“You win a championship by not making mistakes”: Jody Scheckter talks to RaceFans

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On 9th September 1979 – 40 years ago last Monday – Jody Scheckter achieved his life’s ambition. The then-woolly haired South African won the Formula 1 world championship. In a Ferrari. At Monza.

Crucially, it would be the last crown won by a Maranello driver for 21 years – double McLaren’s current title drought – until Michael Schumacher arrived.

Jody Scheckter, Ferrari, 1979
Scheckter on his way to the title in 1979
True, Gilles Villeneuve’s obedience of team orders at Monza secured Scheckter’s championship, but these were accepted as being a logical component of a team sport. True, it was a home win for the team but not the driver, but he’d previously won his home round at Kyalami, as well at places such as Anderstorp (on four wheels and six), Buenos Aires, Monaco, Silverstone and Zolder.

Over seven seasons he scored 10 grand prix wins. Then after a lacklustre 1980 at the wheel of Ferrari’s dire 312T5 yielded just two points and, painfully, a non-qualification in Montreal, Scheckter walked away from F1. He devoted himself to life outside of a sport that had been his driving force since he and elder brother Ian first slid legs across the 50cc ‘buzzbikes’ sold by their father Max.

Fast-forward a day shy of 40 years since that halcyon race in Monza, and the delirious Tifosi’s chants of “Shjodeeee, Shjodeeee, Shjodeeee” for hours on end, and we’re sitting in a marquee inside the Monza paddock. Scheckter has returned at the invitation of F1 and the circuit to celebrate the anniversary of his title, and he gladly obliged.

The 69-year-old looks fit and cheerful. He was consistently the strongest among his contemporaries – he won the 1981 World Superstars decathlon contest – he has seemingly not added an ounce in 40 years, later slipping into a race suit of the same size as he wore back then. Is he enjoying himself, and does it feel good to be back in the F1 paddock?

“I am, actually, it’s good to be back after 40 years,” he says with a crease, his ever-observant eyes darting about life in the paddock as we speak.

“This is a very special weekend for me. It’s a great way for me to come back. I don’t come back [to the paddock] often. And I really feel respected and especially in Italy at this time, it’s a massive privilege for me this weekend.”

Once he’d achieved the objective of winning the title he always going to retire from the sport – he previously told me ‘I only wanted to go to the moon once’ – but still there was an abruptness to his departure, as though he’d totally turned his back on the sport that had made him a very wealthy man by the age of 30.

“I wouldn’t put it that I turned my back on it. I got into something else,” he says, referring to Firearms Technology Services, the arms training company he and his partners started in Florida, USA.

“We created the market. We had 90% of the worldwide market. In 12 years we were in 35 different countries, 95% of the world market. The last three years were 29, 60, 100 million dollars; it went public two months after we sold it. I wasn’t the only shareholder.”

But like F1, the venture became a full-time commitment. “It was weekends, days, everything,” he says. “Full-time, and that’s why I didn’t go to a grand prix. I didn’t turn my back on it, I was just [looking] forwards.”

He pauses as he seeks a link between F1 and FATS: “We looked at other simulators. Formula 1 simulators are more difficult than aircraft simulators, because you’ve got so much ground stuff.

“We looked at car simulators for police, but that was just right at the tip of it. We proved that we could train soldiers quicker on a simulator than on the range. And in America, when you could save money you could get money. We were very successful.”

No time for F1 at all at that time, then?

“I did one commentary, in Long Beach (for CBS).” A wry smile: “I was fantastic, because it was something like this: The guy was, ‘It’s so exciting, now over to you Jody, what do you see?’ And I said ‘Not a lot’. I never did another commentary for them again…”

Jody Scheckter, Ferrari 312T4, Monza, 2019
Scheckter reunited with his Ferrari 312T4 last weekend
Although he was invited back into the booth on occasion by other by other broadcasters, it’s clear that the bluntness of a man who remains at heart a small-town South African did not sit well with studio executives. Having left South Africa in 1971 to go racing, does he miss the country of his birth at all?

“It’s funny, I’ve only got a South African passport, I haven’t had anything else. And I feel very South African, I don’t feel English. I’ve got a house now in Cape Town, just bought another little place in Somerset West. I enjoy going back, I’m South African…

“I think you know when South Africa’s playing England who you want to win,” he laughs.

In which case, steak or pasta? “As you get older, pasta is the thing!”

Having sold FATS during the mid-nineties Scheckter, by then divorced and remarried to Clare, moved to the Hampshire Downs, where he bought a modest farming operation. This has been successively (and successfully) expanded it into one of the largest organic and biodynamic farming operations in the UK. Laverstoke Park Farm now runs to 2,500 acres.

“Then I came back to England – my wife’s English, she dragged me back. I wanted to produce the best-tasting, healthiest food for myself and my family and that’s how it all started, as a hobby. It should have stayed a hobby, but I grew it…

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“I spent a massive amount of money because I thought I was really smart; I had 120 products. Completely stupid, I didn’t know anything about food. I lost money for, I don’t know, 16 years, big money.

“Then, three years ago, we just changed it around. We just simplified it. Last year was the first year we didn’t put money in. And now it’s sort of running.

“Our main products are mozzarella – we have about a thousand buffalo now, water buffalo – so we do ice cream, we do sparkling wine and beer.”

Jody Scheckter, Tyrrell, CarFest, 2013
Six-wheel winner: Scheckter back in a Tyrrell P34 at CarFest
The farm features a private circuit – designed, he tells me, by Apex, who did much of the work at Silverstone – and is the venue for the highly successful CarFest staged jointly each year with DJ Chris Evans. Think a compact, family-orientated Goodwood.

“Our CarFest is the best family event in the world,” he says, adding. “I’m not exaggerating: 28,000 people, 45% of them children, there are cars [of all sorts], We put together grand prix cars of the ages. We’ve had from 1904 to 1993.”

He shows me highlights of this year’s event. “I got the shivers when I saw that, because some of those cars, when I first saw them…” I interrupt him mid-flow: The Jody Scheckter I knew – having worked with son Tomas during his F3 days – had not struck me as a sentimental person, being all hard-nosed businessman. You were never really a classic car type of guy, I venture.

“I think you always love the cars you first see as a child, and I love some of those cars, front-engined going on to rear engines.”

CarFest is staged in aid of charity, and Scheckter proudly tells me that they raise in excess of a million pounds per year for good causes: “When [the crowd] was 19,000, we were getting about a million. And now it’s gone to 28,000, we’re giving a million-and-a-half each year.”

Despite his swift exit from the sport he hasn’t taken his eye off it, though his views on the sport are characteristically trenchant.

“I watch it all the time. What do I think of it? I think some of the rules, I cannot see the logic. They seem to me the most illogical… I can’t understand it, spoiling the sport. Otherwise it’s been quite exciting, some of the last races.”

Inevitably he finds it hard to imagine himself racing in the current era. “I would’ve hated it,” he shoots back. “I don’t like regulations. You crash and your gearbox breaks and you go back [on the grid]. How can that have any logic at all?

The driver once referred to as ‘Sideways Scheckter’ also has a thing to say about that bete noire of many fans. “Aaargh, the track limits” he exclaims when I bring it up. “It’s another thing that’s artificial.

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“But also, the cars today you can’t drive sideways. You can’t slide a car today. I think you lose all your aerodynamics. In my day, just at the end of my career, you shouldn’t slide. In the beginning it was actually an advantage because the tyres were tough and that was a way of heating them up.”

Scheckter once he had been totally uncompromising in battle – so much so that Emerson Fittipaldi once referred to him as a ‘madman’. However he matured into the definition of a ‘percentage’ driver by the time he became champion. He says the transition was “common sense”.

Jody Scheckter, Wolf, Monte-Carlo, 1977
Scheckter won first time out with tiny Wolf team
“It’s how you win a championship. You win a championship by not making mistakes. Just look at today. Look at Ferrari and look at Mercedes. Mercedes are solid, they don’t make many bad decisions. Ferrari’s quick, but all those little things cost them a championship.”

That is as true now as it was then. But today F1’s two biggest teams employ in excess of one-and-a-half thousand staff. Each.

How does that stack up to manning levels in his day? “When I went to Wolf I had 20 people in the team.

“That’s the one year we should have or could have – I know that’s always a whim – won the championship. And Ferrari had 200 at that time.”

We spoke before Charles Leclerc joined him in that privileged roster of Ferrari drivers to have won the Italian Grand Prix for the team. And it’s clear the team’s new hero has the blessing of their 1979 champion.

“It’s funny,” he begins thoughtfully. “I’ve never really looked at drivers and thought ‘Wow!’ Before I raced and after I raced, [but] Leclerc is the first one.

“I really have, and I hate to say, I nearly have an affection for the guy. I always say he’s calm, he seems a really nice guy, he’s massively talented. He’s got to get it together a little bit, you know. But what’s the curious thing is how does a person like that come from Monaco?

“He’s a wonderful, a really nice guy. I look at him as the [Roger] Federer of Formula 1. Hopefully he can get the results. He just seems a really nice guy…”

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I point out that Roger has a South African mother.

“Yeah, that’s probably a disadvantage in Formula One…”

Leclerc dedicated his breakthrough victory in Spa a week earlier to Anthoine Hubert, the Formula 2 driver who died in a shocking crash the day before. Such tragedies were much more commonplace in Scheckter’s time.

Jody Scheckter, Ferrari, Zolder, 1979
On top of the Zolder podium in 1979, where Villeneuve perished three years later
“Two drivers out of 25 were killed each year,” he says when I broach the subject. “Bad odds.” He sees last week’s fatality at Spa from the perspective of a driver who knew much darker times in the sport.

“Listen, there’s accidents in everything, but it was once, twice a year that people died. It’s once every 10, 15 years [now]. The odds, I don’t know, if you take mileage, are very low at the moment.”

His sons Toby and Tomas followed him into motorsport, the latter being on the cusp of F1 before switching to IndyCars. But Scheckter admits he “hated” their decision to go racing, despite offering them paternal and financial support.

“I said to both of them, ‘If you’re going to get to Formula 1, I’ll support you. If you’re not, I’m going to cut you off.’ Toby I cut off. One holiday I said, ‘Listen, that’s it.’

“Tomas looked like he could get there. But, you know, it’s horrible when you can’t do anything about it. When you’re in the car you can fight, but when you’re there you can’t fight.

He recalls one year Tomas crashed out of the Indianapolis 500. “It’s Sunday night, I’m trying to relax to go to work, the next thing, ‘Tomas is past Scott!’ and crashed. And so I didn’t enjoy it at all. And it was dangerous; Indy was dangerous.”

His son left IndyCar racing in 2011. Scheckter’s departure from F1 around three decades earlier came amid claims of a falling out between him and Ferrari’s mercurial founder Enzo.

Following their double championship triumph in 1979, Enzo Ferrari presented a statue of the Cavallino Rampante to senior members of the team. However Scheckter’s example had a broken leg: Was this a sign of his much-rumoured fractious relationship with the Commendatore?

“No,” he insists, “that is a massive advantage. I have a unique one. I’m the only one with a welded leg on the horse. So there is a positive. I really didn’t have a bad relationship with him at all. He loved Gilles and he respected me, and that’s the way it worked.

So in his case it was a professional relationship? “Yeah, absolutely.”

Nonetheless as the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association president and newly-crowned world champion he had pushed back against racing at the non-championship 1979 Imola Grand Prix. It was held at the circuit named after Enzo Ferrari’s beloved deceased son Dino.

Jody Scheckter, Ferrari, Monza, 2019
The Monza crowd lapped up his return run
This, Scheckter insists, was not because the GPDA considered the track to be dangerous. “I had just won the world championship, and I had been trying for seven years, and the last thing I wanted to do the next weekend was go racing. And I fought him and fought him, and I lost.”

“That’s why I always say my Formula 1 world championship lasted a week, because Villeneuve blew me off the next race! That’s how I sum it up. I really didn’t want to race there at all,” he says flatly.

Rumours than then-Brabham boss Bernie Ecclestone came seeking his services were wide of the mark, he maintains. “But Penske tried to hire me once. And after I retired when I went to Canada, Renault came to me and said ‘Whatever you want financially…’ and I said, ‘No, I’ve made my mind up.’”

Typical Scheckter. But did he really not hanker for F1 after walking away?

“When I watched it on TV [sometime later] I remember thinking, ‘Boy, I’d love to go back to Monaco and do one race there.’ But that sort of faded over the years.

“Now, especially with these cars, I don’t have any desire to drive the modern cars. The 10-cylinder, yes, but I’ve sort of gone off these. I’m old-fashioned, probably.”

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Jody Scheckter, Ferrari 312T4, Monza, 2019
Jody Scheckter, Ferrari 312T4, Monza, 2019

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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  • 12 comments on ““You win a championship by not making mistakes”: Jody Scheckter talks to RaceFans”

    1. I think you can still mistakes and win the title. But only one or two for instance. I don’t think there is a drive or a team that did a flawless season.

      1. @panagiotism-papatheodorou I think it comes down to when the mistake is made also. If made at a crucial moment even a minor mistake will change the outcome.

        1. Exactly – Hamilton for example rarely makes mistakes anyway, but when he does, they’re generally in practice or qualifying, allowing him to still compete for points on Sunday when it counts. Whereas Vettel seems to have a clean weekend before spinning in the race.

          1. But in Scheckter’s days mistakes were compounded with reliability…everybody knew they are not going to finish 25% of the races because something will break on the car. Therefore, mistakes were more costly because they added to those already almost guaranteed non-finishes.

            1. True, but back then, up until 90 I think, you could drop your bad results. Only your top 11 of 16 results counted, and that put more emphasis on winning.

            2. @megatron Yes, and 1979 was particularly weird in this regard! During the years when the season was split in two parts, only certain number of results from each part counted. For years with odd number or races the first part of the season would consists of more races than the second part, except in 1979 where (after cancellation of Swedish GP) the split resulted in the first part of the season being shorter (7-8). If the split was adjusted to 8-7 (as was customary) Villeneuve would have finished with total of 53 eligible points, while Scheckter would remain at 51 eligible points…

    2. One thing where I would respectfully disagree with Jody is he 1977 season. Andretti should have won it…and would have if only Chapman did not insist on always getting the newest engine from Cosworth…probably faster but more fragile.

    3. Jose Lopes da Silva
      11th September 2019, 16:28

      Great piece.

    4. Nice interview. The only thing that is missing is a picture of the prancing horse with a broken leg.

    5. Todays cars are reliable wonders. If they are not experimenting with engine related they are likely completing every race. Suspension and downforce is ultra sophisticated. If everything would be allowed what they developed at previous eras, then they maybe could quite well plant a 2000bhp car.
      Looking at the cars around 1960-80 they are so animalistic, roaring craziness, that even definition of mistake is different. You had to be a guy like Prost or someone comparable to drive those at a nice line.
      Hopefully simracing will never forget that era.

    6. Great interview. One of the best so far Dieter.

      Didn’t know he had such a varied skillset: F1 driver, firearms simulator entrepreneur and organic farmer.

      His CarFest seems very interesting. If I lived in the UK I’d try to visit.

    Comments are closed.