There are few venues that stir the emotions like Monza. Bringing together a heady blend of rich heritage, frenzied passion and edge-of the-seat performance, F1’s fabled temple of speed remains a circuit apart on the F1 calendar.
And with Charles Leclerc having scored Ferrari’s first win of the season in Belgium last weekend the atmosphere is likely to reach fever pitch this weekend as the Scuderia attempts to land its first home win in nine years.
It’s also set to be an emotional weekend for Jody Scheckter. This weekend the Ferrari legend will celebrate the 40th anniversary of his title win in front of the tifosi at Monza by piloting his championship-winning car on a series of demonstration laps around ‘La Pista Magica’. And as the 1979 champion explains, it’s a celebration he’s been waiting four decades to enjoy.
Jody Scheckter admits that when he won the world championship for Ferrari at Monza in 1979 the pressure was so intense that his only emotion on taking the title was one of relief.
Now, as he prepares to mark 40 years of his greatest moment at this weekend’s 2019 Italian Grand Prix, he’s hoping to enjoy the experience of driving his Ferrari 312 T4 at Monza a whole lot more…
What are your recollections of the Ferrari 312 T4 and did you know it was a contender from the start?
It was definitely a step forward, but I don’t remember feeling it that way at the time. Every track was very different. You went to one and it was brilliant and then at the next track it was not so good. We also had Michelin tyres, and they were the first radials and I think that was a big factor in our success. In terms of the car we had a wide flat engine and we couldn’t get the air underneath it like the Fords, which was a narrow, so we were disadvantaged there. But the car was incredibly reliable and it finished every race – and that’s how we won the championship.
The 1979 season was a close battle between you and your team-mate Gilles Villeneuve. Was it a tough contest and were you under pressure?
Big pressure. He won the first two races and I had been signed as number one, so it was pretty intense. I had to step up. I realised I had to get my head down and work harder at everything. I had to do whatever I could do and I think I did.
In the end, I think Gilles’ weakness was that he was always chasing the fastest lap. He liked the image of the wild boy, so he was always skidding and jumping, and he didn’t look after the car well. For example, in Monaco there was a moment when you came onto the straight where you normally lifted, but he just kept his foot flat.
Take it forward to the moment you sealed the title at Monza. You went into that weekend with an eight-point lead over Jacques Laffite and with 12 in hand over Gilles. Were you confident of getting the job done in Italy?
Not at all, I was never confident about anything! The difference for that race was that when we were testing the previous week he was putting on qualifying tyres all the time and the papers were full of stories saying ‘Gilles breaks record’. I just ran the hardest tyre and focused on the car. I was quicker than him in qualifying and quicker than him in the race.
We had team orders at the time as well that specified that if you were running first and second or fourth and fifth or whatever, so once Laffite dropped out [with an engine problem on lap 42] I dropped the revs immediately. Gilles was behind me and in the closing stages and I might have increased the pace slightly, just in case he was feeling naughty!
There are few people who describe what it feels like to win a Formula 1 title in a Ferrari, at Monza, in front of the tifosi. So, what was it like?
Honestly, it was just a feeling of relief. I’d been in Formula 1 since 1972 and in 1974 it had almost happened with Tyrrell, in fact I think I’d left Monza that year in the lead or close to it [he was one point behind eventual champion Emerson Fittipaldi] but I missed out. I did think after that, ‘well, I’m capable of winning it’ but in the end it took seven years. It was massive pressure and you’re doing everything you can to win it. Normally, every two weeks you sort of build up to the race, but that year it just seemed to stay there, you were thinking about it all the time. So the feeling was just one of immense relief.
What kind of preparations have you made for this weekend in Monza?
I have done a lot of preparation. As soon as I knew we were going to do this, I had the car sent to Italy. The same mechanic who was my mechanic went through it. It then came back for an event here at Laverstoke Farm and I have a little track here so I drove it and it felt fine. Now it’s gone back to Monza, so we’ve done quite a bit of work.
Have you done any preparation mentally or emotionally? What feelings will it bring back?
I don’t know how it will feel. I think I’ll get a similar feeling to 40 years ago. Obviously I’m not as confident as I was when I was racing, but maybe by the third day I’ll go a bit quicker, just because I’m stupid. When the visor goes down, you just get a bit more stupid!
I have to say it is just a massive privilege for me to go to Monza. I think it’s been five years since I went to a Grand Prix. I have friends in F1 and I still enjoy watching all the races, so it is going to be fantastic to be back at Monza in that car. One thing I know is it that with the flat 12 engine it will make a beautiful noise.