Features - News Feature

JULY 1, 1994

Analyzing Jean Alesi


Just before the 1989 French Grand Prix Ken Tyrrell signed a sponsorship deal with Camel cigarettes. He needed the sponsorship money to run his underfunded Formula 1 team and if that meant he was unable to continue with his Marlboro-backed lead driver Michele Alboreto, it was a decision he had to take. Ken Tyrrell is a hard man.

Just before the 1989 French Grand Prix Ken Tyrrell signed a sponsorship deal with Camel cigarettes. He needed the sponsorship money to run his underfunded Formula 1 team and if that meant he was unable to continue with his Marlboro-backed lead driver Michele Alboreto, it was a decision he had to take. Ken Tyrrell is a hard man.

Ken looked around for a replacement driver and concluded that he wanted someone new. He looked at the Formula 3000 championship and found that a Frenchman called Jean Alesi was leading the title race. Tyrrell had never heard of Alesi but liked the look of Jean's Camel Eddie Jordan Racing team-mate Martin Donnelly.

Tyrrell asked Jordan if he could take Martin for the French Grand Prix and was surprised to discover that he couldn't because Donnelly had been snapped up by Lotus because its regular driver Derek Warwick had injured himself in a karting accident and could not race. Jordan suggested that Ken hire Alesi. Ken was not sure but on the Friday morning of the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard, Tyrrell realised he had stumbled on a star. Alesi finished that first session - his first time in an F1 car - seventh fastest. By the end of qualifying he was 16th on the grid, but in the race he drove like a veteran, running as high as second position before settling back to finish fourth. It was the best F1 debut performance in the modern era.

Tyrrell quickly signed him up for the rest of 1989 and 1990 and 1991. For the rest of that season he hopped between F3000 and F1, winning the F3000 title for Jordan and collecting a further fourth and a fifth places for Tyrrell. He finished the year ninth in the World Championship.

At the first race of 1990 in Phoenix, Arizona, Jean qualified fourth, took the lead at the start and then diced confidently with World Champion Ayrton Senna. By the mid-summer Alesi was being offered drives by the top F1 teams. In a state of some confusion Jean signed to drive for both Williams and Ferrari in 1991 - while still being under contract to Tyrrell!

When the legal mess he had created was finally sorted out Jean ended up at Ferrari and there he has stayed for four seasons. Four dreadful seasons for the once-great Ferrari team. In that time Jean has not won a single race. He has finished second only once and a handful of third places has done little to satisfy his desire to be the best. He is frustrated because - after taking part in nearly 80 GPs - he is no longer the bright new boy of F1. Younger generations - men five years and more Jean's junior - are beginning to arrive in F1 and steal the limelight.

Jean only recently celebrated his 30th birthday and he is as quick as ever - and he is hungry for success. According to some European newspapers he is so hungry to win that he has abandoned his wife Laurence and his new-born baby Charlotte because he feels that the responsibility of parenthood will take away the edge in his performance - will slow him down.

Jean told the France Dimanche newspaper: "I told Laurence that I did not want a child, at least not while I'm a racing driver. I risk my life every second I'm in the car and it would be irresponsible of me."

This is Alesi's personal business but, whatever the case, he is still driving very quickly and he is as popular with the crowds as he always has been. His driving style at the wheel of Ferrari No 27 is reminiscent of the man who drove the same car - and was Alesi's hero - Gilles Villeneuve.

This year, perhaps because of his problems at home, perhaps because Ferrari is closer than ever to winning races, Jean's driving has acquired a more desperate edge. He is making more mistakes. And now the team which he has stuck by through the last four years is asking itself whether Alesi had got what it takes to be an F1 winner. F1 people have very short memories.

Team members are not willing to discuss these doubts in public but privately there are several important Ferrari men who feel that Jean is not able to extract the maximum performance from his car because he cannot master the technical side of his job. He is very fast, but he doesn't always understand how to make a car go faster by changing its set-up.

Some engineers talk of Jean as a man like Rene Arnoux, who had enormous natural pace and driving ability but was not very good at setting up cars. When Arnoux was driving for Renault alongside Jean-Pierre Jabouille he was very quick and very successful, but without Jabouille he struggled because Jean-Pierre had always done the set-up of the cars.

But what Jean lacks in technical ability is made up for by his audacious and aggressive driving style which has made him the darling of the tifosi. He does what racing drivers are supposed to do, what Villeneuve did. Although entertaining this kind of driving is often frustrating for engineers, who prefer the calm and measured style of a driver like Alain Prost. A man who can be measured by his consistency.

Jean is like Villeneuve in another way as well - he says what he thinks and does not care whether it upsets people. This is very appealing to journalists and his personal column - which appears in magazines in both France and England - is avidly read by the fans and by the press.

His comments about Ferrari have sometimes been very critical and this has upset many people within Ferrari who are trying their best to things better for Jean. His comments, Ferrari insiders say, have demotivated some of the staff.

Jean is not a politician nor a diplomat. He lets his emotions lead him and there is no doubt that his sometimes explosive Latin temperament can get him into trouble.

This fiery side of his character comes from his Italian background. He carries a French passport but his parents arrived in France from Sicily only two years before Jean was born. His Sicilian grandparents don't even speak French. Jean grew up in Avignon speaking French and Italian. When he signed for the Jordan F3000 team at the start of 1989 he arrived in England speaking no English at all and had to learn quickly. Today he speaks the language very well which is useful as there have always been a lot of English engineers at Ferrari.

It was one of these, Harvey Postlethwaite, who has worked with Jean at Tyrrell and then again at Ferrari, who recently summed up Jean's five years in F1.

"He has matured a lot," said Harvey. "Now he looks before he throws his helmet!"

If he has occasional outbursts however, Jean has also shown remarkable emotional strength to have survived as he has. Other drivers in his position would have lost confidence, as happened to Jean's team mate Ivan Capelli during the difficult 1992 season.

In many ways this paradox sums up Alesi. He is a bundle of contradictions. He knows that if he had signed for Williams in 1991 he would probably have gone on to win many race victories and maybe even the World Championship as a Williams-Renault driver.

Instead he let his emotions take him to Ferrari. That was his dream.

Now his dream to win races is coming closer, we have to see if Alesi has what it takes and, for that, only time will tell.