The laughing cavalier

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Just as he was poised to don Jackie Stewart’s mantle, Fate overtook dashing Francois Cevert. We look back at the Frenchman’s career

Death fully defines a man.

Potential for things not yet done no longer exists.” Someone said this in a book about jazz great Eric Dolphy, but it applies universally to us all.

When an obviously gifted racing driver dies young, long before his full potential can be realised, we can only speculate about how great he might have become. Having said that, few would dispute the claim that Francois Cevert would have been France’s first world champion — long before Alain Prost — had he not been killed in practice for the 1973 US Grand Prix at the tender age of 29.

October 6th this year marks the 20th anniversary of that sad event, an appropriate time to recall the talented Frenchman. Coincidentally, as if the fates attempted to heal a wound, the day France eventually did crown its first world champion (12 years later at Brands Hatch in 1985), was also reserved for October 6th. Francois was born on February 25, 1944, in occupied France. His father, Charles Goldenberg, was Jewish. Time and place being what they were, Francois, his brother Elie and sister Jacqueline were given their mother’s last name. Charles did not approve of Francois’ interest in motor racing. He was a jeweller, and felt motor racing was the frivolous pursuit of playboys. He did in time, however, come to admire his son for achieving success in such a difficult field, and with no help or encouragement from him. Francois was not the only family member to become involved in the world of motorsport. His sister Jacqueline was most taken by racing, was a fixture at many races, and went on to marry Jean-Pierre Beltoise.

Jean-Claude Halle’s biography on Cevert documents that Francois had seen a psychic as early as 1966, when he sought a sign as to how he might do in the Shell scholarship competition he was embarking on. He was informed he would win the challenge that was before him, and would achieve great fame and success, but would not live to see his 30th birthday. Francois shrugged it off to his then girlfriend, joking that it was all right because by then he would already be world champion. The ill-fated Watkins Glen weekend was the last race he was due to drive before turning 30.

His subsequent victory in that Shell scholarship helped him progress through the ranks, and by 1970 he was a significant presence on the Formula Two circuits, which in those days boasted grids peppered with the major Formula One stars as well. Jackie Stewart was racing in the Formula Two event at London’s Crystal Palace circuit when he spoke to Ken Tyrrell about Francois. “Jackie approached me and said that he had followed this young fellow Cevert and he thought he was very good and we ought to have a look at him”, says Ken. “It was really a bit of talent scouting by Jackie himself.” “I had raced against Francois in Formula Two on more than one occasion”, says Stewart. “I remember one particularly good race he had at Reims, and he had a good race at Crystal Palace. We saw quite a bit of him and we reckoned that he was very talented.”

Cevert joined the Tyrrell team as Stewart’s partner partway through 1970 following the sudden retirement decision of Johnny Servoz-Gavin following an eye injury that he had hitherto kept secret and which had caused him to crash in the Monaco GP. Francois drove his entire, and brief, three and a half year F1 career with Tyrell until his death at that final race meeting of 1973.

By 1971 his true potential was being realised by Ken. “Contrary to what a lot of people write, I have no special talents for recognising drivers that are good. If they’re quick, they’re good. In Francois’ first full year, he finished second in France and Germany, and that’s pretty good by any standards.” Going one better in the final race of that ’71 season (the US GP at Watkins Glen), Francois drove with as much pace as tactical circumspection, and netted his first, and only Grand Prix win. He was learning the lessons of his team-mate, and learning them well. He finished that first full season third in the championship. “Francois and Jackie had a very special relationship,” Ken relates. “Francois sort of worshipped Jackie. There was a recognisable friendship between them which led Jackie to be very free with his advice, or teaching of Francois. I think that was a tremendous help to him, and Francois appreciated it a great deal.”

Right from the very beginning we had a very good human relationship,” recalls Jackie. “Francois more than anything else, apart from the talent, had enormous charm. And that was a human, natural charm. That wasn’t just for the ladies, although he attracted a great deal of attention in that department. He mixed comfortably in with the mechanics and everyone else. Our relationship very much developed immediately into the professor and the pupil.” Following the 1973 German Grand Prix (a dominant 1-2 for Tyrrell on the daunting 14-mile Nurburgring circuit), Jackie told Tyrrell that he felt Francois was faster than him that day, and could have passed him any time he wanted.

“That’s what I felt,” Jackie says. “I felt in my final year that Francois could have beaten me on more than one occasion. When I say he was faster, he wouldn’t have done it for the full season and he wouldn’t have won a championship at that time, as I think I knew how to control the pace of a race very well by then, and I never went any faster than I needed to go. He was still obviously of more tender years and therefore his exuberance could have driven him on to be faster than I was. I liked that. I think I was thrilled because I had been part of his learning experience and obviously I’d passed on everything that I knew to him because I knew l was retiring.

I had not held back prior to that. I had taken him around every race track, walked him around, driven him in a street car and had him follow me in a Formula One car. He knew everything that I knew and when you’re young and brighteyed and bushy-tailed, you can’t always consume all the information. But if you’re doing it for two or three years together, that information can be fed into the machine progressively, and clearly I was aware of that. He developed very well.” Considering the numerous second places Cevert scored in his career, with only the one Grand Prix win, was he a winner in the classic sense?

“He was a winner”, says Stewart. “I think he would have won the championship in 1974. The car (Tyrrell 007) was very good. I know this because I had been part of developing it. Clearly he would have shown the car in a better light than Jody Scheckter because Jody was coming into his first full season. I don’t think Jody was ready to win races at that time.” As it was, Jody only lost that ’74 title at the final round, and by seven points. With Francois at the helm it does not require too much of a leap to suggest he would have clinched that close-fought title, and probably earlier than Watkins Glen.

Regarding Francois’ numerous second places to Stewart, particularly in ’73, Jackie says, “Keep in mind that in ’73 I was at the very height of my career. For him to compete with me at that time, would be like me trying to compete with Jim Clark in 1968. I think I could have won the odd race, but I couldn’t have taken the title from him because he just knew too much. In ’73 I knew too much.” Ken Tyrrell concurs with Stewart’s assessment of Francois’ potential to take the title in ’74. “We would have expected Francois to have performed better than did Jody. In ’73 the Tyrrell-Ford 006/2 had won five races and had eight seconds, but neither Jody nor Patrick (Depailler) could come to terms with that car and we had to build a more forgiving car to suit these two drivers in their formative years. The 006/2 was a very successful car, but it required drivers of a high standard to get the best out of it. You can have a car which is comfortable to drive and the driver can feel very confident in it. But it may not be quick.”

The short wheelbase 006/2 of ’73 had a reputation for being ‘twitchy’, and difficult to drive. This certainly contributed to Cevert’s demise. “Francois’ accident was awful”, Tyrrell relates. “It was near the end of the last practice and he was confident he could achieve pole position. It was on his last attempt when he lost control and hit the guardrail. Of course part of the tragedy is that he would almost certainly have survived — walked away from that accident — in a modem Grand Prix car. Such is progress.” There was a bump in the middle of the Glen’s treacherous Esses which upset the balance of the 006. “Following the bump”, Tyrrell continues, “was the guardrail where the race track went over an entrance tunnel to the inside of the circuit. So there was a guardrail right alongside the racetrack on either side, there being no room for an error at all.”

Was the accident driver error? “It was a driver error,” Stewart says, “only in the sense that the car hit a bump, and the day that he died I had the same thing happen but I was going through the corner one gear higher than him. I’m not sure it was the fastest way, my way, but because the car was very nervous in its movement, I had decided that if I stuck it into fifth gear rather than fourth it was more mellow through that series of corners. It happened to me, the same bump, and l could have ended up the same way as Francois actually. That’s why I’m absolutely convinced that it was the bump and the reaction of the car. It got away from him and he hit the barrier on the right-hand side which rocketed him into the barrier on the left-hand side which caused all the damage. It was not overexuberance. It could have happened to anyone. I mean, we were the fastest pair on the track. A Tyrrell would have won the race.”

Francois’ accident was one of those that created a hush around the entire circuit as drivers arrived on the scene and stopped, to eventually trickle back to the pits, ashenfaced. One veteran journalist said he knew it was all over for Francois when he saw Jacky Ickx arrive in the pits, and realised that Ickx was crying. The Belgian, he had noted, was not the sort of chap to cry. Halle’s biography documents that mechanic Jo Ramirez, weeping at the side of the track, said, “During one of his stops, just a few minutes before the accident Francois said to me: ‘Watch my times, I’ll fix ’em.

Do you notice that I am driving Tyrrell number six, chassis number six, engine number 66 and that this is the sixth October? It’s my day.” The other small irony about Cevert’s career was that the same circuit upon which he claimed is only H win — Watkins Glen — should also be the one which claimed his life. He remains the only driver to ever die in one of Tyrrell’s cars. What was the personal impact of such a loss? “Francois had become part of our little family”, says Ken. “His enthusiasm and his character were such that he sort of lightened our lives.

He was always outgoing and there was a sparkle about him. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve not experienced a death of a young member of our close family, but the loss of Francois must have been close to losing a son. In the weeks following the accident I seriously, seriously considered leaving motorsport. But common sense prevailed I suppose and I hope that I’ve since contributed to the increasing level of survivability of the modern Grand Prix car. Francois’ death did, however, change the way I dealt with drivers. I do now try to keep the personal relationship more at arms’s length.”

On Francois’ particular strengths as a driver, Stewart says, “He was very quick and could drive a car to the limit very well. Keep in mind he was still a developing driver. His ability to set up a car had not yet developed. Like every young developing driver there is a peak and valley performance. He was planing out on that and was modulating that very well. There weren’t the same peaks and valleys as there had been two years before or even one year before. He was (in ’73) absolutely more consistent, but that’s what experience brings. He was not overly impetuous, was very conscientious, and very fit.”

“The difference between Jackie and Francois in ’73,” Tyrrell says, “was that Jackie was on a wind-down, and Francois still had it all to do. Francois was such an outgoing character that I would have said that he had no enemies. He was well-liked by other drivers except those who regarded him as a bit too quick for them, which is fairly normal.”

Is there anyone amongst today’s drivers who resembles him a little in terms of general demeanour or temperament? “I think, to some extent, Schumacher”, says Stewart.

His best race? Jackie and Ken differ slightly in their opinion. “I think the US Grand Prix that he won”, Stewart says. “He really drove a good race that day. I think also the time he was second in the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard in ’71.” As for Ken, “I think the Nurburgring in ’73 where he finished second to Jackie and could have won, but chose not to.

How is Francois Cevert remembered today? What most clearly comes to mind when he is thought of? “I still feel of him as still being with us”, Stewart says. “We still have a beautiful photograph of him in our home. He was a great pianist. His great piece was Beethoven’s Pathetique piano sonata. Every time I hear it there’s only one man in my mind, and that applies to Helen and the whole family. I don’t know if those who read this believe in life after death, but Francois Cevert’s spirit is still absolutely buzzing around.” The final word belongs to Ken: “I suppose, and I’m speaking for my wife Norah now as well, we would like to think that if you heard a knock on the door and you weren’t expecting a visitor and you opened the door and Francois was standing there, you’d be pleased about that.” P D

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