Favourite first-timer


Formula 1 can tend to be a cruel, cold place: a glamorous grind. But moments like Sunday’s light it up. And that’s before Daniel Ricciardo flashed his pearlies.

Few things are as uplifting as a first-time Grand Prix winner. Even Sebastian Vettel, again shaded by his team-mate, seemed to catch the mood.

Sadly, the cynic within me boorishly suggested that perhaps he was spreading the congratulations rather too thickly.

More charitably, perhaps he was having a flashback to Monza 2008. Certainly he needs to recapture some of the zesty brilliance with which he astounded us that rainy day. For ordinary out-laps five-time world champions do not make.

Ricciardo is the 105th driver – if you include the winners of the Indianapolis 500 until 1960 – to have experienced this first-time feeling in the 64 years of the world championship. It’s an exclusive club, for which drivers as good as Chris Amon, Martin Brundle and Jean-Pierre Jarier could not earn membership.

No wonder Daniel blew his cheeks out and looked briefly lost in the former sanctuary that is the pre-ceremony green room. He had reset to his delighted and delightful default by the time the interviewer greeted him on the podium.

That man, Jean Alesi, looking good at nearing 50 – happy birthday BTW! – must have had a flashback. For it was 19 years ago in Montréal, on his 31st birthday, that he scored his first GP win at his 91st attempt.

This memorable maiden occasion has numerous rivals for my affection:

Gerhard Berger, running non-stop on Pirellis in Mexico in 1986;

‘Monza Gorilla’ Vittorio Brambilla, making a monkey of suggestions that he possessed no finesse at the Österreichring in 1975;

Jenson Button, at his 113th attempt, at the Hungaroring in 2006;

Elio de Angelis, denying Keke Rosberg by a nose, and allowing Colin Chapman a final celebratory cap-fling, at the Österreichring in 1982;

Good Lord! James Hunt in the Hesketh at Zandvoort in 1975;

Alan Jones, another supposed rock ape, prevailing in the 1977 wet/dry of…

Hang on! There must have been something about that old Österreichring. Was it that its ballsy sweeps and dips provided a unique test – in the way that Monaco, Monza and Montréal still, thankfully, do amid an increasingly homogenised calendar?

I think so.

Monaco: Juan Fangio (1950), Maurice Trintignant (1955), Jean-Pierre Beltoise (1972), Patrick Depailler (1978), Riccardo Patrese (1982), Olivier Panis (1996) and Jarno Trulli (2004).

Monza: Jackie Stewart (1965), Peter Gethin (1971) and Vettel.

Montréal: Gilles Villeneuve (1978), Lewis Hamilton (2007) and…

Alesi: my favourite first-time winner.

His had everything: said birthday; a beautiful Ferrari; the last victory for a V12; a French-speaking crowd for a French winner; and the two most rousing national anthems.

It helped, too, that Alesi had looked a potential winner from the moment he grabbed an F1 wheel – at five-to-one – in 1989. During the intervening years he had proved that he possessed the necessary speed, if not the required mindset, luck or machinery.

Designer John Barnard’s 412T2 of 1995 was the most competitive Ferrari that he got his hands on in five seasons at the Scuderia – and Jean appeared more ready to make calmer, more calculated use of it. Second places in Argentina and at Imola were followed by a front row in Barcelona and a fastest lap, albeit after a first-start brainstorm, in Monaco.

1995 Canadian GP

1. J Alesi, Ferrari 1hr 44min 54.171sec
2. R Barrichello, Jordan +31.687sec
3. E Irvine, Jordan +33.270sec
4. O Panis, Ligier +36.506sec
5. M Schumacher, Benetton +37.060sec
6. G Morbidelli, Footwork +1 lap
7. M Salo, Tyrrell +1 lap
8. L Badoer, Minardi +1 lap
9. T Inoue, Footwork +2 laps
10. M Brundle, Ligier, collision
11. G Berger, Ferrari, collision

Out-qualified by team-mate Berger in Canada, Alesi made immediate and determined progress in the race, passing the fast-starting Benetton of Johnny Herbert on the opening lap, and Gerhard on the second.

The latter pass, a skittery move on the dust, was crucial because the Ferraris were marginal on fuel and it had been decided that the man ahead at half-distance would be allowed the first stop. Berger, reduced to walking pace and hiccoughing on the fumes on that extra lap, would lose a heap of time.

Alesi passed the ill-handling Williams of Damon Hill for second at the hairpin on lap 17, and thereafter gave vain chase to Michael Schumacher’s Benetton. Until, on lap 58 (of 69), the world champion’s gearbox went haywire and Jean swept by.

But only when he spotted, via the big screen at the hairpin, that Schumacher’s steering wheel was being refitted did Alesi dare to believe that “today might be the day”.

He began to cry, tears splashing the inside of his visor whenever he braked, and he admitted to feeling disorientated for a lap before regathering his thoughts and reeling off the remainder. He had seen P1 on his board many times before – but never on a final lap.

Until now.

It was indeed the day.

Every crew cheered him from the pitwall as he crossed the finished line, and he parked at the hairpin – not because the Ferrari had run out of fuel but because he wanted to commune with the fans at this natural amphitheatre.

Montréal is a great place for a race. Long – 10 more years will do for now – may it continue to be so.

Alesi, like so many others – but not, I think we can confidently predict, the talented Mr Ricciardo – never would win another GP, though he came close later in 1995. He suffered mechanical bad luck at Monza when a wheel bearing failed, and he took his eye off the ball, or more aptly his foot off the throat, at the Nürburgring’s European GP.

It’s a cruel, cold place. That elite club maintains exacting standards.

Ferrari had allegedly already blackballed him by the time of Canada (in June), and a televised outburst against team boss Jean Todt in Portugal in September put the tin lid on it.

It was promptly announced that Eddie Irvine, third that day in Canada, would be joining Ferrari for 1996.

There, the Ulsterman would be joining… Schumacher.

Alesi had completed his extended, emotional lap of honour in Canada sat on a sidepod and clinging to the roll-hoop of Schumacher’s restored Benetton.

Two restarts of the engine cleared that gear-selection problem and Michael had salvaged fifth place.

Though naturally disappointed, even he had caught the mood: F1 needs occasional days like this.

But that’s as charitable as it gets.


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