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Jody Scheckter

Full Name:
Jody David Scheckter
29th January 1950 (Age 70)
East London, Eastern Cape
South African
Most recent race (in database):

The 1979 Formula 1 World Champion arrived in Europe earlier that decade as an untamed, raw talent who seemed as likely to crash as to reel off a sensational qualifying lap. He led two of his first three Grands Prix and was third overall in his first full season – Jody Scheckter was a sensation, if a wild one at first. With a rare natural ability and possessing outright speed like few others, he gradually tempered the excesses of youth to win 10 Grands Prix and the world championship.

Early career in South Africa and Europe

The son of a Durban car dealer, Scheckter began racing karts from the age of 11 and switched to motorcycles five years later. The 18 year old then acquired a 1300cc Renault R8 saloon which he modified with growing success. National Service briefly delayed his budding racing ambitions but he returned to finish third in the 1970/71 Sunshine Formula Ford Championship with a Lola T200. As the top local in the series, Scheckter was rewarded with the coveted "Driver to Europe" scholarship.

Unheard of before the start of the 1971 British season, he made a sensational British FF1600 debut in the Race of Champions support race at Brands Hatch. He qualified his ex-Colin Vandervell Merlyn Mk11A on pole position and was heading for victory before spinning, Scheckter charging back to second position by the chequered flag. He was soon winning in a Ford Escort Mexico and in Formula 3 when driving an unfashionable EMC 606 chassis. A switch to a works Merlyn Mk21 saw Scheckter complete a remarkable first European season by finishing third in the Lombard North Central F3 Championship.

Formula 2 and Grand Prix debut with McLaren

McLaren returned to Formula 2 after an absence of four years with Scheckter driving the unique Ralph Bellamy-designed M21 in 1972. He struggled to sort the car's handling issues early in the year and several engine failures restricted his appearances. Despite that and blessed with spectacular car control, Scheckter won the Greater London Trophy at Crystal Palace to finish eighth in the F2 standings. He ended the year by driving a McLaren M19A-Ford in the United States GP at Watkins Glen – qualifying in a strong eighth position and finishing ninth, a lap behind the winner.

He remained with McLaren in 1973 for a limited F1 programme while also racing Formula 5000 and Can-Am in North America. Driving an old M19C in his home GP at the start of the year, Scheckter was third quickest in practice to start from the front row of the grid. He led the race for a couple of laps, ran second before being slowed by tyre wear and only lost fourth place when his engine failed in the closing stages. He was behind the wheel of the new McLaren M23-Ford when he returned for the French GP at Paul Ricard. Second on the grid (and the fastest McLaren driver), he used the car's straightline speed to lead the first 41 laps before an increasingly frustrated Emerson Fittipaldi crashed into him while trying to take the lead. So close to winning his third GP, the ever confident South African then spun at Woodcote Corner on the second lap of the British GP to cause the 12 car pile-up that stopped the race. Roundly criticised as a consequence, Scheckter only returned to F1 for the final two races of the season – qualifying third in Canada but retiring from both.

In contrast to those wild if fast F1 displays, Scheckter dominated the opening rounds of the 1973 L&M F5000 Championship in North America. Beginning the year in Sid Taylor's Trojan T101-Chevrolet before switching to a Lola T330, he scored four wins and two second places in the opening six rounds and withstood Brian Redman's late challenge to secure the title. Scheckter also drove a Porsche 917/10T in the Can-Am Challenge that year – second at Elkhart Lake the best of his three podium finishes.

Formula 1 regular with Tyrrell

Rather than risk the impressive but error-prone youngster, McLaren signed Fittipaldi to partner Denny Hulme in its 1974 F1 line-up. With Jackie Stewart retired and François Cevert killed during practice for the final race of 1973, Ken Tyrrell signed Scheckter to partner the even less-experienced Patrick Depailler. The new Tyrrell 007-Ford was introduced in Spain with which Scheckter finished fifth to score the first championship points of his career. Third in the next race at Nivelles and second on the streets of Monte Carlo, Scheckter then led Depailler in a Tyrrell 1-2 finish in Sweden. His run of eight successive top six finishes since the Spanish GP then included a surprise win at Brands Hatch and second place at the Nürburgring. He was third in the Italian GP and entered the final round with a slim mathematical chance of snatching the title. In the event, he retired at Watkins Glen but third overall in his first full F1 season surpassed expectations.

Remaining with Tyrrell for 1975, Scheckter rebounded from a high-speed practice crash in South Africa to dominate his home race and score his third GP victory. However, that was just one of three podium finishes as the team lost its way. Scheckter slipped to seventh equal in the championship.

There was a major design departure for Tyrrell in 1976 for Derek Gardner penned the radical six-wheel Tyrrell P34-Ford. The team continued with the 007 while the P34 was developed and Scheckter was placed in the opening two races of the season. The new car was finally introduced at the Belgian GP and Scheckter was consistently in the points – scoring 12 times to finish third overall behind James Hunt and Niki Lauda. The highlight was another 1-2 victory in the Swedish GP at Anderstorp – Scheckter leading Depailler home once more – and Scheckter was also second in the Monaco, British, German and United States GPs.

Two seasons with Walter Wolf Racing

Rather than remain with Tyrrell for a fourth season, Scheckter switched to the new, one-car Walter Wolf Racing concern. That 1977 campaign could not have started better for he won the opening race in Argentina. Further victories followed in Monaco (the 100th for the Ford Cosworth DFV engine) and Canada as Scheckter finished as a distant runner-up behind Lauda.

He began 1978 in the old Wolf WR1-Ford but suffered mechanical failures and accidents at the start of an ultimately frustrating season. It was Monaco before he scored his first points when third and the WR5 was only ready to race from the Spanish GP. In a year dominated by John Player Team Lotus, Scheckter then finished second in Germany and Canada, and third at Watkins Glen although seventh in the standings was a disappointment.

Formula 1 World Champion for Ferrari

There had been a suspicion that the driver was better than his machinery and Scheckter accepted an invitation to join Ferrari for 1979. By now, he had mellowed his once wild driving style and it was talented young French-Canadian Gilles Villeneuve who more resembled the South African of old. Their characters and driving styles complemented each other and they soon became firm friends. Scheckter was consistently in the points from round two as he patiently built a championship-winning total. Second in South Africa and at Long Beach as Villeneuve prevailed, Scheckter then won successive races in Belgium and Monaco to establish the championship lead. Appropriately, it was at Monza that he clinched the 1979 World Championship for Ferrari – leading Villeneuve across the line in front of the adoring Italian fans.

Already planning to retire from racing at the end of 1980, Scheckter suffered a vexing title defence with the disastrous Ferrari 312T5. Ferrari experienced excessive tyre wear with its Michelin rubber and the dimensions of Ferrari's flat-12 prevented designer Mauro Forghieri from adopting Lotus's successful ground effect principals. With his title ambitious already satisfied, there was also less intensity to Scheckter's performances during 1980 but he was unfairly criticised by the Italian media for not trying hard enough. He suffered the indignity of failing to qualify in Canada and scored points at just one race when fifth in Long Beach. It was a downbeat final chapter in a world champion's F1 career.

Life after Formula 1

Having retired from racing, Scheckter moved from his Monaco home to live in America where he established FATS Inc., a business producing simulators for the firearm and security industry. During 1981, he was also an F1 pitlane commentator for CBS and won BBC Television's World Superstars competition that pitted sportsmen from different fields against each other.

Scheckter used the considerable proceeds from selling FATS to acquire the 2,500 acre Laverstoke Park Farm in Hampshire in England. He then turned his hand to organic farming with the intensity and single mindedness that characterised his quest to become world champion.