Francois Cevert: A Date With Destiny?

Francois Cevert died 25 years ago. Adam Cooper talks directly to family and friends about the man and finds his meteoric rise and the timing of his tragic death were all foretold by a clairvoyant years earlier.

Motor racing is essentially a science; it’s supposed to be about nuts and bolts, numbers on lap charts and on stopwatches. But sometimes other, less tangible factors seem to play a part. Fate and coincidence loom large in many tragic stories in the sport’s history, and such is the case of Albert Francois Cevert.

Just before qualifying for the 1973 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, the Frenchman pointed out to his mechanics that it was October 6th, he was driving Tyrrell 006, his race number was six, and behind him sat Ford Cosworth DFV number 066. He said it was his lucky day, a golden chance to claim the first pole position of his F1 career.

Another number had significance that weekend. Few people knew it, but the 100th Grand Prix for his friend and mentor Jackie Stewart would also be his last. After three and a half years in the maestro’s shadow, Francois was poised to become Tyrrell’s team leader for the 1974 season. The world was at his feet.



With deadly timing, misfortune intervened. Right on the limit in his quest for pole, Cevert lost control and speared into a poorly secured barrier with such force that the blue Tyrrell was savagely ripped apart. France’s greatest racing driver, a man most expected to be the country’s first world champion, died instantly of his injuries. The devastated Stewart never made that 100th start.

Cevert’s mechanic Jo Ramirez says that when DFV 066 was back being stripped at Cosworth, engineers were stunned when the block inexplicably fell from a bench to the ground.

There’s more. Back in 1966, when he had barely started his racing career, did Francois unwittingly make a date with destiny?

Back then, his girlfriend Nanou Van Melderen saw a clairvoyant. Seven years earlier, the same woman had told Nanou of a future relationship; when she met Francois, it all seemed to come true.

On this second visit the old woman claimed her loved one would be a huge success, but that his job would force them apart. Nanou told a sceptical Francois what she’d learned, and keen find out more, he insisted on seeing the old woman. Unaware of any connection with her previous client, the woman told Cevert exactly what she’d already spelled out to his girlfriend.

From the archive

“It’s a true story,” says his sister Jacqueline today. “Nanou liked to see a medium. As a joke Francois decided to go. The woman said he will have great success, many good things will happen.”

But there was one startling revelation which came as news Cevert. Nanou had heard it too, but had preferred not to tell him.

“The woman stopped speaking,” says Jacqueline. “And she said Francois would not see his 30th birthday. He said, ‘No problem, I will be world champion before then.’ He laughed, because he did not believe this woman…”

On the day he died, Francois Cevert was 29 years old.

Tall and with looks that set female hearts racing, Cevert made an indelible impression on all who knew him. Friends remember him with great affection, and it’s fitting that, James Dean-like, he’s frozen in people’s minds as the youthful, dashing, blue-eyed charmer who doubled as a talented classical pianist.

Those who knew him best seem to speak with one voice. “He was one of the best friends I’ve ever had,” says Stewart, “and one of the nicest men I’ve ever known. He was one of the family.”



“Such a flamboyant and natural person,” recalls Ramirez. “It was impossible not to like him. He had a superb personality.”

“He was a very charming young man,” says his boss Ken Tyrrell. “He was very handsome, so the girls all loved him. He only had to flutter his eye lashes and the girls fell about.”

“He was a gentleman, courteous and intelligent,” remembers veteran journalist Jabby Crombac. “He had everything going for him. But young enthusiasts were jealous, because he was so handsome, from a rich family and he’d slept with Brigitte Bardot!”

Cevert’s most loyal supporter was younger sister Jacqueline, who strengthened her ties with the sport when she married his friend and rival Jean-Pierre Beltoise. Jacqueline was extremely close to her brother.

“He was very possessive,” she recalls. “When we were very young we were always together. I couldn’t speak to another boy. I couldn’t be alone, he was always looking after me. Even when I married Jean-Pierre, he was like that. He was jealous of Jean-Pierre. He said to me one day, ‘You don’t love me now you are married with Jean-Pierre, you stopped loving me!’ It was terrible…”

Francois duly launched himself on the unsuspecting French F3 world. He could drive fast, but knew no racecraft, and even less about how to prepare his uncompetitive Alpine. Somehow he made it from race to race. Once he was in dire need of a tyre for his battered trailer and stole a wheel from a Mini parked outside a police station. Despite the slog there were no results. Estrangement from his frustrated parents – he hardly saw them in 1967 – did not help.

But he persevered, and in 1968 picked up a little sponsorship from a fire extinguisher company. He bought a new Tecno, and suddenly everything clicked – he started winning all over Europe, pipped Jean-Pierre Jabouille to the French title in a dramatic showdown, and won back the respect of his father. The following year he progressed to F2, with Tecno works support. He won a Reims slipstreamer, and in August made his GP debut in the F2 class at the Nürburgring.

Progress continued in 1970, and, in June, a dream opportunity arrived. Hampered by an eye injury and lacking in confidence, Tyrrell’s Johnny Servoz-Gavin announced his retirement, leaving the team boss in urgent need of a number two.

“Francois was a natural candidate,” Tyrrell recalls. “‘Everybody said it was Elf, but it was really what Jackie said about him.”



The stopgap March 701 was not a great car, and Cevert made a quiet debut at Zandvoort. He scored his first point at Monza, a day after witnessing Jochen Rindt’s fatal qualifying accident. In those early races he failed to make the impact of fellow rookies Emerson Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni, but Ken wanted someone sensible, willing to learn from Jackie. It worked. JYS and Francois established a teacher/pupil relationship of rare harmony.

“He was very anxious to learn,” says Stewart. “He was a good listener, and wanted to know all we were doing. He was a young bright-eyed racing driver with incredible enthusiasm and energy. He learned he had to be smooth, that he couldn’t upset the car.”

Cevert began to make news in his own right in 1971, when Tyrrell introduced its own chassis. He was second at Paul Ricard and the ‘Ring (the latter with fastest lap), and third in the famous photo finish at Monza. In the season closer at Watkins Glen he was in the right place to take advantage when Stewart slowed with tyre problems; it was to be his only Grand Prix victory.

The 1972 season was something of a disappointment – second at Nivelles and Watkins Glen were the only decent rewards in a frustrating year – but in ’73 Cevert came of age. As Stewart sped to his third title, Cevert spent many laps sitting in his wheeltracks. They finished one-two at Zolder, Zandvoort and Nurburgring, and Francois had three more second places. Success with Matra in sportscars showed he was on the verge of making it big.

What he saw coloured forever his attitude to motor racing; Francois was beyond help.

In the penultimate GP at Mosport, Francois had a huge accident after a controversial tangle with Jody Scheckter. The front of the chassis folded up, but somehow he escaped with just badly bruised ankles, and a technicolor opinion of the South African. There followed a two-week gap before the Watkins Glen finale; Cevert hobbled around when he joined the Stewarts on trips to Niagara Falls and Bermuda, discussing what was on the cards for 1974. “He had an offer from Ferrari,” says Stewart. “He had no idea I was retiring. I didn’t tell him, but Ken and I agreed I should tell him, because he was going to be number one. In Bermuda he was asking, ‘What should I do, should l go?’, I said ‘You should stay with Ken, have another year of learning; I won’t be here forever.’”

From the archive

Cevert’s family background was unusual. He should really have been known as Francois Goldenberg – that was the surname of his father Charles and his roots were as Russian as French.

“My great-grandfather had money,” reveals Jacqueline. “It was an old family, and nobody had to work. When he thought the revolution was coming, he sent his family from Russia to France, Brazil, the USA. We still have family everywhere in the world.

“My grandparents, father and his brothers all came to Paris. Afterwards, the money kept coming from my great-grandfather, but then he was killed, and the money stopped. So at ten years old, my father and uncles had to work in the streets to get some money. It was very hard for my father when he was young.”

Against the odds, Goldenberg built up a successful jewellery business. One day in 1938 an attractive girl walked into his shop; her name was Huguette Cevert. They fell in love, but war was around the corner. Charles was Jewish, and the relationship remained secret.

When he joined the resistance, Charles became a prime target for the Nazis. He lived in hiding in a maid’s room in the attic of an apartment building, while Huguette stayed several floors below.

“He was registered as a Jew, and did not live with my mother because he was afraid the Gestapo was coining. He was a wanted man. It was very difficult for them, very dangerous…”

During the war children Elie, Francois (born in February 1944) and Jacqueline were all registered with their mother’s surname, as was a third son, ‘Petit’ Charles.



“My mother gave her name to my brothers and myself, and after it stayed like that. A long time afterwards my father said your name is Goldenberg, but we said everybody knows us by the name of Cevert, we can’t change. After the war my father wanted to marry my mother, but she said ‘We have the time, we’ve passed five years without being married, let’s wait a little bit.’ They waited another 45 years, until he died they never did marry.”

Growing up in affluent surroundings, Francois developed an early interest in wheels and speed. “My father liked sportscars very much, and my mother too,” says Jacqueline. “For Francois, it was always cars. In France, we say ‘une auto’; my mother says when he was young, he could not say it exactly he always said ‘toto, toto.’ This was his first word.

“When he was 15 he told my mother every day, ‘It would be better for you if you had a scooter to do your shopping.’ So my mother bought a Vespa, but she never rode it; Francois took it and began racing friends in the streets. After that he had a Morini 125, and and then, when he was 19, he had a Norton.”

An obsession with bikes led to a shortlived career on two wheels – one event at Montlhery, to be precise – before Francois turned to cars. National Service put plans on hold, until in 1966 the 22-year-old completed a course at the Le Mans race school.

His ambitions did not go down well at home.

Later he switched to the school at Magny-Cours, where the carrot was the Volant Shell scholarship – and the prize of an Alpine F3 car. Francois and Nanou worked all hours in mundane jobs to pay for his tuition. He qualified for the scholarship final and beat the favoured candidates – including one Patrick Depailler.

From the archive

At Watkins Glen, Tyrrell signed Scheckter for 1974. Although Stewart and Crombac deny it, Ken insists Francois did know that Jackie was about to stop. Did Tyrrell tell Cevert that weekend he was to inherit JYS’s seat, with Jody as team-mate? Certainly if the Frenchman had heard about the Scheckter deal he would have been unsettled, perhaps less so if it had been made clear that Jackie was quitting. But for whatever reason, he was on inspired form.

“He was confident,” says Ramirez, “His first win was there and he wanted to do it again. I think he’d made the decision to get pole and win the race. The number sixes were probably another thing which contributed to his determination, the feeling that everything was going to be alright.”

“When he went out he said, `I’m going to put this car on pole now,’” says Tyrrell, “and he’d gone out to do that when he lost it.”



Cevert was fourth and had set his two fastest laps when he went missing; witnesses said he seemed just to overdo it. In a further twist, the first man on the scene was Jody. What he saw coloured forever his attitude to motor racing; Francois was beyond help.

“I was waiting for my second baby,” says Jacqueline, “which is why I wasn’t in America. I was not well, and I didn’t want to travel. We were out, and my brother Charles heard from somebody who phoned and just said “Francois is dead.” We came home, and he was terribly shocked. It seemed impossible. I tried to get Jean-Pierre in Watkins Glen, and, half an hour later, he called.”

The year after the accident, Nanou Van Malderen first told the story of Cevert’s visit to the medium in an introduction to the biography, A Contract With Death. It set the family thinking.

“There was one strange thing,” says Jacqueline. “In the last year of his life, 1973, he was always second. He had good success. One day I was with my mother and we met him in the street at Neuilly, at home. He was sad and nervous, and mother said, ‘No problem, everything is good. You’re always second, it’s fantastic.’ Francois was a little upset. ‘Yes, l am second, but I won’t be World Champion this year.’ We were very surprised. She said, `Ah, but it will be next year.’ After he died we thought about that. It was so strange – why did he say that at this time? Did he believe the medium?

“My mother wanted to see this woman. She took a photograph of Francois when he was 12 years old – you could not recognise him – and gave this photograph to the woman, and said ‘Speak to me about him.’ The woman was very, very old. She put her hand on the photo, she shut her eyes, and she said, ‘I see many successes, many great things, it will be fantastic, he is recognised by the whole country.’ She didn’t say he was a racing driver, but that he would have a great career. Then she stopped speaking. She opened her eyes. She was so surprised, and so afraid. She looked at my mother and said, ‘He is dead…’”