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Francois Cevert Born In Paris, France - February 25, 1944

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(By Raimund Kommer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Francois Cevert
February 25, 1944 - October 6, 1973

Born in Paris, France.

Cevert competed in 47 World Championship Grands Prix, achieving one win, 13 podium finishes and 89 career points. He was the brother-in-law of Grand Prix driver Jean-Pierre Beltoise.
After winning the French Formula 3 Championship, Cevert joined the works Tecno Formula Two team in 1969, and finished third overall, as well as driving in the F2 class of the 1969 German Grand Prix. At the time, Formula Two was an ideal training ground for ambitious drivers, as many top Grand Prix drivers also competed in the F2 class, when their Formula One schedules permitted. When Jackie Stewart had a hard time getting around Cevert in an F2 race at Crystal Palace the same year, Stewart told his team manager Ken Tyrrell 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 Elf, but it was really what Jackie said about him."
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. 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 Driver's Championship behind Stewart and Ronnie Peterson.
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-Ferrand circuit. One bright spot in a disappointing year for Cevert was his second place finish at the 24 hours of Le Mans, driving a Matra-Simca 670 with New Zealand's Howden Ganley.

In 1973, the Tyrrell team was back on top in Formula One and Cevert showed he was capable of running with teammate and team leader Jackie Stewart at almost every race. He finished second six times, three times behind Stewart, who acknowledged that at times the Frenchman had been a very "obedient" teammate. As Cevert began to draw even with Stewart's driving abilities, the Scot was secretly planning to retire after the last race of the season in the United States. For the 1974 season, Cevert would be Tyrrell's team leader.
At Watkins Glen, 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 left-right 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 and said later "They had left him in the car, because he was so clearly dead." Stewart immediately left the scene of the accident and returned to the pits. Because of Cevert's death, Tyrrell withdrew its entry for this GP, and Stewart did not run his final, and 100th race.
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. A film documentary of the time, shot minutes before the start of the fatal practice session, captures Stewart and Cevert in a spirited debate on exactly this point. A similar accident occurred at the same circuit a year later in the 1974 USA Grand Prix when another young Formula One driver, Helmuth Koinigg, died when his car suffered a suspension failure sending him straight into the barrier at turn 7. The lower portion of the barrier failed and Koinigg's car slid under the top portion, decapitating him. 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.
The 2013 film Rush portrays a composite of Cevert's qualifying fatal accident, combining what appears to be the remains of a blue liveried 1973 Tyrrell 006 with the configuration of Helmuth Koinigg's accident and decapitation while driving the Surtees TS16 in the 1974 race.

Cevert was extensively profiled and interviewed in the Formula One documentary, The Quick and the Dead.

© Paul Chenard

Article by Dave Wheeler

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