So many of the drivers I feature here could well have won Formula 1 World Championships. Of course, when people think of the best drivers never to win a championship, Stirling Moss springs to mind. But, it is my opinion that the greatest driver never to win the championship was François Cevert. He was tipped as Jackie Steward’s successor, and was France’s great hope of the decade. But, as so many others did, safety (or lack of it) stopped him in his tracks.
Albert François Cevert Goldenberg was born in February 1944 in Paris. He was the brother-in-law of Grand Prix driver Jean-Pierre Beltoise. As a child, he raced on his mother’s Vespa scooter against friends. He took a training course at the Le Mans school, and then started at the Magny-Cours racing school. He registered for the Volant Shell scholarship competition, which offered the top finisher the prize of an Alpine F3 car. He won the scholarship, the car, and entered Formula 3 in 1967. However, he was unable to keep up his car financially and technically by himself, so he sought sponsorship, and traded in his Alpine for a more competitive Tecno car. He instantly showed his form, and won the 1968 French Formula 3 championship ahead of Jean-Pierre Jabouille.
The next year, Cevert joined the Tecno Formula 2, and did very well, finishing third overall with one win. Also, he made his Grand Prix debut, albeit in the F2 class, in Germany that year. In one of the races that year, Jackie Stewart had a hard time getting past the Frenchman. Since then, Stewart told his manager, Ken Tyrrell, to keep an eye on the young Frenchman.
In 1970, Johnny Servoz-Gavin suddenly retired from the Tyrrell F1 team 3 races into the season as the result of an eye injury. After watching him progress through F2, Tyrrell called up Cevert to drive for the Tyrrell team for the rest of the season. Cevert drove his first F1 race at Zandvoort, the Dutch GP. In the 9 races he drove that season, he finished 5 of them, and scored his first ever point at the Italian Grand Prix. Every single race he competed in, he closed the gap to team-mate Jackie Steward. That year, Tyrrell were running March cars, which were horribly unreliable, although Cevert had made enough of an impression to be resigned for 1971.
Francois Cevert finished second at the 1971 French Grand Prix
Tyrrell took a huge risk by making their own car, the 001. It payed off massively, with Stewart taking the world championship. For Cevert, he took his first podium, first fastest lap and first ever win that year. His victory was at Watkins Glen, the season finale, his fastest lap was at the Nurburgring, and the podium at his home race, the French GP. He finished 3rd in the championship, behind Steward and Ronnie Peterson. He also took victories in touring cars and the CanAm series that year.
1972 was a year to be forgotten for Cevert. Lotus and Emerson Fittpaldi won the championship, whereas Cevert could only finish in the points three times, one of those at the French Grand Prix (4th). He did however do well in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, finishing second in a Matra. By this time, the Tyrrell team-mates were good friends, and Stewart was never shy of advertising Cevert’s potential to win a championship.
Francois Cevert driving a Matra in Le Mans in 1973
For the 1973 season, Tyrrell were back at the top of Formula 1. Stewart and Cevert took three 1-2 finishes that year. Francois was able to keep up with Stewart at nearly every race now, and the Scot had a surprise planned for him at the end of the year. Since Stewart was planning to retire at the end of the year, he was going to hand the first driver role to Cevert for next year. Ken Tyrrell had it all planned out before the final race of the year at Watkins Glen: Steward and Cevert would be running 1-2, then Jackie would hand the win to Francois on the final lap, and symbolically hand him the baton of leadership of the team. Stewart had already won the world championship, so the plan didn’t bother him. However, tragically, the plan never occurred.
In practice for the US Grand Prix, Cevert approached the fast right-left uphill combination, called “The Esses”. Francois’ car moved too much to the left hand side, meaning he bumped off the kerb, and speared off towards the right-hand side of the corner. The car touched the track’s safety barriers, which caused the car to smash into the barriers on the other side of the track at a near 90° angle, which completely uprooted the barriers after the impact. Cevert was killed instantly through injuries after hitting the barrier. Jackie Stewart was one of the first on the scene, and saw that the stewards had left Francois in the car, because he was clearly dead. Jackie returned to the pits, and proceeded to do one of the bravest things any race driver has ever done.
Francois Cevert's car just after his crash at Watkins Glen in 1973
When practice resumed, Jackie went out in his car, and took the Esses in fifth gear, as he always did. He did this because the lower revs meant the car was less jumpy through these corners. After this, he took the corner again, but this time in fourth gear, as Cevert always did, and realised very quickly how Francois had lost control. When he was satisfied as to how his team-mate and close friend had died, he pulled into the pits to end his racing career, as he and Tyrrell then dropped out of qualifying and the race in respect for Cevert.
Manou Zurini, a photographer, recalled what happened when he asked Jacky Ickx for information:
“Jacky Ickx had just arrived and I leant on his car with both elbows
but I could not question him. I saw he was crying, and then I knew
that it was all over for poor François. Jacky Ickx is not the sort
of chap to cry”.
Francois Cevert is never remembered as he should be, mainly because he is recorded as only winning one Formula 1 race. However, we can only imagine what he could have done if he had been able to lead the Tyrrell team into 1974. Even after he died, though, there was one more event which we must mention.
As well as being a racing driver Cevert was a classical pianist. His favourite piece was Beethoven’s Pathetique, and he played it at every opportunity. In between the 1973 Canadian and US Grands Prix, just before he died, Cevert went to Bermuda with the Stewart family, and played Beethoven’s Pathetique on the hotel’s grand piano every night. Much later that year, Stewart’s son Mark decided that he wanted a record for Christmas, but insisted that he buy a record at random in the record shop, and not look at it until Christmas Day. He was only 7, and picked a specific record because he liked the cover, though he had no idea what the record was. On Christmas Day, he opened the record to reveal Beethoven’s Pathetique.