Jody Scheckter World Champion at the first attempt
Friday 7 September 1979 was a lovely day at the end of summer. Formula 1 took to the track for the Italian Grand Prix in the third from last race of the season. Scuderia Ferrari could win both the Constructors’ and Drivers’ Championships which meant thousands of fans showed up from the first day of track action.
The drivers and teams found a completely renovated Monza. As had been promised the year before, the car park behind the paddock had been expanded and new pits had been built. The pit lane had been extended to a width of 11 metres, so now three cars could fit side by side. On the grid, to avoid bottlenecks at the start, like that of the tragic 1978 Grand Prix, small rubber cones had been inserted into the tarmac. Parts of the track had also been widened, like the first chicane, and there were a lot of escape roads, including at the Curva Grande and the two Lesmo Corners. Tyre barriers were put up at the most dangerous spots to better absorb any impact with the guardrail. At the Ascari corner several bushes were cut down to improve visibility and safety.
To be sure of the title, Scheckter had to win and hope that Jacques Laffite did not finish second, while it seemed very improbable that the Scuderia could seal the Constructors’ Championship in their home race. Ferrari was leading the table with 19 points over Ligier, 22 over Williams and 43 over Lotus, with 45 still up for grabs. To guarantee their sixth Constructors’ trophy, the team from Maranello would have to leave Monza 30 points ahead of Ligier, 31 ahead of Williams and stay at least 30 ahead of Lotus. In order to do the double, they needed Ligier to score no more than four points and Williams no more than six.
Renault locked out the front row in qualifying with Jean-Pierre Jabouille ahead of René Arnoux who had to rely on his Friday time because his engine broke at the beginning of the Saturday session. Scheckter took third while Villeneuve was fifth. On Sunday 9 September, the circuit was bursting at the seams with people despite it being the first time that spectators were forbidden from building temporary stands from which to watch the Grand Prix. The ruling had provoked strong protests and some fans had even threatened to boycott the race, throwing bottles onto the track. On the Friday an anonymous caller had said there was a bomb at the circuit.
When the green light came on, Scheckter got the best start and took the lead. Arnoux, however, retook the lead on the second lap but it did not last long. His engine gave up on lap 13, which delighted the crowd. On lap 40, Laffite’s eight cylinder Ford engine in the Ligier suffered the same bad luck. The fans in the grandstands were ecstatic.
With ten laps remaining, if Scheckter won the race he would be World Champion with two Grands Prix to go. Furthermore, with the way things were, Ferrari were closing in on the Constructors’ prize. The only one capable of ruining Jody’s chances was Villeneuve, who in the closing laps was gaining second after second on his teammate and got into his slipstream. He did not attack him, not just out of loyalty and friendship but also because Gilles was convinced that Scheckter deserved the title and that he himself would have other opportunities. Just as in 1975 for Niki Lauda’s title win, the Ferraris crossed the finish line in parade formation in front of the delighted fans. Jody Scheckter was World Champion in his first season with Scuderia Ferrari, something only Fangio had done before in 1956 and Kimi Raikkonen would do in 2007. The ever popular Clay Regazzoni rounded off the party finishing third in the Williams. There was a huge party at Maranello once again.