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.