Model Pupil François Cevert

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The debonair Frenchman learned quickly as Jackie Stewart’s understudy and was perfectly placed to become an F1 team leader. At Watkins Glen 40 years ago, however, fate intervened

Jackie Stewart was never going to be part of the Tyrrell team in 1974, having given Ken ample notice of his intention to retire at the end of ’73, but he nonetheless remained very much a member of the family, with an involvement in its plans, not least for the car that would succeed the successful 005/006.

“I spent some time with Derek Gardner when he was designing 007,” says Stewart, “and among other things said I thought the wheelbase of the current car was too short, and lengthening it would make the new one easier to drive.

“I reckon I was at my peak in my last year, but I remember Emerson [Fittipaldi] – who was driving the Lotus 72 – saying, ‘I don’t know how you drive that car…’ He and I were fighting for the championship, so a lot of the time he was watching my car from behind, and he was right: it was a handful.”

It was a curious situation at Tyrrell through the summer of 1973, for within the team only Ken knew this would be JYS’s last season – indeed, not even Helen Stewart was aware of her husband’s decision, he having wished to spare her the inevitable ‘countdown’ of races in what was a highly perilous era.

Although there had been rumours of his retirement it was not until October, during practice at Watkins Glen, that Tyrrell mechanic Jo Ramirez got an inkling that it was firmly in the wind.

“I was mainly on François’s car,” says Ramirez, “but the teams were much smaller then and you did whatever you were asked on either car. I was doing Jackie’s seat belts on the first day, and he said, ‘Is this the steering wheel I’ve used all season?’ I said yes, and he said, ‘Well, would you mind if I have it?’ That made me think maybe this really was going to be his last race – it would have been his 100th Grand Prix…”

So it would, but the perfect symmetry of Stewart’s career was ravaged by an accident at the end of Saturday morning practice in which Cevert lost his life. Not surprisingly the Tyrrell team withdrew from the race: for both the master driver and his protégé, Mosport Park, a fortnight earlier, had been the last time around.

Cevert’s F1 career was brief indeed, little more than three years. He had joined Tyrrell at mid-season in 1970, following the abrupt retirement of Johnny Servoz-Gavin after the Monaco Grand Prix. Servoz-Gavin, who had come to Tyrrell following the departure of Jean-Pierre Beltoise to Matra, always had the reputation of a playboy. But if he had a keen taste for both the ladies and Johnnie Walker, so there had often been flashes of real brilliance in a racing car: standing in for the injured JYS at Monaco in 1968, he shook the establishment by putting Tyrrell’s Matra-Cosworth on pole for what was his first race in an F1 car. Shortly before the start of the 1970 season, though, Servoz-Gavin took part in an off-road rally, during which he was struck in the eye by a tree branch.

Too terrified to inform Tyrrell, he began the season alongside Stewart, but was nowhere near the pace and at Monaco failed to qualify. His peripheral vision, he finally admitted to Ken, was not as it had been, and he thought it best to stop.

“I liked Johnny a lot,” says Stewart, “but although he could be very quick I never saw him as a great driver. I think he got frightened, quite honestly, and I don’t blame him for that. Remember that in ’68 we’d lost four drivers in consecutive months, and I think it played on his mind – he was quite a sensitive soul…”

Thus Tyrrell needed another driver, and it was obvious that Elf, the team’s major sponsor, would have a lot to say, that Jackie’s new team-mate would almost certainly be French, a graduate of the Elf-backed Winfield school.

It is a popular myth that Stewart became an advocate of Tyrrell’s going for Cevert after being beaten by him in a blanket finish at an F2 race at Reims in 1969.

“No, no, it wasn’t that,” he says. “No one would ever have used Reims as an indicator of driver talent. We knew it was a matter of, ‘Who’s the best French driver available?’ and Ken asked me to keep an eye on François. He seemed sufficiently good for me to say, ‘Well, he looks OK to me…’ although I can’t claim that at that stage I knew he was going to be special – it wasn’t like seeing Ayrton Senna in the rain at Monte Carlo, for example.

“Of the options available, I thought François was the best.”

Thus Cevert was signed, and he arrived without much experience: a few F3 races in 1967, followed by a full season in ’68 (when he won the French Championship), then a year and a bit of F2. François’s Zandvoort debut for Tyrrell came at the wheel of one of the team’s March 701s.

“Not ideal for your first experience of a Grand Prix car,” says Stewart. “The 701 was sometimes remarkably fast, but it really wasn’t very nice to drive: around somewhere like Hatch it was like a bucking bronco – just too much work.

“In practice at Zandvoort Ken asked me if we could go out together, so we went around nose to tail for a few laps, and François jumped five or six places up the grid. I’ve got to say that initially this helping him, bringing him along, was almost entirely down to Ken, not me. I liked François immediately, but at first I thought, ‘I’m not a nanny’ – I was busy trying to win myself! François was young and fresh and very… beholden, if you know what I mean. He was in at the deep end – and, of course, he made his F1 debut the same weekend as Piers [Courage] was killed…”

Ken Tyrrell took an avuncular attitude to Cevert in those early races, stressing that he wasn’t expecting anything in the way of spectacular results, but simply wanted François to learn all about F1. For a while the results were unremarkable, but at the Österreichring he qualified in the top 10, and at Monza finished sixth for his first championship point.

The weekend in Italy, though, left its mark. “It was there that I realised it could happen to me,” Cevert said. “On the Friday I spun the car at maximum speed, but somehow I didn’t hit anything – I laughed about it, and told all my friends. Next day, 200 yards ahead of me, Jochen Rindt crashed – and he was killed. That night I took pills, but still I couldn’t sleep – I realised that the previous day I should have been killed…”

For all that, it was in the next race, at St Jovite, that Cevert gave notice of serious intent. By now Tyrrell had launched its first car, in which Stewart took pole position and dominated while it lasted, but Cevert, still in the unloved March, qualified fourth, and fought with Amon’s similar car until a damper broke. Given that Chris was always exceptional at this true driver’s circuit, François’s performance registered.

In terms of results, the high point of the season was a victory for Matra, co-driving with Jack Brabham in the Paris 1000Kms at Montlhéry, but Cevert’s F1 prospects were excellent, for in 1971 he would be driving a Tyrrell, and continuing to benefit from the experience of the genius in the other car. By now the relationship with Stewart was beyond that of amicable team-mates: the two men were firm friends, and there was an echo of Fangio and Moss in the way Jackie held nothing back in his advice to François.

If the results had yet to come, Cevert had swiftly established himself in the F1 fraternity, not least because of his natural glamour. As with Paul Newman, everyone noticed his startlingly blue eyes, but if he were good-looking in a way that had girls gnawing at the back of their hands he carried it off with such grace that none could dislike him for it: not always the case, as others have shown.

“The thing about François,” said Stewart, “was that he was absolutely unpretentious and genuine – not at all infatuated with himself, as so many people like him are. He was from a very rich Jewish family, but from the way he was you’d never have known about the wealth.

“It’s fair to say that his relationships tended to be… on-off sorts of things – he was young, spectacularly good-looking and never short of company. I remember one day getting back from the track in Sweden – where we’d stay in people’s houses because there were no hotels near the circuit – and there was François in the shower with two of the Marlboro girls! I’m not sure he was… ready to marry, let’s put it that way, whereas Christina, his regular girlfriend towards the end, was, I think.”

Whatever else, Cevert was never less than intensely serious about his job. From the beginning he revered Stewart, appreciating that he was working with the best: any time Jackie had words of counsel for him, be it specifics about the car or simply managing a Grand Prix weekend, he was going to listen.

In 1971 Stewart took the second of his three World Championships, and Cevert, maturity growing by the race, finished third in the points standings, with second places (to JYS) at Zandvoort and the Nürburgring, a third at Monza – and finally, at Watkins Glen, a victory, the first by a French driver since 1958.

After 15 laps the Tyrrells were running 1-2, but then Stewart’s car began to understeer badly and Cevert was waved by. Later he came under pressure from Jacky Ickx, but that evaporated when the Ferrari retired with an alternator problem. At the finish the Tyrrell was 40 seconds clear of Jo Siffert’s BRM and Ronnie Peterson’s March.

In all my years of following F1, I doubt I’ve ever seen a more joyful winner than Cevert that unclouded autumn afternoon in upstate New York. Back then there was no formal podium, but there stood François, with the widest smile in the world, clutching his trophy as Chris Economaki interviewed him. Well-wishers engulfed him and I couldn’t get near, so I pointed my camera between the heads, pressed the shutter and hoped for the best.

So often in those days, though, a sting swiftly followed celebration. Three weeks after the US GP, a non-championship F1 race – the fifth in England that year – was organised at Brands Hatch following the late cancellation of the Mexican Grand Prix. It was named ‘The Victory Race’, in honour of Stewart’s title, but on a sorrowful day Jo Siffert died at the circuit where he had scored his most memorable victory: there would be a similar resonance in the racing world two years later.

No Grand Prix wins came Cevert’s way in 1972, his best places a pair of seconds at Nivelles and Watkins Glen, but drivers did not then confine themselves to F1, and François raced a variety of other cars, finishing second at Le Mans (sharing a Matra with Howden Ganley), second at Thruxton (in an F2 March), second at Paul Ricard (in a Cologne Capri shared with Stewart) – and first at Donnybrooke, one of five Can-Am races in which he drove a McLaren. It was a full life he led.

Early in 1973 Cevert triumphed at the F2 race at Pau, and crewed the victorious Matra at the Vallelunga Six Hours, but although he would six times finish second in Grands Prix (three of them on the heels of Stewart), there would be no more wins.

The last of those Tyrrell one-twos came at the Nürburgring, and years later Tyrrell would suggest that afterwards Stewart told him that, ‘François could have passed me any time he liked…’

“Well,” Jackie says, “I think that perhaps Ken’s memory was… playing tricks on him. François was second to me three times that season, but honestly I don’t think he could have overtaken me – and kept ahead of me. At the Nürburgring, for example, we had a big lead, so I wasn’t by any means going flat out – and if you want to speed up, the Nürburgring’s the place to do it, because you’ve got 147 opportunities a lap!

“I never felt that François was threatening me, but what I did say to Ken was that he was consistently improving, and I felt confident he was the right man to be number one in ’74 – I think he could have won the championship.”

As was the custom back in the day, the F1 season finished with a couple of races in North America, and on a chaotically wet day at Mosport, where initially no one quite knew who had won, Cevert was injured in an accident with Jody Scheckter. “After the race,” says Stewart, “Helen and I didn’t know how badly hurt he’d been, so when they said he was in hospital we went there feeling a bit anxious. ‘Are you a member of the family?’ they said – which is never a good sign.

I said, ‘No, but I’m his team-mate’, and they said OK, he was in room so-and-so. We went there – but the room had been cleared, and I thought, ‘Oh, Christ…’ I said to the nurse, ‘Is everything all right with Mr Cevert?’ ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘he’s coming along well’. ‘Oh, great – where is he?’ ‘Out on the balcony,’ she said, ‘smoking…’ God, the relief we felt!”

For the Canadian and US Grands Prix Ford had provided a Galaxie for Stewart’s use, and the intention had been to take a break between the races. “We asked François to come with us, saying that he could sit in the back, with his leg up. At first he said, ‘No, no, it’s your holiday’, but we persuaded him, and I’ll always be glad we did.”

They went first to Niagara Falls, which Helen had never seen, thence briefly to New York, then on to Bermuda. “I’d booked a place called the Ocean Reef Club,” said Stewart, “and it was very nice, but every night we’d go to the dining room and it seemed that everyone was 100 years old…

“There was a piano in there, and François got up to play. He really was a superb pianist – he’d been classically trained, and took it very seriously. The first night he started off with ragtime stuff and they didn’t know what to make of it – nobody applauded when he finished. Then he played his favourite piece, which was Beethoven’s ‘Pathétique’ Sonata, and the whole place was mesmerised. It was magic, and they clapped like mad – and of course after that he had to do it every night!

“While we were away François had a conversation with Helen about, ‘Is Jackie going to retire?’, and of course she didn’t know. He’d been asking me, too, and I kept saying, ‘I haven’t made up my mind…’ I mean, if I didn’t tell Helen, I couldn’t tell him.

“François said he’d had an offer from Ferrari, and I said, ‘Well, that’s good, but you don’t have to make the decision until the season’s over – I think you should stay with Ken’. He said, ‘Well, Ferrari are saying if I don’t sign they’re going to get someone else…’ I said, ‘Who are they going to get that is better than you? And next year’s Tyrrell is going to be awfully good…’

“In Bermuda he was in the sea all the time during the day – at the hospital they’d told him that water therapy would be good for him, if he was going to be able to drive at the Glen…”

By the time they got there Cevert was feeling fit again. He adored this circuit on which he had won, and was on the pace from the outset, vying with Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus and Carlos Reutemann’s Brabham for fastest time on the Saturday morning. Towards the end of the session he went out one last time.

The day before, Tyrrell had suggested to Stewart that he should let Cevert win. “He said, ‘Jackie, d’you know what would be a really good thing to do? If the two of you are running 1-2, it would be nice to let François past…’

“It was going to be my last Grand Prix, and I said, ‘Ken, that’s a lot to ask…’ He said, ‘Yeah – but you’ll look like a king if you do it…’ It didn’t really bother me, but I said, ‘Let’s leave it until Sunday – let’s see how we go in qualifying, because we may not be that fast, and it might be a situation that won’t arise…’”

Driving a third Tyrrell in the North American races was Chris Amon, who found the car wasn’t quite what he had expected. “I’d previously been driving the Tecno that season – which meant that I was very short of miles! – and at Mosport I found myself wishing I had it back: it was always good in the rain because it had no power and was on Firestones, which were better than Goodyear’s wets.

“What surprised me about the Tyrrell was that it was so twitchy, although it was better at the Glen, where the weather was dry, and I started to get some rhythm back. The car was nervous, though, particularly through the quick uphill esses. You had to be very precise, and very much on the right line. I found it better to use fourth there, rather than third, because the car was more settled, and I was taking it flat about three times in five. Judging by the times he was doing, François was taking it absolutely flat every lap – and I subsequently learned that he was using third…”

Stewart, like Amon, was using fourth. “To go quickly, third was the right gear – but there was a dip in the road, and because it was a very short-wheelbase car, the Tyrrell would twitch badly over it. François and I talked about it, and I said I knew fourth was slightly slower there, but it was consistent and there was more driveability. You always over-gear a nervous car: the biggest problem is not putting the throttle on but taking it off, because when you do that – in a car that’s already twitchy – the weight transfer has a big effect.”

At 11.54, with six minutes of the session remaining, Cevert’s car glanced the right-hand Armco barrier at the top of the esses, then instantly dived across the road into the guardrail on the left, which split open on impact. The car was destroyed and the driver killed instantly.

Amon and Jody Scheckter were among the first to stop at the scene. “I saw what I saw,” says Chris, “and I won’t add any more…”

“Jody was at the beginning of his F1 career,” says Jo Ramirez, “but he later told me that he very nearly gave it up right there and then…”

About the last to stop was Stewart. “Chris was already there when I arrived – I saw all the blue, so I knew it was a Tyrrell, and I thought it was he who’d had the accident. I said to him, ‘Are you OK?’, but he just shook his head – and then I knew it was François. It was a shocking sight, which fortunately Ken never did see, but I’ve always regretted that I didn’t stay there longer. That might sound like an odd thing to say – I knew he was dead before I got to the car – but it was something I felt.

“When I got back to the pits, I was so upset, so angry, that the sport could be this cruel that I threw my helmet in the cockpit of the car – not like me at all. Ken wouldn’t accept that François was dead, and kept saying, ‘How do you know that? You can’t be sure’. I said, ‘Ken, I know what I saw…’ Chris had got back before me and told him the same thing, but he still wouldn’t accept it.

“That was very Ken. Until the official statement was issued, nothing was definite. He was terribly shocked – but not emotional, which was surprising in a way because he could be such a compassionate man. I never saw him shed a tear. He was very affected by it all, but he never broke down. He went to phone the family in France, but they already knew. François’s sister Jacquéline (Jean-Pierre Beltoise’s wife) was not at the Glen that weekend, and it was she Ken spoke to…”

Had the accident occurred because of a mechanical failure? There remain those who believe so, but eye-witnesses said that Cevert had been a little wide at the first right-hand turn at the bottom of the esses, which put him tight and off-line into the left: apparently François never lifted and ran wide at the exit, skimming the barrier, then pitching across the road.

Another suggestion was that a puncture had put the Tyrrell wide in the first place, but that would surely have been detectable to the driver, who would have backed off.

“I think he was probably a little off line, got sideways and couldn’t get it back,” says Amon. “It is a difficult corner – several times I got reasonably sideways there. I talked to people who saw the accident, and if I’d felt there was any question of mechanical failure I wouldn’t have gone out in the afternoon session, and neither would Jackie.”

The decision had already been taken for Tyrrell to withdraw from the race, as a mark of respect. “The mechanics were concerned something had broken,” says Stewart. “I was sure I knew what had happened, but they were so distressed I felt I had to go out, even though I knew I wasn’t ever going to race again.

“The only reason for doing it was to show that I had the confidence to drive the car. Although it gave me no pleasure, I was happy I’d done it, because if those guys had left the track thinking that François had died because one of them had got it wrong… I really didn’t think that, because I’d had a moment like it before the accident – and also after it, actually, in the afternoon.

“Helen and Norah [Tyrrell] returned to the Glen Motor Inn, and I went there later after my run in the car. It was then that I said to Helen, ‘I’m no longer a racing driver’. How she coped with that much emotion in one day I’ll never know – she’d had to go and clear up François’s room, and pack all his things, just as she’d done for Piers and for Jochen. In those days the girls went through more than the men, I think.”

“Francois was the only driver ever to die in a Tyrrell,” says Ramirez, “but I remember someone telling me, ‘Look, if it’s any consolation, I was there, I saw it all, and nothing broke on the car…’ “I felt a bit better after that, but then Ken asked us to check the car over; it had been taken to a garage in the town, and he wanted to be sure that nothing had failed. We went down there, and it was just awful…”

As in 1971, the season had ended in calamity: like Siffert, Cevert had died at the scene of his greatest triumph, and everyone came back to Europe in deep sorrow at the loss of a superb racing driver, but more a well-loved man.

“I always thought François similar to Clay [Regazzoni] and Gerhard [Berger],” says Ramirez, “in that he was very good looking, with a lot of personality and charisma. He was the most genuine person you could meet, and I never heard anyone say a harsh word about him. He loved life, and lived it to the fullest, and that’s how I remember him.”

“François and I used to spend hours talking about flying,” says Amon. “He absolutely loved it, and had got his instrument rating in the United States a year or so earlier. He had a wonderful sense of humour and a remarkable amount of confidence.

“I remember a round of golf with him and Ken a few days before Mosport. When he won the first three holes, it was quite obvious Ken and I didn’t have a hope of beating him, so we changed our tactics. Every time he was about to make a shot Ken would say, ‘Hang on, there’s a bird rustling the leaves in that tree – I’ll just go and stop it…’ and so on. François got more and more annoyed, but he beat us in the end and you’d have thought from his delight that he’d won The Open! Just a lovely guy…”

“François and I had a fantastic relationship,” says Stewart. “I can’t ever remember having a row, or even a disagreement, with him. It was a closer friendship even than I had with Jochen – I sort of saw François as my little brother: he was like a member of the family.”

Nigel Roebuck

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