Features - Interview
FEBRUARY 1, 1995
BY JOE SAWARD
Jean is a man full of surprises. Back in 1988 his racing career seemed to be washed-up after a lackluster first year in F3000 and yet five months later - with a little help from Eddie Jordan - he had won the European F3000 title, vaulted straight into F1 with some startling performances for Tyrrell and established himself as the bright and brilliant young man of F1. By the end of 1990 the top F1 teams were fighting over him. Jean was confused and in the end he had a contract with Williams - and a contract with Ferrari!
He chose Ferrari. At the time it looked like a good choice because Alain Prost had fought for the World Championship that year but Jean is happy to admit that it was also an emotional decision.
"I am French," he says, "because I was born in France and grew up there, but my family is Italian. They came from Sicily before I was born. At home we eat Italian food. We talk in Italian. That is how we are. And my Italian blood respects Ferrari!"
Every young Italian is mad about Ferrari.
Since those heady days there must have been nights when Jean has woken up in a cold sweat. When Williams couldn't get Jean they signed up Nigel Mansell, he won 14 races in his two seasons before handing over his drive to Alain Prost, who won another seven. Had Alesi joined Williams he would probably have won a couple of World Championships by now. Instead he has raced 62 times for Ferrari and won not a thing.
In that time he has been tempered by experience. A couple of years ago F1 ace designer Harvey Postlethwaite - now at Tyrrell - remarked that Jean was beginning to mature as a racing driver.
"Now he looks before he throws his crash helmet across the garage in frustration," said Postlethwaite.
It was as much a comment on Jean as it was on the Ferrari team for which Alesi drove. No matter what the team did the cars were never really competitive and Alesi's talent is being wasted.
Last year Jean turned 30 and soon afterwards had to face the realization that he had competed in more GPs for Ferrari in than Niki Lauda ever did. He has also raced more times without winning than Nigel Mansell did before the Briton finally broke through to superstardom in 1985. All Alesi can do is to hope that when - or if - his luck changes, success will flood his way.
But it doesn't look like that will happen in 1995. Ferrari test driver Nicola Larini has already told the Ferrari management that the new 3-litre V12 engine is not very good and the team is planning a V10 programme to be introduced by the end of the season, leaving Jean facing another bad year at Ferrari.
Jean insists that he doesn't have any regrets about his F1 career.
"Honestly, I don't," he says, in a mangled kind of French which melts young ladies. "I am not close to retirement. I still have a lot more that I can achieve. There are younger guys coming into F1, but I am not old and I'm not finished. I must use Ferrari to the maximum. My priority is to get results and then we will see what happens. I think I will have a lot of opportunities in the future."
The 1994 season was a story of wasted opportunity and that cannot have been easy for Jean. At Monza he was leading the Italian GP by 10 seconds when his car failed during a pit stop. Jean sat disbelieving in the car and then exploded out of the cockpit. He threw his gloves at the mechanics and left the track. He turned off his mobile phone and, with his brother Jose beside him, drove back to France in a fury. Jose later described the trip as being utterly terrifying!
"With the car as it was I had only three chances to win last season," Jean says. "They were on the fast tracks at Hockenheim, Spa and Monza. At Hockenheim my car lasted just one corner and then the engine was finished. At Spa I did only two laps. And then at Monza the gearbox failed. It was very terrible."
And yet, after all this Jean remains a Ferrari driver, despite constant rumours that he has had enough and is packing up and leaving Ferrari.
"I am a professional driver," he says. "I made my choice to be in Ferrari and I have to do my job at the maximum. That is what I am doing. OK, it is not easy because it is important for a man to have satisfaction. And for me to get the satisfaction I want means getting results."
In his early days with the team Jean lived through a variety of different Ferrari managements and then there would be a revolution and everything would change. Each time Alesi hoped that the change would work, but it did not.
"Experience has taught me that what you have to do is improve all the time - little bit by little bit - and not keeping starting everything from new. Last year we had an aerodynamics problem with the car and so for 1995 we have a new guy coming to us from Benetton. Each year you get a few more people to improve the package."
Jean always tries to look on the bright side and forget about the years of frustration.
"It wasn't all frustration you know. I've had a lot of good times with Ferrari as well. OK, I have never won a race and that is my main disappointment - but you have to be positive."