Friends as well as rivals, the wry Austrian and volatile Frenchmen found time for some fun during their pairings at Ferrari and Benetton
By Rob Widdows
Gerhard Berger chose Jean Alesi without hesitation. Very Berger, no messing about, things to do, people to see, a Grand Prix team to run. “Sure, I give you 15 minutes, I meet you in half an hour, no problem.” In the paddock at the Shanghai International Circuit, Berger is busy. But he and Alesi are good friends, he’s happy to reminisce for a few minutes, to take a break from the pressures of Scuderia Toro Rosso.
“Yes, we were good mates, we are still friends, have been since our days together in Formula 1. I like him very much, we help each other whenever we can,” says Berger. “The first time I came across Jean is a moment I will not forget. It was 1989, it was his first race in Formula 1 and I was with Ferrari then. I’d never really heard much about him but that day he made a big impression on me.” He laughs. “It was the French Grand Prix at Le Castellet. This guy in a Tyrrell comes past me, two wheels on the grass, two wheels on the kerb, sliding all over the place – it was in qualifying, at the chicane. When I finished my run I went to the team and I said: ‘Can you find out who’s sitting in this bloody Tyrrell? The guy is crazy’. Then I saw him later, in the hotel, having dinner with his [first] wife and I looked at him and I thought, ‘This guy showed me really good car control’. And he proved that until he finished; whether it was wet or dry, he proved he had really good car control. Very, very good.”
Alesi brought the Tyrrell home fourth that weekend in France, scoring points in his maiden Grand Prix outing.
Four years later they were teamed together at Ferrari, having by now become friends. The F93A was not one of the best cars to come out of Maranello and the season passed without a single win. Alesi, who was into his third year with Ferrari, was always spectacular, always quick in qualifying and for most of the year he was faster than Berger, finishing ahead of the Austrian in the championship.
“Ferrari was very political, of course, and sometimes it was difficult,” says Gerhard. “We didn’t always work as friends, sometimes we hated each other, and sometimes we fought each other on the track. But at the end of the day he’s a fantastic guy and I think we coped with each other very well. I was a little bit older, I was a bit more settled, but we had similar styles and maybe I was just more able to deal with the team than he was at the time.”
The partnership continued into 1994 and 1995, Berger scoring the Scuderia’s first victory since 1990 when he won at Hockenheim in ’94 in a display of gritty determination, having felt under the weather with a virus which had dogged him all year. In a season dominated by Schumacher and Benetton, the Austrian managed to salvage third place in the drivers’ championship while his team-mate was almost always out-paced. Alesi appeared frustrated and moody, struggling to find speed and consistency despite beating Berger to pole at Monza and leading the race before another retirement.
“Yes, I don’t know if it was moody exactly,” says Gerhard. “I think he was just too emotional. With his talent he should have had more success. But he was very emotional and in racing there are certain times when you have to stay cool, be more analytical and be more systematic. That was completely against his nature, you know? The way he drove, that’s the way he is – he explodes one moment, the next moment he drives, with all that car control. That’s how he is,” he laughs. Alesi, born to Sicilian parents but living in Avignon, once remarked: “I have the French passport but the blood is Italian.”
Berger struggles to choose a story that best illustrates their friendship, their love of having fun, of being the old-fashioned racing drivers they were. Some are simply not printable here; many have little do with racing. “We’d be here at least another hour to tell all the stories,” he says. “There were so many times when we raced each other, beat each other in a nasty way or an unfriendly way, or blocked one another, and I don’t want to say it was him, or it was me. I think we were equal in what we did to each other on the track.
“So I choose the best, the funniest thing that happened with Jean.” He’s already starting to laugh and that famous mischievous look is spreading across his face. He enquires whether I know about the day they crashed a ‘borrowed’ road car at Fiorano? I do not.
“Oh, shit, this is funny. We were testing at Fiorano just before the 1994 season started and we went for lunch at the restaurant near the circuit. After lunch we go back to the little office Jean had near the track and someone calls to say the car is ready and we must start testing again. It was three weeks before the first race, a brand new car, first time out at Fiorano so, you know, it was an important test. We realised neither of us had a car to get back to the track so we found this Lancia in the car park; the keys were in it, so we just took it.
“So we set off. Jean was driving like an idiot; I put the safety belt on and I said: ‘OK, you do what you want,’ and I started playing with the handbrake. People were already jumping out of the way, we were completely sideways, down this road towards Fiorano, and we went past the guard at the gate, Jean was flat out, sideways into the circuit. And there was the new car, in the pits, in front of us, the mechanics working on it.
“I pulled the handbrake on and – I don’t know why – for some reason, the bloody car started to take off and we started to fly. We landed heavily on the roof and it collapsed, like paper, down onto the seats. Jean wasn’t wearing his seatbelt, his feet were hanging out of the window and I was hanging, you know, like this,” – he’s hysterical with laughter now, acting out the chaotic scene – “and we came to a halt about six feet in front of the new F1 car and the mechanics, it was like a crazy film. We couldn’t get out of the car, we were trapped. Anyway, they pulled us out, and Jean was bleeding, he’d cut his head and his knees, and the funny thing was the Fiorano ambulance was there and they got very excited because they hadn’t had to do any work for 25 years… The doctors sit there, with the engine running, every time there’s a test day… and now they had a shunt. They ran around and took Jean to the local hospital and I thought, shit, now we’re in real trouble. So anyway, we cleared up the mess, put the wreckage out of the way in a corner and threw some kind of sheet over it. Then along come Montezemolo and Todt and I thought, shit, now we really are in big trouble. We are out of a job, and it’s three weeks before the first race.
“I didn’t want to talk to anybody, I thought, OK, I’ll go out, do a race distance or something, let it all calm down. So I put the helmet on and got in the car. When I had to come back to the pits I saw Todt there and he was talking to Montezemelo and it didn’t look too good, so I kept my helmet on.” Berger is now creased up, reaching the climax of his favourite Alesi tale.
“Nobody is saying anything to me, I can’t understand it, so I said to Todt: ‘What do you think about the accident, about the roll-over?’ and he looks at me and says: ‘Gerhard, can you talk normally? I don’t know what you mean. Did you have an accident?’ and I say: ‘Kind of, yes, we kind of…’ and Todt says: ‘Where’s Jean, where’s Jean?’ and I say: ‘Well, Jean’s gone to the hospital for a moment…’ Now Todt is really getting upset and he says: ‘You’re idiots, three weeks before the first race, you shouldn’t be messing around like this. And where’s the car?’ So I said: ‘Well, it’s over there, under that sheet’, and you know – this is the best bit – it was Todt’s car. We’d taken his Lancia from his car park space and now it was a wreck. This is just the funniest thing that ever happened with me and Jean. We still laugh about it whenever we meet. You couldn’t make it any better if you made a film about it.”
Try to imagine this happening now, in the hard-edged world of contemporary Grand Prix racing. How would Berger and Alesi have fitted into the corporate culture?
“We would not, simple as that,” he laughs. “First, there’s so much electronics, computers and gadgets – I have to ask my daughter to switch on my new television. No, it’s a different time; it’s a big business now, and we would not fit into this generation, not at all. I mean, today the young guys are into all the electronics, all the analysing, all the little detail – but Jean and I, we were more, you know, driving with our arses, the balls were bigger than the brains, and that led to some mistakes. But we did some good races, we put on some good shows for the fans, and that made us happy.”
And it made a huge number of race fans happy, too. Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger remain two of the best-loved Grand Prix drivers of all. And who will ever forget the day in June 1995 when Alesi won his first, and only, Grand Prix in Montreal, hurling his helmet into the crowd after he stepped from the Ferrari? Real racers, that’s how we like them.