EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Jean Alesi: The Tribulations of Jean D'Avignon

You're standing in the F1 paddock at Spa, minding your own business and holding a conversation. Suddenly, from behind, a hand smacks the back of your head. Somebody laughs. Bouncing into view comes the smiling face of Jean Alesi. He waves a cheerful greeting. He might be leading the World Championship, so sunny is his demeanour. But this is Friday morning, the calm before the usual storm. The way his season - his career - is going, he should be crying, for his situation is a tragedy.

One of the top six best race drivers in the world, he is unwanted by all but Alain Prost, a laughing stock to French journalists.

Each race weekend Alesi digs into his heart to drag out a performance that will keep his unhappy team motivated, all the while watching the more feeble efforts of men whom he knows he is much better. His reward in his homeland: the ridicule the British reserve for Inspector Clouseau.

Somehow, Alesi manages the conjuring trick without fail. And as he was able to show at Spa in the Belgian Grand Prix, the fires still burn. His brilliance in the race brought fresh pride to his beleaguered team, whose own excellent strategy helped him to leap into contention for points. Somehow it was typical that his Prost didn't go the distance, and typical too that the cause was something as trivial as a broken fuel pipe. But once again Jean d'Avignon had proved a point to those smart enough to appreciate it.

Olivier Panis has this year proved everything about the silly side of F1. This time last year nobody wanted him, now he has reminded everyone, including himself, how good he is during his testing with McLaren. Alesi, meanwhile, can only dream of such a chance, can only look forward to whatever package Alain Prost can put together for 2001.

So how does this mercurial fellow manage to maintain his motivation?

"It is very hard at the moment for me," he admits. "I am not enjoying at the moment what is happening, the results, my position on the grid, my position at the end of the races that I finish. Everything together is very bad and it never stops. During the weekend I have a good day then a bad day, good day, bad day. I cannot complete a weekend without it being extremely difficult."

Watching him at Magny-Cours racing a Minardi was the stuff of tragedy. A stunning waste of talent. And that is just for people on the sidelines. It can only be imagined what Alesi himself is feeling in the cockpit, with such a totally different level of emotional involvement.

"I know!" he smiles in agreement, clearly boosted by the thought that some appreciate his plight. "But the problem is very simple. I could quit. It is a bad situation I have to quit, or I have to keep going for this season, because I know that we will have the same results all season. There is no doubt about that, because nothing will change until next year. I could stop now. I could say, 'Okay, I finish my career.' Or I keep going as I am doing, so even if I finish last I keep pushing and pushing and they keep trying to do it. And we all wait for next year. That is what I am doing."

He says that he is never tempted to give up during a bad race. His pride wouldn't let him. "I don't give up. As I said, it is very difficult. There is all the respect I have for each driver, but when I see sometimes in which group I am, it's tough. Sometimes I am just laughing. I don't believe it, I can't follow him. You know? And I'm not talking about Schumacher or Hakkinen!"

Every driver on the grid has his own idea of where he fits into the general scheme of things. They know which other drivers are quicker, and which they can beat. "Yes! Exactly!" Alesi beams. "Especially me, after 12 years! I mean, I know"

Where Panis revived his flagging career, Alesi cannot give himself away. There was talk of a return to Sauber, but BAR turned him down and Jaguar appeared not to have the wit to consider him in the first place as a replacement for his former Sauber partner, Johnny Herbert. "You know, my situation is not to say to the people what they have to do, but I know what I have to do," he begins by way of candid explanation. "That's why I am saying to you that it is very difficult for me. But I don't want to stop. I know how I am. I don't want to regret after this season and say to myself, 'Why did you stop then, because you want to race again now that the season is over? But it is all over, finished.' So, now the time is difficult. I appreciate the people who really follow me and really know that I am in the shit, but I will make better results next year."

It's become the mantra of a man whose career promised so much more when he burst confidently on to the scene at Paul Ricard in 1989 and took his Tyrrell to fourth place. He was running second during the tyre stops. But that was so long ago by F1 standards it might as well have been during Jim Clark's era.

"Okay, I tell you the truth," he responds when you ask how many teams came after him for 2001. "Nobody. I have to go to the teams and to push like hell. I try with BAR, and they say no. I try with Sauber, they say no. At the end I have no other possibilities. Not one. Not one . It's over for me. As I said when I signed here, with Alain, I will finish my

career with this team. Because nobody wants me." How foolish can F1 really be? Everyone knows that Alesi carries enough emotional baggage at times to clog an airport luggage collection chute, but equally the man is a racer through and through. When the red lights go out at the start of a race, he is one of a half dozen who is there purely to race.

Adding to Prost's problems in 2000 has been the French wish to see two countrymen create an Ecurie Bleu, pour la gloire de France . "In this respect I have more bad side than good," he confesses, "because you know as usual when you have a popular sportsman it is a habit to joke about him instead of following him. So at the moment in France it is my worst year in terms of image because everybody is laughing about my results."

Ask him if he is a better driver now than he has ever been, and the response is quick. "I don't know! I am making mistakes, for sure because I am having to push so hard. You know, my image in France is accident. When they are talking of Jean Alesi they are just saying accident, accident, accident. I am Mr Accident in France. That's why I am saying that in this aspect things are very difficult for me. "He laughs, partly in frustration, but mainly because the alternative is to cry. But I'm not such a bad driver!"

Herbert is trying to find a ChampCar ride now that his time in F1 is over, but that is not for Alesi. "F1 is in my heart," says the man who agrees that he let his heart rule his head when he walked away from a Williams contract for 1991 to join Ferrari. "I know 90 percent of the mechanics; all the chefs who work for the teams; the team owners; sponsors. It is my ambiance. I feel good in F1. I mean, maybe the people I am not knowing very well are the drivers." The thought provokes irritation.

"You have to see now our briefings. It is just unbelievable. Everybody wants to be clever. So we go into this briefing and everyone is saying, 'Going out of Turn 11 there is a kerb a little bit too high and if my car goes there I can go into the gravel Everybody is talking, talking, talking. Sometimes I say to myself, what are you doing here? This kind of situation makes me not feeling well. Mika Hakkinen never says anything in a briefing, except when something is happening really evidently and he has to ask something. I don't want to name drivers but there are four or five always in the briefing, talking, talking, talking. It is terrible! Just terrible."

Some drivers of his age - 36 - might feel like a lion under attack from the young cubs who are flexing their muscles, but he says not. "It's not just the young ones. I don't know. When I first drove in F1 for three or four years I never said anything in the briefings. You cannot suddenly be there saying things without coming in and not proving anything."

In other words, he believes that you have to earn the right to express your opinions. "Exactly. Everyone has the right to an opinion. It's not just that. It's more than that. But they are talking like they have been in F1 for 20 years. I am surprised to hear Charlie Whiting answering all the stupid things they ask him."

In an increasingly dreary, grey world, Jean Alesi remains a man inclined to speak his mind and to handle the consequences afterwards. In Hungary last year he announced, in the frustration of another retirement, that he was leaving the Sauber team. Sauber personnel looked on aghast as Alesi spoke trenchantly to Britain's ITV network, apparently forgetting that he and Peter Sauber had agreed to make the announcement at a mutually convenient date. It was perfect media fodder, but a nightmare for the team. Only when his ire had cooled did Alesi look sheepishly at a distraught Peter Sauber when somebody asked him if he had informed his employer before telling the world. His expression spoke volumes.

But balance against that a front-row start in Austria. A fighting race in the rain in Magny-Cours. Nine overtaking moves at Spa, of all places.

This year he reminded observers what he can do in the right equipment. "For sure!" he laughs, his face breaking into a wide grin. "It was important in our present situation to show how much I am willing to bring a good result to the team. If we all apply ourselves I am sure we can make a good result. At least I hope the race brought a bit of oxygen to the team."

Not to mention to F1 itself. If there is a god, there will be more days in the sun before Jean d'Avignon finally hangs up his helmet.

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