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Unsung Heroes: Jody Scheckter

The only South African to ever win the F1 World Championship, Scheckter was also the last Ferrari driver to win the title until Michael Schumacher arrived, 21 years later
Words – Gavin Green

Jody Scheckter’s career with the Scuderia was short, at just two seasons.

He was hired by Enzo Ferrari for the 1979 season after a topsy-turvy F1 career that included seven wins – he would go on to score another three for Ferrari – but also some spectacular crashes.

His nickname at McLaren, his first F1 team, was Fletcher, after the hot-tempered baby seagull in Jonathan Livingston Seagull that tried to fly when he was too young and kept crashing off the cliff face.

The South African’s early F1 career was certainly spectacular. Just 23, he led his third Grand Prix (1973 French) for many laps before tangling with reigning World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi. At the next race, the British GP at Silverstone, he triggered one of the biggest and most dramatic high-speed crashes in F1 history after losing control at 160mph. Nine cars were taken out. Immediately after the accident, his team manager told him to hide in the motorhome because other drivers wanted to kill him. He was withdrawn from the next four GPs

Jody Scheckter joined Ferrari for a successful 1979 season and was known affectionately as Baby Bear

Prodigiously talented but considered by some rivals as reckless, Scheckter adopted a new approach to racing after the US Grand Prix, the last round of the 1973 season. During practice, French star François Cevert crashed fatally. Scheckter was the first driver on the scene and stopped to help. 


Poor Cevert was beyond saving. ‘He was the first person I’d known who had died,’ Jody would later say. ‘Suddenly it came home to me. Hey, this is dangerous.’ Scheckter had just signed a contract to drive for the World Championship-winning Tyrrell team for the following year. His intended teammate was Cevert. 


He was a different driver after that. He scored third in the 1974 World Championship, winning two GPs. In 1975 he became the first South African to win his home World Championship GP. In 1976 he came third in the championship again, behind the two stars of that year’s dogged title fight, James Hunt and Niki Lauda. In 1977 he was second, bettered only by Lauda and Ferrari.

Driving the Ferrari 312T4 in 1979, Jody won in Belgium and Monaco before wrapping up the Championship with a win at Monza

In his successful 1979 season, driving the Ferrari 312T4, he won in Belgium and Monaco before winning the Italian GP at Monza to wrap up the championship. His teammate Gilles Villeneuve came second in the race and the championship, a Ferrari 1-2. In a neat reversal, Scheckter was now the more cautious driver, Villeneuve the flamboyant daredevil. The Fletcher nickname had long since gone. Rather, at Ferrari, he was affectionately known as Baby Bear, owing to his muscular physique and thick curly hair.


That Monza win would be Scheckter’s last. After a disappointing 1980 season he decided to retire, aged 30. He told Enzo Ferrari in July, announced it to the press straight after, and kept competing till the end of the season. He never raced again.

Jody Scheckter visiting the Maranello Ferrari factory in 2019 

Soon after, he moved to America and founded a firearms training company. He later sold it for a fortune and with the proceeds bought a 2500-acre farm in Hampshire, England, which he turned into an organic farming showpiece. 


Now 71, Scheckter still works hard on his farm breeding livestock , including buffalo, and producing fruit, vegetables and wine. He supplies some of Britain’s finest restaurants.  His mozzarella is particularly sought after. In a stable block on the farm is a collection of his old racing cars, including his 1979 championship-winning Ferrari 312T4.

12 ottobre, 2021