Jody Scheckter is the only African driver to have won the Formula 1 World Championship, and indeed the only one to have won Grands Prix, being in Sweden in 1974. That came seven years after another African came tantalizingly close to a sensational victory…
It is a story which began in the city of Bulawayo, in the British Crown colony of Southern Rhodesia. This was a gold mining town on the Matzheumhlope River, surrounded by rich grazing country. It was the richest city in the colony.
It was also the birthplace of John Maxwell Love. He grew up there, attended the Bulawayo Technical High School, and was employed as an apprentice electrical fitter until World War II, when he became one of the early recruits of the Southern Rhodesian Reconnaissance Regiment. This tiny unit was soon scooped up into the South African 6th Armoured Division which was sent to Egypt in the middle of 1943. It was then fitted out with Sherman tanks and in April 1944 arrived in Italy to take part in the campaign to clear the Germans out. Towards the end of the war, Love was stationed near Monza and took a spin around the old Autodromo, riding a captured Zundapp motorcycle. Love loved it and he soon became a dispatch rider during the final campaigns of the war.
When it was over, he went back to Bulawayo, at the age of 21 and started racing motorcycles. He did not switch to cars until he was nearly 30. In 1954 he bought a Cooper-JAP Formula 3 car and became a regular competitor on the dirt tracks of Southern Rhodesia. After some success and many thrills and spills, he decided to Race in South Africa in 1957 and a year after that went to England where he raced for Ken Tyrrell in Formula Junior all over Europe and won the British Touring Car Championship in a Mini Cooper.
He seemed on the verge of an F1 career, but in 1962 had a big crash in Albi and crushed his arm. He had several operations but it seemed like his career was over. He went back home but decided to try local surgeons. After two operations, he was soon back in action. He got a break in 1964 when John Cooper telephoned and asked him to fly to Italy to stand in for the injured Phill Hill at Monza. There were mechanical troubles and no spares and so Love did not qualify. He went home again and concentrated his efforts on winning the next six consecutive South African Championships. He continued to compete in international events and in 1966 acquired the Cooper-Climax T79 Tasman car that Bruce McLaren had raced. The following year he decided to enter the car in the South African GP. This required extra fuel tanks, but the car was light thanks to its smaller engine than the average F1 unit.
The 1967 South African GP was scheduled for Monday, January 2, at Kyalami and most of the F1 teams showed up with 1966 cars. Ferrari and McLaren didn’t go at all, but it was still a good field and Love stunned them all by qualifying fifth on the grid, ahead of John Surtees, Graham Hill, Jochen Rindt and Jackie Stewart!
Come race day, he made a bad start and dropped to 10th, but others hit trouble and he gradually moved up the order. Denny Hulme led but gradually Love rose to second, ahead of Pedro Rodriguez. On lap 61 of 80 Hulme drove into the pits with brake trouble. Love was leading, with 19 laps to go. For the next 12 laps, the local fans celebrated an astonishing achievement, but with seven laps to go the car started misfiring. The pump to the auxiliary tanks had packed up and Love realised he would have to stop. By the time he rejoined, Rodriguez was 20 seconds ahead and there was no time to catch him. But even second place was an amazing achievement…
Love was then 43 but he continued winning the local championship with backing coming from the Gunston Cigarette Company of Rhodesia, as the country had become in 1965. This was the very first tobacco sponsorship of motor racing. In the end he retired to Bulawayo and stayed there, despite all the problems the country faced in the 1970, until independence and peace came in 1979. But with that came Robert Mugabe. Love ran his garage in Bulawayo until he died at the age of 80 in 2005.
Please think about donating to the Jill Saward Fund, which aims to continue the work of my sister Jill Saward (1965-2017), who campaigned to help rape victims and to reduce the number of rapes in the world.