Archive: The flamboyant F1 ace who lost his best years at Ferrari

After 201 Formula 1 grands prix and just one win, Jean Alesi hung up his helmet 20 years ago after the final race of the 2001 season in Japan. Nigel Roebuck paid tribute in the 25 October 2001 magazine to a driver who brought spice and flair to the paddock

Archive: The flamboyant F1 ace who lost his best years at Ferrari

"I remember my race for third place with Mansell at Suzuka in '94. Every lap he tried to pass in the same place, and I knew on the last lap he'd go for it and probably take us both off. But the race had been stopped and restarted, and I was ahead on overall time, so on the last lap I let him through. He went over the line waving his arms and everything - and he was still fourth! I really enjoyed that..."

After a dozen years and 201 grands prix, Jean Alesi is gone from Formula 1, and I'll miss his conversation as much as his driving.

It is an absurdity that Alesi's F1 career produced but one victory, back in 1995. Appropriately, it came at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, for Jean had worshipped Villeneuve, and had asked Ferrari for Gilles' number 27 on his car. It was also June 11, Alesi's 31st birthday.

"Towards the end," he said, "I started crying, and for a whole lap it was a big problem, because every time I put the brakes on, my tears were hitting the inside of my visor, and I couldn't see! 'Come on now, get yourself together,' I said."

There were tears in the press room too, and when Jean took the flag, not only his mechanics, but those of the other teams too, were on the pitwall celebrating with him. He did not sleep well that night.

"Somehow I couldn't say to myself, 'Now it's done,' but in the morning I looked around my room, saw my trophy, and then it hit me. I thought of all the difficult moments I'd had, but now it had all been worth it."

Alesi scored an emotional victory at Montreal in 1995, but it was his only F1 win

Alesi scored an emotional victory at Montreal in 1995, but it was his only F1 win

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Back in 1990 we thought of Jean Alesi as we think now of Juan Montoya. He was going to be the next superstar. The season before, at Paul Ricard, he had finished fourth for Tyrrell on his F1 debut, and in the early races of 1990 he was sensational. With Cosworth power, he may have been short of straightline speed, but the Tyrrell 019 was a great car - indeed, it remains his favourite to this day.

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At Phoenix that spring Alesi led until halfway, pursued only by the McLaren-Honda of Senna.

"I realised," Ayrton said, "that I'd have to give my best to cope with Jean. We had some good moments at the end of the straight, and then I had a go - but he went round the outside! At the next corner I thought he might not have grip, so I opened the door, and he went through - on the limit! Eventually, I got him again, but it was a clean, exciting, fight."

In the parc ferme Senna smilingly wagged a finger at Alesi, and it was a great compliment. 'I'm going to have to watch you...' it said.

At the end of 1991 though, Prost and Ferrari parted company, and Alesi, stuck with uncompetitive cars, his mentor gone, became something of a lost soul in the paddock. The fans still loved him, but the team was a shambles, and what should have been Jean's best years trickled away

Jean was the young driver everyone wanted, but that summer he took his career in a direction from which it was never completely to recover. Instead of going to Williams-Renault for 1991, he signed with Ferrari.
You look now at what Williams accomplished over the next few seasons, and wonder how many races Alesi might have won. As it was, he went with his heart, and to a team soon on the skids.

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"Some drivers are systematic about their careers," he later said, "But I'd been in love with Ferrari all my life - and you have to remember that, at the time I signed, they were doing well. I knew, too, I would be Prost's team-mate, and how much I could learn from him."

That much was true. Alesi did learn a lot from Prost, and typically, was both funny and frank about it.

"Alain was amazing at Monaco - he never went near the kerbs or the guardrails, and yet he was unbelievably fast. No one ever set up a car to suit himself as well as Prost. The first time I drove a Ferrari set up by him at Fiorano, I thought it was horrible! I came in, changed it, and it felt perfect - and I was six-tenths slower..."

Alesi learned a great deal from Prost, but their partnership only lasted one season as the Frenchman was axed by Ferrari at the end of 1991

Alesi learned a great deal from Prost, but their partnership only lasted one season as the Frenchman was axed by Ferrari at the end of 1991

Photo by: Motorsport Images

At the end of 1991 though, Prost and Ferrari parted company, and Alesi, stuck with uncompetitive cars, his mentor gone, became something of a lost soul in the paddock. The fans still loved him, but the team was a shambles, and what should have been Jean's best years trickled away.

His detractors will say that Alesi's abiding weakness was that he was too emotional, and it is a fact that his character is right there on his sleeve. Although born in Avignon, nothing about him, save his voice, is French. "My parents are Sicilian, and I feel Sicilian." Not until he was 16 did 'Giovanni' become 'Jean'.

Certainly, he is as Latin a racing driver as I have seen, and there were occasions when that drove Jean Todt, and others, nuts. But over time he moderated his behaviour as Gerhard Berger - his team-mate for five years - pointed out.

At the end of 1998, rating the drivers, Berger put Alesi fourth, behind Schumacher, Hakkinen and Villeneuve.

"Jean's problem is that he has an image of being uncontrollable, but I don't think it's fair anymore," Berger explained. "His behaviour depends entirely on how he is treated.

"Jean is terribly underestimated. He doesn't make many mistakes, he has unbelievable car control, he has speed, he has experience, he's quick in the rain, on fast circuits or slow. And he's a great finisher. I really would like to see him in a winning car."

By then Alesi was with Sauber. After five seasons with Ferrari, he spent two quite successful years - 83 championship points - with Benetton, but did not have an easy relationship with Flavio Briatore.

"How are things with Flav?" I asked him in the summer of 1997.

"I'll tell you at the end of the year," he replied, knowing he would not be staying on for 1998. A pause. "But... I hate him!"

Berger believes that Alesi was terribly underrated and given an unfair rap by his peers

Berger believes that Alesi was terribly underrated and given an unfair rap by his peers

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Two seasons with Sauber had their moments, at the A1-Ring in 1998 and Magny-Cours in 1999, where he put his acrobatic style to work in mixed conditions and made the front row. But it was not a car worthy of him, and neither, emphatically, was the Prost last year and this.

When he moved to Jordan for the last five races, Alesi's enthusiasm exploded anew, and it was wonderful to see him at Spa fighting off Ralf Schumacher's Williams-BMW, earning the team a priceless point. For all his hopes though, few of us believed that EJ would continue with him in 2002, and sure enough, Takuma Sato was duly signed.

In the press room, as in the stands, Jean will be much missed, for if it has become a cliche that so-and-so is the last of a breed, in the case of Jean it is true. In an era of automatons, he has remained the personification of 'racing driver'.

Undoubtedly, his temperament has often cost him dear - but it is that very temperament which has set him apart, too, as a human being. I loved the fact that, although he did it, he hated training. "It's so boring! That's why I have a trainer - to make me do it..." Loved the fact, too, that he would take a glass of wine over dinner, that he has a vineyard of his own.

"I know some people think that, for what I have won, I am paid too much. But think of how many races would have been boring if I hadn't given them a bit of spice" Jean Alesi

Alesi adores cars too, which is not always the case with racing drivers. Close by his home is Mont Ventoux, once a round of the European Mountain Championship.

"My father raced there, so I know what the records are," he says. "And sometimes, if I'm upset or depressed, I take my Ferrari F40 and try to beat them. It's 23 kilometres long, and I know ever centimetre. Of course, everybody gets upset with me, because people go up there with bicycles, and I am going faster than that..."

Then there is the 1931 Rolls-Royce Phantom: "I saw the car in England, and had to have it. Right-hand drive. Bar in the back, perfect. And it has a hand-brake that operates only on the rear wheels. You can pull it on, and slide the back. It's my favourite car, I'll never sell it."

That's a flavour of Alesi the man, the gentle fellow who thanks his mechanics, remembers his friends, laughs and cries with equal ease. When it comes to Alesi the driver, most of all I will remember the race at Suzuka in 1995.

Alesi was at his all-action best at Suzuka in 1995

Alesi was at his all-action best at Suzuka in 1995

Photo by: Motorsport Images

On a damp track Schumacher's Benetton looked comfortable in the lead, but Jean started to close, and there were the stirrings of a battle. Then it was announced that he had jumped the start, and would suffer a stop/go penalty. "That put me in a very bad mood..."

He came in, fuming, on lap five, and was now ninth, behind a bunch comprising Barrichello, Herbert, Frentzen and Salo. These people he immediately set about passing, but within the speed and the flair was an element of irrationality.

On lap seven he decided it was time to gamble on slicks, yet passed Herbert's Benetton - at the daunting 130R - immediately before peeling off into the pitlane! Utterly futile, yet magnificently so, a pure racer running on instinct.

After this second stop, Jean was back in 15th place. By lap nine he was ninth, then sixth on lap 10, fourth on 11, an unbelievable second on 12. Now it was Schumacher and Alesi again, with the gap reducing every time round. By lap 18, inspired, he had cut the lead from seven seconds to one, but on lap 25 pulled off, driveshaft bearing failed. He giggles at the memory of that day.

"It was pure adrenaline. I tell you, when it's like that in the car, it's so exciting - I don't hear the radio, I don't hear anything, I'm not watching the pit boards, nothing, just charging!

"I know some people think that, for what I have won, I am paid too much. But think of how many races would have been boring if I hadn't given them a bit of spice."

Too true. Adieu, Jean. And thank you.

Alesi's career was one of unfulfilled promise, but brought plenty of joyous memories

Alesi's career was one of unfulfilled promise, but brought plenty of joyous memories

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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