jody elite living africaFormer racing driver Jody Scheckter. (Photo: Ferrari)South African Forumla 1 racing legend, Jody Scheckter, talks to Elite Living Africa's  Roman Zincenko about his remarkable career and life beyond the race track

ELA:  You are the most successful African F1 driver in history. Was motor sport a passion from childhood?

JS:  My uncle raced in the 1930s in East London. My dad had a garage. So I grew up around cars. First time I drove a car I was ,like, eight – I remember that my mom let me drive a little bit on a beach. Because the uncle and dad used to race, I also started dreaming about becoming a racer – I was about 10 or 11 years old then. I begun to drive karts but I didn’t dream about something like Formula One back then.

ELA: How did you end up in Formula One?

JS: Some years later, my father who had a car dealership gave me a Renault 8.  I got it rebuilt and started competing with it in club and national races in South Africa. Later I raced in the Formula Ford races and won it in SA. The prize for that was to come to Europe to race for three months in 1970. I raced in Europe and at the end of the year McLaren offered me to represent them in Formula 2. So next year I was doing Formula 2 and won a race at Crystal Palace. At the end of 1972 team Lotus offered to drive their F1 car but I still had a contract with McLaren. Jackie Stewart retired at that time and I was offered to take his place. I raced for McLaren several times and then Tyrell offered me a three-year contract. I took that and I came third in the F1 championship in my first year with Tyrell, that was back in 1974.

ELA: There were many crashes in Formula One in those days. You had a reputation of a rather reckless driver but later you changed...

JS:  The big change was in 1973 when a driver Francois Cevert was killed in front of me in a practice. I was the first to jump off a car to help him out but he was dead. It was the first time I realised how really dangerous F1 racing can be.  One or two drivers would get killed every year in the 70s.  Any race could be the last one for me. Luckily, I survived some of the worst crashes like the one on the first lap of the Silverstone GP in 1973. You can watch it on YouTube. I was so lucky to get out.

ELA: What was your favourite F1 race?

JS:  The Monaco Grand Prix was always nice for me. I liked that circuit, I liked driving in the streets next to the rails. Later, I lived in Monaco for 12 years. Today, I don’t have a favourite race in F1, there are many but I don’t have a preference. I haven’t been to a Grand Prix for four years.

ELA: You drove the six-wheeled Tyrell P34. How did you feel about it?

JS: It was something I never liked. I felt that it was wrong. It used to break all the time but I managed to become the only person to win a race with it. It was at the Swedish GP in 1976. I left Tyrell at the end of the that year and joined Wolf. Next year I was leading the F1 championship halfway the season but eventually finished second.

ELA: In 1979 you have finally became the Formula One champion.  How did it make you feel?

JS:  I became a champion after winning in Monza with Ferrari - it was the third last race of the season. It wasn’t much joy, more of a relief. That championship year was very stressful for me. I’ve never felt relaxed, pressure was on me all the time. I retired next year because I felt I achieved what I wanted. My main achievement in Formula One was getting out alive. You look back and realise how lucky you are.

ELA: So life inside the Formula One world isn’t always as cool as it looks from outside?

JS:  I’ve seen lot of stuff that was going on in the F1 business that I didn’t like. But you are always friends with your team.  I was always focused on my racing first, that’s why I won a Lemon prize three times as the driver that is the least cooperative with the press.

ELA: What can you say about Bernie Ecclestone, who has been running the F1 for decades?

JS:  When I left Formula One he was managing all the business of all teams.  He was the one that put F1 together. He did a fantastic job for the sport and for himself, too. But I think the recent changes in Formula One are for the better. New management seems to think more long-term.

ELA: What has your life been since retirement from F1?

JS: In the first year I tried to organise a worldwide race, then I started a business in America making simulators to train police and military forces. Twelve years later, our company was present in 35 countries and had 95 per cent of the world market.  Then I sold that profitable business. Today I do organic farming in England and I like to say that I was rich and stupid but now I’m clever and poor. My wife is from England and she was dragging me back to the UK. So I bought land. I was always very fit so I started growing healthy food for myself, then I went commercial trying to have less customers but more volume. And in my free time, I drink whiskey and play tennis.

ELA: The last F1 Grand Prix on the African soil was back in 1993. Do you think Formula One will return to Africa?

JS: I would like to see F1 racing in South Africa again. I’m doing a little help to get a Grand Prix into South Africa, and my cousin has done some work to prepare support from government and public. You know, my country has a big history of car racing and it would be good to have a Grand Prix in Africa. I know that a  lot of people would like to see a F1 race in Joburg.