1971 United States Grand Prix
: The 1971 & 1973 United States Grand Prix: A Tale of Two Races By Jeremy McMullen
The days were certainly similar. Brilliant sun shining, an almost cloudless sky, the end of yet another personally successful season and Jackie Stewart the World Champion, there were so many similarities to the two United States Grand Prix. However, for Francois Cevert and the whole of the Formula One world, the two races couldn't have been any further apart, especially emotionally.
Before the United States Grand Prix held at Watkins Glen, the 1971 season had proven to be another year in which the Tyrrell Team had been dominant. Coming into the final race of the season the battle for the Driver's and Constructors' Championships had long since been decided. With six victories out of ten races to that point in the season, Stewart more than dominated the championship.
After some struggles early on in the season, Francois Cevert had started to come on. He would earn a couple of 2nd place results at the French and German Grand Prix providing the Tyrrell Team with a couple of one-two finishes. A couple of strong results toward the later part of the season meant he was firmly in 3rd place in the championship standings.
Cevert had only come to the Tyrrell Team in 1970 and had only been racing professionally for a few years. While the raw natural talent was undeniable he still needed guidance when it came to car setup and race strategy. However, his natural talent had proven to be quite effective and not easily missed. At a Formula 2 race at Crystal Palace, Cevert had proven himself a worthy roadblock to Stewart who was trying to get around him and carry on with his battle. The trouble Stewart would have getting around Cevert would make an impression with the Scot and he would tell his team manager Ken Tyrrell to keep his eye on the young Frenchman.
His opportunity would come in 1970 with a surprise retirement of Johnny Servoz-Gavin after just three rounds of the World Championship. At Stewart's suggestion, Cevert would be hired to be Jackie's number two driver. Almost immediately the two would form a friendship and Cevert would have the tutor he needed to refine his raw talent.
By the start of the 1971 Formula One World Championship season the lessons were beginning to pay off. It was clear Cevert was getting faster and faster but it would be somewhat lost in a season dominated by Stewart. Nonetheless, Cevert was proving his ability as a racing driver. He just hadn't broken through to score his first win of his career. But it was clearly coming and everyone knew it.
The United States Grand Prix would be the eleventh, and final, round of the World Championship for 1971. Taking place on the 3rd of October, the surrounding tree-covered hills surrounding the circuit and overlooking Seneca Lake would be well sprinkled with the reds, yellows and oranges of fall. And while it wasn't all that unusual to see snow falling at that time of year, the weather over the course of the weekend would be sunny and mild. It was perfect weather in which to go racing, and to watch.
While the picturesque setting around the area certainly hadn't changed, the circuit had gone through a number of changes prior to hosting the final round of the World Championship. In an effort to constantly improve and update the circuit a major program was undertaken to increase the length of the grand prix circuit by adding what would become known as 'The Boot' section to the existing circuit. This would increase the overall length of the circuit from just 2.29 miles to 3.36 miles.
The new layout would include the long back stretch but it would no longer include the very long Fast Straight with the fast left hand bend leading down to Fast Bend. Instead, the new layout would consist of a number of shorter straights that would still make the circuit quite fast and fun for both the drivers and the spectators.
The work was only barely finished in time for the Formula One weekend and the edges of the circuit would be nothing but dirt and gravel because of the construction. So while the circuit itself was ready for the weekend, the facility really wasn't as the dirt and dust would cause a number of visibility problems for the drivers.
Additionally, the start/finish line would also be moved back to well before what had been known as 'The Ninety'. Since the start/finish had been moved back, the pits would also be moved back to run along the new straight. The one thing that would be as apparent in the new layout as in the old was the drastic elevation changes. Not only would the Esses sport dramatic undulation in the terrain. The drop from the Outer Loop into what was to be called the 'Chute' would be almost as dramatic. The 'Toe' of the circuit would see the cars have to negotiate a climbing right hand bend that brought the circuit back up to the level of the circuit at the start/finish line.
The new layout of the circuit would make for some obvious changes in the way in which the drivers approached a lap of the circuit. One portion of the original circuit that would be changed by the new additions and evolutions of the circuit would be the Esses. However, in practice, Stewart would deal with the changes like the professional he was and he would take the pole with a time of 1:42.642. He would barely edge out Emerson Fittipaldi for the pole by just .017 seconds. Denny Hulme would be 3rd on the starting grid.
Although it was obvious Cevert was improving from race to race, he would not quite be on pace with his teammate at the new Watkins Glen. Although he would start the race a very solid 5th, Cevert's time in practice would be a half a second slower than his teammate.
The day of the race would be a very welcomed warm and sunny one. The grid would see a number of shake-ups with Mario Andretti and Mark Donohue honoring their Indycar commitments. This meant Andretti would not start the race but David Hobbs would take over for Donohue in the McLaren-Ford Cosworth.
The start of the race would see Hulme gain the advantage at the start leading through the Ninety ahead of Stewart. Cevert would make an incredible start and would find himself lying in 3rd place right behind his teammate through the first turn. Powering up through the Esses, it would still be Hulme in the lead over Stewart but the Scot was beginning to hit his stride and he would actually start to stalk Hulme through the rest of the lap. By the time the leading cars rounded the last right hander and began powering down the start/finish straight it was Stewart in the lead by about eight to ten car lengths over Hulme. Cevert looked strong sitting quietly in 3rd place.
The 1971 United States Grand Prix was shaping up to be a different race than those of the rest of the season. By just the 7th lap of the race Cevert had made his way past Hulme into 2nd place and would begin to stalk his more experienced double World Championship winning teammate.
Stewart had been pushing hard from the beginning of the race. And in the warmer temperatures, Stewart's tires began to fall off at a much faster rate than those of Cevert's. Francois had been lapping quite quickly, fast enough, in fact, to pull Stewart in. In spite of his pace Cevert was proving to be much easier on his tires. And by the time the race was 10 laps old, Francois had caught up to his friend and mentor and began to push. Stewart's tires were gone. He could not hold back his teammate with the fresher rubber. As a result, on the 14th lap of the race, Cevert would make his move and take over the lead of the race.
Handling problems had forced Stewart's tires to fall off much quicker than those on Cevert's car. Handling problems would also cause Hulme to drop back as well. As a result, Cevert would find himself out in the lead of the race with an advantage of more than five seconds over Jacky Ickx, who had struggled to get around Stewart and had lost time to the Frenchman.
By the halfway mark of the race Cevert was still in the lead. He had led 16 laps. But he could not take it easy. Jacky Ickx was beginning to mount a charge in his Ferrari 312B. Ickx was taking large chunks out of Cevert's lead with each and every lap. The same oversteer problem that had caused Stewart's tires to lose their effectiveness earlier in the race was beginning to hinder Cevert's pace as well. It had seemed as if Cevert was going to drive nearly the race of his life just to lose it in the last 10, or so, laps.
The gap between Cevert and Ickx had drawn even closer. Ickx's car appeared to just be getting better with each passing moment while Cevert was fighting as hard as he could just to hold on. But providence would smile on the young Frenchman as with about 10 laps still remaining in the race Ickx would begin to drop back. He had problems that were only to get worse in the next few laps.
A failed alternator was causing Ickx problems and was forcing him out of contention. However, before he would retire from the race, Ickx would run into even greater problems and would cause a little more chaos amongst the field.
The failed alternator was just the beginning of the problems. The alternator would then fall off the car. As the alternator departed its mount it would slam into the rear of the car punching a hole into the gearbox. Filled with oil, the gearbox would begin to stream oil from it. The track would come to be covered by the oil. Hulme would come through and would lose control of his car on the oil. As a result, Hulme would crash into the Armco barriers thereby ending his race. While Hulme extracted himself from his car and was about to head back to the pits, Cevert would come through and hit the same oil that had taken Hulme out of the race. Cevert would lose control and would actually hit the barriers as well. However, the damage would be minimal and he would continue on in the lead of the race. Ickx would retire from the race on the 49th lap.
Cevert had dodged more than a few bullets while in the lead of the race. Nevertheless, he was still in the lead and with a sizeable margin over Jo Siffert in 2nd. All he needed to do was avoid any more instances o danger and he would earn his first victory of his Formula One career.
Averaging nearly 115 mph, Cevert would hold on to complete the 59 laps and take the victory. It had been a truly splendid drive. He had been the hunter. He had been the hunted. But he would come out the victor and with a margin of victory just a little greater than forty seconds over Siffert in 2nd place. Ronnie Peterson would finish in 3rd place some forty-four seconds behind Cevert.
Once the Frenchman extracted himself from his victorious car he would give recognition to his teammate. He would be quoted as saying, 'I followed Stewart in the beginning and was flagged on ahead. Jackie Stewart is a very sensible driver and a very good teacher. He let me go through.' The teacher recognized it was time for the pupil to take his place in the limelight, a place and role in which he was to take on full-time at the end of the same grand prix just two years later.
Watkins Glen had been the site of Francois Cevert's greatest triumph in Formula One motor racing. His dominant victory in the grand prix back in 1971 was his only victory to date but just about everyone believed more were to come in 1974.
Many believed more victories would have come in 1972. However, the season would be a far cry from its championship winning season of just one year prior. Jackie Stewart would still manage to earn four victories, but even he would end the season more than fifteen points down to Emerson Fittipaldi in the driver standings.
Francois Cevert's season would be even worse. In 1971, Cevert would manage to come away with a 3rd place result in the Drivers Championship standings. The following year, however, Cevert would score just fifteen points and would end up 6th in the standings. The driver that had seemed to be on the verge of joining his teammate as a championship contender appeared to struggle much more often.
But if there were any doubts concerning Cevert's ability at the wheel of a grand prix car he would put those to rest the following season. He had started out the 1973 season with a 2nd place ahead of his teammate. He would then go on to score five more 2nd place results. Three of those would be behind Stewart thereby providing Ken Tyrrell one-two finishes and great hope for the future with Jackie Stewart retiring at the end of the season.
It had become clear the student had absorbed just about everything his teacher had to teach him. At the German Grand Prix, which would take place on the infamous Nurburgring, Stewart would take the victory but would later recall that Cevert could have passed him any number of times but didn't out of respect for his teacher and his final attempt for just one more Drivers World Championship.
By the time of the United States Grand Prix the World Drivers Championship had been decided. Stewart had his third, and last, World Championship. This meant the final race of the season would be an opportunity for Cevert to assume the role in which he would find himself the following season.
As with a couple of years prior, the weather over the course of the weekend would remain sunny and dry. The only difference between the two years would be the temperature. While the race in 1971 would take place with warm weather, the 1973 edition would find itself amidst much more normal temperature conditions. Though cold, the sun would keep things relatively comfortable.
Under such beautiful conditions, and amongst such a pastoral setting, Cevert and the rest of the pilots prepared for practice. Although Stewart was to retire at the end of the race, the teacher wasn't done giving his pupil just a little more guidance.
Just prior to practice, Stewart and Cevert would be involved in an in-depth discussion about gearing around the 3.36 mile circuit. Stewart realized the Tyrrell 006 was a much more nervous car than the 003. This was never more evident than during the uphill run through the Esses. Recognizing this condition, Stewart would use 4th gear up through the Esses. While this would cost him some speed at the top of the hill it would help to counter the nervousness the car exhibited through that section of the circuit. Unfortunately, the balance between defiance and learning to make decisions for one's self can be a very fine line, and Cevert needed to make a decision. Cevert liked to use 3rd gear going through the Esses to gain the momentum heading down the long back straight. In a few moments time the gearing questions wouldn't have anything to do with scoring a victory as it would to help to determine the cause for a death.
Cameras would be rolling down in the pitlane as a documentary would be in the process of being filmed about the John Player Special Lotus-Ford Team. Chapman and his team would realize there was trouble and would be seen running toward the Elf Tyrrell Team to try and figure out exactly what the problem out on the track truly is. He would be made aware by one of his own team members that it was Cevert but the severity was not yet known.
It was widely believed Cevert had been battling with his car heading into the Esses. He would get a little too close on the left hand side and would clip the curbing which upset the car's handling. Fighting even more fiercely with the car at this point, the Tyrrell would strike the Armco barriers on the right hand side and then would be shot back across the track to strike the Armco on the left hand side of the circuit at a near 90 degree angle. He would hit with such force as to uproot the barrier. Uprooting the barrier would lead to Cevert suffering a final fatal injury.
There would be an aura of confusion in the pits as almost all but the drivers are unaware of the tragedy that was just acted out in the Esses. Stewart would arrive in the pits and would immediately climb from the car distraught. The drivers would start coming into the pits. Clearly distraught themselves, almost all would say very little and would head out the back of the garages.
It has become abundantly clear. Cevert, the promising young Frenchman, has lost his life in a crash in the Esses. Just like that, Tyrrell has no one to ascend and assume Stewart's throne. For Stewart, it was the finally straw. He had seen too many of his good friends depart the world in racing accidents. As a result, the Tyrrell Team would withdraw from the race and Stewart would retire without having competed in his 100th grand prix.
It was one of the most gruesome of deaths. Stewart would arrive on the scene early after the accident. He would see his friend's car resting nearly on its top with the nose buried totally missing from the car. He would make his way to the car and would realize the marshals had left Cevert in his car. And it was plain to see why. He had plowed through the Armco barriers. The barriers had uprooted and when they did, they effectively cut him in half. But as the car lay rested up on its side, Francois would be held in the car. The gruesome scene made it clear he was dead and had no hope of being revived. Just weeks prior, the two men, with Jackie's wife, had vacationed together enjoying some time away from the track. But now, just weeks later, as Stewart would recall in his autobiography, 'I arrived and stared in disbelief. There was my team-mate, my protégé, my friend, my younger brother. He was dead.'
At the end of the cancelled practice, amidst the bright blue sky and cold temperatures of fall in upstate New York, the French national anthem would sound out amongst the emotional darkness that had fallen over the circuit. The anthem would sound in honor of the fallen Frenchman. It was the 6th of October. It was a starkly different moment than when the same national anthem had sounded out over the rolling hills overlooking Seneca Lake just two years prior. A loud chorus of cheers resounded when Cevert won the race in 1971. Now, it was quiet. Only the memory of Cevert's life and victory at the circuit would provide any soundtrack within the minds of team members and competitors. Two very different years. Two very different ways in which Cevert would be honored and remembered.
What a tale of two races.