FAST RISER

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By Stuart Grant

When Michael Schumacher took the 2000 World Drivers’ Championship aboard a Ferrari, it broke a 21-year drought for the Scuderia. Yes, you guessed it, the last title of this sort for Enzo’s team was in 1979, and our man Jody Scheckter was the ace who secured it. To celebrate Sheckter’s 70th birthday, we look back at a chat we had with the once-F1 wild man, Ferrari icon and farmer.

Jody is a busy man. One would think that his move to farming would have been some sort of a ‘retirement’ slow down for a person in his position, but that is not the case. Like his racing, or firearms training simulator business that followed his track career, he’s gone into farming full tilt and made it a world leading success by remaining very hands-on and in charge.

So our little talk was a very brief telephonic one and as the theme was Ferrari I opened with: “To save time, we’ll jump past the Renault days…”

But Scheckter interrupted with: “No, the Renault days were the best days, the fun days and the days that got me onto the path to winning a world championship. Building my own Renault taught me on the mechanical front, which was invaluable all the way up into Formula 1. In fact, looking around my office now I am surrounded by Renault models and don’t see any Ferraris. I am also in the process of having a real life historic racing replica of my own Renault made – this being done where it all started for me – in East London.”

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Scheckter’s father owned garages in East London and Queenstown. It was at this Queenstown shop that one of the mechanics built a go-kart and started the ball rolling – Jody wanted one. Seeing this, his old man used it as a school incentive programme and promised a kart should the end of year results be good enough. Against the odds, Jody put his head down and finished near the sharp end of the class and his dad followed through by commissioning a kart from his employee. Jody, a newcomer to all this, spent every possible minute in the workshop learning. He whipped a 50cc engine from a neglected shop scooter and once fitted, competed in a few Junior races. He enjoyed the working and preparation aspects almost as much as the racing before turning his attention to motorcycles.

Now aged 13, Jody would ride around the neighbourhood with his mates when of course the inevitable happened: a traffic cop stopped them and had enough ammunition to fill his ticket book. Jody pushed the bike home. But his fascination with the petrol powered 2-wheelers grew and he spent every possible minute in the workshop trying out new tuning ideas. When his dad battled to sell a proper Itom 50cc race bike in 1965 Jody became the lucky owner, but could only sit on it until old enough to get his first licence. Eventually he got to race and won his first race. His career on bikes was short, comprising three more events over two years, as his constant tinkering and tuning experiments meant his Itom tended towards the unreliable.

Once he finished school, he started an engineering apprenticeship at his dad’s East London shop and since this was a Renault agent, it was little wonder that he held the Renault racing exploits of Scamp Porter in high regard. The idea of a first car and car racing raised its head and of course a Renault was the choice. In this case a tired R8 traded in on a newer model. As proud as any first-time car owner would be, Jody drove it a bit but soon realised it was a bit more of a used machine than he expected. His solution was to jack it up and redo every possible part. Without much cash to buy off-the-shelf go-faster bits, his only option was to make up his own items from scratch. Whatever he did it worked, and he blew his handicap out the water in his first race.

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Although still more of a mechanic than a driver in his own mind, Jody went national saloon racing against the works teams. Luckily his father let him have extra time off work for the travel but he was still pushing himself hard, experimenting with engineering solutions and staying up to the early hours of the morning making or correcting them. A burnt out Gordini offered him the trick engine and 5-speed gearbox and he locked the differentials – which resulted in plenty of opposite lock and his characteristic ‘Sideways Scheckter’ driving style. In his very first national event he was black-flagged for some slightly wild driving that might have used a few extra inches of surface off the circuit. As he got quicker the Renault team got a bit more secretive with its idea sharing but continued handing over its used tyres. The humble R8’s life, which included climbing off a trailer and onto the Valiant tow vehicle once, culminated in the famed supercharged version that took it to the V8 Perana Capris.

Jody’s National Service made competing in the Renault difficult but when Ford Motor Company launched Formula Ford and invited Jody to drive a Lola in the local series, Jody jumped at the chance. It was a whirlwind five-consecutive-weekend affair, with select locals battling overseas drivers. The South African heading the points at the end of it all would get R1 000 and an air ticket to London to go make a name. Jody was the man who took the title.

In March 1971 he headed for London, the first time he’d ever left South Africa, with a mate and about R3 000 to buy a race car. He bought a second-hand Merlyn, some fresh tyres and without any preparation other than checking fluids, stuck it on pole at his first UK race. He then spun in the wet but recovered to finish second. It became a fast learning curve, with basically one new track every weekend.

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From Formula Ford he progressed to a Merlyn Formula 3 a season later, and with success there Formula 2 was the next logical step in 1972. His team for this was McLaren. Stuck in a corner of the factory he worked closely with his mechanic to rectify the car’s tendency to swap ends quickly. He scored his first F2 victory at Crystal Palace that year and also got to learn a host of European circuits that would obviously hold him in good stead when he got to Formula 1. And get there fast he did.

Jody made his F1 debut at the October 1972 Watkins Glen (USA) Grand Prix, where he managed to get into third place before spinning. For ’73 he stayed with McLaren, doing only five of the Grand Prix events but making a name for outright pace. Tyrrell offered Jody his first full-time F1 seat in 1974 and Jody did the job, coming home third in the championship. Although ’75 was a lean year for him, he did scoop victory at his home Kyalami event. 1976 saw another third in the log and seems likely to have been the year that Enzo Ferrari first made contact with Jody.

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He didn’t go to Ferrari immediately though, but rather to the newly-formed outfit set up by Walter Wolf. Scheckter won three times that year and finished second to the Lauda Ferrari in the title chase. Following a somewhat disappointing seventh place in the championship in ’78, his move to Ferrari for 1979 was a good one. And it came to fruition when he was teamed up with Gilles Villeneuve and the pair dominated and finished first and second – Scheckter ahead by four points. Of course this gave Ferrari another constructors’ title. Besides the championship honours, winning for Ferrari at its home GP at Monza was a career highlight. 1980 wasn’t the same though, with the Ferrari proving uncompetitive, and Jody hung up his helmet at the end of the year.

Of his time at Ferrari he mentions that he’d been warned about a potential personality clash with Enzo Ferrari. But while he said the great man was hard and tried to scare everybody they never had any issues: “This might be as I would tell an engineer the engine is not fast enough and he would then not translate the message through to Mr Ferrari… this potentially saving me or the engine builder.”

Jody was living in Monaco at the time but had a flat in Modena for staying over at night when testing. He bought a Ferrari 400i to commute. “I bought a 400i from the Swiss Ferrari dealer as Mr Ferrari wouldn’t give me a company car or even a decent discount. The Swiss car was cheaper. It wasn’t a nice car though, being automatic and too heavy for the horsepower it made.”

Following F1 Jody did a stint as a Grand Prix pit reporter and focused his time on building his American-based weapons training simulator business and supporting his kids’ racing exploits. Today Jody operates Laverstoke Farm. Forty miles or so outside of London, it is one of the leading organic and biodynamic farms.

He has his full set of F1 cars in a collection. And as mentioned, a Renault will soon be filling a spot there too.

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