Jean Alesi: An Appreciation
200 Grands Prix not won
At Suzuka on 14 October, 2001, after 201 races, Formula One said 'goodbye' to one of its favourite sons. Yet here was a man who, despite all his early breathtaking promise, had delivered only 2 pole positions, 4 fastest laps, and one Grand Prix victory in those 201 starts. At the same time, Mika Hakkinen, a double World Champion with 20 victories to his name, was similarly driving his last race before a sabbatical that many thought was a retirement also.
But while the Flying Finn faded quietly into the woodwork, it was Jean who was farewelled in the manner of a cult hero. And indeed, in the eyes of many, that's exactly what he is. It is a stark reminder that behind all the glory, all the glamour, and all the money, Formula One is supposed to be a sport, not a business. A sport where, like in any other endeavour, how hard you try is as important as the end result. And a sport which is as much about people as it is about fast cars going around a circuit.
As a people's sport, Formula One thrives on those most human of characteristics: passion, determination, and raw emotion. Both on the track, and off it; on the part of both the drivers, and the fans. Over the years, there have been some much-admired, expert gatherers of statistics, victories, and even titles. But in the end, the ones who capture the imagination are not the automaton achievers, but those who reach out to us through their very human approach to being a Grand Prix racing driver.
By any standards, Alesi was a very human, and a very emotional Grand Prix racer whose heart more often than not ruled over his head. It was perhaps this very quality which made him choose to join Ferrari for 1991 having already signed a contract for Williams, and which made him susceptible to more than the odd tantrum when the suffered the slings and arrows of the Prancing Horse team as it struggled through an uncompetitive period in the early 1990s.
Such very Latin displays of temper once prompted the late Harvey Postlethwaite to comment, tongue-in-cheek, in 1992: "Jean's matured a lot. These days he looks first before he throws his helmet." But Alesi was also known for flaunting his feelings in other, much more public ways. Take Spa 1994, for example, when his Ferrari engine blew up on the third lap; with complete disregard for his personal safety, he knelt beside the track, his helmet touching the ground as if in prayer, ruing what might have been.
The following race at Monza, though, supplied perhaps the best-known example of Alesi emotion. Whipped into a near-trance by the tifosi all weekend, Jean took his first ever pole position. With a masterful lead he came in for his first stop at the end of lap 14, only for his gearbox to seize as he tried to leave, possibly because he had attempted to engage first gear a split-second too quickly. Momentarily clutching his head in his hands, he forlornly jumped out of the car and stormed into the garage.
What happened afterwards has gone into F1 folklore. Finding his Alfa 164 in the paddock car pack, with his overalls still on and with his brother in the passenger seat, he headed down the highway towards his home town of Avignon at a speed only slightly less than the cars still going around at Monza. Clocked at 220 km/h, he was saved from the long arm of the law only through the generosity of police officers recognising, admiring and hero-worshipping a thwarted champion.
Jean's sensitive character was put to the test especially because he had an unfortunate habit of joining wrong teams at the wrong times. His error in signing for a Ferrari team beset by internal disharmony and on the verge of a drought was compounded by the fact that he had turned down a Williams team on the up-and-up. In 1996 he went to Benetton, which in hindsight was always going to be an unpleasant destination once the centrifugal force which had held that team together, one M. Schumacher, had departed.
And of course when Alesi signed for Alain Prost's team for season 2000, many hoped that this reunion of friends and ex-Ferrari team-mates would reap the French squad's best-ever season. Instead, the unmitigated disaster that was Prost 2000 has been well-documented, and by mid-2001 Alesi and Prost had filed for a divorce which turned ugly when, surprise surprise, Jean couldn't keep his feelings about the problems of the French team from bubbling to the surface.
The truth be told, though, the fact that Alesi went to Ferrari in 1991 was perhaps not as illogical as it appeared. For both Jean and the tifosi, it seemed like the fulfilment of the French-Sicilian's destiny. After all, ever since 1982 the Ferrari faithful had longed for a successor to the great Gilles Villeneuve, a man who pushed the limits of a racing car, who defied the laws of physics, whose car control was nothing short of phenomenal, and who had done it all in such flamboyant style.
In Alesi, who once proudly wore a T-shirt proclaiming 'know your limits, then break 'em', who also had sublime car control which had made him a revelation in both junior categories and those first few Grands Prix for Tyrrell, who could save slides with handfuls of spine-tingling opposite lock when mere mortals would be off in the gravel, and who did it with such panache that driving a race car was a form of personal expression, the tifosi had found a character in whom the spirit of Gilles would live on.
This, and the fact that for four seasons from 1992 to 1995 Jean carried the evocative number 27 that Gilles made his own, etched Alesi into the hearts of race fans the world over. Yet there was never the icing of success to top off the cake, and that was sure to test Jean's mettle. On too many occasions luck simply deserted him; of these, Italy 1994 is the most famous, but many forget that at Spa in 1991, the same race where Schumi had made his dramatic debut, Alesi had retired at two-thirds distance whilst in the lead.
Jean also ran out of luck on two notable occasions when victory beckoned at Benetton. Whilst Monaco 1996 is remembered for Olivier Panis' great victory, the fact is that Alesi had led comfortably after Damon Hill's retirement, only to retire 16 laps from the end. At Monza in 1997, having secured his second career pole, he had held off David Coulthard's McLaren right from the start, only for the Scot to get ahead thanks to the slick work of his pit crew when the two came in simultaneously.
There was only one race where luck positively went his way, and it resulted in his one and only Grand Prix victory. If racing for Ferrari had been his destiny, then winning the 1995 Canadian GP was also his fate. It was Jean's 91st race, held on his 31st birthday, on the track named after Gilles Villeneuve, with Alesi piloting the 27 Ferrari. It simply had to be. And, when Schumacher slowed with gearbox problems late in the race, the fairytale, for once, was complete.
When he took the lead and realised the win was his if he just kept going, in typical fashion tears welled in Jean's eyes, splashing against his visor every time he braked. When he crossed the line, mechanics from every team without exception were on the pit wall to cheer him home, a rare sight in the battle-hardened world of F1 testifying to the charisma of the man and the esteem in which he was held. There has undoubtedly never been a more popular victory in recent memory.
It is a reminder that Jean has given contemporary F1 some of its greatest moments. Between Phoenix and Monaco in 1990 to Montreal in 1995, there had been the Portuguese GP of 1993. Here Alesi gave us one of the best opportunist starts ever. In his uncompetitive Ferrari, it had already been a minor miracle that he had qualified 5th, behind the Williams cars of Hill and Prost, and the McLarens of Hakkinen and Ayrton Senna in 3rd and 4th.
After Hill had stalled on the warm-up lap, Prost and Hakkinen essentially formed the 'front row', with Alesi effectively moving up to 4th. When the race started Hakkinen made a better start than The Professor, and cheekily began squeezing the Williams against the pit wall. Senna in the other McLaren began to move outside his Finnish team-mate, only to find Alesi majestically sweeping around all of them to take the lead into the first right-hander, a lead he would hold for almost half the race.
Even towards the end of his F1 career, Alesi continued to give us memorable moments. Not least in Canada 2001, when he had finished 5th in his ungainly Prost. In response to the vociferous Montreal fans, Jean threw his helmet straight into the crowd, expensive radio equipment and all. Then in Japan, at his last race, only Jean would want to go out in such style that he would take the fuel out at the end of Friday practice just so his name could be on the top of the time sheets. That gave everyone a smile.
Jean also left us with plenty of memories thanks to some of his antics in the rain, or in damp conditions which brought his supreme skill behind the wheel to the fore. There was France in 1992, for instance, when in teeming rain late in the race he refused to come in for wets and kept the car on the road on slicks until his engine blew. Then there was also Austria 1998 and France 1999, when slippery conditions in qualifying had seen Alesi put his Sauber on 2nd and 3rd on the grid respectively.
But in all honesty, with Jean there was always a very fine line between genius and madness. Not only did he give us the unbelievably brilliant, he also left behind the insanely bizarre. At Monza in 1993 he had just secured 3rd on the grid and spent a lap waving to the crowd. Unaware that his team-mate Gerhard Berger on one last banzai lap was closing fast, he weaved right in front of the other Ferrari, forcing the Austrian to take evasive action, lose control and crash heavily!
It gets better (or worse!). In Melbourne for the 1997 season opener, he was due into the pits on lap 31. Refusing to come in, he proceeded to ignore not only several radio messages but also the gestures of his frantic pit crew jumping up and down on the pit wall. Jean eventually stopped on lap 35, out of fuel. Later in the season, in Austria there was yet another example of classic Jean when he collided with Eddie Irvine and subsequently exclaimed: "If it wouldn't have meant a $10,000 fine, I'd have punched him in the face."
Austria was also the place where 'Crazy Jean' last demonstrated the mad side of his nature, namely in 2000 when he attempted to pass his team-mate Nick Heidfeld in the other Prost, only for the two blue cars to collide and disintegrate, spinning out of the race, impressing Alain no end, no doubt. At this point, we are also reminded by current Williams tester Marc Gené that Alesi was also the man who once used a shadow as his braking mark, with predictable consequences once the sun began to shift!
In the end, perhaps the best way to describe Alesi is to say that he was a mercurial talent, able to enthral and amuse hand-in-hand, but also able to frustrate as well as be frustrated. In early 1996, when Benetton were finding it hard to come to terms with being unsuccessful once Schumacher had left, they weren't helped by some of Jean's less-than-stellar performances. In addition, Alesi has always been as famous for his inability to test as for his ability to race.
Having said that, it is easy to brush aside the fact that Alesi was tremendously loyal towards Ferrari in the early 1990s, and his perseverance with their terrible 1992 and 1993 cars has been too easily forgotten. For all his extremes Jean was a man who brought home results, even in lean years, for example taking 3rd in Spain and Canada in 1992, 3rd at Monaco in 1993, and 2nd in Italy in 1993. Even though his Benetton results were not as good as hoped, he did place 4th in the championship in both 1996 and 1997.
It all brings us back to where we started. Jean became such a hero to millions because he coupled success behind the wheel even if not as much as his ability deserved with perseverance and emotion, and with both his very human strengths and weaknesses often on display. As race fans, we could all genuinely say that he was both one of us, and not one of us at the same time (compare with the ubiquitous PR-driven automatons of this modern F1 era). His undeniable talent set him apart, but his idiosyncrasies allowed us to relate our struggles, in our fields of endeavour, to his.
Even to the end his humanity shone through. From the mid-1990s onwards he was always unswervingly devoted to his Japanese wife Kumiko, showing a level of commitment David Coulthard could only dream about. And who could forget his last race, when he and Kimi Raikkonen came together in a bone-jarring collision, only for Alesi to hop out and console the young Finnish star and offer him a handshake before revelling in the applause that the crowd was duly giving to him for his final appearance?
But inevitably all good things had to come to an end. Although many believed he was still as quick as ever in 2000 and 2001, the fact was that he was being out-qualified by is younger team-mates too many times for his liking. One always felt that his signing for Jordan in late-2001 was both an exercise of curiosity for Eddie Jordan, but also a vote of appreciation from the Irishman who had been so instrumental in Alesi's junior category career, and who had remained friends with Jean throughout. It was fitting they celebrated Jean's 200th GP together.
The predictable signing of Takuma Sato brought Jean's innings to an end. Thankfully he had reached his double-century of starts, a wonderful milestone, before the curtain had to fall. As Grand Prix racing becomes increasingly commercialised, we may never see the likes of Jean Alesi ever again. The type of driver for whom the passion of fast cars and the style in which the result was achieved was always more important than the result itself. That type of driver will be sorely missed. The romance is over.
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