Jody Scheckter (b. 1950)

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Jody Scheckter (b. 1950)

Jody Scheckter

Club Racer to Grand Prix Professional

To say Jody Scheckter caught the Formula One aficionados by surprise would be a huge understatement. When he burst onto the F1 scene he was virtually unknown, inexperienced and very young. Still, the hugely talented South African managed to rise from anonimity to a Formula One debut in a mere twenty months!

That was the remarkable record of Jody Scheckter's progress - club racer to Grand Prix professional in quicker time than most of his contemporaries. For Jody Scheckter, the real beginning of his career came in early 1971. Until that time motor racing had been a hobby for him, passionately pursued, but nevertheless a secondary pursuit to an apprenticeship in his father's East London, South Africa garage.

Sunshine Series Formula Ford

Jody's springboard to fame was the Sunshine Series of Formula Ford races held on five South African circuits during January/February 1971. For three years, Formula Ford had been growing in popularity, and through the efforts of local racer Dave Clapham, BOAC, the Ford Motor Company and a Johannesburg newspaper, provided the finance to bring several overseas competitors to race against the increasing number of South African Formula Ford adherents. For locals, the big prize was a fully paid racing trip to England.

Sideways Scheckter

Jody competed with an early model Lola T200 provided by Ford at the end of 1970. He used it first for two club events, allegedly spinning fourteen times in his first race and finding that a single-seater needed more precise handling than the modified Renault sedan in which he had previously gained a local reputation and the name 'sideways Scheckter'. With this smattering of experience, Jody pitted himself against the better equipped and more experienced visiting racers.

His first success of note was second place at Pietermaritzburg and Kyalami, taking pole position for the latter race as well. He finished third in the championship, easily winning the trip to England. From Formula Ford to Formula Three in a few months, Jody progressed in a series of victories, lap records and the equally unavoidable crashes in British club racing. A McLaren Formula Two contract and a Grand Prix debut in a McLaren M19 at the United States Grand Prix came in 1972.

Some claim Scheckter became too confident after arriving in the UK, and after an uninspiring 1972 season with the McLaren Formula Two car he would be part of the infamous 1973 Silverstone Grand Prix debacle, where he wiped out almost half a GP field - it all happened on the very first lap, and ultimately caused eleven cars to retire. Scheckter managed to spin out of fourth place and into the centre of the track coming out of the final corner, causing many other cars to collide and crash. The race was stopped at the end of the second lap, because of the pile-up, and restarted over the original distance. Andrea de Adamich retired from the sport after this race due to injuries received in the first lap accident.

Jody Scheckter trying hard with Tvrrell 007 at Jarama during the 1974 Spanish GP
Jody Scheckter trying hard with Tvrrell 007 at Jarama during the 1974 Spanish GP.

Signed by Ken Tyrrell

But Scheckter still believed he had the ability to make it to the top. After his time at McLaren, Scheckter was signed by Ken Tyrrell to replace Jackie Stewart in the Elf Tyrrell team. Under the firm hand of Tyrrell, Scheckter matured into one of the most formidable drivers in F1. In 1974, his first full season of Formula One, he won the Swedish and British Grands Prix, and finally finished third in the World Championship with 45 points.

In 1975 came the highlight of his career when he won the South African Grand Prix in front of 100,000 cheering countrymen. Thereafter, Jody struggled against mechanical problems and his best results came in Belgium, where he was second, the UK where he was third and at Watkins Glen where he finished sixth. He came a disappointing seventh in the Championship.

1976 was his last year with Tyrrell. The team dropped a bombshell with the announcement of their six-wheeler for the coming season and Jody never liked the car. Nevertheless, he persevered and made history by winning the Swedish Grand Prix on six wheels. He also showed remarkable consistency, scoring points in eleven other races - including second places in Monte Carlo, Great Britain, Germany and at Watkins Glen. He finished third in the Championship. At season's end Scheckter caused a minor sensation by signing for Waiter Wolf's all-new team quickly followed by a major sensation when he won the team's debut Grand Prix in Argentina.

He scored two more wins in 1977, in Monaco - his own adopted home - and in Canada - Waiter's adopted country. Jody was competitive for most of the year but a troubled period in mid-season cost him any chance of the world title and he finished as runner up to Niki Lauda. Towards the end of 1977 Scheckter was approached by Ferrari as a replacement for Lauda but he opted to stay with Wolf who could give him the exclusive attention he demanded. The team's 1978 season started badly and it was not until the Monaco Grand Prix that Jody scored his first points - for a dogged third place. In that race he showed that he had lost none of his will to win and with a new car already in the wings his fortunes looked set for an upward turn.

The 1979 Drivers Championship

He would end the season in 7th place, and he left the team after the season to join Ferrari to partner Gilles Villeneuve in the team's ground effect 312T4 car. Critics felt he would not get along well with management at Ferrari, but he surpassed expectations and helped give F1's most recognizable team another constructors' championship, while Scheckter's consistent finishes, with three wins among them, gave him the driver's championship in 1979. However, he struggled very badly in his 1980 title defense, even failing to qualify for one race. After only managing 2 points, Scheckter retired from the team and the sport. Scheckter was the last driver to win a driver's championship for Ferrari until Michael Schumacher did so 21 years later.

There was one minor hiccup that occured around the time of his retirement, but it was not on a race track. In January 1981 Scheckter was fined $2000 and received a two-month suspended jail sentence for assaulting another motorist after a traffic incident in Nice the previous month. Scheckter was then a resident of Monaco (where he won the famous Grand Prix in both 1977 and 1979) but it was in nearby Nice, on the Promenade des-Anglais that he crashed his touring Ferrari into another car. Health nut Scheckter then set about the driver of the other car, who was subsequently sent to hospital for treatment - and then spent 15 days off-work. Scheckter was arrested and spent a night in a Nice jail before being released, and during the court proceedings his lawyer requested his driving licence should not be taken away. “After ten years in Formula 1 racing," declared his legal eagle 'travelling by train would be psychologically insupportable."
Jody Scheckter with the neat Wolf at the Brands Hatch Race of Champions in March 1977
Jody Scheckter with the neat Wolf at the Brands Hatch Race of Champions in March 1977. Scheckter won three Grands Prix for Wolf during 1977.
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