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A life well lived

South African driver Jody Scheckter looks back at his famous 1979 F1 title win for Ferrari and opens up his garage where his iconic 312 T4 still sits today
Words: Ben Barry - Video: Ollie McIntyre

When he opens double garage doors at the back of a courtyard, daylight floods onto 11 historic racecars that Jody Scheckter stores near Laverstoke Park Farm, Hampshire – a renowned biodynamic farm the former Formula One champion established two decades ago.

Each car recounts a key chapter in the South African’s career, right back to a Merlyn Mk11a Formula Ford he drove at the 1971 Race of Champions support race. ‘I had it delivered to Brands Hatch, started on the second row, spun, then went through the field and finished second,’ recounts the 72-year-old.

Watch as Jody Scheckter reveals his now 44-year-old title winning Ferrari 312 T4, still gleaming at his home in the UK

Nearby there’s another Merlyn, this time a Formula 3 Mk21 rebuilt following a heavy crash at Crystal Palace, and a Trojan T101 Scheckter drove to three of four victories in the fearsome Formula 5000 series, taking the 1973 championship.

Pride of place, though, goes to his Ferrari 312 T4 – the ‘shovel-nose’ racer that helped Scheckter to the 1979 Formula One Drivers’ Championship and which he bought from a Swiss collector. Together with teammate and ’79 runner-up Gilles Villeneuve, Scheckter also delivered Maranello its sixth F1 Constructors’ Championship that same year.

‘Flat-12 engine, ground-effect, Michelin tyres, it was the best car I ever drove,’ says Scheckter running a hand over the 312 T4’s rear spoiler. ‘Someone took the original seat, but otherwise this car is just as it was.’

Scheckter and fellow Ferrari driver Gilles Villeneuve battle each other during the 1979 F1 season

While history records Scheckter in the pantheon of F1 greats, the young hotshot was a gamble when Enzo Ferrari hired him for 1979, having earned a reputation for a rather volatile brand of speed soon after debuting in F1 at Watkins Glen, 1972.

Scheckter had matured in the years between, finishing third overall in both 1974 and ’76 F1 seasons and often garnering respect for out-performing inferior machinery, notably the Tyrrell P34 six-wheeler (also in the collection) which he drove to its only victory in the 1976 Swedish GP – ‘I could drive around problems where other guys would focus more on setting the car up,’ is how the South African squares it.

And then came that call-up from Ferrari.

‘Enzo Ferrari was smart, very tough and everyone was scared around him,’ explains Scheckter. ‘I remember being in the office – a dark environment, the light furniture – and being asked “how much money do you want?”. I said I was too young to think about money, and I think Enzo was testing me, seeing what my motivation was. Carlos Reutemann resigned when I came in.’

The 1979 F1 Championship win was something of a redemption for Scheckter who had been described as a hothead and a danger early in his career

In fact, the Argentine driver signed for Lotus, reigning champions and favourites for ’79, while Ferrari was on the back foot, fielding the previous year’s 312 T3 for the first two rounds in Argentina and Brazil. 

Better results followed the T4’s debut at Kyalami, but while Villeneuve initially led Ferrari’s renaissance, Scheckter was victorious in Belgium and Monaco and arrived at Monza with an eight-point lead over Laffite and ten points over Villeneuve.

When Laffite retired with engine failure and the 28-year-old South African led his Canadian teammate home 1-2, so Scheckter wrapped up the championship with two races in hand in front of a rapturous home crowd. Forty years after that win, he returned for the first time since, running demonstration laps in his 312 T4 at the 2919 Monza GP. ‘I think I enjoyed this more than ’79!’ he said to the crowd.

Scheckter enjoyed a look at some more recent Scuderia cars when he visited Maranello a few years ago

It was certainly more enjoyable than 1980, when success stalled during his unsuccessful title defence and Scheckter quit.

‘One or two drivers were dying every year, I’d won the championship and the magic was gone,’ he says matter-of-factly.

So, today Laverstoke is as well known for its environmentally responsible sparkling wine, ice cream and buffalo cheese as its celebrity owner, but among tifosi, Jody Scheckter will forever be synonymous with winning that 1979 Drivers’ Championship for Ferrari against the odds.