Albert François Cevert Goldenberg was a French racing driver in Formula One from the early seventies who was the prodigy that sadly never became. Son of Charles Goldenberg and Huguette Cevert, his legacy as a racing driver and a charming young man, is still felt in the field of Motorsports, especially Formula One.
Cevert started his racing career at the age of sixteen at first on two wheelers. In 1966 he completed a training course at the Le Mans school, before enrolling at the Magny-Course racing school. At the same time he registered for the Volant Shell scholarship competition, which offered the top finisher the prize of an Alpine Formula Three car. Cevert duly qualified for the final race and won.
His first season in Formula Three was nothing special, having lacked sponsorship money and experience. But later on he traded his Alpine for a more competitive Tecno car and started winning races, eventually securing the French Formula Three title.
Ceverts iconic French flag inspired helmet design
In 1969, he joined the Tecno Formula 2 team. This was at a time when Formula 2 was a breeding ground for future Formula One drivers, and it was what Ceverts main goal was. When Sir Jackie Stewart, an already Formula One champion at that time, had a hard time getting around Cevert in an F2 race at Crystal Palace the same year, Stewart told his team manager Ken Tyrrell (Owner and Manager of the Tyrrell F1 Team) to keep an eye on the young Frenchman. This personal recommendation was to pay off in 1970, as when Tyrrell needed a new driver at short notice Stewart’s recommendation was still in his mind. Tyrrell later commented on the reason for Cevert’s appointment to the Formula One team that “everybody said it was (French oil company and Tyrrell sponsor) Elf, but it was really what Jackie said about him.”
When Johnny Servoz-Gavin suddenly retired from the Tyrrell Formula One team three races into the 1970 season, Tyrrell called upon Cevert to be his number two driver, alongside defending World Champion Stewart. Over the next four seasons, Cevert became the veteran Stewart’s devoted protégé. After making his debut at the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort in Tyrrell’s second customer March-Ford, he increased his pace and closed the gap to Stewart with virtually every race. He earned his first World Championship point by finishing sixth in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
In 1971, with the Tyrrell team now building their own cars, Cevert finished second in France and Germany, both times behind team leader Stewart. Then, in the season-ending United States Grand Prix at the newly extended Watkins Glen Race Course, the Frenchman earned his first and only Grand Prix win.
Francois driving the famous Tyrrell 006
Cevert became only the second Frenchman to win a Formula One World Championship Grand Prix and received 50,000 U.S. dollars as award. It was the high point of his career, helping him take third place in the 1971 Drivers’ Championship behind Stewart and Ronnie Peterson.
Francois Cevert and Sir Jackie Stewart (Happy Times)
Great expectations for Cevert, Stewart and Tyrrell were not fulfilled in 1972, Cevert finished in the points only three times, with second places in Belgium and the USA, and a fourth at his home race in France at the Clermont-Ferrard circuit. One bright spot in a disappointing year for Cevert was his second-place finish at the 24 Hourse of Le Mans, driving a Matra-Simca 670 with New Zealand’s Howden Ganley.
Francois Cevert competing in Le Mans driving a Matra-Simca 670
Not all good things last long, and life had different plans for the young Cevert, maybe a bit too harsh for plans. At Watkins Glen in 1973, with Stewart having already clinched his third World Championship, Cevert was killed during Saturday morning qualifying, while battling for pole position with Ronnie Peterson. In the fast right-left uphill combination called “The Esses”, Cevert’s car was a little too far over towards the left side of the track, getting a bump from the kerbs. This made it swerve towards the right-hand side of the track, where it touched the track’s signature powder blue safety barriers causing it to spin and crash into the barriers on the other side of the track at a near 90° angle, uprooting and lifting the barrier. Cevert died instantly of massive injuries inflicted by the barrier. Jackie Stewart was one of the last on the scene of Cevert’s accident.
Scene of the fatal crash: The Tyrrell 006 lies overturned on the barrier, with Ceverts deceased remains inside.
When practice resumed, Stewart went out on the track in his car on a personal fact-finding mission. His conclusion was that his preference was to take The Esses complex in fourth gear in the Tyrrell, hence he would be at the low end of the engine’s rev range, making the car more tractable and less nervous (in exchange for a bit less throttle response). Cevert, however, preferred to use third gear and be at the top end of his engine’s power range: it was always something of a compromise because of the need to accelerate through the combination of corners. Stewart noted that the Tyrrell always felt jumpy through this section of the Watkins Glen track owing to its short wheelbase; he felt that this was somewhat counteracted by driving in the higher gear even though this meant a time penalty if he got his line wrong through the corner.
As a response to Cevert’s and Koinigg’s accidents, a chicane was added in 1975 in order to slow the cars through the “Esses”. The chicane was removed in 1985 after the track lost its Formula One race in 1981.
Cevert was 29 years and 224 days old. François Cevert is buried in the Cimetière de Vaudelnay in the village of Vaudelnay, Maine-et-Loire.
A die hard Formula One fan like myself, I hold Cevert in a special place in my heart, as he was more than ready to become a world champion, had done everything for it, but I guess his fate was sealed already. R.I.P Francois.