Jonathan Palmer gives his verdict on the Montreal winner
It was the victory everyone had waited so long to acclaim.
Jean Alesi confessed he was so emotional at the thought of his impending maiden Grand Prix win that he began to cry, the tears being swept onto his visor every time he braked for a corner; the tifosi were so touched with passion that many streamed foolhardily across the track, narrowly avoiding cars still racing at 180 mph; even the curmudgeonly press, gloomily preparing to write up another Schumacher success until the German hit electrical problems with 12 laps to run, stood and applauded wildly.
If Jonathan Palmer’s voice on BBC TV carried a hint of a smirk, it was little wonder. He, more than most, had reason to savour the moment.
For it was alongside Palmer that Alesi made his F1 debut, for Tyrrell, back in 1989. Top drivers can survive in such a mentally demanding environment only for as long as they continue to believe they are the best. Outpaced by the novice. Jonathan finally had to admit that the game was up: when the French-Sicilian disappeared into the distance, so did Palmer’s hopes of a topline F1 drive. He, like his former colleague, has waited six years and 91 Grands Prix for the final confirmation of that outstanding talent.
“I’m just so thrilled that he’s won a race finally,” says Palmer, who believes that freed from a lot of pressure, the Ferrari driver will now blossom. “I think from now on he will go increasingly well. I know it has been a source of intense frustration for him that he hadn’t got a win. He’s been there so long and, a bit like the Chris Amon thing, you began to wonder whether he would ever do it. Certainly, prior to Montreal, he was the most deserving driver who should have won a GP but hadn’t.”
Like Amon, Alesi is a natural seat-of-the-pants talent, a genuinely nice guy who wound-up at the right place, Ferrari, at the wrong time.
“Going back to the Tyrrell days, there are some drivers who would have dominated in a team, spat out their team-mate, and never had time for him again,” acknowledges Palmer. “But there was nothing you could dislike about the guy. He was always candid about what he thought of the car, and there was never a moment’s bad feeling. Even now, he’s always still got time for me.”
Then, as now, he displayed tremendous self-belief. “Even in that first year of F1 he was brimming with confidence,” recalls Palmer, “and he wasn’t intimidated by anybody. That characteristic is something important in the real megastars: to be someone who is not intimidated, who has that overwhelming self-confidence, bordering on the arrogance, that Senna had Schumacher has, Alesi has. I didn’t.”
What, in his former team-mate’s eyes makes Alesi so special?
“What he’s got are two things that are absolutely crucial if you are really going to win World Championships through driver contribution. One is phenomenal pace, Alesi, to my mind, is one of the top four quickest drivers in Formula One. Because he has race stamina, he can also keep charging all the way through a GP.
“The second thing he has is racecraft, in terms of overtaking; there aren’t a lot of drivers who could have pulled off that move to get past Damon Hill. Overtaking is not easy; it demands a special skill.
“There have clearly been a smattering of times when he has done silly things, driven more with his heart than with his head, and that’s something that punctuates his career. But if I was a team manager I would be only too well aware that you can’t create pace. You can’t train someone to be Senna-, Schumacher-, Hakkinen-, or Alesi-quick. They just are or they are not. Similarly with race overtaking ability: it’s a very special type of pumping up. Say you are coming into the hairpin where Alesi got Hill. To do that manoeuvre, from 185 mph, he just had the gut reaction and the confidence that in those conditions he could brake three metres, four metres later whatever it took to come alongside. That really does demand a phenomenal amount of confidence, commitment, judgment and courage all rolled into one. That is a very different skill from just being able to lap quickly.”
Now emerging from the dark days after five turbulent years at Ferrari, Alesi concedes: “it was unbelievable to me that I had not won before. There were times when I was sitting there and wondering what had I done to God that he would give me such bad luck?”
A man who has always epitomised the passion which is part of the Ferrari legend, Alesi celebrated his 31st birthday at the same moment as he did his first F1 win. Back home in Avignon, the party raged through an entire night. There are, suggests Palmer, many more parties ahead.