It was the last Drivers’ title that Ferrari won before the beginning of the Schumacher era: Jody Scheckter’s 1979 win, making him World Champion and crowning a year of triumph, despite victory being almost unthinkable at the beginning of it. Credit goes to the consistent performance of the South African driver, the reliability of the car – the 312 T4 – and the key contribution of Gilles Villeneuve, who was responsible for some of the most impressive feats in that very season.
The championship began on 21 January in Argentina, continuing two weeks later in Brazil. It was then too early to unleash the new car. Both Villeneuve and the newcomer Scheckter took to the track with the old 312 T3. Everyone was expecting Lotus to be in command, having dominated the year before with Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson. It was actually Ligier that brought the wow factor: Jacques Laffite won both races and raced up the rankings.
Formula 1 came to Scheckter’s homeland a month later, with Ferrari bringing the new 312 T4 to the competition. In qualifying at Kyalami, Jean-Pierre Jabouille earned pole position, but a fragile Renault meant that both he and René Arnoux were forced to pull out and leave Ferrari’s route to a one-two wide open. Villeneuve beat Scheckter by just over three seconds, with a repeat performance at Long Beach, climbing to the top of the championship. Back in Europe, Ligier was victorious once again in Spain. While Scheckter managed to stand his ground with fourth place however, there were no points for Villeneuve. It was the same in Belgium, when Jody won and pulled alongside Laffite at the top. Two weeks later, the South African driver gained an advantage in the championship thanks to the Monaco win. This also propelled Ferrari to a leading position in the Constructors’ rankings.
Villeneuve and Arnoux became part of one of Formula 1’s most thrilling occasions on 1 July when Ferrari duelled with Renault in the final laps of the French Grand Prix. Jabouille won the first GP for the French constructor, but all eyes were on the fight for second place. It saw Gilles and René overtaking and being overtaken in turn, with wheel clashes and compression braking down to the last centimetre. It was nonetheless a fair fight, and one which saw the Canadian come out on top.
Scheckter didn’t gain points but, unlike Villeneuve, was among the top six in both Great Britain and Germany, picking up a very valuable second place in the Netherlands. This was behind a surprising Alan Jones with Williams. Again, the great yet unfortunate figure in the race was Villeneuve, who overtook Jones on the outside at Tarzan corner on the 11th lap. This would have been inconceivable for any other driver, but a puncture led him to complete an entire lap on three wheels and then forced him to pull out.
Jody arrived at the Italian Grand Prix, in Monza on 9 September, with an eight-point lead over Laffite and ten points ahead of Villeneuve. To have a hope of continuing his pursuit of Scheckter, Laffite had to come at least second. The circuit, in the Brianza area, teemed with Ferrari fans raring to experience a day to remember. The Renaults were on the front line, but Scheckter darted out masterfully to take the lead. Shortly afterwards, Arnoux took it back, but his engine gave out on the 13th lap, which earned a roar from the crowd. The eight-cylinder Ford on Laffite’s Ligier met with the same fate on lap 40, and the fans were beside themselves.
There were ten laps to go, and if Scheckter won the race he’d be world champion with two Grands Prix to spare. The only potential fly in the ointment was Villeneuve, who made up second after second with respect to his teammate, to the point of trailing him. He would never have come after him, because of both sportsmanship and friendship, but also because he was convinced that Scheckter deserved the title and that he would have another shot at it. Just as in 1975, for Niki Lauda’s first world championship title, the Ferraris crossed the finish line in the style of a celebratory parade for the fans. Jody Scheckter was world champion for his first season with Ferrari, as with only Fangio in 1956 then Kimi Raikkonen in 2007. It was time for Ferrari to celebrate once more.