INTERVIEW

Jean Alesi

Jean Alesi used to be a pane-beater. Some say that his knowledge of this trade taught him that no matter how many dents you put in a car, they can always be knocked out later. Formula 1 cars don't dent these days, but the spirit of the panel-beater-turned-racer lives on in Jean Alesi's lurid F1 driving style. Show Jean a kerb and he'll drive over it. Give him a gap and he'll put a Ferrari through it. Ferrari number 27 is driven with the same kind of brio that it was in the days when it was driven by the late Gilles Villeneuve.

"The number of my car is very important to me," says Jean with a smile. "It's great to drive Villeneuve's car. I was a big fan of his, and when I see photos of me driving the car it is a good feeling."

The sight of Ferrari 27 sends the Italian fans wild, but for Jean, now in the third year of a three-year contract at Ferrari, the prospect of thrilling the fans is not enough. He hasn't won a Grand Prix. When he signed up at Maranello it seemed only a matter of time. Jean has suffered the same fate as many bright new F1 revelations. In the first year everyone raves about you. This year everyone is talking about Rubens Barrichello, last year it was Mika Hakkinen and in 1991 Michael Schumacher.

But, back in 1990, Jean Alesi was the shooting star. He was at Tyrrell, but the top teams were fighting over him. He could have gone to Williams and Benetton, but in the end he chose Ferrari. It was more than an emotional decision for the team was strong in those days.

In his first year at Maranello, Jean was in Alain Prost's shadow and the cars were not good. In 1992 Prost had gone and the cars were disastrous, although Jean drove some brilliant races.

Often when teams are not successful the drivers get the blame, their confidence collapses and they fade away. But Jean has survived Ferrari's troubles. His reputation is intact.

Jean is the first to admit that his time at Ferrari has not been as successful as he hoped it would be.

"When I signed for Ferrari I expected much better results," he explains. "but there has been so much upheaval. Every season I have had different management and engineers. There has never been stability. Not until this year. I think this is probably the best year from the technical side. There is a big change from last year and it has improved, but it is not finished yet. We need a lot more organisation. The good thing is we have a strong technical chief in John Barnard.

"He is doing a fantastic job, pushing the whole team, even the engine people. And step by step we are getting better.

"The only problem I have is that Gerhard (Berger) has more experience than me in F1 and he knows John much better because they worked together before. I have had to start proving my myself all over again and it has not been easy for me, because the team did not have the time to develop things with two drivers. The choice was to work with Gerhard and I have to wait and see what they come up with. That is not because we have a number one or a number two driver, it is simply that at the moment there is no time to fix all the problems at the same time.

"My job is to drive as hard as I can and stay with the top drivers as much as possible in qualifying and in the races. That is it."

Jean sounds philosophical, which is odd for a man known for his sometimes fiery and passionate ways.

"I have to be like that," he smiles, "I am doing my best in the circumstances. I am driving at about 150% and doing that means it is not easy to get results. I haven't made too many mistakes and when you are driving like that isn't easy. I would prefer to drive sometimes at 80% but because it is such a difficult car, I have to drive like I am. Still, I am sure that my reputation in F1 is not too bad.

"I'm going to go on doing the best I can. During the season we will see how things develop and if we can work together next year in a better way than is now the case, then I will stay. If things don't change I probably won't stay and will go somewhere where I will be in a better position."

Being a Ferrari driver seems to be very different from driving with any other team, does Jean think that is true?

"Yes, it is different," he says. "At Ferrari you get so much pressure from the outside. You are not driving for Ferrari, you are driving for Italy's national team and it's like if you are a football player or something.

"If you are seen with a girlfriend, two hours later the story is in the papers. That is not a problem I have because I just got married, but that is the sort of thing that can happen."

But being a Ferrari Grand Prix driver has lots of advantages for a guy still under 30.

"Oh yes," smiles Jean. "I appreciate my life. I went to Ferrari with a fantastic contract and good money, but I don't have the results I wanted to have. I want to be successful. I want to be at the top. I need it. My last win was in Formula 3000 back in 1989. That's a long time. So I'm not enjoying life because of that. I still dream of winning. The money goes to the bank and driving for Ferrari is nice, but it isn't enough. I want success."

Some would say, of course, that Jean is already a success, but that is not how he sees it. He doesn't seem to have changed over the years from the cheerful soul he used to be. Does he feel any change in his personality?

"When you are in a team like Ferrari it's like doing 10 years with any other team," he says. "You learn about politics and how to work with a big team. I think I've done well and I have no regrets - but I still need to win."

When Jean started at Ferrari he was partnered with Prost. Today they are good pals and near neighbors in Switzerland.

"When you are in F1 it is very important to have a friend. They don't have to have anything to do with racing, they just have to a good friend. My friend is Alain Prost. It is not because he is a three-time World Champion, he is my friend because he is my friend. I like him, he likes me. It's difficult to explain but we are very close and we are together quite a lot in Switzerland."

Jean lives in the town of Nyon, on the shores of Lake Geneva.

"I have a nice flat there," he says, "and normally I live there. When I have some free time I go to see my family in Avignon. I don't have a house in Avignon, I still stay with my parents when I go there!"

It was in Avignon that Jean learned the art of panel-beating. So is it true that his trade caused his spectacular style?

Jean smiles: "I'll tell you this. When I started out I wanted to be a rally driver. Those kind of cars were a lot of fun to drive. F1 cars are very fast and hard to drive, but they are not as enjoyable as throwing cars around like in rallying. I'm driving an Alfa Romeo in some French Supertourisme championship races this year, and I'm really looking forward to Pau."

But hang on Jean, why didn't you become a rally driver?

"Believe it or not, it was because it as easier to find money for circuit racing. I started my career as a racing driver with a Renault 5. It was cheap and if you won races you got good prize money and that was good enough to pay for the next race.

"Now my heart is in F1 and when I finish in Grand Prix racing I will be tired so I probably won't race other cars."

So what might you do?

Jean shrugs: "I never think about it. I really have no idea.

"Hey, but watch out. I'm not finished with F1 at all..."

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