Explaining Jean Alesi
Think of it like an exam question – ‘Explain Jean Alesi.’ The French-Sicilian was one of the leading figures in F1 racing in the 1990s, from his astounding first two seasons with Tyrrell, to his fitting finale with Jordan in 2001, via becoming the tragic figure of Ferrari, unappreciated fall guy at Benetton, occasional wildcard for Sauber, and talisman for Prost. And yet despite becoming one of the most well-known, most popular and most highly-rated drivers on the grid during what was a seminal decade for the series, he won just 1 race, itself by and large a fluke in a crazy race, never really hit the headlines after the initial hype, and was never a title contender. So how good was he, and why is he perhaps the greatest underachiever in F1 history?
Alesi made his F1 debut in 1989 in rather unusual circumstances. He had been competing in Formula 3000 with Eddie Jordan Racing when he received a call from Ken Tyrrell. The British team had been underdoing a mini-revival, with some impressive performances from prodigal son Michele Alboreto to pick up solid points. But the relationship between Tyrrell and Alboreto, the man who only 6 years previously had taken the team’s last victory, had soured. At Monaco, the new car had gone to team mate Jonathan Palmer ahead of the Italian, which infuriated him. A few races later, just before the French GP, he walked out, justifying it by saying that personal sponsor Marlboro clashed with new team sponsor Camel.
Alesi, driving for a Camel-backed team in F3000, being the form man of the series and also being French, was the ideal man to substitute, initially as a one-off. But when he drove the car to a mightily impressive 4th place finish, it was clear that this would not be his only outing. Uncle Ken signed Jean up for the rest of the season, albeit allowing him to continue his F3000 campaign which clashed with Belgium and Portugal, for which he was replaced by Johnny Herbert. Alesi continued his impressive form in these later races, with 4 top 10 finishes, while also clinching the F3000 title. While he only won 3 races during the course of the junior series season, they were at true drivers’ circuits – the street circuits of Pau and Birmingham, and Spa-Francorchamps. His future in F1 was secure.
Tyrrell retained his services full time in 1990, alongside Satoru Nakajima, employed by the team in the hope of gaining Honda engines in 1991. Alesi demolished the Japanese, and made a sizeable impact of his own on the world stage. At the first race in Phoenix, he created a bit of F1 history by battling Ayrton Senna for the lead, eventually settling for a remarkable 2nd place. A further 2nd came at Monaco, which took him to 3rd in the championship. Suddenly Alesi was hot property, and understandably so. Tyrrell were eager to retain him again, with the promise of those Honda V10s. But Williams and Ferrari were also very interested in him, along with McLaren and Benetton – all of 1990s F1’s ‘big four’. Like the race at Phoenix, the contract saga has gone down in F1 folklore. The story goes that he did put pen to paper with Williams, at least on a pre-contractual agreement, but backed out of the deal when Ferrari came knocking, as it was his dream to drive for them, and he put heart above head to sign for them. But it is not only that the contractual negotiations long and drawn out that this is famous for – it is also one of the biggest mistakes in F1 history.
The thing is, it is all well and good judging the events of 1990 in hindsight, when we know what was to come in the years ahead. Place yourself in 1990 itself and Alesi’s decision seems less irrational. Ferrari had spent much of the 1980s in the doldrums – less so than in the years to come, but it had not been a happy time for them. But in 1989 and 1990, it looked as if things were coming good again. 1989 saw 3 wins, albeit with serious unreliability – this was a major improvement considering McLaren had wiped the floor with them and everyone else in 1988. 1990 was a step further again – Alain Prost spearheaded the attack, making the first title challenge by a Ferrari driver since 1983, and the car was matching that of McLaren for paces, partially helped by new advances such as the now-standard flappy paddle semi-automatic gearbox. So by the end of 1990, although Prost had failed to snatch the title, Ferrari were the team on the rise in F1. Meanwhile, Williams had just completed their second season in their partnership with Renault with little progress from the first. There were no suggestions that this was about to become the most dominant team in the sport for the next few years – after all, the man who initiated this, Adrian Newey, was still a relative unknown.
Could or should Jean have stayed with Tyrrell, on the promise of those Hondas and an improved car? No, it was the right decision to leave. You cannot really criticise him for being single-minded in departing, as that is what an F1 champion is ideally supposed to be – in fact, Alesi has in the past been criticised for not being single-minded enough in comparison to the likes of Michael Schumacher. Plus, we have the evidence in front of us to show that it would not have been a success, with Tyrrell having an underwhelming 1991 with Modena and Nakajima at the wheel, something that can be put down to the loss of Pirelli rubber and the rest of the field catching up. Had Jean stayed, this may have damaged his stock further. If there is any argument for him staying, it is that the team would have been built around him in a similar way to Benetton with Schumacher, which could have yielded success, but Tyrrell did not have the funds of Benetton anyhow.
Added to this, a further criticism of Alesi in 1990 has been that his form dipped when the big teams started chasing him, as he did not score another point after his podium at Monaco. This is perhaps harsh. There were further good qualifying performances, particularly at the high speed circuits, but he did make some errors in the races, probably from trying too hard to impress. However, it is a fact that Tyrrell did not have significant resources, which would have rendered a full season assault on the higher reaches of the championship table virtually impossible. The innovative principles of Harvey Postlethwaite’s 019 proved the team’s own downfall as other teams soon copied the ideas and caught up quickly, and Tyrrell did not have the funds to keep advancing. Despite this, there were some solid results in the latter half of the season, but due to the restrictive nature of the points system of the time, they go relatively unnoticed – his 7th in Mexico, and 8ths in Britain, Belgium, Portugal and Australia would all be solid points finishes now, and are especially impressive if you consider that the ‘big four’ improved their reliability through the year and would invariably take up most of the top few positions.
The Ferrari years
I do not feel the need to do a full depth analysis of each of Alesi’s seasons at Ferrari as they can all be summed up by the same pattern – reasonably fast cars, lots of unreliability and bad luck, and the occasional moment of triumph and celebration. Jean was forced to watch the team he turned down romp to victory after victory, usually from the pit wall after yet another retirement, as his dream move turned sour. His departure from the team marked the end of an era, but more from what was about to come in the future for the Scuderia.
It would be wrong to completely blame Alesi for his own downfall from 1991 to 1995 beyond the fact that he chose to join Ferrari, which, as stated previously, seemed like the best move he could have made at the time. He held his own against Alain Prost in 1991, although there was no doubt who was the better driver in the team at the time. Alesi had more of the bad luck but this did not distort the picture too much regardless. Then Prost was sacked at the end of the 1991 season after effectively challenging the head honchos of the team. Alesi, despite being less experienced than new team mate Ivan Capelli, was effectively thrust into the position of team leader for 1992. But without the leadership of Prost, the team declined still further, dropping into the clutches of the midfield. Alesi destroyed Capelli, who struggled to gel in the team and whose opportunity to crack the big time had perhaps come a couple of years too late.
Gerhard Berger returned to the team to replace him in 1993 but the team again effectively went backwards. It would be fair to say that the team mates were evenly matched, and again in 1994, when the team finally started to move forwards under Jean Todt. Berger came out on top in points but Alesi had at least one likely victory, the Italian GP at Monza, snatched from beneath him by technical failure. 1995 was much the same. Alesi seemed to get on top of the Austrian and established himself as one of the leading drivers in the sport by taking his first win in Canada, but he also lost a win at Monza again due to failure, retiring from the lead in Belgium, and was pipped by the genius of Schumacher at the Nurburgring. And it was Schumacher who was to spell the end of Alesi’s stay at Maranello.
1995 is perhaps the key season in Alesi’s career apart from 1990. His final season with Ferrari, it was also his most impressive with the team. The new Ferrari was a quick car, closer to the Williams and Benetton at the front than in 1994, and it suited Alesi well. His team mate Berger had now begun his inevitable decline, leaving Alesi as the number one in the team. He began the season well, with some consistent results – 2nd in Argentina and San Marino put him in the title battle, but 2 DNF’s followed, before Canada.
Alesi’s only win was quite fortuitous, that you cannot deny. Schumacher led comfortably until an electrical gremlin forced him to a crawl, handing the lead to the Ferrari man. His other rivals? Herbert crashed out on the first lap, Coulthard had spun out early on, Hill had been forced to retire and Berger was struggling down the field. 2nd and 3rd were the Jordans of Barrichello and Irvine, and even Gianni Morbidelli made the points for Footwork. But while it was a freak race, this can be justified by saying that it was no more than Jean deserved after the years of heartache, and the near misses yet to come.
Monza was the crucial one. As a Ferrari driver and half-Italian, it was even more of a home race for him than the French GP, but like Carlos Reutemann in Argentina and Graham Hill in Britain, homecomings came to be associated with misfortune for Alesi. A podium in 1993 was to be his happiest result there. 1994 was pretty bad, but 1995 was devastating. The race had been handed to him on a plate – polesitter Coulthard had spun off, Hill had taken out Schumacher and himself, and Ferrari held a 1-2, until Alesi’s camera flew off and took out Berger’s suspension, but even so, Jean was still easily set for the win. But alas, the fairytale was ended with 8 laps to go by roller bearing failure.
Two races later, the European GP simply rubbed salt into the wounds. Ferrari-bound Schumacher’s surge to catch and pass Alesi summed up for many why the Italian team were right to opt to ditch Jean and take him on, proof of the Frenchman’s lack of mental strength under pressure. In the grander scheme, it was also pretty conclusive – back in 1992, both these young chargers had become team leaders, and it was Benetton, Alesi’s destination, that had come out on topby a considerable distance, proving Schumacher’s leadership qualities. But of course there is more to this than meets the eye. While Alesi did make a crucial error at the chicane while being caught by the German, it was not a total collapse. The Benetton was a much faster car in dry conditions, as opposed to the wet conditions which had given Alesi the advantage, and it was also a home race for Schumacher – Michael later spoke of how the home crowd’s support gave him the extra few tenths a lap he needed to catch Alesi, and he always went well there regardless.
There is some truth in the argument that Alesi lacked leadership qualities, though, especially compared to Michael, who after all is the benchmark in the second half of the 1990s. The two drivers, in terms of driving car, were probably approximately equally talented – Alesi’s raw speed and car control was second to none, as shown by some of his mega qualifying laps in second rate machinery and his ability to perform miracles in the wet, often on less than ideal tyres. But Jean was never able to focus the team around himself in the same way that Michael did at Benetton and Ferrari, and one could argue that being passionate, emotional and outspoken is less suited to leadership than being cold and calculating – when you think of the most successful team leaders in the sports history, think of how the likes of Clark, Stewart, Lauda, Piquet, Prost, Senna and Alonso compare to Hunt, the Villeneuves, Damon Hill, Irvine and Montoya. Thus, in that respect, a portion of the blame for Ferrari’s underperformance, and later the collapse of Benetton, could lie at Alesi’s feet. But I do not believe that Jean was particularly mentally fragile. Europe 95 was a set of unusual circumstances which conspired against him once again.
Benetton and beyond
Alesi’s stint at Benetton would, at first glance, be judged a failure by the majority. Before the 1996 season started, they were the top team in the paddock – Williams built the fastest cars, but Benetton built the most reliable, and also had the best strategist in F1 in Ross Brawn. And yet Alesi remained on just that solitary win, and got nowhere near challenging for the title. Looking at it in simplistic terms like this, you can see why he got the chop after the 1997 season, effectively ending his career as a top line driver.
But it is far more complicated than this. For a start, Benetton were a team in transition – you cannot expect a team built around such a brilliant driver as Michael Schumacher to immediately adapt to working around a new, more equally balanced driver pairing as Alesi and Berger. You have to consider how the drivers fitted into the team, fitting into new unfamiliar systems, and how the team fitted around the drivers, such as with the drivers’ driving styles. There were also new regulations for 1996 which you have to take into account, something Williams took full advantage. Williams also developed a much more reliable car. As I have just stated, they had the fastest car in 1995 but more than anything, it was unreliability that denied Damon Hill the title, and not his mistakes as so often is presumed. Ferrari also took steps forward, and ended up edging Benetton for 2nd in the constructors championship despite an appalling reliability record mid-season.
Alesi, despite not winning, remained consistent throughout. It is often assumed that because he was aggressive and spectacular over a single lap, he was not consistent and made many mistakes, but the truth is that throughout his career, he was one of the most consistent drivers on the grid, something which was particularly noticeable in the Benetton years. 8 podiums in 16 races is nothing to sniff at. The crucial part, though, was that this was compared by the contemporary critics to the immediate past, i.e. Schumacher’s record-equalling wins haul of 1995. This was especially significant considering the race at Monza, where Alesi was once again denied and by the man with whom he swapped drivers. Alesi had led from the 6th lap when Hill had spun out, but Schumacher managed to pass him in the only round of pit stops by running longer. It was symbolic of 1996 as a whole for the two teams – Benetton had begun out front, but had been reeled in and leapfrogged by a recovering Ferrari thanks to the double champion. The other crucial race for Alesi in 1996 was Monaco. Gifted a win by Hill’s retirement, he is thought to have hit the barrier and deranged the rear suspension.
1997 was much the same – Benetton were now trying to cope with the loss of Brawn and designer Rory Byrne, meaning another transitional year with expectations that were unrealistically high from team boss Flavio Briatore. Alesi was again Mr Consistent – only 5 podiums due to a far greater spread of the higher positions, but usually in the points, finishing up 3rd equal in the championship (albeit after Schumacher’s disqualification) – but again did not win. It was a year of yet more frustrations – he ran out of fuel in Australia after missing or ignoring messages telling him to come in, a failure that could well have sealed his fate in the team, and at Monza (again), he led from pole for the first half of the race before being jumped by slicker pitwork by McLaren in the pit stops. What made the lack of a win worse was the fact that Berger did win, with a crushing display at Hockenheim on his return from illness.
It was not a bad season by any means – in fact, it was arguably Alesi’s most impressive season as a whole, showing up his potential championship-winning credentials, and that he was cost by the inconsistent B197 and a Benetton team in turmoil. A falling-out with Briatore, and impressive performances by youngster Fisichella and Alex Wurz, who deputised for Berger mid-season, sealed his fate. With limited options, he took the rather odd decision to join Sauber, who had been consistent point scorers in 1997 with Johnny Herbert but hadn’t really looked like doing anything extraordinary. Signing the contract was, in hindsight, effectively his resignation as one of the sport’s top drivers – signing for a midfield team, which was to stay as a midfield team during his 2 year stint there, cost him any chance of signing for another race-winning team.
He outperformed his car on occasions there, such as starting on the front row twice, in Austria in 1998 and in France in 1999 after wet qualifying sessions, but there was just one podium to show for it all, again in the wet at Spa in 1998 behind the two Jordans. He comprehensively beat the previously in-form Herbert, but with the condition that he was team leader, and then beat Pedro Diniz in 1999. But the team was going nowhere fast, so he left once again to hook up with his old team mate Alain Prost.
This was an even worse decision than joining Sauber. The Peugeot engines, while always unreliable, were even more unreliable than before, and there were no points for the team. 2001 offered hope, though – Ferrari engines (badged as Acers after sponsorship from the computer company) were an improvement, and the chassis was a step forward as well, as shown by the very fast testing pace shown by Alesi in the winter. But it proved a false dawn – while the car had potential, demonstrated by Jean’s manhandling of it into the points (incredible achievements considering points were still only awarded the top 6) and regularly into the top 10, the team did not have the budget to make the most of it, and Alesi’s team mates were a pay driver (Mazzacane) and a rookie (Burti). Prost and Alesi fell out, and a switch to his old F3000 team Jordan was hastily arranged after Frentzen was sacked there. The last few races of the season, and indeed Jean’s career, again showed his ability – he took a car with which he was unfamiliar into the points in only his 2nd race in it, and at Spa. 2001 was, on the whole, another good year for Alesi in terms of his performances, but a lack of opportunitiesfor 2002, perhaps unjustified given his form, forced him into F1 retirement and the DTM.
Coming back to my original question, how good was Jean Alesi? You could approach this in a number of ways, as the word ‘good’ can be interpreted differently. He was undoubtedly one of the most talented drivers of his generation – he took mediocre machinery places where it never should have been, and deserves more than a single win and two pole positions in the record books for his efforts. But while he was undeniably fast and capable of extraordinary feats, he was also consistent, something that is rarely touched upon when discussing his career. Surely then, given that the key to championships is speed and consistency, he was ultimately one of the best drivers around and could easily have been world champion?
The problem for Jean was, though, that it is not only what you do on track that helps you build a title-winning campaign. Jean wore his heart on his sleeve, which was very appealing to the fans, especially to the tifosi, but not necessarily the ideal attribute for the long term, especially behind the scenes. This is where it gets complicated – we do not know what goes/went on behind closed doors, so we can only make educated guesses. However, it is fair to say, considering how his stints with teams often ended, that he was not the easiest driver in the field to work with or for. He was never able to galvanise a team, win it over, or build it around himself in the same way that Schumacher was – and remember, they both drove for the same top line teams, so there are few excuses for Jean. For instance, it is worth considering that the Benetton and Ferrari team members worked hard for Schumacher, so perhaps it is no coincidence that his Benettons and Ferraris were more reliable than Jean’s. While there is nothing to say an emotional, passionate driver does not necessarily make a poor leader (as Felipe Massa and Ferrari would profess in 2008/9), the emotional, passionate Alesi was not the right man for both Ferrari and Benetton at the time he was there.
In that sense, while on-track he may have seemed like the complete driver, he was not because of what went on off-track, especially at a time when the sport was becoming increasingly scientific in its approach to team management. McLaren and Williams had moved the game on. Ferrari was still lagging behind with its more traditional concepts and needed a strong lead driver to guide it in the right direction. Alesi was not around long enough to reap the full rewards of Jean Todt’s reorganisation, and in any case, it was the arrival of Schumacher, and him bringing Brawn and Byrne with him for 1997, that completed this and brought Ferrari to the fore again. When Alesi moved on, Benetton, having played a different game to the other British teams, had lost the crucial figures they had built the team around and had been uprooted. Again, they needed a strong leader, and Jean was not strong enough. It is as if, then, that Jean’s personality was not suited to the positions that he had been put in. Maybe he would have been more at home in an earlier age of the sport, where driving the wheels off a car was more important than being able to bring a team together – he just wasn’t as good at the latter as Schumacher, which is what the other drivers had to be to be able to win the title at the time. Hill brought together Williams, Villeneuve inherited the continuity from this (and nearly lost), and Hakkinen managed to seize the McLaren team from Coulthard and built it around himself – all arguably less talented drivers than Alesi, but he crucially failed to do this with Ferrari and Benetton, which is what cost him.
This is one of the major reasons why Alesi underachieved, but not the only one. Ultimately, he didn’t win more races because he made the wrong choice in 1990 – while we cannot really criticise him as we have the benefit of hindsight, he would undoubtedly have won more races had he joined Williams at the same time as Newey, because the cars that he designed and the team built were much better than Ferrari’s. While we could again go back into how Mansell galvanised Williams in 1991-92, surely Jean would’ve been equipped with an FW14B as dominant as the one that Nigel took to the title. Indeed, Mansell’s flaws were much the same as Alesi’s, and in some areas Jean was superior to him, so I don’t think that in this scenario it is wrong to say he probably would have been world champion. Then you get into all sorts of questions about whether Prost and Senna would have joined or how Jean would have developed as a driver – I am sure he would have developed more of his potential had he taken this path.
While he could not drag Ferrari to F1 modernity as Schumacher did after him, Williams would have given Jean Alesi a ready-made top F1 team had he joined for 1991. Surely this is what he would have needed to become a regular race winner in the 1990s. Had this happened, he would have become one of the most successful drivers of the period. He had the driving skill and talent to win races and championships, but unfortunately he was never able to work himself into a position where he had a car with which he could achieve this. His fatal flaw was that he just wasn’t as good as Schumacher, not necessarily on-track but off it. And that is why the record books will show just that solitary win next to his name.