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Goodbye Jean Alesi

 by G. Venkat Ganeshan
October 23, 2001

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French Formula-1 driver Jean Alesi was always at the right place at a wrong time throughout his career. Though his on-track prowess was without question first-rate, when it comes to selecting teams, Alesi has always bungled. He was at Ferrari, when the team was mired in politics and involved in controversies, his move to Benetton was at a time, when the team lost its sheen. Even his switch to Sauber didn't yield the desired results. Overall, Alesi's career in Formula-1 has been a case of missed opportunities. 

But that doesn't belittle Alesi's driving skills. Alesi wasn't the archetypal F-1 driver, who would prefer racing in sunny and balmy conditions. He was an accomplished wet weather specialist. His driving added flavor to the F-1 grid, when the track is slippery. He drives overboard to extract the maximum from the machine. The flamboyant Frenchman would exhibit daredevil driving skills on a wet piece of tarmac. He announced his retirement from the sport during the Japanese GP at Suzuka. A sport, which he loved the most. ``When you love something you never think about stopping. But we have to be realistic. There is a start, there is an end,'' was the comment from a rather philosophical Alesi. 

Alesi's single win from 201 GP starts doesn't reflect the potential the Frenchman possessed. The failure was attributed more often to the machinery and indomitable cars. 

Alesi had racing in his blood. His father was involved in hill climbing races and it was his father's influence that drafted Alesi to motor racing. Like every other novice, Alesi started from karting. After moving up the lower ranks, he competed in the Coupe Renault 5 Championship in France. Despite his lack of experience, he was placed seventh overall with a win to his credit. A move to single seaters was next on the cards. 

His driving skills were rewarded by the Winfield Racing School, which granted him a scholarship to take part in the Formula Renault Turbo series in 1984. Though Alesi had to do with outdated machinery, his stay was put in the championship for one more year, after finishing tenth in his rookie season. His second year in the series proved to be worthy. The patience paid off. Alesi had a second place and four third place finishes in the championship, albeit running a year-old machine. 

The exemplary skills of the Frenchman caught the attention of most of the F-3 boffins. His on-track antics warranted a seat in the French F-3 championship. Alesi started the championship driving a Dallara-Alfa-Romeo. Certainly, it wasn't a preferred combination, but due to the shoestring budget with which Alesi ran, he had no other avenue. That didn't hamper Alesi from keenly contesting the championship. He matched toe-to-toe with the eventual champion Yannick Dalmas and ended up finishing runner-up to him. He won two races and secured three pole positions. 

The fierce rivalry with Dalmas in a much under-rated machinery earned him a drive with the top rung ORECA team in the same championship. Though he continued to pursue with Dallara-Alfa combination, a mid-season switch to Martini chassis worked wonders for Alesi. He clinched the championship with seven wins in the bag. Both Alesi and the ORECA team jointly moved to the European F-3000 championship, a feeder series to F-1. Since they were new to the championship, it was learning process for them. Hence, Alesi couldn't make any major inroads in the championship. But more good opportunities were in store for him. 

Sensing the potential talent Alesi had, Eddie Jordan roped in the Frenchman in his team for the 1989 campaign. Alesi stormed through that season with wins at Pau, Birmingham and Spa. The juggernaut didn't stop there. 

He was offered a drive in the Tyrrell Formula-1 team replacing Michele Alboreto, who retired mid-season. Alesi was on cloud nine. He struck the right chords in his first race itself, securing a fourth place finish. He continued to impress everyone in the F-1 paddock with his consistency. He scored eight points in eight races, a no mean feat considering that Alesi was a novice. He oozed confidence and a passion to achieve raised his level of performance. 

Alesi soon became the new-kid-on-the-block. However, he chose to stay with Tyrrell fr the next year. Alesi was subdued in the whole season, but his moment of glory came at the U.S. GP at Phoenix. He battled for the lead with Ayrton Senna but had to contend with second place. A couple of strong podium finishes gave Alesi ninth overall in the championship. 

Offers came flooding for Alesi. He had received calls from Ferrari and Williams His childhood ambition of racing for the `Prancing Horse' was fulfilled when he shifted gears to the Maranello-based outfit. It wasn't the best of times to be at Ferrari. The team was involved in all sorts of controversies and the team was at its nadir. A decision that Alesi rued later. But it paved the way for Alesi to partner his fellow countryman, Alain Prost. He wasn't unfazed with his new challenge of battling wheel to wheel with the Professor. Alesi managed to take the red machine to a third place finish at Monaco and finished fourth in France and Spain. It would have been a different story altogerther had Alesi grabbed the Williams drive. Since Williams drivers Nigel Mansell and Ricardo Patrese finished second and third respectively in the championship standings. 

After Prost's departure, Alesi inherited the lead role in Ferrari. But the 1992 car was no good compared to the earlier versions. Alesi descended the downward spiral. 

1993 marked the beginning of a long standing partnership with co-driver Gerhard Berger. But the car had niggling problems and it was very delicate to drive. Hence, Alesi's campaign was let down by his machine. Yet, he managed to finish sixth in the overall standings. 

The arrival of John Barnard as the chief designer was the mainstay for Ferrari's revival. It marked an upturn in the performance of the cars. Berger took Ferrari's first win since 1990 at Hockenheim. Alesi and Berger were level-pegging throughout the season. The Austrian pipped the Frenchman to fourth in the standings. 

In 1995, Barnard produced another competitive machine and the car was good in race trim. Alesi began his frequent visits to the podium, but a win still eluded the Frenchman. Finally, the agonizing wait was over. Thanks Barnard's revolutionary car design, Alesi took the checkered flag at Montreal, his only victory till date. But the joy and happiness was short-lived, as the cars began to flounder at the fag end of the season. Another championship winning opportunity went begging. His frustration increased and he was running out of time. He swapped seats with Michael Schumacher to Benetton. 

Alesi's morale was on a high, as he tried to put his miseries at Ferrari behind. Benetton, having accrued two back to back drivers' titles with Schumacher was considered as the perfect launch pad for Alesi. Even Berger followed suit. Sadly, the car never looked in good shape, compared to its predecessor. Alesi had to compromise his goal of winning the championship and had to settle for podiums rather than race wins. He finished fourth overall. 

More key personnel migrated to Ferrari and the cup of woes overflowed at Benetton in 1997. Alesi's chances of a championship triumph once again evaporated. Benetton failed to live up to its expectations and Alesi's patience ran out. With most of the top teams confirming their driver line-ups for 1998, Alesi got the opportunity to drive for the Sauber team. Sauber, a mid-grid runner was boosted by Alesi's presence. He hoped for a smooth and consistent drive. Considering the tumultuous period the Frenchman has witnessed in F-1, it was one of the quiet season for him. He took the Swiss-based outfit to a podium position in the wet Belgian GP at Spa and scrambled for some more point scoring finishes in Argentina, San Marino and Italy. 

By his previous standards, Alesi's 1999 campaign was nothing but disastrous. Partnering Brazilian driver Pedro Diniz, Alesi managed to score just two points in the whole season. A string of poor shows from Alesi was due to the outdated package that Sauber had. Alesi, who was again let down by the machine, was offered a drive by his old teammate and friend Alain Prost. The situation at Prost was even worse. The car was handful to drive. It was the first time that the clean slate that Alesi had in F-1 vanquished. The Peugeot-powered Prost was appalling. He languished down the field and his confidence was shaken. Prost acquired the 2000-world-championship-winning Ferrari engines for the 2001 season. Alesi saw some light at the end of the tunnel. But things took a tumble, when the camaraderie between Alesi and Prost wasn't there. They were more often than not at loggerheads. 

During this year's German GP, Alesi had a chance to re-unite with Eddie Jordan in his eponymous outfit. Since, it was a mid-season swap, Alesi couldn't fathom the car's behavior, because he didn't test the car much. He was consistently outpaced by his teammate Jarno Trulli. 

His final Grand Prix at Suzuka came to a catastrophic conclusion when he tangled with Kimi Raikkonen. Alesi was one of the under-achievers in Formula-1. Yet, his charisma and character earned him many friends in the F-1 paddock. His full driving potential was never brought to the fore during his 11-year tenure in F-1. Alesi's single win and two pole positions doesn't bear any testimony to the Frenchman's driving skills. The sport will miss a true gentleman like Alesi, who was never afraid to speak his mind. 

Good-bye, Jean.

The author can be contacted at contacts@autoracing1.com

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