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The Loss of Cevert: The Prodigy That Never Got To Be the Master

Matt HillContributor IIINovember 18, 2010

Francois Cevert drives the #6 ELF Team Tyrrell 006-Ford       during the British Grand Prix on 14 July 1973 at the Silverstone Circuit in Silverstone, Great Britain. (Photo by Getty Images)
Getty Images/Getty Images

The 1970s was a true golden decade of Formula One. The era of Lotus, Tyrrell, Brabham, Ferrari, March, and the decade we saw the emergence of the McLaren and Williams Formula One teams. It was not only the teams but the quality of the drivers was incredible with the likes of Rindt, Stewart, Lauda, Andretti, Fittipaldi, Hunt, Peterson (who I will write about in depth in a later article) to name just a few.

The Tyrrell team of the '70s was nothing like the Tyrell team that some of you may have seen during the '90s when it was a team that was stuck at the back employing pay drivers such as Ricardo Rosset to try and keep afloat. The Tyrrell team of the '70s was a team that fought for the championship along with Lotus and Ferrari, with two of the finest drivers of the time.

Jackie Stewart, the great three team world champion and safety advocate, who probably saved many lives with his determination to make drivers safer. The second driver they had in the early '70s is the man who is the focus of this article Francois Cevert. A man in my eyes, whom, along with Ronnie Peterson, are the two greatest drivers to never win the Formula One drivers championship.

Cevert only drove in Formula One for four seasons but despite the shortness of the time he spent in Formula One he proved to everyone that he was a great exponent of a F1 car. It was a personal recommendation by Jackie Stewart that got Cevert his drive when Stewart told Ken Tyrrell that he should keep an eye on the Frenchman. A driver was needed by Tyrrell and he immediately took Cevert on.

The relationship between Stewart and Cevert was always a good one despite the two not being particularly similar in personality. Francois had a reputation for being very glamorous whereas Jackie was more of a reserved and serious character. However by all accounts they got on well and there was mutual respect between the two.

Cevert joined the Tyrrell team (who were still running cars built by March) from the fifth race of the 1970 season after Tyrrell's previous driver Johnny Servoz-Gavin retired due to an eye injury and Cevert began his Formula One career. In the remainder of the season he was a consistent runner in the top 10 and managed to score himself his first point at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

For the 1971 season the team had its in-built own car and after some promising run-outs at the end of the 1970 season by Jackie Stewart, including a pole position, hopes were high for 1971. Those hopes were fufilled with the team taking the constructors title and Jackie Stewart winning the drivers’ championship by 29 points, a very large margin.

Cevert was still working hard for the Tyrrell team earning third place behind Stewart and Peterson. He earned his only Grand Prix win at the final race of the season at Watkins Glen. Cevert personally thanked Stewart for teaching him so well and the future looked bright for Tyrrell.

To back up his win in America he earned three podiums during 1971 but the season was still a learning one. He did have frequent brushes with the wall over a weekend. To go with this Cevert didn't have the luck with reliability that Stewart had, but overall the season was a good one for Cevert.

The 1972 season was by far Cevert's biggest struggle. The car wasn't struggling to keep up and both drivers performance wasn't as good. Cevert only achieved three points’ finishes but two of those were second places.

Stewart was more successful as you would expect and he managed to earn three wins but wasn't ever going to challenge for the title. Stewart surrendered his title to Fittipaldi and the Tyrell team lost the constructors to Lotus, despite Fittipaldi being the only Lotus driver to score points.

The 1973 season looked promising, with the Tyrrell car looking much more like a genuine contender. This turned out to be the case with Jackie Stewart earning his third drivers world title.

Cevert didn't get a win in 1973 but earned six second places. Stewart was the first to admit that Cevert was by this stage as good as he was and the only reason he failed to win was due to the fact that, as Jackie's team mate for the championships sake, he held station.

Everything looked good for 1974 for Cevert. Jackie was retiring at the end of the '73 season and he would become the number one driver and was looking like one of the men to beat in '74. But, before any of this could happen, tragedy struck.

During qualifying for the final race of the season at Watkins Glen everything went horrifically wrong. As Cevert was going through the fast "essess" section his Tyrrell ran just a fraction wide. The car clipped the kerbs sending it to the right of the track. The Tyrrell brushed the wall and this sent it straight toward the barrier on the other side of the track.

The car smashed into the barrier at 90 degrees, uprooting the whole barrier. Cevert died instantly of truly horrific injuries. He was so clearly dead he was just left in the car, telling you something about the attitude of the day. Stewart said he was "disgusted by the severity of the impact."

Stewart said he believed Cevert's driving style could have been a contributory factor to the crash. Stewart took the essess in fifth gear, whereas Cevert preferred to take the corner in fourth. Cevert theory was that by taking the corner in fourth it made the twitchy Tyrrell easier to drive.

By being at top of the power range, it is thought this made the car spear over to other side of the track. If he had used Stewart's technique for the car it is more likely he would have spun harmlessly.

Stewart, who as I said was already going to retire at the end of the season withdraw from the race, ending his career on a very tragic note.

Francois Cevert could, and probably would, have been a world champion. Cevert would have been a serious title challenger in 1974. He was as good as Jackie Stewart by the end and for me that is a fairly good endorsement of driving talent

RIP

Francois Cevert

1944-1973

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