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McLAREN & Me: Jody Scheckter

Jody Scheckter raced for McLaren in F2 before being promoted to F1, where the young South African’s early Grand Prix outings were to prove both spectacular and controversial. In this latest instalment of McLaren and Me, Jody shares his exclusive insight with

It was Phil Kerr who approached me about driving for McLaren, and I think we did a three-year contract. It was for F2 in 1972, but I can’t remember exactly what the terms were, or if I was guaranteed F1 after that. 

I don’t think F2 was their major interest, and I think in a way they were playing on the side with it. Teddy Mayer preferred the big time stuff. 

F2 obviously wasn’t F1 or CanAm, which had been their main thing, and I had the only M21. I can’t remember thinking at the time that they weren’t putting enough effort into it, however I would probably not have known at that stage. That was the first works drive after running my own car, so whatever it was was fantastic. 

At the beginning we had an 1800cc motor, and the other guys were 2-litres, so it was underpowered. We would run less and less wing to try and do the same speed on the straights, and then we had no downforce. 

The car wasn’t bad. But initially it had a broken shock absorber, which nobody discovered. We weren’t competitive at all, and with me being new in, obviously people thought I wasn’t competitive. If you’re on your own, when you go well it’s good, and if you don’t, you wish had others cars to compare against! 

In one way it was nice because you’re the only driver they’re concentrating on. If there was another one could you have developed the car quicker? Possibly, but I didn’t really think about it.

After a few races we went down to Goodwood and Denny Hulme drove the car and played around with it a bit. They had found in the workshop that one of the shock absorbers was broken. So they changed that, and Denny went out and did 1m14.2s or something like that, and I went out and in three laps did a 1m13.8s. I think we were doing 1m15s before that.

And then we went to Crystal Palace. I’d raced there in F3 and Ford Escort Mexicos, and I quite liked that circuit. The car was going well, and we won. After that everyone was looking at the car, wondering why it was going so quickly. I remember at Rouen passing Carlos Reutemann on the outside of a bend going down the hill.

Crystal Palace was a real breakthrough in a way. In those days there were F1 drivers competing, and, if you did well in an F2 race, you immediately showed that you were good enough to go up to the next level. Which is what happened. 

Later Lotus came and wanted me to drive for them. I told McLaren and they said, ‘OK, we’ll give you a drive in the last Grand Prix, at Watkins Glen.’ I don’t think they’d thought about it, but when other teams start making offers, they knew they had to do something! 

Watkins Glen was good because nobody recognised me, and I could walk around and not be bothered. I thought the M19 was fantastic. It was my first F1 car, and it just seemed to grip more and more, you could go faster and faster and nothing was happening, rather than sliding all over the place. It was nothing compared to the downforce of today’s cars, but in comparison to my F2 car the M19 had much more downforce, and bigger tyres as well.

I think I was behind the other two, Denny and Peter Revson, in practice and qualifying. In the race I was running fourth, and I did the second or third quickest lap, but then I hit a patch of water and spun at the end of the pit straight, which cost me a lot of time.

I got on quite well with Denny. He helped me – he didn’t help me with everything, but he helped me quite a lot. He was good. People said we were similar because we were both grumpy, I suppose. I can’t do two things at once, and when I was thinking about the car I didn’t want to talk to anybody, I was just concentrating on one thing, which was how do you make the car go faster.

I can’t remember exactly what I was promised for 1973. I think they probably told me which races I was going to do with a third car, but anything was fantastic for me. For Kyalami Denny had the new M23 and he got pole, and I was third fastest with the M19, but the engine blew in the race. 

In those days you were always testing tyres. Denny would have a tyre and he wouldn’t like it, then he’d try another one and he’d like it better, then Revson got that first one, then when Denny found another one he liked Revson gave me his and got the other one from Denny, and that’s how it went. Quite often I was going quicker and Denny wanted the tyre back! 

I remember at one point the team asked me to test an Indycar around Goodwood, just to run it for a few laps, and then it would go over to America. It didn’t have a wing on the back, and the ride height was out. I was running and I thought I’d just try the turbo on the straight, and I spun and dented the chassis. When I got back I wasn’t very popular.

One other McLaren story. I used to buy MFI furniture, which was not painted. Then I would go into the workshop on the weekends and spray it white. Phil Kerr called me into his office because there was overspray on everything else around it. So I was a bad boy then!

My first race with the M23 was at Paul Ricard. That was a fantastic race. I qualified on the front row, and led for the first 40 laps or something. I was running very little wing, so I was fast on the straights, and not so fast on the corners. I stayed in the lead until Emerson Fittipaldi dived his Lotus inside me at the hairpin, and we crashed. It was only my third Grand Prix, so that was very good for me.

Then came Silverstone. What happened was the outside tyre was graining, so they put a harder tyre on for the race, which was brand new. I was right behind Denny going into Woodcote. He pulled to one side to let me through, and I went through, and it just twitched on me. I was just sliding sideways, and I just thought if I turn the wheel and let the brakes go I’ll be OK, but it just turned around and went into the wall. People were just hitting me, so I kept my head down, and when I looked up they were still coming at me. I was very lucky.

I wrote off three of John Surtees’ cars, so he wasn’t very happy! He didn’t like me for a while. I remember going to a Can-Am race in America and thinking, ‘Thank God, I’m away from it all.’ The first thing a journalist said to me was, ‘John Surtees says this about you!’ I think a lot of young drivers who are going for it go through the same thing. But I don’t think I cared, as long as the team was happy.

At Mosport I had a collision with Francois Cevert. It was in the wet, and I think he was a little quicker than me, if I remember. The next race at Watkins Glen Francois crashed in qualifying, and I was the first one on the scene. I jumped out and grabbed the safety belts to get him out, because there was a risk of fire, and the battery was sparking. I still do not remember what I saw, but I knew it was over. I just turned around and told everybody it was bad news. Thank goodness I don’t remember what I saw.

Life carried on, and we raced the next day. I hadn’t been in that sort of situation before. I thought, ‘Wow that’s strange. He died, and in a way it shouldn’t carry on.’ That was my last race for McLaren. I think I actually signed with Ken Tyrrell for 1974 at Watkins Glen – he came to see me.

McLaren was my first time with a works team, so it was fantastic for me, absolutely wonderful for me. The whole fun of a career is going up the ladder, that’s the real fun. Once you get there, it’s hard work! I now own my M23, the M19, and the F2 car – I’ve got 12 of the cars I drove in my collection.