Canada has a habit of producing some special races, such as the one that took place in 2011: the year of Pirelli’s return to Formula 1®.
In a rain-battered race characterised by red flags and safety cars – in fact, it goes down in history as being the longest grand prix ever to take place – Jenson Button won for McLaren from last, following a spin.
Of all his wins, he counts it as one of the most memorable. But this wasn’t the most emotional ever victory to take place in Canada. That belonged to Jean Alesi, who claimed his one and only grand prix victory in Montreal back in 1995. On his 31st birthday.
Most drivers, particularly if they win just once, cling on to as many souvenirs of the experience as they possibly can: in particular their ‘lucky helmet’.
Not so Jean. Overcome with emotion he threw his helmet, complete with radio kit and everything, into the crowd as he celebrated afterwards. Unsurprisingly, it was never seen again.
Jean was a man who enjoyed an explosive start to his F1® career, snapping at the heels of Ayrton Senna armed only with a modest Tyrrell in 1989 and 1990, but when it came to driving for a top team, the Frenchman seemed forever destined to claim second place.
No more the bridesmaid
That result was set to happen again on 11 June 1995 in Montreal. But then, on lap 57, the leading Benetton driven by Michael Schumacher dived into the pits for a new steering wheel, which took more than a minute to fix. This let the Ferrari into the lead. But not just any Ferrari: this was Alesi’s Ferrari, wearing the fabled number 27 that had previously been looked after by another Ferrari-driving Frenchman, Alain Prost. Not to mention, many years earlier, Gilles Villeneuve – who achieved God-like status in Montreal.
“When I found out that Schumacher had come into the pits, I immediately started crying,” said Alesi, who became a Pirelli brand ambassador once his driving days were over. “In fact, I couldn’t see very well at that moment because of the tears, so I told myself not to be stupid. But actually I didn’t feel well; my muscles were hurting everywhere.”
Alesi just had to bring the car home, which was never a foregone conclusion 20 years ago, with reliability nowhere near as impressive as it is now. As Alesi put it himself: “I’d seen P1 on the pit board before, but never so close to the finish!”
In fact, such was the rate of attrition that both Jordans were second and third. Yet Alesi had already done the hard work, passing his team mate Gerhard Berger and the Williams of Damon Hill earlier in the race.
This still remains one of the most popular wins in Formula 1® history, generating the iconic image of Alesi jubilantly receiving a lift to the pits on the side of Schumacher’s Benetton, after the Ferrari stalled on his slowing down lap, having run out of fuel.
“Winning for Ferrari is a special feeling; a feeling like you get nowhere else,” said Alesi. “You don’t just win for yourself and for the team. You win for the whole of Italy too.”
As many people commented at the time, this was surely just the first of very many wins? But inexplicably, it wasn’t to be.
History repeats itself
Six years later, the 2001 season was Alesi’s last in Formula 1®. Driving for Prost, he finished fifth in the Canadian Grand Prix, which was actually to be his best result of the season. On that occasion too, he threw his helmet into the crowd, overjoyed. And generous to the last.
The story doesn’t quite end there though as now there’s a new Alesi, who is racing with Pirelli. Giuliano Alesi, aged 16, is competing with Trident in the GP3 Series. And just three months ago, Alesi Jr was also admitted to the Ferrari Driver Academy. As people always say, history is circular.