This remained Ferrari’s final Formula 1 Championship victory until the start of the Schumacher era. We are referring, of course, to the 1979 title won by Jody Scheckter at the end of a triumphant year which initially did not bode well at all for victory. But come it did, thanks to the South African’s consistent performance, the reliability of the 312 T4 and the pivotal contribution of Gilles Villeneuve, who also pulled off some of his most astonishing feats that season.
The Championship started in Argentina on January 21 and continued two weeks later in Brazil, still too early to field the new car so both Villeneuve and new arrival Scheckter continued to drive the old 312 T3. Everyone was expecting Lotus to dominate after Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson’s impressive showing the previous year but, in the end, the big surprise came from Ligier as driver Jacques Laffite won the first two races of the season and jumped to the top of the standings. A month later the Formula 1 Championship moved to Scheckter’s home territory, and this time Ferrari introduced the new 312 T4. Jean-Pierre Jabouille took pole in qualifying at Kyalami but the Renault proved fragile, and both he and René Arnoux were forced to retire, opening the way for a Ferrari one-two finish. Villeneuve beat Scheckter to the line by just over three seconds and then repeated that feat at Long Beach to bounce to the top of the standings. Back in Europe, Ligier triumphed in Spain but while Scheckter finished in fourth place, Villeneuve didn’t get any points. The same thing happened again in Belgium where Scheckter won to join Laffite at the top of the standings. Two weeks later, the South African got the upper hand in the drivers’ rankings, thanks to his win at Monaco, also putting Ferrari at the top of the Constructors’ points. On July 1, Villeneuve and Arnoux wrote one of the most brilliant pages in Formula 1 history with a sparkling duel between the Ferrari and Renault cars in the final laps of the French GP. In the end, the French constructor won its first Grand Prix with Jabouille, but all eyes were on the battle for second place as Gilles and René continually swapped positions, delivering one brilliant pass after another and going wheel to wheel to the very last second. It was a very fair fight and, in the end, the Canadian held sway.
Scheckter did not bring home any points from that race but, unlike Villeneuve, finished in the top six in both the British and German Grands Prix, and took a vital second position in Holland behind a surprise win by Alan Jones in the Williams. Once again, Villeneuve was one of the stars of the Dutch Grand Prix but he was also extremely unlucky. In a manoeuvre that no other driver would even have attempted he passed Jones on the outside at the Tarzan Corner on lap 11, but picked up a puncture and had to drive a full lap on three wheels before being forced to pull off the track. The South African arrived at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza with an eight-point lead over Laffite, and 10 points ahead of Villeneuve. Laffite had to finish at least second to have any hope of being able to catch him at that point. The Brianza circuit was bursting with Ferrari tifosi eager for a memorable day to start. The front row was dominated by the Renaults but Scheckter was fastest off the line and shot into the lead. Arnoux quickly retaliated to move back in front but his engine failed on lap 13, eliciting a huge roar from the crowd. The Ford 8-cylinder engine powering the Ligier of Lafitte also gave up on lap 40, and the Ferrari fans went wild. There were now just 10 laps remaining. If Scheckter won the race, he would be World Champion two Grand Prix before the end of the season. Only Villeneuve could potentially throw a spanner in the works. In the final laps, the Canadian caught his team-mate and eventually ended up in his slipstream. However, out of both loyalty and friendship, he held back from attacking.
Villeneuve was also convinced that Scheckter deserved the title and that he personally would get another chance. As happened in 1975, when Niki Lauda won his first world title, the Ferraris crossed the line in close formation as the tifosi exploded with joy. Jody Scheckter was World Champion on his first season with Ferrari, a feat only previously achieved by Fangio in 1956 and not matched again until 2007 by Kimi Räikkönen. It was celebration time once again in Maranello.