• The mark of a man

The mark of a man

Maurice Hamilton May 23, 2013
Jean-Eric Vergne's Monaco helmet in François Cevert's colours © Getty Images
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I don't know about you, but I'm rather tired of Sebastian Vettel changing his helmet design every five minutes. I wouldn't mind if the pattern had some deep significance but the addition of more glitter and swirls or the switch on a whim to a completely different colour just doesn't do it for me.

Call me old fashioned but a racing driver's crash helmet ought to be his signature on the move. When a car comes into view, there should be no doubt about the identity of the person at the wheel. That is particularly pertinent these days when, thanks to competition numbers being the size of a postage stamp, a crash helmet is the only distinctive feature that determines one driver from another.

It's true that the camera colour atop the car eventually distinguishes team-mates but that's like having footballers play in balaclavas with only their shirt numbers as evidence of who they are. (Some might argue such an idea should be encouraged to prevent spitting and snarling on the pitch, but we won't go into that here.)

Monaco appears to prompt drivers to dress up as if they're attending a carnival or going to a formal occasion that requires a special smart helmet in case they get to meet Monegasque royalty at the close of play on Sunday afternoon. The one exception last year was Kimi Räikkönen carrying the colours of James Hunt (a move I thought entirely appropriate because, if there's one current driver of whom James would approve, it would surely be the Couldn't-give-a-F*** Finn).

This weekend, I'm intrigued to see Jean-Eric Vergne's tasteful decision to have his crash hat replicate the colours of François Cevert. I understand there is no personal link or hero worship here. It's merely in respect of a fellow Frenchman who had charisma and speed by the bucketful and was poised to step into Jackie Stewart's driving boots at Tyrrell when the Scot retired at the end of 1973. Tragically, that never came to pass after Cevert was killed at Watkins Glen during practice for the last race of the season.

Cevert's sister, Jacqueline, is married to Jean-Pierre Beltoise (winner at Monaco in 1972) and knows Vergne. It's no coincidence that Mme Beltoise is co-author with Johnny Rives, the highly respected former F1 correspondent for L'Equipe, of a book on her brother.

That aside, JEV's choice is apposite because, 40 years ago, Cevert drove a stonking race in what would be his final appearance at Monaco.

Stewart had qualified on pole but Cevert made a daring start from the second row to force his way into the lead at Ste Devote. With Ronnie Peterson holding second place in his Lotus, there was no question of Cevert needing to think about his team leader. It was every man for himself but Cevert blew it on the second lap when he snagged a kerb and punctured the right-front tyre.

Pit stops in 1973 had the urgency of a motorway service area visit compared to today, Cevert rejoining 25th - and last. Truly fired up, Cevert seemed oblivious to the notion that overtaking is difficult at Monaco as he carved through the backmarkers.

Progress began to slow when he reached 14th and the faster and more obstinate guys - by which time he was about to be lapped by Stewart, who was leading. On lap 33, Cevert dutifully moved aside. And then his race really came alive as the pair of blue Tyrrells began to work beautifully in tandem.

I was seated in the grandstand on the approach to Ste Devote. More than once, I involuntarily held my breath as Cevert sat inches from Stewart's gearbox at 160mph and squeezed past midfield runners under braking as they responded to waved blue flags for the leader. Stewart couldn't mess about because the Lotus of Emerson Fittipaldi was not far behind; pressure which Cevert scarcely seemed to notice as he received the driving lesson of his life from a master of Monaco.

By lap 47, Cevert was fifth, the hapless opposition unable to do anything about this eight-wheel Tyrrell steaming through. The retirement of Wilson Fittipaldi's Brabham with seven laps to go eventually moved Cevert into fourth. He had made up 21 places.

Even if Vergne fails to produce a similar stunning drive this weekend, you'll know who he is. JEV is the driver with the distinctive helmet design that still means a great deal 40 years on.

Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1 in the build-up to each Grand Prix.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live
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Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1. A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live