Skip to main content
Original Issue


That was the philosophy of Fran√ßois Cevert—and after he was gone the world champion had much to ponder

Contrasted with the current woes of the real world—the new Arab-Israeli war, the old Watergate maunder-ings—it might have seemed a week of minor tragedy on the Grand Prix circuit. But for John Young Stewart, 34, the finest road racer in the game, it was perhaps the most agonizing week of his life. A month earlier, at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Stewart had captured his third world driving championship in five years. During the course of this racing season he had become the most successful Formula I driver ever, with 27 Grand Prix victories to his credit (compared with 25 for his late Scottish countryman, Jim Clark, and 24 for his idol, Argentina's Juan Manuel Fangio). And certainly Stewart had outdone both of them in the main chance of racing: money.

Jackie Stewart is the canniest man ever to don a fireproof balaclava—and certainly the gutsiest ever to con a sponsor. Earning close to $1 million a season in prize money and other emoluments, Stewart seemed to have turned motor racing into some kind of a private treasure trove—and survived to enjoy it. Then why not retire?

That was the first source of his agony last weekend. At Watkins Glen for the 15th running of the U.S. Grand Prix, Stewart played coy with the question. Indeed, even his business agent claimed that the wee Scot was hung on the horns of that old sportsman's dilemma: quit on a peak of success, or press on to try for even greater rewards? The business agent also was well aware that the timing of a retirement statement by a figure so prominent as Stewart could bring in lots of bucks, and perhaps the coyness was merely a question of timing to suck up more cash. "If Jackie were single," said his lovely wife Helen, "there would be no question. He would continue to race. I would like to see him retire, but I cannot press him. No, there is nothing that could fill the role of racing for him if he were to quit."

Stewart himself was brusque on the question. He sidestepped it with every slick word at his command—and they are as many and as evasive as the black grouse of Scotland's moors. But still it all seemed a game.

Then, on qualifying day before the race, Stewart's good friend and teammate, Francois Cevert, was killed in a smashup during practice. Stewart had already lost three close friends to the sport: Clark in 1968, Piers Courage and.Jochen Rindt in 1970. In his poignant account of that last tragic season in his recent book, Faster! A Racer's Diary, Stewart had likened Grand Prix racing to a disease and wondered in painful print if he himself were not a victim. With Cevert's death last Saturday, it seemed to many that Stewart must at last accept the prognosis. He must—finally—retire and let sad enough alone.

It had been the longest Grand Prix season in history—15 races starting last January at the Buenos Aires Autodrome in Argentina—and a fine one for Stewart. Last year's world champion, Emerson Fittipaldi of Brazil, seemed early on to have it all sewed up for another worthy triumph. Fittipaldi took Argentina and then Brazil—that nation's first F-I championship ever—as if he were a new Simon Bolivar. But then came South Africa, and Stewart's renowned canniness began to assert itself. During practice he crashed into a dirt embankment at high speed—brake failure—but quickly commandeered Cevert's car, the other Tyrrell-Ford. South Africa's own Jody Scheckter dominated the early stages of the race, driving with the special wriggly verve that won him the L&M Championship for Formula 5,000 cars this season in his rookie year (SI, July 16). But under a yellow caution flag, Stewart emerged in the lead and held it. Though Fittipaldi won the next race, in Spain, Stewart came on strong again in Belgium, winning handily, with teammate Cevert a convincing second. At Monaco, the definite class race of the GP circuit, Stewart dominated Fittipaldi from start to finish and cemented his grip on the season. Victories at Zandvoort and The N√ºrburgring, followed by finishes high in the points both in Austria and Italy, clinched the championship.

Along the way there had been injury and tragedy, not so spectacular as in the grim 1970 season, but tougher in a subtle way. Fittipaldi broke a wheel during practice in Holland and bruised his ankles badly in the ensuing crash. Then during the race itself, young Roger Williamson of Britain piled up his March-Ford on nearly the same sand dune where Courage had burned to death three years earlier. Sloppy rescue work by the Dutch track marshals—some called it cowardice—could have been a factor in Williamson's death by fire.

The British GP at Silverstone marked the first world championship victory for America's Peter Revson who, with a second win in Canada, has emerged as the best U.S. driver on the Formula I circuit since DanGurney. But the race also demonstrated the dangers of Jody Scheckter to those who were unaware of what a hard charger can do. Scheckter had just nipped into fourth place, ducking under Denny Hulme's McLaren on the second lap in the infamous Woodcote Corner, when he flat lost control. Scheckter's car caromed off the pit wall and created a mini-Indy. Nine cars were wiped out in the carnage, but only one driver was injured. It was the first time that a Grand Prix race had to be halted in all the years of the championship.

It was Scheckter who also figured in a brouhaha at Mosport during the Canadian Grand Prix two weeks ago. There he tangled with Cevert in a shunt that totaled the Frenchman's car. Cevert had moved up to second in point standings behind Stewart at one point in the season, and still stood a good chance of edging Fittipaldi for the runner-up spot this year. Perhaps, as an outgrowth of Mosport, Cevert held a grudge against Scheckter. At any rate, the two men were most dramatically involved in the fatal Saturday afternoon of Watkins Glen.

The accident took place at the top of the Esses, a slippery, sinuous linkage of bends just below an underpass where spectators enter the Glen course. According to eyewitnesses, Cevert came halfway through the Esses in good control. He had just turned his best lap of the practice—quick enough to beat Stewart's record lap of the previous year. It was good enough to place Cevert fourth among the day's qualifiers. Then the car began to fishtail, ticking the outside fence just before the bridge. "It looked like the pendulum of a runaway clock," said one observer. "He couldn't catch it." Cevert's car hit the steel retaining barrier—which is designed to catch a car like a net might catch a falling tightrope walker—but he hit it at about 160 miles an hour. He went right through. The car Hipped sideways and broke apart.

Scheckter was the first driver on the scene. He saw the crash and locked his brakes to a stop. He leaped the rail, ran to Cevert's car and knelt down and looked into the wreckage. Then he stood up and raised his arms in a furious, futile gesture. Anyone watching knew why: Cevert was dead.

In his short life Cevert had been the most glamorous of drivers, and one of the most talented. He was handsome, almost pretty, but he had the best of the Gallic traits—courage, skill, humor. At breakfast on the morning of his death he had been amused by a caption accompanying his photograph in a local newspaper that described him as "intense and waiting." He smiled over his tea. "Aren't we all?" he asked.

Cevert also had given thought to Jackie Stewart's dilemma. Earlier in the week he had said, "Jackie faces two options, neither of them very appealing. He can quit racing and save his life, or he can quit racing and lose what his life is about. There are two kinds of death in this sport. Perhaps in any sport. There is physical death, which probably does not hurt so very much, and there is a kind of psychic death, which I'm certain hurts quite a little bit. If Jackie retires, what can he do that will take the place of this...." And he gestured at the dining room overlooking Seneca Lake, at the autumn colors and the strangely slanted land, at his fellow drivers—oh, so dashing and trim and alive, in love with the earth and with its uncle, death. "Yet he could retire into a life of commerce," Cevert continued. "He has an affection for it, and perhaps it would satisfy him. I cannot predict what he will do, but whatever it is, it will be interesting."

After Cevert's death, there was a great scurrying around the Goodyear trailer compound where Stewart and Cevert usually hung out when they were not racing. Men stood guard at the trailer doors, obviating crude questions. Many people said that Stewart would not race that weekend, not after this.

"What has he got to gain?" they asked. Or, more mechanically, "Maybe something's wrong with the cars." The wreckage was difficult to assess. After examining it, though, the mechanics of Team Tyrrell determined that Cevert had crashed with the accelerator depressed—had he lost control and was he trying to power his way out of it? Driver error? Or had something snapped?

A friend stopped Stewart as he charged back and forth on the road behind the pits. He clasped Stewart's hand. "Uh huh," Stewart said. Then he got in his car and went out to practice some more. Finally, as had been expected, Stewart withdrew from the race—"out of respect for Francois and the feelings of his countrymen."

As for the U.S. Grand Prix, Sweden's Ronnie Peterson won the pole as he had done in eight of the season's previous 14 races. And he won the race, too—his fourth this season—and the $53,900 purse that goes along with it, the richest prize in the series. The 29-year-old Swede has long been touted as the most promising member of the post-Stewart generation, but it was not until this year that he got all his talents together.

Nonetheless, Peterson had a hard Sunday drive. A surprising chase developed, thanks to Britain's newly emerged Grand Prix figure, 22-year-old Lord Hesketh, who must be the strangest anachronism in 20th Century Sportin' Life. Alexander Hesketh is a portly fellow, a "privateer" in racing parlance. He hates the commercialism of motor racing, but loves the game dearly and his car, a white March-Ford with the family red-and-blue racing stripes, bears absolutely no sponsor decals. Unthinkable! The money to race comes right out of His Lordship's ample private purse. Hesketh's driver is James Hunt, a Briton who was once inelegantly known as "Hunt the Shunt." Starting from the fourth position on the grid, Hunt leaped quickly onto the tail pipes of Peterson and gamely hung there throughout the race. "I could have taken him early on," Hunt said later, "but I hoped to wait and wear him down. At one point I pulled abreast of him, but his face looked fiercer than mine. My car was definitely quicker"—as indeed a new race lap record of 119.596 mph proved on the 37th of 59 laps—"but I waited too long."

Meanwhile, there was an accompanying touch of grim irony in the race. Earlier in the week the Grand Prix Drivers Association had sternly discussed the possibility of lifting Scheckter's license because of the accidents he had precipitated in earlier races. But Scheckter's heroic quick response and his emotion over the Cevert tragedy softened most of the passions against him. In this case it seemed academic: after racing for 40 laps at the Glen, Scheckter dropped out with a broken suspension.

America's Peter Revson, starting his McLaren from seventh slot on the grid, ran into problems at the start with a sticky clutch and was forced to let the pack sweep past him. Still, by unusually careful and skillful driving he managed to finish fifth overall. Fittipaldi, with tire problems and a quick early pit stop, ended up sixth, but secured second place in the final point standings, with Peterson third for the season.

Hunt, with his amazing second-place finish, wound up his season eighth in championship points and may pose a definite new threat for next year. Peterson beat him by a mere half second, and it seemed that a whole new note had been rung in the sport, a long-missing note of purity. As the exultant Lord Hesketh put it, embracing his driver with a burly arm, "By gad, we nearly put the knife into commercialism, didn't we, James?"

But above all there was the pall and the sense of an era's end. Jackie Stewart had stayed around for the race but it looked as if he had put his composure together with staples. A strong rumor arose at week's end that Jackie would indeed retire, announcing his decision this Saturday in London. If so, owner Ken Tyrrell will field an entirely new team next year, possibly consisting of Scheckter and Belgium's Jacky Ickx, who has finally jumped from Ferrari out of frustration.

If Stewart retires now, it will have to be, alas, on a muted rather than triumphant note. And perhaps he would fall victim to that "psychic death" of which Cevert spoke so pointedly just before his own dreadfully physical one. But Stewart is a man of unfathomable complexity. It is unlikely that he has yet begun to tap his own inner resources. One must finish by wishing him the best, regardless of his decision, and expecting that in the end, whatever he does will prove to be for the best. That has been Stewart's way—all the way.


Relaxed and confident (left), Cevert gunned away to a record practice lap—then suddenly his car slashed through the steel guardrail.


Jackie Stewart has turned aside questions on his future; now the answers will come harder.