INSIGHT: The tragic tale of Francois Cevert

INSIGHT: The tragic tale of Francois Cevert

Formula 1

INSIGHT: The tragic tale of Francois Cevert

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Motor racing is essentially a science; it’s about nuts and bolts, numbers on lap charts, and stopwatches. But sometimes other influences seem to play a part. Fate and coincidence loom large in many tragic stories in the sport’s history, and rarely more poignantly than in the case of Albert Francois Cevert, who died 40 years ago this week.

Just before qualifying for the 1973 U.S. Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, he pointed out to his mechanics that it was October 6th, he was driving Tyrrell 006, his race number was “6”, and he was sitting in front of DFV number 066. It was, he said, his lucky day, a golden chance to get the first pole position of his Formula 1 career.

 

Another number had significance that weekend. Only a handful of people knew it, but the 100th grand prix for his close friend, teammate and mentor Jackie Stewart, would also be the triple World Champion’s last. After three and a half years in the maestro’s shadow, Francois was poised to take over as Tyrrell’s team leader the following season. The world was at his feet.

With deadly timing, misfortune intervened. On the limit in his quest for pole, Cevert lost control and speared into a poorly secured barrier with such force that the blue Tyrrell was savagely ripped apart. France’s greatest racing driver, a man most expected to be the country’s first World Champion, died instantly of horrible injuries. The devastated Stewart didn’t make that 100th start. Cevert’s mechanic Jo Ramirez recalls that when DFV 066 was being stripped back at Cosworth, engineers were shocked when the block inexplicably fell to the ground from a bench.

Back in 1966, when he had barely started his racing career, did Francois unwittingly make a date with destiny? In June that year, his then girlfriend Nanou Van Melderen had paid a visit to a clairvoyant. Seven years earlier, the same woman had told Nanou of a future relationship; much later, when she met Francois, it all seemed to come true. On this second visit, the old woman claimed that her loved one would be a huge success, but that his job would eventually force them apart. Nanou subsequently told a skeptical Francois what she’d learned and, keen to find out more, he later insisted on seeing the old woman himself. Unaware of any connection with her previous client, the woman nevertheless told Cevert what she’d already spelled out to his girlfriend.

“It’s a true story,” says his sister Jacqueline. “Nanou liked very much to see a medium. As a joke, Francois accepted to go one day. The woman said that he will have a great, great success, many good things will happen.”

But there was one startling revelation which came as news to Cevert. Nanou had heard it too, but had preferred not to tell him.

“The woman stopped speaking,” says Jacqueline. “And then she said Francois will not see the beginning of his 30th year. And he said, No problem, I will be World Champion before then.’ He laughed, because he didn’t believe this woman.”

When he died at Watkins Glen, Francois Cevert was 29 years old.

Tall and with looks that set many a female heart racing, Cevert made an indelible impression on all who knew him. Friends remember him with great affection, and it’s perhaps fitting that, like James Dean, he’s frozen in people’s minds as the youthful, dashing, blue-eyed charmer.

“He was one of the best friends I’ve ever had,” says Stewart, “and one of the nicest men I’ve ever known. He was one of the family.”

“He was such a flamboyant and natural person,” recalls Ramirez. “It was impossible not to like him. He had a superb personality.”

Cevert’s most loyal supporter was younger sister Jacqueline, who strengthened her ties with the sport when she married his friend and rival Jean-Pierre Beltoise. She was extremely close to her brother.

“He was very possessive,” she recalls. “When we were very young, we were always together and I couldn’t speak to another boy! I couldn’t be alone he was always looking after me. Even when I got married, he was still like that. He was jealous of Jean-Pierre. He said to me one day, You don’t love me now, you are married with Jean-Pierre, you stopped loving me!’ It was terrible…”

Cevert’s family background was unusual. He should really have been known as Francois Goldenberg that was the surname of his father Charles and his roots were as much Russian as French. Cevert was actually from wealthy, aristocratic stock, which perhaps helps to explain his gentlemanly nature.

“My great-grandfather had money,” recalls Jacqueline. “It was an old family, and nobody had to work. He gave money to every son and daughter, and when he thought the revolution was coming, he sent his family from Russia to France, Brazil, the USA. We still have family everywhere in the world!

“My grandparents, my father and his brothers came to Paris. Afterward, the money kept coming from my great-grandfather, but then he was killed, and the money stopped. So at 10 years old, my father and his brothers had to work in the streets to try to get some money no school, nothing. It was very hard for my father when he was young.”

Against the odds, Charles Goldenberg built up a successful jewelry business. In 1938 he met Huguette Cevert, and they fell in love. When WWII broke out he joined the Resistance and, as a Jew, he had to live in hiding. They still managed to have three children Francois was the middle one, born in February 1944 and against the odds the relationship survived the war. Although they would be together for over 45 years they never got around to marrying, and the kids kept their mother’s family name.

Growing up in affluent surroundings, young Francois developed an early interest in wheels and speed.

“My father liked sports cars very much, and my mother did too,” says Jacqueline. “He had a Salmson convertible, which was very fast. They didn’t like races, but they liked to drive very fast on the road. For Francois, it was always cars. In France, we say “une auto.” My mother said when he was young, he could not say it exactly he always said “toto, toto.” This was his first word!

“When he was 15 he told my mother every day, It would be better for you if you had a scooter to do your shopping.’ So my mother bought a Vespa, but she never rode it – Francois took it and began racing with his friends in the streets. After that he had a Morini 125, and he went to school with that, and when he was 19 he had a Norton.”

An obsession with bikes led to a short-lived career as a two-wheeled racer one event at Montlhery, to be precise before Francois turned his attention to cars. National service put his plans on hold, until in 1966 the 22-year-old was able to complete a course at the racing school on the new Le Mans Bugatti circuit. His ambitions did not go down well at home.

“My father didn’t understand how you could win money,” says Jacqueline. “He said, You can’t live on this sport, Francois, you must be rich to do it. It’s not a profession. What if you have a wife and family? You must be serious!’ My parents didn’t think about the danger at this time.”

Later, Cevert switched to the Winfield school at Magny-Cours, where the enticement was the Volant Shell scholarship, and the prize of an Alpine Formula 3 car. Francois and Nanou worked all hours in mundane jobs to pay for his tuition. He qualified for the scholarship final, and against expectations, he beat the favored candidates, including grand prix winner-to-be, Patrick Depailler.

Francois duly launched himself on the unsuspecting French Formula 3 world, with hardly any money to his name. He could drive fast, but he knew nothing about race craft, and even less about how to prepare his uncompetitive Alpine the prize turned out to be an outdated ’65 model. But somehow he made it from race to race. On one famous occasion he was in dire need of a tire for his battered trailer, and stole a wheel from a Mini parked outside a police station. Despite the hard slog, though, there were no results. Estrangement from his frustrated parents he hardly saw them in 1967 did not help.

But he persevered, and in 1968 picked up a little sponsorship from a fire extinguisher company. He bought a new Tecno, and suddenly everything clicked, he started winning races all over Europe, edged another future F1 race winner Jean-Pierre Jabouille to the French title in a dramatic showdown, and won back the respect of his father. The following year he stepped up to F2, with Tecno works support. He won a Reims slipstreaming battle, and in August made his grand prix debut in the F2 class at the Nurburgring.

Progress continued in 1970, and then in June a dream opportunity arrived. Hampered by an eye injury and lacking in confidence, Tyrrell’s Johnny Servoz-Gavin suddenly announced his retirement, leaving the team boss in urgent need of a number two driver for resident star, Stewart.

The stopgap March 701 was not a great car, and Cevert made a quiet debut at Zandvoort. He scored his first point at Monza, a day after witnessing the end of Jochen Rindt’s fatal qualifying accident. He didn’t make the same impression as fellow rookies Emerson Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni, but Tyrrell wanted someone steady and sensible who was willing to learn from Stewart. It worked perfectly. Jackie and Francois established a teacher/pupil relationship the like of which has rarely been seen.

“He was very anxious to learn,” says Stewart. “He was a good listener, and wanted to know everything we were doing. He was a young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed racing driver with incredible enthusiasm and energy. At Tyrrell we’d always made a point of sharing everything between both drivers, so he got everything that I had in the way of setup, lines, gear ratios, anything at all. He learned that he had to be smooth, that he couldn’t upset the car.”

Cevert began to make news in his own right in 1971, when Tyrrell introduced its own chassis. He was second at Paul Ricard and the Nurburgring (the latter with fastest lap), and a close third in the famous photo finish at Monza. In the season closer at Watkins Glen he was in just the right place to take advantage when Stewart slowed with tire problems; it was to be his only grand prix victory.

The 1972 season was something of a disappointment second at Nivelles and Watkins Glen were the only decent rewards in a frustrating year but in ’73 Cevert really came of age. As Stewart sped to his third title, Cevert spent many laps sitting in his wheel tracks. They finished one-two at Zolder, Zandvoort and Nurburgring, and three more second places, plus success with Matra in sports cars (ABOVE, finishing second at Le Mans sharing with Howden Ganley, pictured), confirmed that Francois was on the verge of making it big.

 

In the penultimate grand prix at Mosport, Francois had a huge accident, following a controversial tangle with Jody Scheckter. The front of the chassis folded up, but somehow he escaped with badly bruised anklesand a technicolor opinion of the South African. There followed a two-week gap before the Watkins Glen finale. Cevert hobbled around as he joined the Stewarts on trips to Niagara Falls and Bermuda, discussing what was on the cards for 1974.

“He had an offer from Ferrari,” says Stewart. “He had no idea I was retiring. I didn’t tell him, but Ken and I agreed that I’d be the one who told him that he was going to be number one. In Bermuda he was always asking, What should I do, should I go?’ and I said, ‘I think you should stay with Ken, have another year of learning, I’m not going to be here forever.'”

At Watkins Glen, Tyrrell signed Scheckter for 1974. Although Stewart denies it, the late Ken Tyrrell told this writer that Francois did know that Jackie was about to stop. Did Tyrrell tell Cevert that weekend that he was to inherit JYS’s seat, with Jody as his teammate? Certainly if Francois had heard about the Scheckter deal, he would have been very disconcerted unless it had been made clear that Jackie was quitting. But whatever the reason, he was on inspired form.

“He was very confident,” recalls Ramirez, “His first win had been there [at the Glen] and he wanted to do it again. I think he’d really made the decision to get pole and win the race. The number sixes were probably another thing which contributed to his determination, the feeling that everything was going to be alright.”

Cevert was fourth and had just set his two fastest laps of the session when he went missing; witnesses said that he appeared to just overdo it. The first driver on the scene was, in a further twist, Scheckter. What he saw forever colored his attitude to motor racing. Francois was beyond help.

“I was waiting for my second baby,” says Jacqueline, “which is why I wasn’t in the USA. I was not very well, and I didn’t want to travel. We were out, and my brother Charles heard the news from somebody who phoned and just said, Francois is dead.’ We came home, and he was terribly shocked. We never knew who called we thought it was someone completely crazy. It seemed impossible. I tried to get hold Jean-Pierre in Watkins Glen, and half an hour later, he called.

“My father was in a very bad way, and for a few weeks afterward, his heart was broken. He died in 1985. He was more secretive than my mother; I could speak with my mother, but I never could speak with my father about Francois. For my mother especially, it was like Francois died just yesterday.”

The year after the accident, Nanou Van Malderen first told the story of Cevert’s visit to the medium in an introduction to the biography, A Contract With Death. It set the family thinking.

“There was one strange thing,” says Jacqueline. “In the last year of his life, 1973, he was always second. He had good success. One day I was with my mother and we met him in the street at Neuilly, at home. He was sad and nervous, and my mother said, No problem, everything is going well for you. You’re always second, it’s fantastic.’ Francois was a little bit upset. He said, Yes, I am second, but I won’t be World Champion this year.’ My mother and me were very surprised at this. She said, Ah, but it will be next year.’ After he was dead we thought about that. It was so strange why did he say this at this time? Did he believe what the medium said?

“My mother wanted to see this woman. She took a photograph of Francois when he was 12 years old you could not recognize him and she gave this photograph to the woman, and said, Speak to me about him.’ The woman put her hand on the photo, she shut her eyes, and said, I see many successes, many great things, it will be fantastic, he is recognized by the whole country.’ She didn’t say he was a racing driver, but that he would have a great career. Then she stopped speaking. She opened her eyes. She looked so surprised and so afraid. She looked at my mother and said, “He is dead…”’

JACKIE STEWART ON CEVERT’S ACCIDENT

“I am sure it was human error it’s not a kind thing to say but it’s not an unfair thing to say either. It was a righthander followed by a lefthander followed by a righthander. At the crest of the hill there was a bump. The barrier was three high on either side, so it was a real funnel.

“The 006 was a short-wheelbase car, very twitchy, and I’d decided that I was going to run in fifth through there, even though it was the wrong gear. It settled the car more so it was less nervous. I’m sure that Francois was going through there in fourth gear. When he realized he hit the bump, I’m sure he came off the power, and I think when he came off the power he just got into oversteer, hit the barrier on one side, and the car rocketed over to the other and just demolished itself.

“I didn’t know where he was, because there was so much of the car on the track. In fact he was over the barrier, with the main part of the monocoque. I regret to this day that I didn’t stay with him. But in my mind there was nothing to stay for, as it was so horrific, so horrendous, justbrutal. I got back in the car and went back to the pits, and I was angry the waste, the destruction, the scale of the accident. But there was nothing to be done.

“Although we didn’t race, I actually went back out to drive the car in the afternoon, for all the Tyrrell boys. They felt it was a mechanical failure, and I said it wasn’t: I felt the need to demonstrate that with the confidence of going back out and driving. And I had exactly the same thing happen to me on that bump as happened to him. But I was in fifth gear

“By 1973, Francois was very quick. I think he could have won the World Championship in ’74, because that car was better than in ’73. And I would have been there, because I’d have gone to all the races with him. His father and mother were lovely people, and his sister and brothers too. I send flowers to his grave every year, and his mother wrote me a letter every year.”

KEN TYRRELL (team owner, interviewed in 1998)

on Cevert’s potential

“Francois was a natural candidate for us. Everybody said it was because of Elf, but it was really because of what Jackie said about him. We’ll never know if he could have gone on to become World Champion, but if you ask Jackie the question, I think he’d say that Francois was as quick as him at that time. He was obviously a great natural talent but, like with everybody else, it takes time to develop. There’s no question that in his last year, in at least two races where they finished first and second, Jackie said to me after the race that Francois could have passed him.”

on Cevert’s personality

“He was a very charming young man. He was very handsome, so the girls all loved him. He only had to flutter his eyelashes and the girls fell about. He wasn’t just an employee of the team. The whole team and the family were very upset about it. I had to decide whether I wanted to continue. I sort of felt that it was perhaps best to do something about making the cars and circuits safer rather than just go away.”

on Cevert’s fatal accident

“When he went out he said, I’m going to put this car on pole now,’ and he’d gone out to do that when he lost it. I was at the Canadian GP this year, and afterward, I went down to Watkins Glen, and dedicated a plaque to him in the pavement in the main street. Then we went up to lay some flowers where he was killed. The awful thing is that, looking at the place where it happened, you realize that if he’d been driving a modern car he would have walked away from it.” 

JABBY CROMBAC (journalist, interviewed in 1998)

“Francois was a real gentleman, very courteous, very intelligent. He had everything going for him. But young enthusiasts were jealous, because he was so handsome, from a rich family and he’d slept with Brigitte Bardot!

“He was a personal friend of mine, and after the accident I had to help. I took Jean-Pierre Beltoise to the phone, and we had to call the family. I was given some dreadful tasks by Ken: I had to go with [Ken Tyrrell’s wife] Norah and pack Francois’ things. That’s one of the saddest things you can do open a wardrobe and take the suits of a friend of yours who’s been killed, and pack his suitcase. And I had to go and choose a coffin. That’s one of the worst memories of my life.

“I also had to organize how to bring the body back, because in America you need all sorts of rubber stamps. I called Francois Guiter from Elf, who used to be in the secret service. The next morning, a guy turned up from the French secret service, and he pulled strings immediately, so we were able to bring him back.

“I’m pretty sure that if Francois hadn’t been killed, he would have been World Champion the following year. Jackie had opened everything to him, and the reason he was so good was because he was younger, greedier because he hadn’t had the title yet and he had acquired the experience from Jackie. Jody Scheckter used the Tyrrell 006 for the first three races of 1974. It was not a good car, but Jackie and Francois had learned how to manage it. Jody didn’t score any points until they had the 007 ready, but at the end of the year he was not very far off winning the title.”

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