INTERVIEW

Jean Alesi

Hard though it may be to believe, one year ago Jean Alesi had not won a Formula 3000 race - and he hadn't really looked like winning one. He was in his second year in the formula and was getting to the point where he had to start delivering. Today he is being lauded as the new star of Grand Prix racing.

What a difference a year can make.

It was on May 15 last year that Jean's breakthrough started when he won the Pau Grand Prix. He was impressive that day, but the victory came only after his career-long rival Eric Bernard lost out when another car spun in front of him. Bernard then won Jerez but, as luck would have it, Alesi was leading the championship with just 14 points after four races. Everyone in the series was showing remarkable inconsistency. Alesi's championship lead was to prove significant because when Ken Tyrrell fell out with Michele Alboreto, the veteran F1 team owner looked up the Formula 3000 championship standings and saw that someone called Jean Alesi was leading the series.

Tyrrell later admitted he had never heard of Alesi.

About the same time Ken received a call from Alesi's manager, Eddie Jordan. Ken agreed to meet Jean and, liking what he saw, he signed him up to race for Tyrrell in the French Grand Prix. Jean ran second on his GP debut and finished fourth. There was another good showing at the British GP. He was fifth in the Italian GP, fourth in Spain and after only nine races was able to finish ninth in the World Championship. And he won the Formula 3000 title.

Jean signed to stay on with Tyrrell, but the team was a very different one in 1990. The management had been restructured, larger sponsorship found. For 1991 there was the promise of a Honda V10 engine, prepared by the Mugen company. There were also Pirelli tyres. At Phoenix, starting fourth on the grid, Jean dived into the lead at the first corner. It was a sensation.

"Before the start in Phoenix I spoke with Harvey Postlethwaite and Jean-Claude Migeot," Jean explains. "I told them: 'Look I will be in the lead for the first lap'. Harvey told me that it was not necessary to lead the first lap, it was better to lead the last lap. But I said that I would try for the first lap whatever and afterwards see what could be done. I was concentrating really hard at the start. When you are on the second row you can be the first into the first corner."

Jean did it, blasting ahead of Gerhard Berger's McLaren and then leaving the field behind.

"I was quite excited," Jean admits, "but I was sure that I wouldn't win the race. I am a realist. I decided to do the maximum to hold onto the lead for as long as possible. That is why I pushed so hard from the beginning. I was at 100% concentration. I was driving like in qualifying - at the maximum.

"I didn't think: 'Senna is behind me, maybe he will catch up', I just went for it."

Ultimately Senna did catch him and after a brief dice for the lead, Jean had to settle for second place. After the race, however, the French press went to town on the new star who had led his 10th race.

"I'm not sure they understand everything about racing cars," says Jean. "At Phoenix Alain Prost was in a bad situation and I was doing OK so the newspapers said: 'Alain is finished and Jean is the new star. He can win some races'."

It was not only the French who were rejoicing. The Italians, too, were happy to join the adulation. Jean's parents moved to Avignon from Sicily and the Italian press love that fact. They have claimed Jean as one of their own - in much the same way that they once adopted Mario Andretti. A successful Italian driver gets huge publicity and in a country which has not had an F1 World Champion since Alberto Ascari, Jean's rise has been charted in acres of news print.

"I am not sure that this is wise," says Jean. "I had a very good package for Phoenix, but at other tracks we do not have the power. The Brazilian Grand Prix was maybe closer to the reality. To be honest, I am not happy about all the publicity. When I go back to France now I spend all the my time with press and sponsors. I do not have a lot of time to spend at home with my family. That is a part of the life. It's my job, but I think it is too much."

Like many young sportsmen who make an early impact, Alesi now has to live with the high expectations created by the media. There is a danger that, in the eyes of the public, he will be a disappointment.

"We have had just two races. I think we have a very good car to be in the top four for the World Constructors' Championship. I have a car which will make me the best V8. That is very good. Now I am waiting for Monaco, Hungary and Jerez. They should be exciting."

And the chances of winning a race?

"I think that will be very difficult. I will be better in Monte Carlo than I was in Phoenix. If I can't win maybe I will lead 50 laps. I am with a fantastic team to learn F1 and next year Tyrrell will have a V10 Honda. My contract is just for this year but I have an option for next year. It is not signed at this moment, but it's still very early. I am only concentrating on this year so I don't know exactly what I will do in the future."

Can Jean believe what has happened to him in the course of 12 months?

"You never really know how quick you are before you reach F1," he says. "You tend to think that there is a big gap between F1 and everything else. F1 is where all the fantastic drivers are, so you just don't know how good you are until you get there. Although it's only the beginning of the championship I am very surprised at my capability."

But there is more to come?

"It is very difficult to know if you are in a strong position when you 10th or llth. You try very hard, but because of this maybe you begin to drive badly because you are a little angry. When you are in a good position you are sure to drive well and to be very concentrated in each corner. That is what is important. In the winter I was with Nelson Piquet at one point. He was talking about his capacity to race faster. He said that he was still learning new things all the time. I've started very well and I will learn all the time, but I think I am nearly at the maximum. Now I need more experience at leading races."

The pressure of high expectations, however, is on. It seems that Jean is oblivious to such things. Does he feel pressure?

"I think when I have a lot of pressure it is better," he smiles. "In Phoenix I was under pressure and the result was quite good. Actually I like pressure, because then I am sure to be driving at my very best."

Pressured or not, Jean seems always to be at peace. When the Tyrrell pit is frantic with activity, he is always sitting there, quite placid.

"I am a professional," he shrugs. "At the circuit I am calm. At home I am very different. Am I calm all the time? That is a question to ask my mother. You know, I am very happy in my home. I have a good family, that gives me something extra."

The Alesi clan, which turns up from time to time at the races, is close-knit. After a year living in rural Oxforshire, Jean has now moved back to the family in Avignon.

"I lived in England to learn English," he explains. "When I went to England for the first time, it was like being on the Moon. I had no friends, I couldn't speak the language. I was very isolated. But Eddie Jordan was always there and he helped me. He became like a part of my family, like Jose my brother. Without Eddie the results would have been different. He taught me a lot to be like an English driver - with an Irish accent! He found me all the drives. If I am with Tyrrell today, it is because Eddie was there."

Back home in Avignon, Jean has a huge poster of Gilles Villeneuve on his bedroom wall. Like thousands of Italian youngsters, he grew up wanting to emulate his idol and drive for Ferrari.

"That was my dream," Jean says, "but I am not a kid anymore. If Ferrari is the best team and if I get the chance to drive for Ferrari, it would be with pleasure."

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