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Formula One is more comfortable expressing optimism about the future than nostalgia about the past It prefers looking ahead to looking back. No sooner had the chequered flag at Suzuka signalled the end of the 2001 season than the circus was washing its hands of the old year with a palpable sense of relief.

Now the racing weeklies are full of stories about Felipe Massa, the 20year-old Brazilian who is Sauber’s latest piece of cradle-snatching. He is quoted as saying, “I feel flattered when people call me the new Senna, but I want to keep my feet on the ground.” Well, that’s a relief.

Meanwhile Jordan’s signing of Takuma Sato is being touted as the first in along line of Japanese hopefuls who really will be of world standard. This may well be true, but it was surely his relationship with fairy godfather Honda that impressed Eddie Jordan,rather than his prowess in the British F3 series.

There is much talk of the prospects of Kimi Raikkonen, hired by McLaren as a 22-year-old joint number one with David Coulthard. He has been heralded by fellow Finn Mika Hakkinen (remember him?) as being “ready for victory: it could happen in the first or second race.” No-one mentions that his Sauber team-mate Nick Heidfeld finished two places ahead of him in this year’s world championship, and outqualified him 10 times. Of course, Heidfeld is of less immediate interest: he’s been in Formula One ever since 2000, and is now a ripe old 24.

But for me, of greater significance than the arrival of Massa and Sato is the departure of Jean Alesi. It saddened me in Japan that this great sportsman’s 201st and last grand prix should end after only six laps, when the aforementioned Raikkonen crashed heavily in front of him. Jean was left with nowhere to go and became part of the same accident, and narrowly escaped being hit on the helmet by a flying wheel. Yet his first concern was to go over to the winded Finn to see if he was all right, and then amiably shake his hand.

For Alesi it was the end of 13 long seasons in F1, which had netted him a solitary grand prix victory out of 32-odd podium finishes. That disappointing statistical record does a poor job of describing Jean’s fiery talent, his speed, and his huge racer’s heart.

In his very first F1 race, driving for Ken Tyrrell at Paul Ricard back in 1989, he came through from 16th on the grid to finish fourth behind Main Proses McLaren, Nigel Mansell’s Ferrari and Riccardo Patrese’s Williams — a sensational debut by any standards. Then he scored two second places for Tyrrell, finishing 8 sec behind Senna’s,McLaren in Phoenix and then barely 1 sec behind him at Monaco, before getting the call from Frank Williams. But, after much talk, he signed for Ferrari instead.

Emotionally, of course, Alesi and Ferrari were meant for each other. Had he gone to Williams he would no doubt have loomed larger in the record books. But his reward came in the adoration of the Monza tifosi — both while he was doing his five seasons for the Scuderia, and on through the Benetton, Sauber and Prost days to his final appearance with Jordan. They still remember the 1994 Italian GP, when his Ferrari was fastest in both qualifying sessions and in the morning warm-up, and rocketed away from pole into a 10-second lead after 10 laps. Although he was born in Avignon, Jean’s parents were Sicilian, and he looked and behaved like an Italian. So as far as the whole of Italy was concerned, there was a home win in prospect when, as he tried to leave the pits after his first routine stop, the transmission failed.

In a fury of disappointment and bitter rage, a trembling Alesi levered himself out of the car, strode to his parked Ferrari road car, slammed the door and accelerated out of the paddock. He worked off his anger on the road from Milan to Avignon, and as we gathered in the Estoril paddock 11 days later there were rumours about just how long the trip home had taken him, although he refused to talk about it. When he finally won in Canada nine months later, his emotions took over once again: he admitted afterwards that the tears welling in his eyes almost prevented him from seeing the track in front of him

Prost remains France’s only world champion, although Francois Cevert’s tragic death at Watkins Glen in 1973 prematurely ended a career which Jackie Stewart believes would have earned more titles for Ken Tyrrell. But, had there been a world championship in the late 1940s, Jean-Pierre Wimille would have been a major contender: his works Alfa won grands prix at Spa, Berne, Reims and Monza. He also liked to drive for his native country in the little Simca-Gordinis, and met his death in one at Buenos Aires in 1949.

Courageous Raymond Sommer, three times champion of France and briefly a BRM V16 driver, died in a small car too: a wheel bearing seized on his Cooper 1100 at Cadours in 1950.

For Jean Behra, unlike Wimille and Sommer, there was no silver spoon, but he clawed his gritty way up from bicycle champion and motorcycle champion to works drives with Maserati, BRM and finally Ferrari in 1959. But he quarrelled with team manager Tavoni at Reims and walked out, and three weeks later he died on the Avus banking in his own Porsche RSK. For him, too, the mere statistics do not show up his indomitable racing spirit.

Jean-Pierre Beltoise was another who came up through motorcycle racing, winning 11 French championships. A fiery sportscar accident at Reims left him with a limp, a weak arm and scars all over his body, and he also had to overcome personal tragedy when his first wife was killed in a road accident He subsequently married Cevert’s sister, and their two sons Julien and Anthony are racing today. Like Alesi he was frequently unlucky, most notably at his home grand prix at Clermont-Ferrand in 1970, when a puncture robbed his V12 Matra of the lead. Like Alesi, and like Cevert, this talented driver was rewarded with just a single grand prix victory, with that brilliant drive through teeming rain at Monaco in the BRM P201 in 1972.

Over 12 years and 149 GPs, Rene Arnoux won four times for Renault and three for Ferrari. But one of the most memorable French F1 characters managed only 12 starts in four seasons. Johnny Servoz -Gavin’s first proper F1 drive, however, was the stuff of legend. When Jackie Stewart broke his wrist, Ken Tyrrell put Servoz in the Matra-DFV for the 1968 Monaco Grand Prix. He qualified on the front row, and led the race for three glorious laps before clipping a barrier and breaking a driveshaft. He disappeared from motor racing as quickly as he’d arrived, but last year Mike Knight found him living on a French canal barge and persuaded him to come to Goodwood to drive his V12 Matra sportscar. It was 30 years since I had seen him. Grinning, mischievous, long-haired, unkempt, he was completely unchanged.

When Michael Schumacher led home Eddie Irvine at Monza in 1998, he apparently said the crowd must be excited because “a Ferrari 1-2 had probably never happened at Monza before.” History, as far as most F1 people are concerned, is indeed bunk.

But Jean Alesi is the exception. He has always showed an awareness of his place in a long motor racing tradition. In different paddocks around the world I’ve hand-delivered his copy of MOTOR SPORT to him each month, and for the rest of the weekend you’d see him sitting happily in a corner of the motorhome, devouring each page.

His private car collection includes a magnificent Phantom II Rolls-Royce, and he loves driving this car more than any other, sailing imperiously along the French country lanes. He once admitted to me that after a bad F1 weekend he’d been known to arrive home on Sunday night, dump his luggage, climb into the huge rear compartment of the Rolls with a bottle of wine from his own vineyard, and unwind in the atmosphere of walnut and old leather. This is not your typical modem racing driver.

Jean’s plans for the future aren’t clear — except that they involve carrying on racing cars, because that is what he does. At the age of 37, there is no question of retirement. CART has been mentioned, and so has DTM, but I hope he eschews those in favour of long-distance sportscar racing. There are rumours of a Maserati Le Mans programme. If it happens, stirring the name Alesi into the mix won’t just be a shrewd marketing move: it will also get on the strength a driver who is still very quick, and who, for as long as he draws breath, will always be a racer.

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