Joe-Pinions: Sports

1 May 2014 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 3)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 01/05/2014

First off, it’s been a terribly long time since I last wrote anything in this blog.  A full year and one hundred and ten days, in point of fact.

The truth is, I’ve been quite busy.  I’ve been contributing to a tech website on a regular basis as a reviewer/editor, working on a still-evolving novella-length piece of fan fiction, and rediscovering a love for music and songwriting that had lain dormant for a decade or so.

Now that I’ve mentioned that, 1 1/3 years doesn’t seem too long, does it?

But I’ve digressed.

It’s time to continue this, my list of my top ten favorite F1 drivers.

I’ll admit something:  This list might need a little bit of revision, especially towards the rear of the pack.  During the last few years I’ve grown to admire some current F1 drivers enough to think that they might warrant inclusion in this list.  I think that it’s inevitable that a list like this would get revised.  I mean, I’m sure that every fan has a similar hierarchy of performers that he or she may hold dear, and that new names get added to that list all the time.

For now, though, this is how this version of the list stacks up:

10.  Nigel Mansell

9.  Jean Alesi

8.  Gilles Villeneuve

7.  Nelson Piquet

6.  Damon Hill

5.  Sir Jackie Stewart

4.  Jim Clark

We are now in the most hallowed portion of this gathering of F1 greats.  The top three finishers of any grand prix are, after all, feted on a podium of glory.

And so, my # 3 favorite F1 driver is:

3.  Ayrton Senna

Every single year, at around this time, I feel more emotional than usual about Formula 1.  Long-time fans of the sport will probably understand why, even without prompting.

Twenty years ago today, Formula 1 – indeed, all of motorsport – lost possibly its most charismatic participant ever when Senna’s Williams FW-16 smashed into the concrete wall on the outside of the mighty Tamburello corner at the Circuito Enzo e Dino Ferrari  at Imola in Northern Italy.

Even today, twenty years after his death, the name Senna is still as evocative as ever.  In some ways, the passage of time has only burnished his legend even further.  A similar thing happened to James Dean, to Princess Diana, to John Lennon; the phenomenon has also happened in F1, to Jim Clark and to Gilles Villeneuve, just to name two.

But Senna’s star appears to be inextinguishable.

Ask F1 fans today to name their all-time favorite driver, and chances are they’ll say “Ayrton Senna.”  Ask racing drivers today the same thing, and many will name him too.

Ayrton Senna's iconic bright yellow helmet:  Simple and powerful

Ayrton Senna’s iconic bright yellow helmet: Simple and powerful

To be honest, it almost feels somehow wrong if you think differently.

There’s no question that Ayrton Senna was a driver of immense talent.  His contemporaries all hailed him, almost to a man, as the fastest, most gifted driver on the grid.  I mean, how else can you conclude differently when he demolished the record for career pole positions, setting it at a stupefying 65 (almost doubling the previous record of 33 set by Jim Clark) from 162 races?  What else can you say about the man who was second in the all-time grand prix winners list at 41 victories at the time fate intervened at Tamburello?  Also, only a very select few have won as many as three World Championships.

However, I think it would be terribly boring to talk about Ayrton Senna and have the conversation boil down to a recitation of mere statistics.  As much as they are some measure of the man’s achievements in the top echelon of motorsport, Senna is far more interesting as a person.  And the biggest reason why Senna is so interesting is because he was just so imperfect.

Nigel Roebuck, who remains my favorite writer of all things Formula 1, once wrote that Senna is “a flawed genius.”  Personally, I cannot come up with a more correct description.  While most people only seem to remember Ayrton Senna as the transcendent talent and warrior on the race track that he undoubtedly was, I think that his untimely death also made too many people forget his various imperfections.

Alain Prost, Senna’s only rival, once told Roebuck that he felt uncomfortable talking about Senna.  Prost said during that magazine interview (and I’m paraphrasing here) that it’s impossible for him to talk about Senna because he (Prost) simply can’t win:  If he talks about Senna’s virtues, then Prost looks like a hypocrite.  Where were these platitudes when the man was alive?  Where was this appreciation when their rivalry was at its hottest and most hostile?  Yet if Prost aired his grievances, then he comes off looking like the ultimate complainer (which some in the press already see him as anyway), attacking a dead man incapable of defending his own reputation.  It’s really very easy to sympathize with Prost’s position.

But fans who still remember the sport pre-Senna would fully understand why Roebuck (and Prost, obviously) thinks that Senna, for all his brilliance and talent, was not the pristine exemplar of what’s best in motor racing.  Old school fans might appreciate the man’s abilities, but those of us who have a fertile-enough imagination for consequences for certain types of behavior maintain a reluctance to forgive certain transgressions.

Even before his arrival in F1, Senna (he was known as Ayrton Senna da Silva back in those days, incorporating both his parents’ surnames) was already establishing a reputation for ruthlessness, a penchant for intimidation, that truly has no place in an activity as potentially mortally dangerous as motor racing, especially when we’re talking about open-wheeled cars.  In Formula Ford and in British Formula 3, Senna had a reputation (especially amongst the track marshals, whose opinions of drivers and their behaviors, are the most serious and valid, in my opinion) for being far too aggressive than appropriate.  Again, Roebuck says it best:  In his Grand Prix Greats, Roebuck wrote that Senna had a “let me through, or we crash” attitude when it came to overtaking a rival (again, I’m paraphrasing).  In other words, Senna always relied upon his rival’s giving way whenever he attempted an overtaking maneuver.  Resistance was futile, and often it was destructive.

Just ask Martin Brundle, perhaps the most famous of Senna’s pre-F1 victims.  The two had a major contretemps at the Oulton Park circuit in British F3 whilst dicing for the race lead.  The two were battling for the series championship that year, and after dominating the early part of that season, Senna felt increasingly desperate as Brundle cut into his points lead.

Just watch what happens when Brundle resists Senna’s attempt to pass (Brundle is in the blue and yellow Ralt, with Senna in the white Ralt) (their incident starts at the 1:06 mark) :

The immediate aftermath of the accident looked a bit horrific at first blush:  Senna’s car was literally on top of Brundle’s, mere inches from Brundle’s head.  How Martin Brundle escaped this crash uninjured is a mystery, but this was but one example of Ayrton’s unyielding aggression and seeming lack of imagination might have ended up in a bigger disaster.  For sure, though, the fact that Senna’s Ralt had become a surprise headrest for Martin Brundle is the sort of thing that should have deterred Ayrton from similar stunts in the future.

Ayrton, though, was never officially sanctioned for this incident.  It’s purely my opinion that escaping censure for this kind of ultra-aggressive behavior in the lower formulae may have given Senna the proverbial green light to continue conducting his racing in a similar way once he broke into Formula 1.  Lots of drivers ran afoul of Senna’s uncompromising style:  Keke Rosberg at the Nurburgring in 1984, Nigel Mansell (several times, including a wild affair at Spa-Francorchamps in 1987 and a near-disaster at Estoril in 1989), even Michael Schumacher (France 1992, South Africa and Brazil the following season).

Of course, his innumerable run-ins with his rival Alain Prost are the ones that stick hardest in most people’s minds.  It’s useless to recount every single time these two true Formula 1 Titans crossed each other’s path; inevitably, grands prix became a race between just the two of them.  This is especially true about the 1988 season, when the two of them won fifteen out of the sixteen races with their indomitable McLaren-Honda MP4/4s.

Perhaps it was inevitable, but having the two best drivers in the same team was a ticking time bomb; it’s just impossible to have two alpha males in the pack.  Each one would want to assert his own dominance, and fratricide was probably unavoidable.  But their two years together at McLaren wasn’t always hostile.  1988 was a fairly harmonious year.  Indeed, aside from Prost’s occasional unhappiness with Senna’s sometimes brutal racecraft (his aggressive overtake lapping Prost into Woodcote at a sodden British Grand Prix stands out as a clear example – another unnecessary display of “move over, or we crash”), the two conducted themselves as professionals with an obvious mutual respect.

The Portuguese Grand Prix that year, though, revealed the first fissures in their relationship.  These hairline cracks would later escalate to earthquake faults that would ultimately destroy their relationship, however temporarily.  The 1988 GP of Portugal actually had three starts, with the first two being aborted.  At the original start, Prost jumped Senna and, perhaps fed up with all the times Senna had tried to intimidate him, edged Ayrton towards the outside of Turn 1.  It’s hard stuff, but entirely fair.  Indeed, Senna himself was known to do the same (and even worse) to other rivals.  Because of another driver stalling on the grid, the officials called for a second standing start, which itself was also marred by another stall, this time resulting in a multi-car accident.  The third start proved the charm, though, and Senna jumped Prost for the lead.  Beginning the second racing lap, though, Prost, who had a stronger car that day, moved to the inside on the long Estoril pit straight attempting to overtake.  Senna violently pushed his teammate towards the pit wall, causing the pit crews to raise their pit boards out of fear that Prost’s car or helmet might clobber them.  Post-race, after he had won the Portuguese GP, Prost did not bother to hide his anger for his teammate’s tactics.  He said, “If he (Senna) wants to win the world championship that badly (that he would risk an almighty accident – with a teammate!), he can have it.”

In intra-team discussions post-race, Senna complained that Prost had done him hard by edging him onto the grass at the first corner.  Prost, though, pointed out that it was a fair tactic; this point is beyond dispute.  The guy in front, after all, always has the line.  Senna himself has used this defense, both before and after this particular incident.  But Senna’s response at the third start was over the top.  You simply do not squeeze rivals into a wall or barrier.  That kind of maneuver just has far too much potential for a true disaster.  Anybody who would defend tactics like this clearly has a bankrupt imagination; anybody who might argue the validity or rightness of “defending track position” in this manner simply doesn’t understand how lethal something like that can be if these drivers touch wheels going down a circuit’s longest straight.

Ayrton Senna in his McLaren-Honda MP4/6, at Monaco.  He won this most prestigious of Grands Prix a record six times.

Ayrton Senna in his McLaren-Honda MP4/6, at Monaco. He won this most prestigious of Grands Prix a record six times.

The relationship, though, completely disintegrated less than a year later.  At Imola, at the restart after Berger’s fiery crash at Tamburello, Senna violated a pact that he himself proposed to Prost:  He overtook Alain going into the Tosa hairpin despite an agreement between both McLaren drivers that neither shall attempt to overtake his teammate at the start.  Senna justified his pass on Prost was legal because, technically, it wasn’t the start; it was the restart.  Engaging in semantic fencing like this reveals Senna’s hunger for victory as well as his utter ruthlessness.  Nothing, not even a pact that he himself initiated with a teammate, would stand in his quest for victory.

Many people admire that about Senna; I, on the other hand, have a very difficult time stomaching such a Machiavellian approach.  Victory at all costs, even at the cost of ethics, goes beyond the realm of sport.  Indeed, Prost said that racing to Senna went beyond sport; racing for Senna was nothing short of warfare.  To me, this is a distorted way of looking at racing.  Even war is governed by rules, after all.  But the way Senna approached his racing (or, at least his racing against one specific rival), the rules were only valid if they applied only to his advantage.

This was never more true than the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, when he simply rammed Prost off the track entering a fast fourth-gear corner at the start of the race.  The arguments will rage forever between those who, like the producers of the Senna “documentary” (I refuse to recognize this film as a documentary because of the liberties it took – not once was Senna ever portrayed as a human being with faults or a capacity to misjudge), see Ayrton as an inviolate deity-like figure, and those who will never forget nor forgive all that he had done to damage the sport.  I remain steadfast in my stance that intimidation and a willingness to cause an accident with a rival whose crime is to be ahead of Ayrton Senna have no place in any form of racing.  I am sure that people who would argue that Senna was justified to crash into Prost because of what happened the year before at the same track, albeit at the Casio chicane.  Like James Hunt did at the time, I will always believe that Senna was in the wrong in that incident as well.  As Senna himself said many times, the guy in front (Prost) had the line; it is always the man overtaking the man in front who has to make sure they don’t collide.

Senna fans will, in all likelihood, crucify me for committing the heresy of criticizing their idol.  But nothing I’ve said is untrue; all you have to do is revisit history by re-watching footage and reading all of the accounts written during Senna’s entire career.  I’ve watched most of Senna’s races, either live or on video, and I’ve read so many writers’ work from that time.  He wasn’t short on critics back then, especially among the part of the audience who could still remember the days when (or appreciate the fact that) racing was an eminently dangerous way to spend one’s time.  And this is all the more true in Formula 1.

Ayrton Senna

Ayrton sitting in his McLaren-Honda MP4/5, wearing his trademark mask of intense concentration. This might be my favorite photo of the great man.

In all honesty, Ayrton Senna makes me feel a huge conflict.  On the one hand, there is no escaping his shadow.  While I obviously do not subscribe to the groupthink that Ayrton Senna was the greatest and most talented F1 driver of them all, there is no disputing his place amongst the giants of the sport.  His achievements alone guarantee his place in the Mt. Olympus equivalent of F1 greats.  The style and panache with which he practiced the art of driving a racing car is unique unto Senna; like Muhammad Ali, he is an original.  Unfortunately, his portfolio, while full of masterpieces and glory, is also filled with ignominy and infamy.  I can never forgive Senna for Japan 1990.  I say this primarily because of the damage done to the sport.  No one like to see a truly epic clash for the world championship settled in such a cynical manner.  Everyone who saw that race felt cheated out of the right way to achieve the result.

At the end of the day, you see, it should still matter how you win.  Racing is sport, not warfare.  The ends shouldn’t always justify the means.  And Senna’s flaws are just too grotesque to ignore, at least for someone who remembers them from when he committed such sins.  No amount of hyperbolic appreciation of his greatness – greatness at his level shouldn’t be so subject to so much hyperbole anyway – can make me forget.  And that is the greatest tragedy of Ayrton Senna, really:  He was just too good to have to rely on such a Machiavellian approach to his racing.

 

 

14 Feb 2012 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 6)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 14/02/2012

Today we’ll be looking at the driver occupying the sixth spot in my personal top 10 F1 drivers list.  But before we proceed further, if you want to review which drivers took spots 10 thru 7, read these posts:

10. Nigel Mansell

9. Jean Alesi

 8. Gilles Villeneuve

7. Nelson Piquet

And now, we resume our countdown with one of motorsports’ true gentlemen.

6.  Damon Hill

He was never the most talented.

Never the fastest.

Never regarded as an all-time great.

You know what, though?  All these things are true enough, but they don’t matter.  Not to me.

Damon Hill's helmet livery: A modern interpretation of his father Graham's famous colors

Damon Hill…  what can you say about him that would merit a place on any top 10 list that has him just one spot shy of its top half?  How can I rate Damon Hill higher than Nelson Piquet, arguably an all-time great?  Higher than the legendary Gilles Villeneuve?

I’ll say it now, then.

I really liked Damon Hill.  For a short time, he occupied the void left when my old favorites from the 1980s-early 1990s had all gone from the sport.  He bridged the gap between the two drivers who occupy the #1 and #2 spots in my personal countdown.

Though Damon, son of 2-time F1 World Champion Graham Hill, won twenty-two Grands Prix and one Drivers’ World Championship, for most of his career he occupied the position of underdog.  It’s true that most of his successes were achieved whilst driving an Adrian Newey-designed Williams-Renault, undoubtedly the best car-engine combination for most of the 1990s.  Given that he had such great equipment to work with, how could Damon be an underdog?

I suppose that that’s a bit of an absurd assertion.  However, I think that things aren’t as simple as they might appear.  For one thing, it’s all too easy to forget the narrative behind all the stats and facts.

Damon started his path onto motorsports quite late.  In fact, he didn’t even start his racing career on four wheels!  Instead, Damon Hill started racing motorbikes at age 23.  To put that into some kind of context, by that age both Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel had already been an F1 World Champion.  To really hammer the point home, Spanish hotshoe Jaime Alguersuari has already had almost three complete seasons in F1 at age 21!

At his mother’s urging, Hill swapped his bike racing leathers for a Nomex car racing suit in 1983.  For the next few years, Hill won races and pole positions in various junior formulae.  However, he never managed to win a championship at any level.

Consequently, Damon never attracted any truly serious interest from any of the big Formula 1 outfits.  No team wanted to take a gamble on him to fill their racing vacancies.

In 1991, however, Williams Grand Prix decided to hire Damon as their test driver.  Through the 1991 racing season he split his time testing and developing the various electronic gizmos on the Williams-Renault.  Based on just how awesome the FW14B turned out to be, with its all-singing-and-dancing active suspension, its now bulletproof semi-automatic transmission, and traction control system, you could say Hill was a superb tester.

The following year, Hill continued testing for Williams.  However, he also finally had his proper Grand Prix debut, taking over Giovanna Amati‘s seat at Brabham.  Sadly, Brabham was by then a pathetic shell of its former self.  To his credit, however, Hill did manage to qualify the ridiculously poor BT60B for two races, the British and Hungarian GPs.

When Nigel Mansell decided to “retire” from F1 at the end of the 1992 season, a vacancy at Williams opened up.  After many weeks of uncertainty, Frank Williams decided to fill the empty race seat with Damon Hill.  It was the most logical decision, given Hill’s familiarity with both the Williams team’s methodologies and the car the team was going to race in 1993, the Renault-powered FW15C.

1993 was a successful year for Damon.  In what was essentially his true rookie year in F1, he managed to win a hat trick of races (Hungary, Belgium and Italy), take a few pole positions, and finish third in the final World Championship standings (behind Ayrton Senna and the 1993 World Champion, teammate Alain Prost).  He deferred to his teammate in the early part of the year, but came on ever stronger as the season progressed.  He would have had a higher points total at the end of the year but for two heartbreaking car failures at the British and German Grands Prix, his Williams blowing an engine and suffering a race-ending puncture in successive races.  He did demonstrate the full extent of the Williams-Renault FW15C’s potential by racing into 3rd place in Portugal after being forced to start at the very rear of the grid due to stalling prior to the first formation lap.

It says much about Damon that his 1993 teammate, Prost, thought very highly of him.  The four-time world champion credited Hill for helping him understand the FW15C, particularly its innovative technological features (aside from inheriting the FW14B’s full complement of gadgetry, the FW15C also added anti-lock brakes and optimized aerodynamics).  Prost thanked his 1993 teammate, as well as praising him for some truly great performances during their time together (particularly in Great Britain, Belgium, and Portugal) and for being a true gentleman.

The following year, of course, was one of F1’s (and auto racing’s) most traumatic and horrifying seasons ever.  At the outset, nobody, of course, could have known just how awful the year was going to be.  Hill, though, probably thought that he was going to be in for a tough time anyway.  Prost retired, and Ayrton Senna slotted in to take his place at Williams.  To paraphrase what an F1 journalist said at the time, going from Prost to Senna was a bit like graduating high school and entering into university.

Not surprisingly, Hill never out-qualified Senna, the acknowledged master of the art of qualifying in Formula 1.  Nevertheless, by virtue of Senna’s inability to bring his Williams home in the first two grands prix, he led Senna on points, 6-0 (he finished 2nd in the season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix).  By everyone’s reckoning, Senna’s own included, the third race, the San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, would be where Senna would finally launch himself into the championship standings.

It never happened that way, of course.  Senna was killed on the seventh lap of the San Marino Grand Prix, and Damon Hill, with barely a year’s worth of F1 racing under his belt, found himself in the unlikely position as Williams’ team leader.

Much like his father Graham did with Lotus in the wake of Jimmy Clark‘s own fatal accident, Damon Hill galvanized the Williams team.  With amazing dignity, grit, and determination, he helped keep Williams together in the face of unspeakable horror.  His admittedly lucky victory in Spain was the second race since Senna’s fatal accident, but the sight of Williams personnel weeping not in grief but in relief and joy, spoke volumes.  Few grand prix victories were as emotional as that first Williams win after Senna’s death.

With the mantle of Williams team leadership now firmly on his shoulders, he challenged Michael Schumacher.  In terms of talent, Damon was unquestionably Schumacher’s inferior; however, Damon’s talents as a test driver came to the fore as the year progressed, helping transform what had been a very difficult machine into a finely-honed race winner.  Not only that, but Hill also possessed, if not a champion’s raw talent, a true champion’s will.  He ignored all the distractions and kept his eye on the target.  Nowhere was this demonstrated more clearly than at the Japanese Grand Prix.  Run in torrential conditions, Hill managed to beat Schumacher by 3.3 seconds by the end of the disjointed race.  Furthermore, by beating Schumacher in Japan, Hill closed the points gap to a solitary point.

More than any other race he would ever run, the 1994 Japanese Grand Prix stands out as the race that makes me think of Damon Hill.  Grit, determination, the obstinate refusal to bow to a superior opponent when the circumstances gave him every excuse to simply give  in…  these are the elements in Damon Hill the racing champion that I came to love and appreciate.

At the next race, the 1994 season’s final grand prix at Adelaide, Australia, Hill pressured Schumacher into a mistake.  Unfortunately for Hill, Schumacher drove his Benetton into Hill’s FW16 and broke the Williams’ left-front suspension.  The “accident” ended the chase for the championship (I will never believe that Schumacher lost control of his car at the precise moment when Hill was alongside and clearly going to overtake; Schumacher barged into the Williams with full and malicious intent and absolutely no regard for any consequences).  In the pits, Hill maintained his dignity, vocalizing not his private disappointment or anger at being taken out of the championship, but of his sadness and disappointment at not winning the championship for Frank Williams, the team, and Ayrton Senna.

I became a firm fan of Damon’s with that display of class and dignity, rare as it sadly is (and continues to become) not just in Formula 1, but in all of sports.

And so I followed Damon’s F1 career with great interest, cheering for his successes and lamenting whenever he made the inevitable mistake of judgment or when fortune simply did not smile upon him.  I cringed in 1995 when he crashed into his great rival Michael Schumacher not once, but twice, that year in badly-misjudged overtaking maneuvers.  I wept inwardly when he lost the 1997 Hungarian Grand Prix on the final lap after leading easily for the last third of the race in an Arrows-Yamaha that almost routinely ran at the back end of the grid.  Of course, I nearly wept from the joy of seeing him ascend to the top of the podium as the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix winner, taking the Jordan Grand Prix team’s maiden win as well as his final victory.

Damon Hill, a champion and a gentleman

But perhaps I was happiest for Damon when he won the 1996 Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship.  After a largely disappointing 1995 campaign marked by a certain desperation in his driving, a season-long attempt to match a superior rival now driving a car with equal horsepower, Hill bounced back and took the following year’s championship (Schumacher’s Benettons were previously powered by Ford; starting in 1995, however, Renault ceased to supply Williams exclusively and provided their superb engines to Benetton as well).  While critics would say (correctly) that his greatest rival’s challenge was blunted somewhat by moving over from Benetton to Ferrari, one could argue that Hill’s 1996 season was tougher than ever since he was now challenged by a dangerous rival within the same team.  A driver’s most lethal challenger will always be the other fellow in the sister car, since he provides the most direct comparison (that is, assuming the team provided equally-good cars to both drivers; you can’t ever say that during Michael Schumacher’s time with Ferrari, in my opinion).  Jacques Villeneuve, son of Gilles (and himself a future F1 World Champion) replaced David Coulthard at Williams in 1996 and had a brilliant rookie campaign, but Hill’s superior experience and familiarity with the team and the car added up to outscoring the brilliant French-Canadian by almost twenty points at season’s end.

Damon Hill was never ever the fastest or most stylish of Grand Prix drivers, but he nevertheless captured my F1 fan’s heart by being one of the sport’s true gentlemen.  He won 22 grands prix and took 20 pole positions, great numbers for a driver not recognized as a one of the sport’s great talents.  Critics would (all-too correctly) say that Damon needed to have a great car in order to get those results.

But it’s all too easy to underestimate Damon and not give him his just due.  After all, it’s not enough to just have a great car under you.  You still have to get in and drive the thing and get to the checkered flag before everyone else to get those results.  And Hill was almost always teamed up with drivers who weren’t exactly slouches (1997, his one year with Arrows, saw him teamed up with then-novice Pedro Diniz, who himself proved to be a bit underrated in his latter years); even against an all-time great such as Prost, Hill could still win the odd race (or three, in ’93).

Hill won all his battles with an admirable dignity and class, qualities which are lamentably in such short supply these days.  It’s all too easy to cheer on the most obviously talented participants, but talent alone is not enough for me.

Character counts for a lot, and in this way Damon Hill will always be a champion amongst so many pretenders.

30 Dec 2011 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 7)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 30/12/2011

We continue now with my countdown to P1 amongst my personal top 10 F1 drivers.

In case you missed them, please read my posts on #10 Nigel Mansell, #9 Jean Alesi, and #8 Gilles Villeneuve.

And now, lucky number 7.

7.  Nelson Piquet

Perhaps unbelievably, Nelson Piquet is somewhat underrated.  Hardly anybody thinks of Nelson the elder when people compile their personal lists of top F1 drivers.

Nelson Piquet's helmet livery: One of my all-time favorites.

I certainly can’t be guilty of that.  After all, here he is, taking the seventh spot on my own personal version of an F1 top ten list.

Chances are, though, if you ask F1 fans to name the drivers who won more than two Drivers’ World Championships, if there’s a name that’s going to get left out, it will be Piquet’s.  (For the record, here is the list of drivers who won the World Championship more than twice:  Michael Schumacher; Juan Manuel Fangio; Alain Prost; Ayrton Senna; Nelson Piquet; Niki Lauda; Jackie Stewart; Jack Brabham.)  Why that is is a mystery to me.

Nelson Piquet was the second great Brazilian F1 world champion.  He followed in the footsteps of Emerson Fittipaldi, who lifted the champion’s cup twice (1972, 1974) for both Lotus and McLaren.  Because of his victories in the Indianapolis 500, Emmo probably enjoys more fame and notoriety than Piquet today.

Piquet may also be a bit of a forgotten man despite his three world championships because he preceded the most recent Brazilian F1 world champion, the late Ayrton Senna.  Senna, unsurprisingly, is probably the only Brazilian F1 world champion that more casual F1 fans (meaning, fans who never cared to study the sport’s history to any depth) would be able to name today.

All this is a bit unfair, in truth, since Nelson was one of Grand Prix racing’s great drivers.

He entered F1 in 1978 with one race start (the German GP) with the tiny Ensign team, then had three starts in a non-works McLaren.  He saw out 1978 with a drive for Bernie Ecclestone‘s Brabham team.  He spent 1979 serving as Niki Lauda’s apprentice, earning his first points in the Dutch Grand Prix (for fourth place), before being thrust into the role of team leader after Lauda’s surprise retirement in the penultimate round of the 1979 season (the Grand Prix of Canada).

As the 1980s began so did Nelson Piquet’s winning habits in Formula 1.  His first GP victory was that year’s United States Grand Prix West in Long Beach, ironically on a street circuit, the type of track that he openly detested.  He would win twice more that year, at Zandvoort and at Monza, and would finish second to Alan Jones in the Drivers’ World Championship.

1981 saw Piquet win three more Grands Prix (in Argentina, San Marino, and Germany).  Entering the final race of the year, in Las Vegas, Piquet was one point behind points chase leader Carlos Reutemann (49pts) and five in front of Jacques Lafitte (43pts).  Reutemann claimed a dominant pole position, with his Williams teammate Alan Jones the only likely threat based on the times set in practice and qualifying.  Nelson, meanwhile, was suffering horrific neck and shoulder pains, the legacy of the Las Vegas temporary circuit’s counter-clockwise configuration (uncommon in Grand Prix racing even today) and relatively high average speeds for a temporary circuit.

In the race, Reutemann faded after a bad start, failing to score any points.  But as he had a razor-thin one point advantage over Piquet (Lafitte was never a factor in the season’s final grand prix), the Brazilian still had to score at least one point to win the World Championship.  Piquet duly earned two on a day when his physical capabilities were stretched to their absolute limits.  His 1981 season’s total of 50 ensured he lifted the world champion’s cup at season’s end.

The following year, Piquet only won once (in Canada).  However, that 1982 Canadian GP victory was special, since it was the first-ever win for BMW in F1.  It was also a harbinger of greater things to come.

1983 saw Piquet win his second world championship.  His Brabham-BMW arguably fell a little short of Alain Prost’s Renault for most of the year, but when the chips were down towards the end of the year Piquet and his team came on increasingly stronger.  The final race, in South Africa at the mighty Kyalami circuit, saw Nelson finish third (to teammate Riccardo Patrese, the winner, and second-placed Andrea de Cesaris), thereby earning enough points to pip Prost.  Piquet not only won his second world crown, he also became the first driver in history to win the championship with a turbocharged car.

Piquet in the beautiful Brabham-BMW BT53

The following season, Piquet demonstrated that he still had the hunger and the ability to contend for the world title despite being a two-time world champion.  He took pole position nine times; unfortunately for him, the McLaren-TAG/Porsche tag team of Lauda and Prost had faster and more reliable machinery during the races.  Piquet won twice, in Canada and in Detroit, but failed to finish nine races out of sixteen.  His twenty nine points for 1984 was good for only fifth in the world championship tally.

1985 saw him win just one race, the French Grand Prix.  This would prove to be the end of two eras, as Piquet, fed up with Brabham’s declining status as a top-flight Formula 1 team, chose to join the Williams Grand Prix team starting 1986.  Piquet’s win in France was also the last win for BMW during the turbo era.  The famous German marque would not win in F1 again until 2001, two years into the manufacturer’s return to auto racing’s glitziest and most demanding stage.

Nelson Piquet should have won his third drivers’ world championship in 1986.  He won four races (in Brazil, Germany, Hungary, Italy); he drove what was considered definitively the season’s best car, the Williams-Honda FW11.  Unfortunately, he was also teamed with Nigel Mansell.  Mansell won five races.  Despite the dominance of the Williams-Honda combination, Alain Prost managed to outfox both and take that season’s world championship.  However, despite the failure to wrest the drivers’ crown from a growing McLaren stranglehold (McLaren drivers had won the previous two drivers’ world championships; Prost’s ’86 title victory made it three in a row), Piquet was credited with lifting the Williams team’s collective spirits as team principal Frank Williams suffered a road crash that resulted in near-complete paralysis.  Piquet’s enthusiasm, combative rivalry with Mansell (which, in 1986, energized the team), and built-in cachet as a two-time F1 world champion helped keep the Williams team together at a time when despondency might have ripped a lesser outfit apart.

On the surface, 1987 was arguably a more successful year for Piquet.  The Williams-Honda combination was again the best in F1, and Piquet won three more grands prix.  However, Mansell, determined to prove that he was Piquet’s equal (or superior) in terms of capability if not in contractual status, won six races.  In the fifteenth round of the championship, at Suzuka, Japan, Mansell made a mistake during qualifying and was forced to withdraw.  By virtue of finishing races and scoring points (when Mansell did not), Piquet thus won his third drivers’ world championship.  After Mansell crashed in Japan, Piquet rather unkindly said, “This is a victory of luck over stupidity.”  Mansell outperformed Piquet, but his penchant for not finishing races doomed the Englishman’s 1987 title challenge.  Piquet might have taken the title, but his unkind words and attitude towards his defeated rival dulled the shine from his championship.

Sadly for Piquet, 1987 would prove to be his final season of championship glory.  An ill-fated move to Lotus-Honda in 1988, the season of near-absolute McLaren dominance, meant that Piquet went without a grand prix victory for the first time since 1979.  1989 would prove to be even more disastrous, as Lotus, now bereft of Honda’s mighty powerplant, was firmly on the decline.  Piquet even suffered the ignominy of failing to qualify at Spa-Francorchamps for the Belgian Grand Prix.  Piquet’s fall from grace was as dramatic as any could remember.  His two years with Lotus did much to submerge all thoughts and memories of Piquet as a great Grand Prix champion.

A move to Benetton to close out the final two years of his career saw him return to the grand prix winners’ rostrum three times.  He closed out 1990 with a pair of victories in the season’s two final races (in Japan and Australia), and in 1991 he was the beneficiary of old rival Nigel Mansell’s misfortune again when he took an improbable win in Montreal.  Again, Piquet’s luck won out over Mansell’s lack of it.

Alas, Piquet’s own luck would turn sour soon thereafter.  He found no takers for his services in Formula 1 for 1992, so he went across the pond to race in the Indianapolis 500.  During a practice run, Piquet’s Lola-Buick snapped out of control and hit the wall exiting Turn 4.  He suffered broken legs and feet and a concussion, but miraculously survived the crash.

I saw Piquet’s crash on TV, and at the time I was horrified at what I saw.  After seeing some of the stills from the crash, I’m still amazed that Piquet wasn’t damaged even more severely, even killed.

Piquet today is not considered to be one of the greats in Grand Prix racing in most people’s eyes, but I believe that is undervaluing the man’s achievements.  He was one of four great champions during what was arguably Formula 1’s most competitive era ever; of the four (Prost, Senna, Piquet, and Mansell), I consider Piquet to be the third-best.  After revisiting the man’s achievements, it’s still a mystery to me why he is undervalued in the decades after the end of his long career.  Perhaps perceptions are colored by the way by which his career ended; I’m sure even he would not challenge the notion that his last three race victories owed more to luck than to the sharpness of his talents and skills behind the wheel.  Nevertheless, this should not dull the fact that he won three world championships, all during F1’s most competitive decade ever.  As I said in the opening, he is one of only eight drivers to have managed this feat to date.

In my opinion, for Piquet to not be remembered as a true Grand Prix great is a triumph of stupidity over logic.

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14 Dec 2011 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 8)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 14/12/2011

Welcome to the next in our continuing series of my personal top F1 drivers, a list of grand prix pilotes who captured my imagination best and for whom I have the strongest feelings.

To recap, spots #10 and #9 went to Nigel Mansell and Jean Alesi, respectively.

We pick up our countdown with an absolute legend.

8.  Gilles Villeneuve

Few drivers in modern Formula 1 are as beloved, as revered, as the late Gilles Villeneuve.

Gilles' orange-red and midnight blue helmet livery.

My favorite F1 journalist, the great Nigel Roebuck, once wrote that to praise another driver was almost anathema for grand prix pilotes.  But Niki Lauda, himself a three-time World Champion, once said of Villeneuve:  “Gilles was the perfect racing driver, with the best talent of all of us.”

It takes an extraordinary driver for someone of Lauda’s stature and undeniable place in the pantheon of F1 greats – I hate myself for leaving him out of my own personal Top 10 list – to be granted such a lofty accolade.

But Gilles was far more than just an extraordinary driver.

Gilles was…  Gilles.

So much has already been written and said of Gilles that adding anything original to the discussion is difficult.

I saw precious little of Gilles.  I was a wee youngster when he was at full flower.  But as someone who loves Formula 1, I have obviously read much about what I missed; thankfully, there are also enough of his performances captured on film that you can see for yourself just how inadequate the written word can be in trying to capture the essence of Gilles the racing driver.

His car control was on the level of the seemingly divine.  Grand Prix cars, even the fairly primitive ones Gilles drove in the late 1970s-early 1980s, have always been designed to take corners at speeds that would terrify most people just watching.  But when you watched Gilles do his thing, fully sideways with the outside rear tire riding the curb at corner exit, you had to wonder just how much raw talent, how much sheer feel Gilles must have had to keep his Ferrari just under control.All drivers who make it to Formula 1 know how to dial in opposite lock, to steer the car using the throttle, to drive sideways.  But only those with the purest driving talent could do so time after time, corner after corner, lap after lap, without ever stuffing the car into the barriers.

Gilles sliding his Ferrari 126C2 in Long Beach.

In the almost thirty years I’ve been watching Formula 1, I can think of just maybe three or four drivers whose raw talent and ability took my breath away.  Gilles is on that list.

Gilles always said that he drove the way he did not necessarily to please the fans.  For sure the people watching on TV or, better yet, seated at a grandstand at any Grand Prix circuit, loved Gilles’ spectacular driving style.  Gilles argued that if his driving style was so attractive to watch, it was because he had to drive his car that way in order to be fast enough.

How did his Ferrari race engineer, Mauro Forghieri, put it?  Ah, yes, Forghieri said Gilles “had a rage to win.”  It didn’t really matter if he was fighting for 1st place or 10th place; if he and you were fighting for position, Gilles was determined to beat you.  You could see it in his classic battle for second place (it wasn’t even for outright victory in the race!) against René Arnoux at Dijon-Prenois in 1979.  The two banged wheels, went off the circuit a couple of times, yet neither man gave up.  At the end, which saw Villeneuve beat Arnoux to the finish line, both men embraced.

Here is their great contest: 

Indeed, Gilles had that almost maniacal devotion to the gods of victory.  But what marked Gilles as a superior man was his sense of honor, both on and off the track.  Roebuck wrote on more than one occasion that Gilles was one of only maybe two or three drivers who he had never caught in a lie.  Considering Roebuck has crossed paths and spoken to literally hundreds – maybe thousands, even – of racing drivers during his decades covering motorsports, that’s quite a strong statement.  And on the track, well, Keke Rosberg had this to say about Gilles the racer:  To Gilles, racing truly was a sport, which is why he would never chop you.  Something like that he’d look on with contempt.  You didn’t have to be a good driver to do that, let alone a great one.  Anybody could do that.  Gilles was the hardest bastard I ever raced against, but completely fair.  If you’d beaten him to a corner, he accepted it and gave you room.  Then he’d be right back at you at the next one!  Sure, he took unbelievable risks – but only with himself – and that’s why I get pissed off now when people compare Senna with him.  Gilles was a giant of a driver, yes, but he was also a great man.

Rosberg’s appraisal of Gilles goes some way towards explaining why Gilles was crushed, absolutely devastated, after the 1982 San Marino Grand Prix, when his Ferrari teammate, Didier Pironi, stole the victory from him on the penultimate lap of the race.  Gilles was following long-established Ferrari tradition which dictated that, should the Scuderia find its cars running 1-2, the drivers would hold station and not attack one another.  Entering the second-to-last lap, Villeneuve, already marginal on fuel, was in front of Pironi.  Didier pounced on the run down to the Tosa hairpin and took the lead.  Villeneuve gave chase, but Pironi rebuffed him and held on to win.  Gilles was distraught and furious beyond description, both with Pironi’s duplicity and with the team’s lack of support in the aftermath of the race at Imola.  Gilles swore to friends such as Alain Prost (and to Roebuck himself) that he would never again speak with Pironi.  He had even strongly considered leaving Ferrari, the team with which he made his name in Formula 1.

Tragically, Gilles suffered fatal injuries during qualifying at the next race, the Grand Prix of Belgium held not at the beautiful Spa-Francorchamps, but at boring Zolder.  Gilles set out on his final qualification run in an effort to beat Pironi’s best time and misjudged an overtaking maneuver on Jochen Mass.  Gilles’ Ferrari clipped Mass’ March, sending the scarlet car into the air before it crashed back down to earth like an out-of-control aircraft.  The violence of the crash destroyed the Ferrari and sent Villeneuve flying into the catch fence.  He died shortly after.

I was all of seven years old when Gilles was killed, but I do remember hearing the news of his death.  I can’t say I was already a huge fan of F1 at that age, but I did watch coverage of the races and the highlights packages back then.  As I grew older, my love and fascination for the sport only grew, and as it did I devoured as much of the sport’s history and legends as I could get my hands on.

Gilles Villeneuve the racing driver died before I truly became a fan of Formula 1.  But Villeneuve the legend, and, more importantly, Gilles the great knight of honor and virtue, will live forever with me.

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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