He wore his heart on his sleeve and the Tifosi loved him for it. Their parting was all set to be sweet, but it ended in sorrow. By Adam Cooper
Jean Alesi could fill a book with stories of missed opportunities, and it’s still hard to believe that his long and distinguished career brought him just a single Grand Fix victory.
“I received a letter from a fan with all the numbers of what I did in my career,” says the Frenchman. “I led 19 races, for 205 laps in total, but I only won one of them. I finished 16 times second. They are not bad numbers, you know! But, for sure, I deserved to win more.”
He finally earned a first success in Canada in 1995, on his 31st birthday. That season was arguably the best of his career, and several other chances slipped through his fingers. None hurt more than Monza, where a victory in front of the Yosi would have meant so much, especially because the previous year he had led in brilliant style before the Ferrari’s transmission failed as he left the pits.
“In 1994,1 had pole position, and I was flying by myself at the front. There was no fail-safe on the gearbox electronics, and after the pitstop, when I selected third gear, I put too much speed on — and bang! The gears exploded.”
That should have been the first victory, and in the aftermath, Alesi’s mind was a turmoil of emotions. His only thought was to get home, asap, so he jumped in his Alfa 164, still wearing his overalls, and charged back to Avignon at record pace. His brother Jose was bold enough to strap himself in the passenger seat.
“He was not scared and not surprised any more by my reaction. He was just not saying anything!”
There was another reason why Monza 1995 was important for Jean. He had a point to prove: after five years with the team, he was being dropped to make way for the incoming Michael Schumacher. Weeks of speculation over the German’s plans for 1996 had created a lot of upset in the Ferrari camp.
“As usual, they lied all the time. They said to me, ‘No, no, Michael is not coming, he is not coming’. And suddenly Michael was here.
“Eventually it was clear that I was out of the team, and Michael was taking my place. I didn’t have to leave because of my behaviour or my speed, I had to leave because of politics: they had decided to go with Michael, to give all the power to him. That’s why I was sad, for nothing else. They did right but, for an F1 team, it should be about two cam, not one.”
Alesi had quickly found anew home at Benetton for next year, and then team-mate Gerhard Berger stunned Jean Todt by opting to follow the Frenchman, leaving Ferrari to search for a second driver.
“It was a very hard time for me at that moment, because I lost first position at Spa, and later I lost first position at the Nurburgring. The car was very often competitive, but the reliability was really an issue: so many small details were not working. For example, after two laps at Spa my rear suspension broke in Eau Rouge, so I was out, while leading.
“It was a tough season. Luca di Montezemolo called me during the week in Fiorano, and he said: ‘Whatever is happening, I don’t want to see a scandal. You drive, and if something is happening it can happen, it’s motor racing, but stay quiet.’ So I was already pissed off. But I knew for Monza I was prepared to make a very good race.”
The fans at Monza made their feelings clear: ‘Better one Alesi today than a 1000 Schumachers tomorrow’, read one banner. Emotions ran high.
After encountering engine problems Jean could only qualify fifth, behind Coulthard, Schumacher, Berger and Hill (Williams). DC disgraced himself by spinning off on a reconnaissance lap, and had to start in the spare. He made amends by leading until a failure on lap 14 pitched him off the road. That left Berger in front of Schumacher, Hill and Alesi, who were closely matched.
“Suddenly Damon pushed Michael out, both of them went into the gravel. But I was not laughing, I was really shocked. So Gerhard was leading and I was second. I knew that all the time I had been faster than Gerhard at this circuit. For some reason he was in front of me, and it was not normal.”
Ferrari’s two ‘rejects’ were running one-two and on target to score a victory that would have sent the tifosi into raptures. The lead swapped when Alesi was able to get the jump on his team-mate with his superior speed in and out of the pits.
“After the pitstop I was in front of him. I had pitted just after him and made up the difference in one lap — and then I was driving easily.”
Berger was still second but was soon destined to log one of the most bizarre retirements ever seen in a Grand Prix.
“Suddenly I saw smoke in the mirror from his car, because he was not far behind me. It turned out that I’d lost my TV camera, and it had hit his wishbone and one wheel was pointing outwards! I didn’t find out until afterwards. I had never imagined that I would lose a camera like that.
“So anyway, now I was by myself, and Johnny Herbert’s Benetton was nine or 10sec behind. I was cruising. No problems.”
Then the Alesi jinx struck again.
“With about eight laps to go, at Lesmo Two, the brake pedal went very, very long. I tried to pump it along the straight, but still the pedal was going down. Later I discovered that the wheel bearing was loose and my wheel was pushing the brakes. I had to pit.”
It was all over, and Herbert snuck through to win. Jean’s reaction was not as volcanic as it had been the year before. ‘This time there was no mad dash back to France. The Montreal win had taken a lot of pressure off, and Alesi seemed somehow resigned to his fate as he sat on the pitwall, head in his hands.
“I was really very disappointed. All the team was looking for a good position, and when you lose the Italian Grand Prix like that, in a Ferrari, it’s a shame. Monza was the circuit where I was really looking fora win. I had had such a good time in this team, so I wanted to finish my relationship with them, and with my fans in Italy, with a special victory. For I knew it was going to be the last time I would drive a Ferrari at home.”