NEWS FEATURE

Jean Alesi profile

Jean Alesi will be Alain Prost's number two at Ferrari next year - after just 18 months as a Formula 1 driver. The Frenchman's rise to Formula 1 stardom has been remarkable.

Back in mid 1989 Jean was in F3000, but he hadn't won anything. He was in danger of hs career stagnating. On May 15, a stroke of luck set him on his path. He won the F3000 Pau Grand Prix. The win came after his career-long rival (and friend) Eric Bernard was held up when another car spun in front of him. Jean sneaked through into the lead and held on to the flag. Bernard won the next race at Jerez but Alesi was leading the championship as June arrived. Away in the Formula 1 world veteran team owner Ken Tyrrell was falling out with one of his drivers, Michele Alboreto. The two split and Tyrrell, looking for a replacement, picked up a racing magazine and looked at the F3000 points standings. Ken has long been seen as a great talent-spotter, but he had never heard of Alesi. At the same time Ken received a call from Jean's manager, the irrepressible Irish F3000 team owner, Eddie Jordan. Eddie suggested that Ken and Jean should meet. The meeting went ahead and Jean was drafted into the team, alongside Jonathan Palmer.

On his home turf, Jean excelled. He ran as high as second and, ultimately, he finished fourth. Ken realised he was on to a good thing and signed up the youngster from Avignon. Jean went on to score a string of good results in F1 and began to run away with the F3000 title. By the end of the year, he was ninth in the F1 World Championship -- after just nine races. Suddenly everyone was talking about Jean Alesi. His tenth race was to be the real sensation. In Phoenix Jean qualified fourth and took the lead at the start, holding off Ayrton Senna for many laps.

"I was quite excited," he explained later, "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." Ultimately Senna brushed him aside, but what stood out was Jean's reaction to being overtaken by the master. He did not give up and retook the lead, driving around the outside of the surprised Senna. It was a startling move.

Unknown to almost everyone Jean had signed a contract with Williams in February. He was to be a Williams drivers in 1991 and 1992. Williams would have an option for his services in 1993. His future was secretly set. There were negotiations necessary to gain release from his Tyrrell contract, but the contract featured a buy-out clause, the financial terms of which Williams was happy to meet.

As the season progressed, however, Jean's speed drew him to the attention of other teams. At Monaco, in a wonderfully dare-devil manoeuvre, he outfoxed Alain Prost. He had formed an important friendship with Nelson Piquet and his advisor Adriano Costa and the pair began to help him with their advice. By mid-season the pressures were building. At the German GP, amid rumours that he had signed contracts with Williams AND Ferrari, in addition to his existing one with Tyrrell, it all became too much. He called a press conference to ask the press to stop speculating. To give him some space to work everything out.

His contractual situation was a mess, but as new possibilities emerged Alesi and his advisors could not ignore them. It was contacts with Ferrari which really caused the confusion. The mess took time to sort out and it grew into a tiresome process. Jean was good, everyone agreed, but was he really worth all the legal hassle? He had won no races. How good is he? Peop,le were asking. Jean's critics were quick to point out that he had very spectacular equipment. The Tyrrell 019 chassis - the odd-looking Stuka-nosed design - effectively re-invented "ground-effect" in F1. How it worked, no-one outside Tyrrell was quite sure, but work it certainly did. Jean could challenge at places where a car with a Cosworth DFR engine should not be able to. There were also Pirelli tyres which gave him a huge advantage in qualifying.

But they accepted that he was good, but how would another driver do with the same equipment? His Tyrrell team-mate Satoru Nakajima was no real comparison because, as a Honda nominee, his place in F1 has always been guaranteed and not based entirely on performance.

Perhaps Eddie Jordan, the master talent scout, knows the answer. "He's f**king good," says Jordan, in his effervescent and uncomplicated way. He may be right. We will have to wait until Jean drives a Ferrari to find out...

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