Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

François Cevert // A look at the history of the French F1 driver

Published by Steven Roy

Jackie Stewart's final Grand Prix car, the Tyrrell 006/2
Credit: zawtowers cc:ann

François Cevert was born in Nazi occupied Paris in February 1944. His father was Charles Goldenberg whose parents had taken him to Paris from Russia to escape the Russian revolution in 1905. Goldenberg was a successful jeweller in Paris but as a registered Jew he had to join the French resistance to avoid deportation. His children were given their French mother’s surname, Cevert, to keep them safe from the Nazis.

Cevert became interested in motor racing after meeting his sister’s boyfriend and future Monaco grand prix winner Jean-Pierre Beltoise. After completing two years of national service Cevert entered and won the Volant Shell competition in 1966. The prize was a sponsored season in the French formula three championship with Alpine. Cevert impressed and was offered a works Alpine drive but chose instead to drive for Tecno. This turned out to be a good decision as he won the championship.

Tecno took him into formula two in 1969 and again he impressed by winning at Reims and finishing third in the championship. He also made his grand prix debut at the German GP albeit in the F2 class. He stayed with Tecno in 1970 and also raced in sports cars for Matra.

Jackie Stewart had raced against Cevert in sports cars and Formula Two and when his F1 team mate Johnny Servoz-Gavin retired as the result of an eye injury, which he felt made it too dangerous for him to continue in F1, Stewart told Ken Tyrrell that he should sign Cevert. Stewart had first noticed Cevert in an F2 race at Crystal Palace when he struggled to overtake the younger driver. From then until Servoz-Gavin retired Stewart had been watching Cevert’s progress.

Tyrrell ran March cars for most of 1970 before introducing the first Tyrrell design. Both cars proved to be unreliable. Stewart retired from 8 of the 13 races, mainly due to engine related problems, but finished 5th in the championship. Cevert managed to finish 5 of the 9 races he started and scored his first point at the Italian Grand Prix.

1971 was a Tyrrell season. Stewart took his second championship winning 6 of the 11 races. Cevert in his first full season of F1 took two seconds and a third before recording his only win at the last race of the season at Watkins Glen, giving him third place in the championship behind Steward and Ronnie Peterson. His F1 campaign was backed up with some major F2 wins. Clearly Cevert had very quickly established himself as a top driver.

Cevert’s 1972 F1 season is best forgotten. He retired or was not classified in 5 of the 12 races due to technical problems and retired from another due to a spin. He added another couple of second places to his record but could only manage 6th in the championship.

Jackie Stewart took his third championship in 1973 taking 5 wins from the first 14 of 15 rounds of the championship. He only failed to score points in two of those races. Lotus was the dominant team but their wins were split between Emerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson allowing Stewart to take the championship.

Stewart had decided early in the season that he would retire at the end of the year but had only told three people as he didn’t want his wife counting down till the end of the season. Cevert was going to be his successor as the number one at Tyrrell but had not been told. As a result he was considering offers from other top teams. He did not win any races in 1973 but he was second 6 times. Three of those were one-twos behind Stewart who said he believed that at some of those races Cevert could have passed him at any time he wanted. Despite not winning he finished fourth in the championship only 8 points behind the second placed Fittipaldi.

As with all the drivers at that time, although he was established as a top F1 driver and a star of the future Cevert was racing in all sorts of classes. He helped MATRA-SIMCA to win the World Constructors Championship in sports cars in 1973 winning the Vallelunga 6 hour race along with Gerard Larousse. He also won the F2 race at Pau.

Going into the last race of the season at Watkins Glen, Stewart had already won the championship and Ken Tyrrell suggested that should he and Cevert be running first and second Stewart should wave his team mate through to take the win and symbolically hand him the baton of team leadership. This was to be Stewart’s 100th grand prix and as he himself has said the whole thing was just too neat.

On Saturday morning Cevert left the track and crashed horribly. His car lifted the bottom rail of the Armco barrier and he was killed instantly. Jackie Stewart was one of the first drivers to arrive at the scene of the accident and got out of his car and went over to see Cevert. He was still in his car and obviously dead. Stewart returned to the pits and then did one of the bravest things any racing driver has ever done. He and Cevert were very close and Stewart had taught him everything he knew. He wanted to know why Cevert had crashed so he got back in his car and went out again. Cevert had gone off on a fast uphill right-left esses section. Stewart ran a few laps to try to identify the cause of the accident and decided that Cevert probably took the bend one gear lower than Stewart and as a result the engine was much higher in the rev range so that when he hit a big bump the tail stepped out leading to the accident. Stewart always took that section in a higher gear so that the engine revs were lower and the car more docile over the bump.

Having satisfied himself as to the cause of his team mate’s death Stewart pulled into the pits and retired from racing.

An interesting postscript to Cevert’s death is the supernatural aspects to it. Now, I make no judgement on these but simply re-tell them for the reader to consider. Cevert’s girlfriend Anne Van Malderen had seen a clairvoyant who told her that Cevert would die before his 30th birthday. She told Cevert of some of the other things the clairvoyant had said but not about his death and he decided that he should see the same clairvoyant. The clairvoyant told him exactly the same prediction that he would die before his 30th birthday. The race at Watkins Glen where he died was the last race he would have done before his 30th birthday.

That may seem curious enough by itself but in his latest book Jackie Stewart added an anecdote of his own which adds to this aspect of Cevert’s death. Cevert was very close to Stewart’s wife Helen and had told her that if he died he would try to contact her. As well as being a racing driver Cevert was a classical pianist and his favourite piece was Beethoven’s Pathetique which was a piece he played at every opportunity. In the two weeks between the Canadian and US GPs Cevert went to Bermuda with the Stewarts and played this piece on the hotel’s grand piano every night. Just before Xmas that year Stewart’s younger son Mark decided he wanted to buy his parents a present so asked for some money to buy it. He decided he was going to buy a record and insisted on going into the record shop on his own. He was about 7 years old and picked the record because he liked the cover. He had no idea what music was on the record. On Xmas morning the present was unwrapped and it was Beethoven’s Pathetique.