Jean Alesi arrived in Formula 1 on a boiling hot afternoon at the beginning of July. The year was 1989 and the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard was about to get underway, next to the glistening Mediterranean. It was the sort of tableau you would expect to see on the cover of a glamorous society magazine, with actors and actresses in the paddock and long candlelit dinners in the evening on the nearby beaches.
But very little – or in fact nothing – was known about this new French driver about to take his country by storm. Whoever was into Formula 3000 (whether for personal or professional reasons) already realised that he was incredibly quick. But for most other people the biggest surprise was to find themselves in front of a French driver with intense blue eyes who knew how to speak perfect Italian (his grandparents were from Alcamo in Sicily) but with a fascinating accent to go with it.
Alesi faced a tricky task. Because of a sponsor conflict, the Tyrrell team put him in the car that had been occupied right up to the previous Canadian Grand Prix by Michele Alboreto, during Italian’s first season after leaving Ferrari. The partisan racing community from Italy naturally looked at this new French interloper with some degree of suspicion. Nonetheless Alesi responded diligently to the many interview requests he had and went about his business quietly, almost as if slightly intimidated. In qualifying he didn’t manage to get more than halfway up the grid, more than half a second off his team mate Jonathan Palmer in the other Tyrell.
But in the actual race that timidity somehow disappeared. It was a tricky grand prix, as the first start was aborted following a multiple pile-up. This forced Nigel Mansell in the Ferrari to take the second start from the pit lane, having originally qualified on the second row directly behind the McLaren-Hondas of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. It was the sort of race that would require a lot of experience, with the pressure mounting as the drivers lined up on the grid once more. But Alesi kept his cool from start to finish. And at the chequered flag he was fourth, with only Prost, Mansell (after another extraordinary fightback) and the experienced Williams driver Riccardo Patrese ahead of him.
Alesi would end the 1989 season in ninth overall, thanks to two other points finishes in Monza and Spain. He also finished the year as Formula 3000 champion: a series he kept returning to every time there wasn’t a clashing grand prix. Ken Tyrrell – a team owner who was as cunning as they got – unsurprisingly retained him for 1990, managing to fend off approaches from some top teams and knowing full well that in doing so, he would undoubtedly increase his driver’s market value. And so it proved: for 1991 Alesi was headed to Ferrari, taking Mansell’s place after a long contractual dispute with Williams (where the Frenchman had signed a letter of intent for the same year).
Alesi was simply destined for Ferrari though. His natural speed and generosity as a driver, despite being handicapped by a red car that was nowhere near as competitive as it had been the previous year, was the epitome of love conquering all. And the colour of love is red – which could not have been more appropriate in this case.
Alesi quickly became far more loved than his more aloof team mate Prost, even though the older Frenchman had come within a whisker of the world title in 1990. Whether he was talking to fans, journalists, or television channels, Alesi loyally promised: “vinceremo” – we will win. And so the famed tifosi took him truly to their hearts; idolising their hero over and above the results that he achieved.
The 1992 and 1993 seasons were difficult for Ferrari. McLaren and Williams shared all the spoils worth having between them, and success for Benetton was firmly on the horizon too thanks to another rising star: Michael Schumacher. But in 1994 the Ferrari was better and Alesi qualified on the front row in Canada and Germany, as well as claiming pole position in Monza. On race day the entire circuit was seemingly with him; the fans in the grandstands all shouting his name right up to a fateful pitstop, after which Alesi’s car developed a transmission problem. And retired.
A year later, fate was even more cruel. The two Ferraris were in the lead, with Alesi in front of Gerhard Berger, when the TV camera mounted on Alesi’s Ferrari fell off and landed on the front suspension of Berger’s car, putting him out. Alesi continued in the lead and this time looked set to do it – until a puff of smoke from a wheel betrayed the fact that a bearing had broken, with just eight laps to go. Once again his chances were gone, for the second time in a row at Monza. Alesi burst into tears when he came back to the pits, but this only elevated him higher in the eyes of the adoring tifosi. Three months earlier he had claimed what would become his only Formula 1 victory, in Canada, but even then there was never as much love shown for a driver who loved Ferrari so much.
The 1994 and 1995 seasons were his last at Maranello before the Schumacher era got underway. Alesi finished his Ferrari career with two fifth places in the world championship, but that was scant consolation for all those who had wanted to see him crowned as a Ferrari champion. After he left Maranello, there would be two years at Benetton followed by two at Sauber and a year and a half at Prost, before Alesi finished his career at Jordan. The dream was finally over. But these days, Jean closely follows his son Giuliano (a member of the Ferrari Driver Academy) in Formula 2, and he’s still enthusiastically recognised at airports and race tracks all over the world. Alesi’s legacy is that of a driver synonymous not only with Ferrari, but with the sort of unquenchable passion for racing that formed part of a different age.
JEAN ALESI - 11 June 1964
Pole positions: 2
Shane Richmond is a technology writer and...