“My great-grandfather had money,” recalls Jacqueline. “It was an old family, and nobody had to work. He gave money to every son and daughter, and when he thought the revolution was coming, he sent his family from Russia to France, Brazil, the USA. We still have family everywhere in the world!
“My grandparents, my father and his brothers came to Paris. Afterward, the money kept coming from my great-grandfather, but then he was killed, and the money stopped. So at 10 years old, my father and his brothers had to work in the streets to try to get some money – no school, nothing. It was very hard for my father when he was young.”
Against the odds, Charles Goldenberg built up a successful jewelry business. In 1938 he met Huguette Cevert, and they fell in love. When WWII broke out he joined the Resistance and, as a Jew, he had to live in hiding. They still managed to have three children – Francois was the middle one, born in February 1944 – and against the odds the relationship survived the war. Although they would be together for over 45 years they never got around to marrying, and the kids kept their mother's family name.
Growing up in affluent surroundings, young Francois developed an early interest in wheels and speed.
“My father liked sports cars very much, and my mother did too,” says Jacqueline. “He had a Salmson convertible, which was very fast. They didn't like races, but they liked to drive very fast on the road. For Francois, it was always cars. In France, we say "une auto." My mother said when he was young, he could not say it exactly – he always said "toto, toto." This was his first word!
“When he was 15 he told my mother every day, ‘It would be better for you if you had a scooter to do your shopping.' So my mother bought a Vespa, but she never rode it - Francois took it and began racing with his friends in the streets. After that he had a Morini 125, and he went to school with that, and when he was 19 he had a Norton.”
An obsession with bikes led to a short-lived career as a two-wheeled racer – one event at Montlhery, to be precise – before Francois turned his attention to cars. National service put his plans on hold, until in 1966 the 22-year-old was able to complete a course at the racing school on the new Le Mans Bugatti circuit. His ambitions did not go down well at home.
“My father didn't understand how you could win money,” says Jacqueline. “He said, ‘You can't live on this sport, Francois, you must be rich to do it. It's not a profession. What if you have a wife and family? You must be serious!' My parents didn't think about the danger at this time.”
Later, Cevert switched to the Winfield school at Magny-Cours, where the enticement was the Volant Shell scholarship, and the prize of an Alpine Formula 3 car. Francois and Nanou worked all hours in mundane jobs to pay for his tuition. He qualified for the scholarship final, and against expectations, he beat the favored candidates, including grand prix winner-to-be, Patrick Depailler.
Francois duly launched himself on the unsuspecting French Formula 3 world, with hardly any money to his name. He could drive fast, but he knew nothing about race craft, and even less about how to prepare his uncompetitive Alpine – the prize turned out to be an outdated '65 model. But somehow he made it from race to race. On one famous occasion he was in dire need of a tire for his battered trailer, and stole a wheel from a Mini parked outside a police station. Despite the hard slog, though, there were no results. Estrangement from his frustrated parents – he hardly saw them in 1967 – did not help.
But he persevered, and in 1968 picked up a little sponsorship from a fire extinguisher company. He bought a new Tecno, and suddenly everything clicked, he started winning races all over Europe, edged another future F1 race winner Jean-Pierre Jabouille to the French title in a dramatic showdown, and won back the respect of his father. The following year he stepped up to F2, with Tecno works support. He won a Reims slipstreaming battle, and in August made his grand prix debut in the F2 class at the Nurburgring.
Progress continued in 1970, and then in June a dream opportunity arrived. Hampered by an eye injury and lacking in confidence, Tyrrell's Johnny Servoz-Gavin suddenly announced his retirement, leaving the team boss in urgent need of a number two driver for resident star, Stewart.
The stopgap March 701 was not a great car, and Cevert made a quiet debut at Zandvoort. He scored his first point at Monza, a day after witnessing the end of Jochen Rindt's fatal qualifying accident. He didn't make the same impression as fellow rookies Emerson Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni, but Tyrrell wanted someone steady and sensible who was willing to learn from Stewart. It worked perfectly. Jackie and Francois established a teacher/pupil relationship the like of which has rarely been seen.
“He was very anxious to learn,” says Stewart. “He was a good listener, and wanted to know everything we were doing. He was a young, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed racing driver with incredible enthusiasm and energy. At Tyrrell we'd always made a point of sharing everything between both drivers, so he got everything that I had in the way of setup, lines, gear ratios, anything at all. He learned that he had to be smooth, that he couldn't upset the car.”
Cevert began to make news in his own right in 1971, when Tyrrell introduced its own chassis. He was second at Paul Ricard and the Nurburgring (the latter with fastest lap), and a close third in the famous photo finish at Monza. In the season closer at Watkins Glen he was in just the right place to take advantage when Stewart slowed with tire problems; it was to be his only grand prix victory.
The 1972 season was something of a disappointment – second at Nivelles and Watkins Glen were the only decent rewards in a frustrating year – but in '73 Cevert really came of age. As Stewart sped to his third title, Cevert spent many laps sitting in his wheel tracks. They finished one-two at Zolder, Zandvoort and Nurburgring, and three more second places, plus success with Matra in sports cars (ABOVE, finishing second at Le Mans sharing with Howden Ganley, pictured), confirmed that Francois was on the verge of making it big.