Looking back on Francois Cevert

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Of all the new drivers who came surging through to prominence on the wave of France’s motor racing renaissance in the late sixties, Francois Cevert, with his film star good looks and delightful personality, was probably the most talented of all. To say that it was only his connections with the influential Elf petroleum company that earned him a place in Ken Tyrrell’s Elf-backed Grand Prix team would be to devalue the charismatic Parisien’s natural ability and sheer flair behind the wheel. Cevert’s reputation had been firmly established in the cut-and-thrust F3 arena long before the spotlight of Formula 1 attention fell upon him and his subsequent performances as Jackie Stewart’s team-mate indicated that his place in the Grand Prix firmament was fully justified on merit.

Born on February 25, 1944, Albert Francois Cevert was the son of a Paris jeweller who strongly disapproved of his son’s early predilection for motor racing. An enthusiastic athlete from an early age, Francois displayed a marked preference for four-wheeled projectiles from the age of 12 or 13 when he used to snatch impromptu drives in the family’s cars. Later, whilst doing his compulsory military service, he developed his budding technique by experimenting with the flat-24 cylinder Panhard-engine armoured tanks which, he later reflected, could be worked up to around 80 mph — either running forwards or in reverse! He also remembered that they handled better without their gun turrets, so they were taken off for unofficial races round the barracks at Ravensburg where he was based.

All things considered, Cevert had an enjoyable time in the army, much of his 18 month stint being occupied travelling round the country representing his regiment in various sporting events. He was 22 years old when he left the services, walking straight into a major disagreement with his father about whether or not to go into the family business. Keen to try his hand at motor racing, Cevert suggested that he would work in the jewellers if he could have every Friday, Saturday and Sunday free, hardly a commercial proposition his father was likely to accept. Predictably, Cevert Snr. said “No”, so Francois struck out to make a living on his own.

In an attempt to scrape together sufficient funds to make a start in racing, Francois took to selling records in 1965, a project which he admitted was quite successful and netted him a useful return. Then an advertisement for the Volant Shell competition at the Magny-Cours-based Winfield racing school caught his eye in a motoring magazine and he instantly took the decision to attend, changing his job to that of a woman’s fashion sales representative in order to have more convenient working hours during which to attend the school.

The Winfield course was run on scrupulously strict lines, minor transgressions such as over-revving by even a miniscule amount being penalised by disqualification. None the less, from the jostling ranks of bright-eyed new boys all hoping against hope for success, Francois Cevert emerged as the winner of the coveted 1966 Volant Shell competition. A Formula 3 car was the prize!

At this point the Frenchman made a major error of judgement. He could have had one of the then-new Matras, but opted instead for an Alpine-Renault which admittedly looked like a good idea at the time, but turned out to be a disaster. He was promised delivery in time for the prestigious, very popular, Pau street race, but it never appeared. Eventually the factory provided him with an updated 1964 chassis with which to mark time while the new car was completed, but Cevert wound up doing the whole season in this old nail because the new car never materialised. Despite unsuccessfully imploring the Dieppe-based team to allow him to prepare the unreliable Renault engine himself, Francois managed to attract some attention for his hard, forceful driving style. However, in terms of results, the season was an unmitigated disaster with retirements in 16 out of 22 races.

In 1967, Alpine suggested that Cevert drove its works entry, a suggestion which Francois took a split-second to reject realising that if he did not make a worthwhile impression in his second F3 season, then any chance of a professional racing career would be probably be over. He managed to drum up some sponsorship from a fire extinguisher manufacturer, Sicli, and journeyed to Italy to buy a new Tecno, remembering how convincingly Clay Regazzoni had triumphed at Jarama the previous November. After driving non-stop back from Italy with his new car Cevert set the tone of his ’67 season with an impressive debut win at Montlhery, the first in a string of successes that would earn him not only the French F3 Championship, but also Shell backing for a move into Formula 2 the following season.

In view of his heartening experiences with the Tecno in F3, it was perhaps appropriate that he should go with the Italian marque into this more senior category. Partnered initially by Goivanni “Nanni” Galli and later by Clay Regazzoni returning from a brief, unsuccessful foray in the works F2 Ferrari 166s, Cevert high-lighted this season with a finely judged victory at Reims when he popped out of his rivals’ slipstreams with perfect timing to beat both Robin Widdows and Piers Courage to the chequered flag by a nose.

Ken Tyrrell takes up the story. “After Servoz jacked it in we had to cast round for a replacement, and as the Crystal Palace F2 international took place the following weekend, I went along with Jackie to have a look at the talent.” At the wheel of John Coombs’ Brabham BT30, Stewart won the race after Jochen Rindt’s Lotus 69 retired, but this success was of only secondary importance compared with the satisfaction of discovering new talent.

For the 1970 season he began as a member of the Tecno team, but his prospects changed dramatically after the sudden retirement of Tyrrell number two Johnny Servoz-Gavin after an accident in practice for the Monaco Grand Prix. The high-living “Servoz” had been recruited into Tyrrell’s team as Jackie Stewart’s partner at the start of the year, but suffered badly from the slump in fortunes promoted by Ken’s enforced use of the rather cumbersome March 701 rather than the splendid Matra MS80 which had carried the Scot to his first World Championship the previous season. Consumed with self-doubt, Servoz-Gavin came to Tyrrell shortly after failing to qualify at Monaco and confessed that he was not keen to continue: he wanted to retire.

”It has to be said that Stewart told me ‘that boy’s good’ and we signed him up with the approval of Elf who were, quite naturally, keen that we should take him on”, admits Ken. Cevert made his debut with Tyrrell in the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort and, although his raw enthusiasm had to be tempered quite firmly by his team chief at times during the remainder of the year, it seemed that Francois was significantly less inhibited in his driving of the March 701 than some other more experienced runners who were saddled with the same “uncompetitive” car. He displayed a heartening degree of youthful enthusiasm and generally did not suffer from the same world-weary lack of conviction in the car that Amon and Siffert (admittedly running on Firestones) displayed in the works cars. By the time he appeared for the Canadian Grand Prix at Mont Tremblant, he had developed sufficient gusto to qualify his March fourth behind Stewart’s new Tyrrell and the powerful Ferrari 312B1s of Jacky Ickx and Clay Regazzoni.

For the 1971 season, Cevert was given one of the new Tyrrells like that of his team leader and he began to develop a reputation as a worthy supporting driver, eventually finishing a delighted second to Stewart in the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard. He dovetailed his Formula 1 obligations with a continuing Formula 2 programme for Tecno, using torquey BDA engines developed by the Italian constructor which were powerful enough to have the legs of most of Francois’ opposition. Cevert opened his F2 calendar with a well-judged victory at Hockenheim, but thereafter the ill-handling Tecno chassis meant that he was off the pace at circuits where handling was at a premium, and since the engine often let him down on the faster circuits, his European Championship prospects evaporated and the title fell to the March-mounted Ronnie Peterson.

On the F1 front Cevert’s critics would say that his progress was patchy, but he came home a strong second to Stewart at the Nürburgring and rounded off the season on a tremendously high note by winning the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen when Stewart faltered. It was sufficient to move him into third place in the World Championship standings behind Stewart and Peterson, so the future seemed very promising indeed.

Unfortunately the 1972 season was a troubled one for Tyrrell. The revitalised Lotus 72 put most of its rivals into the shade and at least part of Stewart’s programme was spoiled when the Scot developed a stomach ulcer which caused him to miss the Belgian Grand Prix. The advent of the second generation Tyrrell F1 challenger proved too late to salvage the team’s World Championship hopes and, although Stewart stormed back into a position of prominence by rounding off the season with wins at both Mosport Park and Watkins Glen, it was too late to head off Emerson Fittipaldi’s successful quest tor the World Championship.

One might have expected a driver of Cevert’s proven calibre to have been casting around for a number one seat in another team by this stage in his career, but the Frenchman relished his position as Stewart’s partner at Tyrrell and was clearly sufficiently shrewd to appreciate the long-term benefits of such a position. He continued in 1973 as the Scot’s number two — his third successive year in that position.

On a personal level there is no doubt that the two men got on splendidly. “Francois absolutely idolised Jackie,” acknowledges Ken Tyrrell, “he hung on every word he uttered and soaked it all up like a sponge. He had a tremendous regard for Stewart and I feel he loved every minute of his time in the team with him.”

Unbeknown to anybody but a secret, select few, by April 1973 Stewart had made his mind up to retire at the end of the season. Although he was still at the peak of his form as a driver, he was tiring of the pressures and determined to quit while still ahead. Stewart finished his career with a third World Championship title, but Cevert was by now increasing in stature with every race that passed. The German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring saw the pair’s last convincing 1-2 with the Frenchman following round in the wheel tracks of his Scottish mentor. Stewart was impressed with the way in which Francois kept up. After the race he privately confided to Tyrrell: “He was quicker than I was today.”

The secret plan was for Francois Cevert to take over as Tyrrell team leader in 1974 once Stewart’s retirement had been made public, but fate stepped in and abruptly cancelled those plans at the last race of the 1973 season. Fighting hard for a place on the front row of the grid for the United States GP at Watkins Glen, Cevert’s Tyrrell crashed heavily during practice for that event. The Frenchman brushed the guard rail going into the extremely fast Esses, the car was unsettled and catapulted into the wall on the opposite side of the circuit. The enormous impact was not survivable. Tyrrell withdrew his cars from the meeting and the race took place under a sombre cloud of unhappiness at the passing of one of the sport’s most personable young ambassadors.

We will never know how Francois Cevert would have handled the responsibility of leading Elf Team Tyrrell in 1974, and Ken will not even allow himself today, some 12 years after Cevert’s death, to speculate how things might have turned out. “I think it is clear that, by the end of 1973, Francois was a driver of exceptional talent. He was a wonderful bloke, simply wonderful, and absolutely no problem at all to get on with. But we will never know whether he could have risen to the occasion without the spur of Stewart to drive him on. It’s very different having to set one’s own target rather than going out to match the efforts of a team-mate or rival. But he was a fine driver, of that there is no question.”

Out of the cockpit, Francois Cevert was universally popular and very much a lady’s man. “He only had to flicker those huge eyelashes and the women literally began go wobbly at the knees!” laughs Tyrrell this day. But his sincere charm and unqualified good manners also ensured that he was highly regarded and respected by his male colleagues as well. All in all, Francois Cevert seemed to have everything going for him when he embarked on that fateful, final qualifying run in the sunshine at Watkins Glen in October 1973. His countrymen were convinced he would be France’s first World Champion, but that was tragically not to be. Notwithstanding the efforts of Cevert’s successors, France is still waiting for its first title holder! — A .H.

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