The Man who would be King

If any man is capable of challenging the Williams supremacy, Mark Skewis believes it is Jean Alesi

Jean Alesi has it in him to be world champion. If only he believes it himself. In each of the first three races, the mercurial Frenchman has made a costly error. Where in the past his car invariably failed, since moving from Ferrari to Benetton Alesi has let himself down.

It is common knowledge that he has always ridden an emotional roller coaster. But insiders suggest that even Benetton has been shocked by Alesi’s temperament. In the interlude between South America and the onset of the European season, it knows it must work not only on its cars, but on how best to harness its star driver’s flair,

“He has this tremendous passion which drives him on, and that can work for him, as well as against him,” maintains Benetton Technical Director Ross Brawn. “He gets frustrated, and we have to help him understand that it’s not all about setting the fastest lap all the time. He has to think about the whole structure of the race. The last lap on Sunday afternoon is when it counts.”

And that, all too often, has been his failing. Given the V12 Ferrari’s fabled lack of reliability, he never knew if the current lap would be his last. Consequently, he sometimes drove as if every lap would be just that.

That ‘seize the moment’ mentality was arguably betrayed on his Benetton debut in Melbourne when he exited the race early after a senseless assault on Eddie Irvine’s Ferrari. It was a stupid manoeuvre, at a stupid time of the race and season. Reliability alone has often been sufficient to pick up points over the opening races but here he was, barrelling down the inside as if the very championship depended upon it.

Upon his return from Australia, Alesi was dealt a stinging rebuke from the team. His response was podium finishes in both South American races, but each drive was marred by an unforced error. In Brazil he finished runner-up after conceding 11s when he slid off the road while chasing Hill. In Argentina, where he finished third, he was within sight of the leader until he stalled at his second pit stop. He sacrificed 15 seconds as a result and lost the race by 14…

With Hill 18 points clear of his rivals by the time he left Buenos Aires, some are convinced that the destiny of the title is already assured. After all, Damon has three straight wins to his credit. In 1991 Senna dominated the first four Grands Prix, as did Schumacher in ’94. In ’92 Mansell swept the first five. In each case they went on to clinch the championship. But where Ferrari could match Hill’s pace only by adopting a desperate three-stop strategy, Benetton hinted in Argentina that its performance is not so far removed from that of the pacesetter. It is also worth recalling that at the end of the first three races last season, people were also writing off Benetton. Yet Flavio Briatore’s men still bounced back to win both F1 crowns.

But where, with Schumacher, the team was used to dealing with the finished item, now it is working with raw material. Perhaps, with the German at the wheel, Benetton could have won in Argentina. Or at least have ensured that something other than a dose of Montezuma’s revenge gave Hill cause for consternation.

So often in the past all the team had to do was get the car in the ballpark, and Schumacher would do the rest. Alesi too could be capable of such feats. But only if he can shrug off the paranoia that is the legacy of five years at a team where Alain Prost once remarked that every time he felt a pat on the back he turned around to check if the hand had a knife in it.

Already, perhaps, there are a few signs of Alesi’s rehabilitation within the environment of an English team. For example, his relationship with Gerhard Berger, team-mate at Benetton as at Ferrari, has certainly improved. Sometimes the two even talk to each other…

“I didn’t expect the start of the year to be quite so rough, but I’m not that disappointed,” insists Alesi. “The car has no basic defect, and the team’s response time is good. This is a very different situation for me, compared to Ferrari. Here there is super technical support. The car is made by people who speak to me. It’s the first time it has ever happened to me! At Ferrari it was only the fans who were speaking with me!”

Just as the Princess of Wales would rather be the Queen of Hearts than the Queen of England, so Alesi, as spectacular as he is passionate, has always been a hero with the man in the street. But now it is time for Formula One’s King of Hearts to bid for the throne…