

F1 apprenticeship was served at McLaren

GP Library/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

There has been more than one golden age of grand prix racing. The late 1970s, for example, possessed a glister of true authenticity. There were more than 25 drivers between 1974 and ’79 with the talent to win a grand prix, and all of them (bar Keke Rosberg) at some point sat in a chassis that ranged from good to excellent. Throw into the mix engines within 35bhp of each other and you have Formula 1 at its most open: a phenomenal selection of drivers on the most level playing field since the world championship began.

“For three years I got a prize for being the least co-operative driver”

So a driver who scored 10 wins and a world championship in this period without ever having the outright best machinery has got to be pretty hot, right? By this reckoning, Jody Scheckter is, in terms of talent over recognition, the most underrated world champion in grand prix history. But it’s not hard to fathom why.

“For three years I got a prize from the journalists for being the least co-operative driver in Formula 1,” grins Jody. “I was very proud of that. But I couldn’t do a Jackie Stewart – work with his team, turn round and talk to the media, then carry on with the team. For me, that was impossible.”

The media instead garnered their quotes from Messrs Hunt, Andretti and Lauda. The pity is that Jody was as funny, acerbic and observant as any of them and he is linked to many significant moments of F1 history. But because his side of the story was rarely told, these incidents cast an ever-lengthening shadow over his career’s true worth.

Jody Scheckter Tyrrell driver F1 1976 US GP

Scheckter impressed at Tyrrell, but didn’t enjoy P34 six-wheeler

Grand Prix Photo

Okay, so his spin at the end of the first lap of the 1973 British Grand Prix caused an accident that wiped out nine cars. But only a fortnight earlier, at Paul Ricard, his third GP and his first acquaintance with McLaren’s M23, Jody had qualified second and led for more than half of the race. And he had done so in a calm, clinical manner under severe pressure from his peers. And it wasn’t he who cracked under the strain and threw it off, it was the youngest-ever world champion Emerson Fittipaldi. Tired of following this even younger upstart, the Brazilian went for half a gap. Jody turned in. Both were out – but the South African had put down his marker just as effectively as a callow Schumacher ever would. Yes, he was an uncut diamond, but what else could be expected of a man who was in Formula Ford less than two years earlier?

“It was a very, very fast rise, yes,” understates Jody. “While I was in Formula Ford, I had been offered Formula Two contracts with McLaren and Surtees, and so, after some F3, I joined McLaren’s F2 team. Then Lotus offered me a drive in an F1 car. I mentioned this to McLaren and they said, ‘Okay, we’ll put you in a third car at Watkins Glen‘. I don’t remember any testing; I think the first practice session was my first time in a Formula 1 car, so it was a case of getting used to it and learning the circuit.” He qualified eighth. He was 22.

In the race, he matched the times of his teammates, Denny Hulme and Peter Revson, despite an older-spec M19, and his only blemish was a spin on a wet-but-drying track on his way to ninth place. Impressive. Even so, there would be no full-time ride for him in 1973. Jody reckons that his nationality counted against him with the team sponsors.

From the archive

“I wasn’t too bothered, though,” he says. Huh? Times have changed. “In the meantime, I was doing the US F5000 series, which I won, Can-Am and some F2 for Rondel Racing.” A sneering response from a don’t-care hothead, or a cool approach from a talent who knew that his time would come? Taken in context, the latter, I reckon.

The next time a third McLaren came up for grabs was at Kyalami the following year. Hulme’s new M23 took pole, but Scheckter’s third on the grid in a M19C put him well ahead of the similarly mounted Revson. And at Ricard, given the same equipment, he was way quicker than Denny, too. Hulme appeared not to mind, but ‘The Bear’ and ‘Baby Bear’ did not quite enjoy the master-and-pupil relationship that the media liked to portray.

Scheckter: “At Ricard, Denny discovered that the quickest way to take that last corner was in first gear — and he didn’t tell me. I eventually found out for myself, but it was then that I realised he wasn’t helping me as much as everyone said he was.” The youngster was quick and savvy.

After the Silverstone debacle there wasn’t an opportunity for Jody to redeem himself until the penultimate round. At the fearsome Mosport, he gave another brilliant qualifying performance to line up third, but a collision with Francois Cevert’s Tyrrell led to another DNF. However, by the time of Friday practice at Watkins Glen, 12 days later, he had a signed Tyrrell contract in his pocket: he would be Cevert’s 1974 team-mate. And then, on Saturday, he was first on the scene after the Frenchman’s violent — and fatal — accident: “I went to the cockpit and bent down to undo the belts. And then I saw there was no point. It was frightening. It was the first time that I had seen a dead person.”

A turning point? There are very few ‘wild child’ stories emanating from his post-McLaren career…

Scheckter denies, however, that Cevert’s death fundamentally shifted his mentality: “I felt that it was Ken Tyrrell’s guidance — his drilling in of, ‘You must finish, you must stop making mistakes’ — that changed me. Also, with the Tyrrell 007 the team wanted a car that was easy to drive for a young pair of drivers.” Scheckter was to be be joined by Patrick Depailler — a man just two GPs behind him. Tyrrell designer Derek Gardner concurs: “Having lost Francois, and with Jackie retiring, we had to make immediate changes. Jody had been testing the 006, a car that Jackie and Francois had been successful in, and he wasn’t going quick enough. So yes, I felt we needed a different approach.”

Jody Scheckter Tyrrell driver F1 1976 US GP

Scheckter impressed at Tyrrell, but didn’t enjoy P34 six-wheeler

Grand Prix Photo

The burden of replacing a three-time world champion was a heavy one, especially for a man with just six GPs under his belt, but Scheckter silenced (most of) his doubters with two wins — Anderstorp and Brands Hatch — and a handful of podiums that kept him in title contention until the penultimate round. But…

“Was Ken impressed? I don’t think so,” muses Scheckter. “Perhaps he thought — and he may have been right — that if Jackie had been there, the team would have won the title. I don’t know how much speed we lost through Patrick and I not sorting the car not or giving the right feedback.”

Gardner, however, dismisses (much of) this: “Yes, perhaps we would have won the title with Jackie in 1974, but Jody tends to put himself down. I never felt there was anything wrong with his technical feedback. It was only the finesse that was lacking. We all knew that he would be a force to be reckoned with.”

Scheckter’s rookie year bears comparison with any in Formula 1 history. However, Tyrrell’s 1974 is best remembered as the beginning of the team’s gradual decline. Similarly, the Swedish GP of ’76 was the highlight of another astoundingly consistent Scheckter season — a dozen points finishes, and none of the four retirements caused by driver error — yet, predictably, all anyone remembers is that six-wheeled win. Scheckter finished third in the championship, but this time, it was he who was unimpressed: he didn’t like the P34.

Gardner: “After the pre-season tests, I felt that Jody had almost talked himself out of liking a car which we felt was inherently — if not immediately — quicker than 007. Still, I never got the impression that he gave anything less than 100 per cent in the cockpit. I was sorry to see him go.”

Most were worried to see him go… to Walter Wolf’s new team for 1977. Jody, though, saw it as a logical move: “I’d looked into Walter’s background and discovered that he delivered on most of what he said. He offered this opportunity of a team based around me. He got Harvey Postlethwaite on board. And Peter Warr…” And it was they who asked Walter to check the availability of four drivers: Niki Lauda, Jody, Ronnie Peterson and Andretti. Lauda was bound to his Ferrari contract — and had little faith in the Wolf project. Jody was next on the list. He was in. Neither side would live to regret the decision. But once again a highlight — that debut win in Argentina — blinds people to Scheckter’s performance with, and importance to, the team. Do you honestly think that he was simply dragged along in the draught of that instant success? The Wolf WR1 was a very efficient car — but Jody was outstanding in it.

Jody Scheckter Wolf driver F1 1977 South African GP

Wolf era started brightly then faded

Grand Prix Photo

In 1978, however, the money and results were drying up — and Ferrari came calling…

At Zolder, the sixth GP of 1979, Scheckter won. It was an important victory, but it didn’t entirely turn the tables within the team. Villeneuve had charged from the back after a brush with Clay Regazzoni’s Williams and was up to third when he ran out of fuel on the last lap. It was just the sort of performance that made everyone warm to him. Everyone knew it: he was the fastest man out there… until Monaco, of all places. Scheckter was just plain quicker that weekend.

“I will always remember how close to the limit I was in qualifying. I was so determined to beat Gilles,” says Jody. “On my final qualifying laps I was touching the guard rail in two places, and my steering arm was bent from where I’d hit the apex of one corner. That’s how intense it was. I had to do it. I had to beat him. I don’t think I could have taken it to the limit any more than I did.”

From the archive

On Sunday, he didn’t have to. An immaculate race by him and a poor start by Villeneuve ensured the laurels — and the lead in the championship — went to the South African. He was still up against it, though. For when Gilles was quicker, it was by a more significant margin than when Jody held the upper hand. Villeneuve was other-worldy at Dijon; Scheckter wasn’t at the races. But at Silverstone and Hockenheim, Jody enjoyed a slight edge.

At Zandvoort, Scheckter climbed from 18th to second after an overheating clutch caused him to almost stall at the start. It was his best drive of the year. But what does everyone remember about that race? Gilles three-wheeling to the pits after a blowout. There are some things you can’t fight — people’s perceptions being one. For example, did you know that Gilles only out-qualified Jody eight-seven that year, and that Scheckter was ahead in this ‘race’ up until he clinched the title at Monza?

Then there is the belief that Jody won the title only because of team orders. True, Villeneuve toed the line at Monza. But he was happy to do so: Scheckter had gained his respect, pushed him to his own personal limits. This was Jody’s year; Villeneuve knew that his time would come…

Jody Scheckter Ferrari driver F1 1979 Monaco GP

In scintillating form at Monaco ’79

Grand Prix Photo

Except it never did, and for 21 years Scheckter was ‘the last driver to win a championship with Ferrari’. It was a title he could have done without, for it wasn’t until the jinx was broken in 2000 that people could re-evaluate what he had brought to the team, acknowledge his talents.

“When you’re fighting for 14th, it’s hard to get excited”

Of course, 1980 didn’t help either. Title won, Jody was rarely a match for Gilles in the awful 312T5. “What had changed was that I was no longer waking in the night thinking of set-ups or ways to improve the car — or myself,” he explains. “At the tracks, I was working as hard as I ever worked, trying as hard as I ever tried.”

Maybe, but it’s hard to believe that the Scheckter who qualified 11 places behind Villeneuve at Monaco was the same Scheckter who one year earlier had been pinging off the barriers in a successful quest for pole. Grudgingly, he concedes: “Yeah, you get used to fighting for wins — so when you’re fighting for 14th, it’s hard to get excited.”

The end was inevitable. Jody announced mid-season that he’d be retiring after the final round. He was 30. Renault flashed a blank cheque book under his nose, but he still walked away. And stayed away — until his sons got the itch for speed.

Tomas Scheckter has showed much of dad’s youthful spark while seeking to establish himself, but it would be unwise of him to use his father as a yardstick. For in Jody, he would be measuring himself against one of the very best.

But then we’d all do well to remember that.