Joe-Pinions: Sports

3 Oct 2011 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 9)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 03/10/2011

Last time we started off my list of my personal top 10 favorite F1 drivers with Nigel Mansell.  Click here for that entry.

Today we find out who takes the 9th spot in the countdown.

9.  Jean Alesi

Alesi's helmet: The livery is an almost perfect copy of the late Elio de Angelis' own colors

Jean Alesi’s place on this list, I must admit at the outset, is based purely on my emotional attachment to him.  I have always been a fan of Alesi’s, right from the moment he burst onto the Formula 1 scene at Paul Ricard during the 1989 French Grand Prix, up until he finally retired from the top tier of motorsport as a Jordan driver at the end of the 2001 season.  But while I always loved Jean as a grand prix driver, deep down I knew that he was one of those rare exceptions for me, in that he was so far removed from my ideal type of racing driver.

But maybe sometimes the exceptions to the rule are amongst the most memorable.

Alesi was recruited into the Tyrrell team in 1989 after team boss Ken Tyrrell fell out with veteran driver Michele Alboreto.  His first race for the team was the Grand Prix of France.  Amazingly, Jean finished fourth in his debut race, which also happened to be his home grand prix. The fact that he scored points on his F1 debut – a rare achievement indeed – marked Alesi as perhaps the  most exciting new young driver in years.  What made Alesi’s 1989 racing season even more astonishing was the fact that he ran with Tyrrell in 1989 while also racing – and winning the championship – in F3000.

Jean scored twice more in his 1989 Formula 1 season, in the Italian (5th place) and Spanish (another 4th place) Grands Prix.  Earning eight championship points in eight races (he missed two grands prix – in Belgium and Spain – out of the remaining ten, racing in F3000) was hugely  impressive; the fact that he achieved so much in an under-powered Tyrrell-Ford only raised his stock even more.

Alesi started the 1990 season with a sensational 2nd place in the United States Grand Prix.  One might argue that it wasn’t the result which was sensational.  Jean’s 1990 US Grand Prix will always be remembered not for the result he got at the end of the race, but for the titanic battle for the lead he shared with the mighty Ayrton Senna.  For twenty five laps Alesi led the US grand prix, and for most of those laps, Senna stalked him, inexorably gaining on the French-Sicilian from Avignon.  For lap after lap, Senna closed on Alesi.  Jean drove cleanly and confidently, being caught not through his own inadequacies, but because Senna’s McLaren-Honda was the much quicker car than Alesi’s Tyrrell-Ford.  Senna finally lined Alesi up for a pass at the end of the main straight, going inside on the 90° right-hander.

To everyone’s surprise, though, Alesi retook Senna immediately at the following 90° left-hander!  The young pretender, so green and inexperienced, was not intimidated by the 1988 World Champion.  The battle with Senna in Phoenix remains one of my favorite moments in Formula 1 history.

Watch this clip (from ESPN’s coverage) of the battle’s climactic moments and appreciate Alesi’s bravado:

Alesi scored only twice more in 1990, 1pt for a 6th place finish at Imola and 6pts for a great 2nd place at Monte Carlo.  His 2nd place at Monaco was particularly impressive.  Although he didn’t threaten race winner Senna as he had in Phoenix several weeks previously, Alesi stayed in front of such luminaries as Senna’s McLaren teammate Gerhard Berger and Thierry Boutsen (who won the Hungarian Grand Prix in 1990).  On balance, though, Jean was involved in several notable incidents and crashes.  The ones that stand out the most in my mind were when he spun his Tyrrell during a sodden Canadian Grand Prix, his adventurous battle against the more powerful Ferraris and Berger’s McLaren at Monza, and his lap 1 accident  in Jerez.  In Canada, Alesi lost control of his car while battling for position.  The Tyrrell slid into Alessandro Nannini’s Benetton, which had spun off a few laps earlier and was just resting in the tire barrier.  Thankfully, Nannini had already vacated his Benetton, since Alesi’s Tyrrell slid up over the Benetton’s nose and would have certainly killed anybody still sat inside the car.  Both the Tyrrell and the Benetton were written off in that accident.  Later in the year, at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Alesi overtook Mansell and Prost’s very heavy Ferraris and was steadily catching up to Berger’s McLaren, when he spun the car into the barrier at the first chicane.  His stunning speed in the early laps against the much more powerful Ferraris and the Honda-powered McLaren showed not only his Tyrrell’s superb aerodynamic efficiency, but also Alesi’s bravery.  Unfortunately, he pushed too hard too early and clearly made a mistake.  Two races later, in Jerez, he eliminated himself on the first lap of the Spanish Grand Prix jostling for position with Riccardo Patrese.  He weaved and hit Patrese’s front wing endplate, which sliced his left rear tire.  He spun into instant retirement in the gravel trap in the first corner.

Largely on the strength of his early season performances and his exploits from 1989, Alesi’s stock rose to stratospheric levels.  At one point, he actually contrived to have three firm contract offers – from Tyrrell, Williams, and Ferrari, no less – for his services in 1991 and beyond.  He very quickly dismissed notions of returning to Tyrrell due to the team’s limited finances, and so had a straight choice between Williams and Ferrari.  He chose to go to Ferrari, teaming up with Alain Prost.

How I'll always think of Jean Alesi: ATTACKING in his red Ferrari

More than a few observers opined that Alesi was now going to show France’s first (and still, only) F1 world champion the way in 1991.  Alesi himself was confident yet still deferential to his more senior teammate.  As things transpired, Prost outperformed Alesi, outscoring the younger Frenchman 34-21 in the final season points standings despite the fact that Ferrari sacked him with one race remaining on the 1991 calendar.  Unfortunately for Jean, he had made the wrong choice of team:  Ferrari was now about to enter one of its leanest periods, and Williams was on the verge of breaking McLaren’s domination of the Formula 1 world championships.

1992 and 1993 saw scant success for Ferrari and Alesi.  In terms of pure results, the best he managed during this period were three podium places (a heroic race to 3rd in a sodden Spanish Grand Prix a and another lucky 3rd through attrition in Canada during 1992, and a very fortunate 2nd place at Monza the following year).  His Ferraris were rubbish, down on horsepower and handling worse than a grocery cart.  Nevertheless, Jean endeared himself to the tifosi by driving with bravery and skill, conjuring up memories and favorable comparisons with the late Gilles Villeneuve.  The fact that Alesi’s Ferrari wore Villeneuve’s legendary number 27 no doubt enhanced the comparisons.

Jean was breathtaking in the wet.  In the 1992 Spanish Grand Prix and in the French Grand Prix a few weeks later, Alesi demonstrated his superb car control.  Wet races often served as the great equalizer, masking horsepower deficiencies and emphasizing a driver’s raw feel for his car and his ability to continually adjust its trajectory as it scrabbled for precious traction.  It was during these wet races when I truly became an Alesi fan.  I appreciated his great bravery most of all, but his performances in the wet made his imperfections a lot easier to forgive.

And Jean had a lot of imperfections.  First off, he had a tendency to over-drive, to want to go faster than what his car was able to do.  This caused many driving errors, some of which only penalized himself (such as his 1990 Monza mistake), but sometimes also causing grief for others.  One notable example of this was the 1992 Grand Prix of San Marino.  Alesi was running third behind the two all-conquering Williams-Renaults of Mansell and Patrese, but ahead of the two McLaren-Hondas of Senna and Berger.  Jean let Senna pass him at the Tosa hairpin, but was not willing to extend his generosity to Berger; the two touched at the exit of the hairpin, and both were eliminated on the spot with both of their cars damaged.

But the tendency to overdrive was not Alesi’s only flaw.  Perhaps his biggest was his personality.  A passionate man, he seemed to have too little control over his emotions, especially when his anger and temper became aroused.  Where a cooler head would have prevailed, Alesi would lose out to opportunities to shine, if only because the red mist blinded him too much and inflamed his emotions beyond the boiling point.  The 1994 Italian Grand Prix demonstrated this most spectacularly.  Alesi had won the pole position (he only took one more in his career, again at Monza in 1997) and led the race confidently until his pit stop on lap 14.  His Ferrari refueled and fitted with new slicks, Jean selected first gear and found no one home.  He tried again, his Ferrari’s V12 responding only with the furious scream of twelve pistons at maximum revs and no forward motion.  Disgusted, Alesi undid his safety harness and stalked out of the Ferrari.  After the race, Ferrari technical director John Barnard revealed that all Alesi had to do in the event of a failure of first gear was to bypass it and go to second; Alesi’s anger and frustration over yet another broken Ferrari and another victory lost had blinded him from realizing his dream of winning the Italian Grand Prix in a Ferrari with number 27 was still within reach.  Alas, it was not to be.  Indeed, in the wake of his chronic misfortune with Ferrari, it seemed as if Jean would never drink the sweet champagne from the winner’s cup.

Fortunately for Jean and for the fans that loved him, he eventually did win.  The 1995 Canadian Grand Prix saw Alesi finally take P1 at the end of the final lap.  The stars seemed to have all aligned for Jean on this one day:  The race was run on his 31st birthday, on the track named for Gilles Villeneuve, in the car and number that Villeneuve made famous more than a decade ago.  Not surprisingly, Alesi confessed that he was weeping a bit before the end of the race.  He said his tears were hitting the inside of his visor under heavy braking a few laps before the checkered flag!  Thankfully, he kept his emotions under control just enough to cross the finish line first for the only time in his career.  Few victories in Formula 1 were celebrated with more gusto and fervor by everyone involved in the sport, participants and fans alike, than Alesi’s win in Canada.

Sadly, though, his one win in Formula 1 was to be perhaps his final highlight in his career.  Ferrari deemed him unworthy to stay on beyond 1995, and he effectively swapped seats with Michael Schumacher starting in 1996.  At the time, it seemed as if Jean was going to have the better car, but unfortunately Benetton’s form was about to begin its own precipitous drop, just as Ferrari’s did when Jean joined them in 1991.  In contrast, Ferrari was about to begin its climb back up to dominance.  Alesi, then, had tragically bad luck when it came to joining the wrong teams at precisely the wrong time.

His two years at Benetton never lived up to expectations, and from there his stay in F1 was rather forgettable.  He spent two years with perennial mid-pack dwellers Sauber, then slid further down the grid to the Prost (formerly Ligier) team.  His career finally ended with a handful of grands prix with the Jordan Grand Prix team, just when the team was starting its own inexorable slide towards its own eventual death.

So how do we best sum up Jean Alesi?  Well, to me, he became a personal favorite not because he conformed to my favorite “type” of grand prix driver, but because he did not.  Passionate and emotional to a fault, perhaps Alesi reminded me of some of my own flaws.  Instead of being an ideal hero, Alesi was all too real, a man whose image was reality.  A man of undeniable bravery (but not really to the point of sheer recklessness – he never did indulge in the kind of tactics designed to intimidate a rival battling for position, as Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna did on a routine basis, for example), exceptional car control, and good (but not really top-drawer) speed, Alesi represented an example of how passion could spur one to great heights.  The results cupboard was bare for Jean Alesi, but for many passionate fans of Formula 1 and of Ferrari during those dark, winless, yet honorable days in the early-to-mid 1990s, Alesi was the beacon of hope.  Anything seemed possible for the man from Avignon.

Anything but the consistent runs to victory, as we all hoped he would do.

But I certainly never penalized him for that.

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  1. […] pedaling around on two wheels, check this out! Joe-Pinions: Sports18 Oct 2011 – Quick Slants3 Oct 2011 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 9)26 Sept 2011 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 10)16 Sept 2011 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers […]

  2. […] case you missed them, please read my posts on #10 Nigel Mansell, #9 Jean Alesi, and #8 Gilles […]

  3. […] 9.  Jean Alesi […]


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