In the sixties and the seventies, when Formula One racing made a rapid rise in popularity, many great talents showed up, but also disappeared throughout the seasons filled with breakthroughs, heroic wins, as much as horrible accidents. One of the remarkable names of the time, among many, was Francois Cevert. Despite scoring just one Formula One victory, the talented and inherently charismatic young Frenchman had a huge impact during just four seasons that he spent in the world premier open-wheel series.
He wanted to be a racer even as a kid
Francois was born Albert François Goldenberg in 1944, a son of a Russian-Jewish jeweler and a French resistance member Charles Goldenberg. Not to draw suspicion, all of his children bore their mother's surname, Cevert, and after the end of WW2, the name stuck with them.
Coming from a wealthy family, Francois had all the time and means to indulge in his passions early on, beginning to race with his mother's Vespa in his teenage years. Soon, he switched to Norton bikes, and upon returning from the army, he finally made a switch to four-wheeled machinery.
Cevert in a Tecno F3 formula in 1968
French Formula 3 champion in 1968
During 1966, he completed Magny-Cours and Le Mans driving schools, and he also won the Volant Shell scholarship competition which provided him an Alpine Formula 3 car. His first year in F3 wasn't that good, so after 1967, he found sponsors for the year of 1968.
With their help, Cevert traded his car for a Tecno formula. This time, he had a competitive car and ended the 1968 as the national Formula 3 champion. His success prompted a move to F2 and Tecno factory works for 1969. At the time, Formula Two races were driven by Formula One racers as well, and that was the period when Cevert gained some experience needed for advancing to Formula One.
Elf wanted a Frenchman in Tyrrell, and they got one of the best
A myth states that after the departure of from Tyrrell, Jackie Stewart advocated signing Cevert because of his great win over Stewart in F2. However, in reality, Cevert's transfer to Tyrrell was a result of the team sponsor Elf wanting a Frenchman in the team. As an established driver, he took the young Cevert under his wing and made him his protege.
While Stewart drove the Tyrrell 001, Cevert debuted in the fast, yet demanding, March 701 on Zandvoort and retired from the race; no pressure was put on him during 1970, as both Ken Tyrrell and Jackie Stewart had a highly protective attitude towards the young and talented Frenchman. In Monza, Cevert scored his first Formula One point by finishing sixth, which was his best finish for 1970.
After gaining experience in 1970, Cevert had a great 1971 season
Cevert scored his only F1 victory at 1971 US Grand Prix
Cevert's best Formula One season was 1971. His relationship with Stewart was on a much higher level at this point and with more experience, Cevert got to better results in a Tyrrell 002. It started out badly, with three retirements and the seventh place, but everything changed at the 1971 French Grand Prix when Cevert scored his first Formula One podium by finishing second, just behind his mentor. The success was followed by two more podiums, the second place in Germany and third in Monza.
Season's crown came when he scored his only Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, the last race of 1971. The young Frenchman finished third in the championship, behind Stewart who scored six wins and who didn't win a race, but had consistent results throughout the year. At the time, Cevert was only the second driver coming from France to win a Formula One race.
Cevert at the 1971 US Grand Prix
Second place at 24 Hours of Le Mans
After a great 1971, 1972 was disappointing for Cevert, at least when it comes to Formula One results. He finished with just the two second places in Belgium and USA, finishing sixth at the end of the season.
However, as he wasn't confined to just Formula One, Cevert had success in other series, most notably at 24 Hours of Le Mans. François Cevert and New Zealander drove a Matra-Simca MS670 to the second place, behind and in an identical car. In addition to that, Cevert won second place at Thruxton in an F2 March and second at Paul Ricard in a Cologne Capri he shared with his mentor Jackie Stewart.
Cevert driving the Tyrrell 002
Ready for the main Formula role
In 1973, Stewart was already planning his retirement after he felt that Cevert's skills are brushed up and that the young Frenchman is ready to run the team as the first driver. Francois started the year with two victories: one in F2 at Pau and at the Vallelunga Six Hours endurance race for Matra.
The Formula One season-opening was no different and Cevert opened with a second place at the 1973 Argentinian Grand Prix driving a Tyrrell 006, where Stewart followed him on third. In Brazil, he got only to tenth, and in South Africa, Cevert didn't qualify.
A series of great results followed after two disappointing races: two second places in Spain and Belgium, fourth in Monaco, third in Sweden and second again in France. After scoring fifth in Great Britain, Cevert won two more second places, one at Zandvoort and the other at the Nurburgring. In Austria, Cevert suffered a suspension failure, and at Monza, he finished fifth, just behind Stewart who got up to fourth after an early tire puncture and secured his third championship. During the whole year, but particularly at the 1973 Nurburgring Grand Prix, Stewart felt that Cevert could overtake him and leave him well behind numerous times, but decided to be a decent teammate and respect the hierarchy.
Fatal accident at Watkins Glen's Esses curves
With two more races left and a title in his hands, Jackie definitely decided to retire after 1973 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, which would have been his 100th Formula One race. In Canada, he scored fifth but never started his jubilee event. The reason for that was Cevert's untimely death at Watkins Glen, the track where he scored his first and only Formula One win.
While battling with Ronnie Peterson for his first Formula One pole position, Cevert went a bit wide in the uphill Esses curves, catching the curb and losing control of the car. His Tyrrell 600 swerved from left to right and then left again, hitting the barrier so hard that the impact instantly killed him. Out of respect for Francois Cevert, Jackie Stewart and Tyrrell withdrew from the race. The accident left a deep impact not just on Ken and Jackie, but the whole community, as their lost the most talented young driver at the time.
Francois Cevert and Jackie Stewart in 1973
It is worth noting that prior to the event, Ken Tyrrell asked Stewart to let Cevert win should the circumstances allow. Naturally, Stewart wanted to retire with a victory and was reluctant at first, but he never got the chance to make up his mind about Tyrrell's request.
Driver's error caused an accident
Immediately after the fatal accident, Stewart went on the track, to what was left of the car, concluding that the accident happened mainly because Cevert tackled the curves in third gear, which would give him a faster exit albeit with the risk of his car jumping because of its short wheelbase. That strategy was the matter of a heated debate between Cevert and Stewart just before the practice session.
A similar incident reoccurred in 1974 when Helmuth Koinigg got killed as well. For 1975, a chicane was added to prevent high speeds in the Esses and was removed when the track lost its Formula One licence.
Francois Cevert's fatal accident
Cevert was one of the most beloved and respected racers
An undeniable talent, striking beauty and charisma partnered with a great personality made Cevert one of the most beloved and respected racers by both the public and his fellow drivers. Numerous anecdotes refer to him as a modest, down-to-earth, cool young man with many hidden talents, such as superb piano playing and a penchant for beautiful women that could rival even James Hunt. Had Cevert made it through the infamous Esses at Watkins Glen, he would have been one of the best Formula One drivers of all time.
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