Francois Cevert (25/02/44 – 06/10/73)Written by Αυγερινός Δημακόπουλος
Translated by Avgerinos Dimakopoulos
A gentleman who wanted to become a champion...
For many Francois Cevert's life is the classic story of a nice guy who was gone too early too soon.
A promising racing driver who never got to fulfill the expectations.
The charming man who never got to draw Hollywood's attention.
Maybe it is.
Statistics enthusiasts may not find his career interesting but his teammate -three time World Champion- Sir Jackie Stewart tells a different story.
But let's start from the beginning.
Albert Francois Cevert Goldenberg was born in German occupied Paris on February 25, 1944.
His father, Charles Goldenberg, was a Jewish jeweler fact that led the family to adopt his mother's name, Cevert, in order to avoid Nazi persecution.
While growing up he developed a passion for music and the piano on which he spent 15 years practising.
His interest in motorsport was initiated when his sister met and married racing driver Jean-Pierre Beltoise (1972 Monaco Grand Prix winner).
After going through Le Mans and Magny Cours racing schools, in 1966 he entered a Shell event on which he competed against Patrick Depailler (70's F1 star) winning an Alpine Renault for 1967 F3 championship.
He made an impression despite completing only 6 races and in 1968 he became French Formula 3 champion driving for the Tecno team.
In 1969 he competed in F2 coming 3rd in the championship, winning at Reims.
That year at Crystal Palace he raced against Jackie Stewart whom he impressed, as the F1 racer was unable to overtake him!
In 1970, he continued his partnership with Tecno and he also joined the World Sportscar Championship driving for Matra.
The turning point came after the 1970 Monaco Grand Prix when Tyrrell's second driver, Johnny Servoz-Gavin, suddenly decided to retire from racing.
Stewart had not forgotten the young Frenchman and urged team owner Ken Tyrrell to give him a chance.
He made his debut on the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort and by the end of the season he finished in 5 races, taking his first point at Monza.
The team was using March frames which proved unreliable (Stewart had 8 retirements) prompting Ken Tyrrell to create his own car for 1971.
His decision proved wise as Derek Gardner's design allowed Jackie Stewart to win the championship while Cevert took his maiden win on the last race of the season at Watkins Glen.
It was to be his only win so here are some details about the race.
Stewart had pole followed by Fittipaldi(Lotus), Hulme(McLaren), Regazzoni(Ferrari) and Cevert.
At the start Hulme led but he was overtaken by Stewart who after 10 laps encountered severe understeer due to overheated tyres so he let his teammate through.
Around half way Francois had to deal with the same problem and Jacky Ickx who had overtaken Stewart, caught up with him but the Belgian was unlucky as Ferrari's alternator came loose, cracked the gearbox and spilled oil all over the track!
Denny Hulme went over it and hit the barriers braking his front suspension.
Cevert did the same at exactly the same point but he managed to avoid damage and went on to win ahead of Siffert and Peterson.
1972 was a bittersweet season as Cevert achieved only two podiums finishes (Belgium, Watkins Glen) and had 5 retirements, thus taking 6th place in the championship.
That year driving a Matra Simca 670 along with Howden Ganley, he finished 2nd on the 24 hours of Le Mans.
Tyrrel's team spirit was upbeat, Jackie and Francois had become friends, the experienced Scotsman being a mentor to the young Frenchman appreciating his genuine character.
1973 was an irresolute season for Formula 1.
Stewart took advantage of the inner fight of champioship favourites Lotus between Emmerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson, winning 5 races on his way to the title.
Francois Cevert had an excellent season finishing 2nd in six races, following Stewart on the podium on three of them.
The champion was not shy of his teammate's abilities revealing after the German Grand Prix on the fearsome Nurburgring that Francois could overtake him and win in a heartbeat!
At the same time, Cevert helped Matra-Simca win the World Sportscar Championship taking victory on the 6 hours of Vallelunga along with Henri Pescarolo and Gerard Larrousse.
The last race of the season was the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen.
Nobody knew at that time that is was going to be Jackie Stewart's last race and Ken Tyrrell had a private conversation him about Cevert.
He proposed that if he and his teammate were leading the race towards the end, he would let him through pointing out that he would be the leader of the team next year.
Despite being surprised and cautious about it he agreed, but fate intervened.
On Saturday morning's practise Cevert went off the track while going through the notorious Esses crashing heavily into the guard rail.
His death was instantaneous as well as horrible.
The event caused great sadness in the paddock while many like Jacky Ickx broke into tears.
Ken Tyrrell decided to withdraw his team from the race as a mark of respect to Francois but before he did Stewart went out when practise resumed in a bid to understand what happened.
He was using 4th gear through the Esses while Cevert used 3rd which made the car 'nervous' because of the engine's high revs and the Tyrrell's short wheelbase.
The same thing happened to him without crashing though, so he returned to the pits informed the mechanics and walked out of racing for good.
A film crew happened to be at Tyrrell's pit before the incident and recorded the last conversation between Jackie and Francois...
The French ace shortly before his death described in a film his philosophy:
"Every man in the world is looking to make from his passion, his business.
I couldn't be more happy because motor racing is my passion and I enjoy it.
It would take me more courage to give up racing, than it does go on..."
Jackie Stewart in his autobiography described an event that lends a supernatural prolongation to Cevert's death.
The Frenchman and Jackie's wife, Helen, were very close friends and he once told her that if he died he would try to communicate with them.
Right before the US Grand Prix, the Stewart's and Cevert went on vacation in Bermuda where Francois would play every night on the hotel's piano his favourite song, Beethoven's sonata Pathetique.
Shortly before Christmas of 1973 the youngest son of the family, Mark Stewart, wanted to buy a music disc for his parents so he went by a music store and he picked the one he thought had the nicest cover.
On Christmas morning when Jackie and Helen unwrapped the present they came across Beethoven's Pathetique...
40 years later his compatriot racer, Jean Eric Vergne, honoured his memory racing in a replica of his helmet at the Monaco Grand Prix.
His final resting place is at the cemetery of Vaudelney, a small village in central France close to Le Mans.
Motors TV tribute to Francois Cevert...
A chapter from Champions Forever, an amazing documentary of the '70s, where the Frenchman appears on the screen...
February 25, 1944 - October 6, 1973
Years in F1: 1970 - 1973
Races: 47 (46 starts)
Pole Positions: 0