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Formula One's forgotten heroes - Francois Cevert 05 Feb 2009

Francois Cevert (FRA) Tyrrell finished the race in second position. Dutch Grand Prix, Rd 10, Zandvoort, Holland, 29 July 1973. A jubilant Francois Cevert (FRA) Tyrrell celebrates his first GP victory on the podium in the final round of the season. United States Grand Prix, Watkins Glen, 3 October 1971. Francois Cevert (FRA) Tyrrell 002 scored his best result to date with a second place finish. French Grand Prix, Paul Ricard, 4 July 1971. Francois Cevert (FRA) Tyrrell 006 finished fifth. Italian Grand Prix, Monza, 9 September 1973. (L to R): fifth placed Francois Cevert (FRA) Tyrrell talks with fourth placed team mate and World Champion Jackie Stewart (GBR) Tyrrell 006. Italian Grand Prix, Rd 13, Monza, Italy, 9 September 1973.

Since 1950, hundreds of drivers have tried their luck at Formula One racing, but just 101 have won races - and only a select band of 30 have become world champions. Perhaps no wonder then that several great drivers have slipped through the cracks and are largely forgotten by all but the most knowledgeable F1 aficionados.

One such ‘forgotten hero’ is Francois Cevert. Tipped as Jackie Stewart’s natural successor in the early 1970s, Cevert won one Grand Prix and clinched 13 podiums in an all too brief three-year Formula One career. Were it not for his untimely death during qualifying for the 1973 United States Grand Prix, his talent would almost certainly have taken him a great deal further.

Born in Paris in 1944, Cevert caught the motor racing bug late in his teens, after meeting his sister Jacqueline’s boyfriend - another French Formula One star in the making, Jean-Pierre Beltoise. Captivated by his future brother-in-law’s glamorous job, classically-trained pianist Cevert turned his attentions to karting and in 1964 attended a racing school in Montlhery.

Following a two-year national service stint, he knuckled down all the more, entering - and winning - the Volant Shell competition. With the prize a sponsored season in French Formula Three in a Renault-engined Alpine, Cevert was not about to let the opportunity pass him by.

After impressing in the underperforming car, he was offered a works drive by Alpine for ’68 but turned it down in favour of more competitive Tecno machinery. It was the right move, and that season Cevert won the series with flying colours. He made the step up to Formula Two with Tecno the following year, finishing the series in third after one win, and made his Grand Prix debut in the F2 class in Germany.

In 1970 he stayed with Tecno and simultaneously raced Matra sports cars, but by that point he’d already come to the attention of world champion Jackie Stewart, who had seen real potential in the Frenchman. And later that season, when Johnny Servoz-Gavin pulled out of F1, Stewart recommended Cevert to team boss Ken Tyrrell as the ideal stand-in.

Stewart’s faith paid off and following his debut at the Dutch race, Cevert quickly made an impression, clearly unfazed by his eminent team mate. Of his nine starts that season, the French driver’s best qualifying was fourth at the Canadian race and his highest finish a sixth in Italy. His one point yield may not have been anywhere near Stewart’s 25, but it was enough to secure Cevert a permanent contract for 1971.

And with the Tyrrell back to their championship-winning form, the timing worked perfectly for Cevert, who clinched his first podium, his first fastest lap and his first win that year, firmly establishing himself in Formula One’s top flight. The podium was a second place behind Stewart after starting seventh at the French Grand Prix; the fastest lap was around the original, treacherous Nurburgring, where he was also runner-up to his team mate; and the win was at the season finale at Watkins Glen in the US. He finished third overall in the drivers’ championship behind Stewart and Ronnie Peterson.

In comparison the 1972 season was rather below par, but Cevert did impress at Le Mans, finishing second in a Matra. By then the Tyrrell team mates were firm friends, and with Cevert’s driving getting better and better, Stewart didn’t shy away from advertising his colleague’s title potential. And as the Scot wrapped up his third drivers’ title in 1973, Cevert was never far behind, the duo enjoying three one-two finishes over the course of the season.

Indeed, even though Cevert’s amiable character would never allow him to deliberately outshine his distinguished team mate, he was increasingly matching Stewart’s pace. So much so that as Stewart was secretly preparing to retire at the end of the year, he was also (unbeknownst to Cevert) positioning his protege as the new Tyrrell number one.

Stewart’s plan, however, sadly never came to fruition. Towards the close of qualifying for the season-ending Watkins Glen race Cevert crashed violently into a guardrail and was instantly killed. In one fleeting moment France had lost its best driver for a generation, Formula One racing had lost its new star and Stewart had lost a dear friend. In tribute, the Scot - and the entire Tyrrell team - pulled out of the event.