Jean Alesi – The Great Sicilian
By Nicholas Frankl Contributing Editor
Numbers, can be misleading. They can lead one to make assumptions based solely on the ability of ones own interpretation. If I told you that there is an F1 driver with 2 pole positions and a single win to his name – you might interpret that as a rather promising beginning to a young pilots career. After all, when Alain Prost retired in 1993 he had amassed an incredible 518888 grand prix victories, a record which stood for just seven years, and was surpassed by World Champ Michael Schumacher this year. The next record to fall if all goes to the master plan will be Ayrton Senna’s on 65 pole positions. Of course these are the numbers achieve by the gods of motor racing. But mere mortals like Gehard Berger won seven GP in his long and at many times amusing career. No put in this perspective a couples and a win from 200 Grand Prix starts over the course of eleven years is not a stat that will get you much attention at the local bar. Unless you happen to be Jean Alesi of course in which case so long as the bar resides outside of the US there’s a fair chance that you’ll be blanketed by admiration and respect deserving of a racing legend who gave it his all, wore his emotional heart on his sleeve, yet failed to so publicly to fulfill his destiny. For the greater motor racing world knows, what games the devils in Jean’s mind play. The great roulette wheel of WHAT IF?
Anyone who attended the Phoenix GP of 1990 will well remember a sunny blue sky day and a white Tyrrell driven to within a inch of its life whilst dicing and in fact out manouvering Senna in his omni-dominant red and white McLaren (remember those?). The cheeky 26 year old French / Sicilian put the F1 world on notice that Sunday, the subject of “Alesi” and “World Champion in waiting” was a regular topic of conversation. It seemed more interesting to guess which lucky team would secure his services and propel him to glory than how he would actually manage such a feat, with the likes of Mansell, Piquet, Berger, Prost and Senna all gunning against him for the crown. Nevertheless despite entertaining many offers Jean and his advisors took the yellow brink road to Maranello fame, fortune and frustration. How could an “Italian” turn down a request from the Scarlet team after just a year in F1?
Jean took the drive and stayed loyal for 5 very long years. The cars sounded glorious with their V12 engines, the only ones left in F1. And looked absolutely fab. Problem was they went nowhere fast as the team lurched from one disastrous year to another. What a waste. Just a single win. No constructors titles and not even a hope of the drivers cup. Montreal ’95 must seem like yesterday. You always remember your first win. Especially when achieved on the Circuit Gilles Villenuve, a man held with the respect of a deity, and who’s mantel had been passed to the number 27 car with Alesi’s name on the side. Tears flowed like rivers, and none more I suspect that at the Williams garage, where Frank would have been enjoying the irony of the occasion and playing the same roulette mind game. For it was Frank’s offer in 1991 that the emotional and kind, but highly spirited racer turned down. Had he accepted the offer, of what we know would have been for much less glamour and maybe most significantly dollars, I could now have been writing about a three time world champion!
In 1991 we were still in the McLaren years. Mansell in the Williams and Prost in the Ferrari fought hard, but none were ever going to match the Honda/Senna/McLaren combo. But 1992 heralded a new era for Williams. They had the Renault V10, an engine so good and so secret that Williams employed full time ex foreign legion soldiers to guard it. Equipped with gadgets galore including ABS, and active suspension, Mansell walked the Championship in 1992, in what remains the most sophisticated Formula One car ever raced, he wrapped up the whole season by Hungary and won nine races, including 5 in a row. That could have been you Jean. Mansell and Frank fell out and Nigel went off to Indy to do the double. ’93 was Williams again, but this time with Prost. Yes, Jean that was another one that slipped away. Of course Prost’s retirement meant the ’94 car was under developed and with the loss of Senna and the tremendous shock to the team combined with a relatively inexperienced driver in Damon Hill, the team, although fighting valiantly to the final race in Adelaide, lost consistency and with it the decisive championship winning edge. Williams lost out to the Benetton Team, and highly suspect tactics. All the while Jean had been drowning in a red watery grave. What seemed perfect timing – to switch to the winning Benetton team again turned out to be the wrong move at the wrong time. Taking long time team-mate Berger with him Alesi inherited Schumacher’s ’95 championship winning chassis. A car so undriveable to anyone but the German that all the car’s were destroyed in testing accidents within a space of a few weeks. He did enjoy some limited success with the Benetton Renault in 1997, though that was due mainly to the reliability of the engine and his passion to fight it out, Jean finished 3rd in the Drivers Championship.
By this time Williams had a strong British pairing in Hill and Coulthard, had sorted the aerodynamic and performance characteristics of the FW 16 ))))))and were on their way to another two championships with Damon (’96) and Jacques Villeneuve (’97). The Williams era ended in ’98. Renault factory effort quit F1 at the end of ’97 disgusted with having dominated F1 for 6 years and received stark return on their billions of Francs investment. And Alesi? Too late mate. F1 had passed him by. He was no longer the hot kid on the block. At 33 he was becoming an elder statesman in F1 terms with high salary and package demands, millions in the bank a beautiful wife and two children, Alesi, despite a close personal relationship with Schumacher, didn’t get the second seat at Ferrari – when it might have actually had some value, was shut out of Williams and Mclaren and too expensive for Jordan. That left Peter Sauber in Switzerland with a neat chassis and old Ferrari horses to push him around. Jean ever the realist knew winning from mid field was an unlikely option and although he pulled off a miracle in qualifying second in Austria in ’98, that was more down to the weather than any quantum leap in performance. Still positive and ready to make a difference he stuck with the team in1999 but saw him rewarded with fifteenth spot in the drivers championship. Last season Alain Prost with his French national team invited Jean to share his considerable experience and join a friend in building a legacy. Like the Ferrari in ’91 it handled like a truck and like Prost in ‘91, Alesi wasn’t fazed at criticizing the team publicly. Finally this year Jean and Alain fell out over poor performance and lack of funding. Prost is now in receivership and Jean Alesi, at 38, and with no real options has called it a day in F1 at least.
But a man with this much fire in his belly couldn’t just walk away from racing. Schumacher pleaded and eventually persuaded his friend not to switch to Indy racing for fear of the high speeds and concrete walls. So Jean has found himself a nice little deal with the Mercedes DTM touring car team. Following in Keke Rosberg’s footsteps Jean will no doubt go on to build his own racing team, maybe even in F1 one day. But for now he’ll probably do the odd bit of testing and consulting for Jordan and sit on the pit wall as the cars flash by wondering where all the years went and what happened to that feisty youngster who took the fight to the best of them, won some great battles but never pieced together a successful campaign.
Don’t be surprised Jean if the admiration doesn’t falter. Much better to be a big fish in a smaller bowl than a once golden fish in a giant tank.