Jean Alesi is my favorite driver of all time. You may scoff at the notion of me idolizing a driver with 1 F1 victory when luminaries such as Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher or Fernando Alonso are there for the taking but to my buzzardly eyes, Alesi was the cat’s pajamas. He was all heart, all passion, and he was one of the few who realized that he was more than just a driver. He was an entertainer with millions around the globe living vicariously through him.
I once spent a Thursday night in the parking lot at Magny-Cours listening to thousands of delirious Frenchmen yelling “oui oui oui Alesi” into the wee hours of the morning and the next day when the sun arose, Alesi wasted no time fueling our passion. He had his Ferrari primed at the pit exit revving to go the split second the track went green and for a few seconds we were treated to the glorious sound of a V-12 F1 engine at 19,000rpm all alone on a track. For those in the know, this sound alone can trigger the spread of goose bumps throughout the body and can occasionally lead to tears and/or uncontrollable laughter. We waited tensely listening to his throttle modulations from the distance until he came barreling down to our corner at amazing speeds for the first lap of a weekend on cold tires. At the apex he started waving enthusiastically, turned his head to look at the crowd and almost incited a riot as he dropped the hammer and gave us a 1st,2nd and 3rd gear rev limiter burnout with one hand in the air. There is no other driver that I’ve ever seen that would contemplate such behavior.
I always got the sense that he was driving for the pure pleasure of pushing an F1 car to the limit. Who else would sign to drive a back of the grid Prost F1 after having been a Ferrari driver? While some such as Senna or Schumi raced to quench their insatiable competitiveness and others raced to gain extreme personal wealth, Alesi was more akin to the big wave soul surfer who everybody deeply respects but is never considered a threat to be a contest winner. He wasn’t in the cockpit tabulating championship point
scenarios and thinking about making ride height adjustments. If there was a problem he would simply just drive around it, offer a quick assessment to his engineer through the international driver sign language of wild hand gesticulations and leave the track early for an evening at leisure. I seriously doubt he ever stayed in the garage with the mechanics and engineers pouring over data until midnight ala Schumacher. He was an artist in a type-A world. Sicilian in heritage and French by birth, Alesi barely even spoke English while all of his contemporaries were fluent. In many ways, I feel like he was a continuation of another brilliant natural talent that occupied the scarlet red #27 a decade earlier.
My first hero was Gilles Villeneuve. Standing at the bottom of the Linden Ave plunge for the first Friday morning practice of the 1981 Long Beach GP, I was instructed by my father to watch for the red 27. Sure enough, while most drivers were taking their sweet time getting heat into their slicks on the dirty street surface, Gilles crested the hill with opposite lock and the Ferrari turbo bouncing off the rev limiter. A few laps later he spun right in front of us but instantly flicked the car into a 180 spin and set off in a white cloud of tire smoke. I was hooked.
It was a similar feeling being one of the proud few in the grandstands for the season opening race of the 1990 season through the streets of downtown Phoenix, Az. Of course we were all there to see Senna, Prost, Mansell and Piquet. These four men had dominated the 80’s, winning a combined 7 championships and 87 of the 156 races held over the 10 year span. But it was the young Alesi that had his nimble Tyrrell Cosworth dancing on the ragged edge on the low grip, bumpy street surface. He was a known commodity having won the F3000 title and scoring a 4th place finish in his first ever GP the year before, but as the lights went green and Alesi pounced from 4th to 1st into turn one, he was suddenly a revelation.
Alesi quickly built a big advantage but as the race settled into a rhythm, Senna was there in second managing his tires and looming just a little bit larger each time Alesi looked in his mirrors. Alesi was still driving qualifying laps and would often kiss the exit wall of the last corner with a little flick oversteer, but the all too familiar site of Senna on a charge was about to become a reality. On lap 34 Senna
was on the gearbox of Alesi as they crossed the stripe and used the grunt of the Honda V10 to get into the slipstream and reach the apex of turn 1 in the lead but by turn two, Alesi miraculously turned the tables and reclaimed the lead with a forceful move up the inside that even the mighty Senna could not have anticipated. This was like an unknown boxer getting floored by Ali only to get up off the canvas and floor Ali seconds later. The next lap Senna made the same move and again Alesi fought him for every inch of track for 4 corners like a back alley street brawler. It was a dazzling display that earned the praise of Senna and vaulted Alesi immediately to the top of my list.
It was also a performance worthy of being offered contracts to drive for Ferrari or Williams in 1991. We all know which way this turned out. Passion overrode practicality and Alesi signed to drive for the Scuderia just as Adrian Newey designed Williams cars were poised to embark on world domination by winning the constructors titles in ’92, 93, 94, 96 and 97. Meanwhile Ferrari were entering a period of technical incompetence that even the brilliant Alain Prost could not overcome and subsequently led to him being fired after he publicly stated that his Ferrari handled worse than a truck!
Alesi was just a bit player in a messy Italian soap opera over the next few years but he still drove with passion and a heavy right foot that endeared him to the legions of Tifosi around the world. There were the occasional displays of brilliance in tricky rain conditions or lightning quick starts, but the all too familiar sight of a red car going backwards across a gravel trap or pulling off the circuit with smoking exhausts was the reality. And then there were the heartbreaks. He had Spa ’91 in the bag until his Ferrari gave up with just a
handful of laps left. He had Monza ’94 under control until the gearbox seized while trying to exit the pits. True to character, Alesi stormed through the garage and jumped into his Alfa with his brother while still dressed in his race overalls and left the track to return to France. Out on the on Autostrada with the race only at ¾ distance, he was stopped by the law doing 140 mph but was sent on his way by the star struck polizia.
Finally in ’95 at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in the #27 Ferrari the racing Gods smiled on Alesi and he scored his one and only F1 victory. I was at home watching the race that day on television but as he crossed the finish line I remember collapsing to the floor like I was Cristiano Ronaldo sending a game winner to the back of the net. Of all the thousands of races that I’ve watched on TV or in person, that win gave me the warmest feeling inside. I think I may have even held a one man dance party in the living room after the show went off the air.
I feel blessed to have been able to witness in person multiple times the love affair that Alesi had with Montreal and all the fans down in the turn 10 hairpin complex in his final years at Sauber and Prost. He would often kick start our weekend with a salute and a doughnut that would get the heart racing and finish the weekend off much the same way leaving us heading for the subway in a state of delirium. But it was the final time that I ever witnessed him that I will never forget. After scoring an improbable 5th place in the uncompetitive Prost in 2001, Alesi charged down to our grandstand with both hands in the air and gave us one of his signature doughnuts. Then instead of driving into the paddock he returned for an encore, got out of the car, ran around soaking up the applause and tossed his helmet into the crowd! It felt more like a Stones concert than a motor race. Mick Jagger would have been envious with the way Alesi had the crowd in the palm of his hand. It was the perfect sendoff for the perfect driver.
Montreal Doughnut Farewell: Au Revoir