Johnny Servoz-Gavin

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Down at the tip-top bar, that Sunday night in May 1970, we waited and hoped for Jochen Rindt to arrive, as the winner of the Monaco Grand Prix traditionally did in those days. It must have been nearly midnight when he and Nina, swinging the trophy between them, emerged from the Prize-giving Gala at the Hotel de Paris, strolled across Casino Square, and on down the hill.

It had been perhaps the most exciting race I have ever seen, with Rindt’s old Lotus 49, lapping more than a second under the pole position time, relentlessly moving in on Jack Brabham. At the Gasworks Hairpin the last corner of the last lap Brabham understeered into the fence at my feet, and Rindt, incredulous, took the flag.

Now, six hours later, he loosened his bow-tie, and drank beer from the bottle in time-honoured Tip-Top style. I don’t believe I ever saw a man happier from winning a motor race.

On a yacht in the harbour, meantime, another party was going on, and the man who had organised it should, logically, have been in despair, for while team-mate Jackie Stewart had started that afternoon from pole position, he had not so much as qualified. In point of fact, though, Johnny Servoz-Gavin, working his way easily through a bottle of Chivas Regal, was a man without a care. Indeed, he felt only relief. “You have seen me,” he said to his friends, “in a racing car for the last time.”

They all laughed at that, but he meant it, and stuck to it, too. The following week he informed Ken Tyrrell of his decision, and he never raced seriously again.

Two years earlier, Servoz-Gavin had started the Monaco Grand Prix from the front row, and what made that the more remarkable was this was his first race in a Formula One car. In an F2 accident at Jarama, Jacltie Stewart had broken his wrist, and Tyrrell needed someone to drive his Matra-Cosworth in Monte Carlo. He thought first ofJean-Pierre Beltoise, but he was to debut Matra’s own V12 car; next down on the company list was the man always known as Servoz’. At 25, he had made a strong impression in F3 and F2.

As a rabid F1 fan, I made my first visit to Monaco in 1968, and thought, like many others, I saw latent greatness in this newcomer.

He was wonderful to watch that weekend. Clearly it wasn’t Stewart at work in the light blue car, and more than the unfamiliar helmet told you that. Servoz realised what an opportunity had been handed to him, and where Jackie would soothe a car into going quickly, his young stand-in bullied it. Hence, the Matra frequently found itself at angles not encountered before.

If I recall anything in particular of that weekend, it was the Saturday morning session, which was wet and treacherous. Servoz enjoyed himself fully, time and again power-sliding through Casino Square, in the manner of a Rindt In that rainy session, he was two clear seconds faster than anyone else, and in the dry afternoon was beaten only by Graham Hill.

The following day they lined up side by side, and at the fall of the flag the Matra was first away. Probably it was wisdom and experience that kept Hill from following too closely, and they served him well. For three laps Servoz ran away from the pack, but on the fourth he abruptly slowed, left-rear suspension broken. Although Johnny still insists he never hit anything, onlookers at the chicane were adamant his car had kissed the barrier at the exit. Whatever, the Matra retired at the pits, with Tyrrell stony-faced, his driver ready to weep.

Servoz was one, it seemed to me then, absolutely right for his time. If the name looked great on the side of a cockpit, so also the man looked the part After an era in which too many F1 drivers for my taste, anyway were to be seen pushing prams around paddocks, Johnny had the freewheeling ways of my childhood heroes. He was a throwback to Alfonso de Portago, a reminder that not all racing drivers lived like monks. Servoz, emphatically, did not live like a monk. “I always liked the girls,” he said, which is a little like saying Michael Schumacher is quite quick. Johnny also liked to eat and drink well liked the good life, in fact.

A playboy, then, and something of a hippy, too. This was the late ’60s after all, and his hair was fashionably long; he was also years ahead of the game when it came to designer stubble. Very louche, in a James Dean sort of way, but not contrived. Simply, he seemed like a free spirit who had found the perfect job. The abiding problem was that he lacked the commitment to do justice to his talent.

Despite the setback at Monaco, Tyrrell occasionally entered a second Matra for Servoz in ’68, and at Monza he took a fine second behind Denny Hulme. There was no question of a drive with Ken for 1969, though, for Matra were keen to ‘place’ Beltoise in the Tyrrell-run team until ready to return with their own factory outfit the following season. That year, therefore, Johnny concentrated on F2, and clinched the European championship with a victory in the last race, at Vallelunga. For 1970, Tyrrell hired him as Stewart’s permanent number two. He looked set.

Then, one day that winter, he contested one of those curious semi-rally events, so beloved in France, for such as Jeeps and Land Rovers. It was fun, nothing more, but in some woodland, a small branch caught him in the right eye. Aware of the possible consequences for his career, Servoz initially said nothing. He had treatment in hospital, stayed in a darkened room for five weeks, and hoped.

In the early races of 1970, though, the old panache and the pace were gone. Of course it didn’t help that Tyrrell was now running a pair of agricultural March 701s, rather than Matras, but Stewart certainly made the most of his, winning the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama. That same day, Servoz was fifth, two laps down, the last man to finish.

He was and is a complex man, and even 30 years ago found F1 a little too pressured for his liking. “I was never a true professional,” he said. “I was only a professional because I didn’t have the means to be an amateur.”

What most affected his motivation, though, was that he knew his peripheral vision was fundamentally, and permanently, impaired. Placing the car accurately for right-handers was now impossible, for he had the impression he was putting a wheel off the road, when in fact he was still a few inches from the apex. At Monaco, where he created a sensation only two years earlier, he failed to qualify, and at one stage had a big accident at the chicane.

“I wasn’t enjoying it, anyway,” he said, “and I thought back to Lorenzo Bandini’s accident in the same place, three years earlier: he was burned to death.” By the end of that weekend, he had made up his mind to quit, which is where we came in. “I told everyone I was retiring because I was scared. There was much more to it than that, of course, but saying it that way avoided hours of discussion. I just wanted to break free, get away.”

A month later, Francois Cevert appeared in the second Tyrrell March at Zandvoort, and by then Johnny had turned his attention to sailing which, unlike motor racing, was to be an enduring love. He bought a 37-metre yacht and took it across the Atlantic; it was the best way, he said, of learning how to sail properly.

“That was when I realised there was something else harder than F1: the sea! When things go wrong, you can’t pull off by the tracicside, or come into the pits. You’re alone with your boat and the elements it made me feel very humble, but I loved it.”

In the early 1980s, Servoz was dreadfully burned on one of his boats, when a gas canister exploded. For a time, his life hung in the balance, but ultimately he recovered, and he sails to this day, a forgotten figure in motor racing circles, but not greatly concerned about it.

Who knows how good Johnny Servoz-Gavin really was, or what, had his sight not been damaged, he might have made of a grand prix career? Probably not too much, because he simply didn’t want it enough it got in the way of the good life. Just on the evidence of that wet morning in Casino Square, though, it seemed to me he had talent to throw away. Which, of course, is precisely what he did with it.

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