Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler Jennie Mowbray
“Luck is a goddess not to be coerced and forcibly wooed by those who seek her favours. From such masterful spirits she turns away. But it happens sometimes that, if we put our hand in hers with the humble trust of a little child, she will have pity on us, and not fail us in our hour of need.”
Jean Alesi had a dream. It was a dream common to countless small boys the world over. He dreamed of driving for Ferrari. He imagined himself seated with his father in the stands on the main straight at Monza, observing the Formula One cars being wheeled out onto the grid. The scarlet Ferraris gleamed in the sunshine but one sat empty. Enzo Ferrari walked down the main straight, gazing over the grandstand, searching for someone. And then Enzo pointed directly at him. He was being asked to drive the vacant Ferrari. Alesi saw himself striding down the stairs, scaling the barrier, and climbing into the car.
Jean Alesi got to live his dream – he did drive for Scuderia Ferrari. The 1995 Canadian Grand Prix was his 91st race. It was also his 31st birthday. And at this race Lady Luck finally smiled on him and Jean Alesi got his one and only win in his 13 year Formula One career.
Jean Alesi’s Formula One career had started brilliantly. Tyrrell had signed him mid-season during 1989 to replace Michelle Alboreto who had quit the team after a conflict with sponsorship. In his first race at the French Grand Prix he had finished in fourth. In 1990 Tyrrell signed him for the whole year and in the first race at Phoenix he finished second, only eight seconds behind Ayrton Senna in his McLaren. There was every expectation that Alesi would go on to do great things in Formula One.
The turning point of his career came in 1991. He had already made the decision to sign for Williams when Ferrari also offered him a contract. Jean was a driver whose heart ruled his head and he couldn’t resist the lure of driving for his dream team and so he chose Ferrari. Williams went on to win four Driver’s Championships between 1992 and 1997 with four different drivers. It is possible that one of them might have been Jean Alesi.
Alesi’s personality was an interesting combination of fiery and passionate mingled with the ability to also be calm and intelligent. His driving could be stunning, especially his car control in the wet. He always tried hard, he always went fast. He also had lots of bad luck, losing races he should have won.
The weather leading up to the 1995 Grand Prix in Canada had been erratic all weekend. During the morning warm-up it had poured rain but by the time the race was due to start the rain had stopped and the track was beginning to dry. Everyone went out to line up on the grid with slicks in the hope that the rain would hold off. There was now an obvious dry line on the track, but still doubt about how much grip the cold slick tyres would have on the still slippery road surface.
The track at Canada was narrow, more like a street circuit than a road circuit, and as it was only used once a year it had to be rubbered in during practice and qualifying before the tyres started to have much grip. The surface was also very bumpy, affected by the dramatic range in temperatures it was subjected to during the year, which also adversely affected car control. Ferrari was hoping for rain as their V12 engine was very thirsty and they would be at less of a disadvantage in the slower pace of a wet race.
Michael Schumacher was on pole in his Benetton with the two Williams of Damon Hill and David Coulthard behind him. They were then followed by the two Ferrari’s of Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi. Schumacher got away well off the start and by the end of the first lap had already pulled out a gap. Coulthard and Hill went side by side down to the first corner with Hill just beating Coulthard into second while Alesi in fifth had to hold off an attack from behind by Johnny Herbert in the second Benetton. At the end of the first lap Mika Hakkinen, who was in seventh, attempted to pass Herbert at the hairpin but Herbert closed the door on him and their cars locked together taking both of them out. Each blamed the other for the incident.
David Coulthard hit a bump just after he went under the bridge, broke late, lost control and spun into the gravel. Unable to extricate his car he was out of the race. He was only narrowly missed by the two Ferrari’s coming up behind him who had to lock up to avoid hitting him.
By lap three Schumacher was almost three seconds ahead of Damon Hill and Alesi had passed Gerhard Berger and was now in third. As Alesi started to close the gap to Hill commentator Murray Walker said, “If there’s a man who wants to win this race it’s Jean Alesi. Not only because he’s in a Ferrari. Not only because there are rumours that his position in Ferrari is being threatened with talk of Michael Schumacher. But also because it’s Jean’s 31st birthday today and he’s carrying the number 27 which is the number of the great Gilles Villeneuve when he won for Ferrari in Canada. And Alesi is now the fastest man on the track. Look at the car control of Alesi. These are the conditions in which Alesi really thrives. Alesi loves conditions in which the conditions are less than optimal. It’s a rare gift – Alesi, Schumacher and Senna all had it.”
Schumacher continued to clear out from the cars behind him and Alesi slowly closed the gap to Hill ahead of him. The Ferrari’s were handling better than any Ferrari had for a long time. By lap 16 Alesi was right behind Hill as he got caught up trying to lap backmarkers Ukyo Katayama and Pierluigi Martini. Alesi came down on the inside going around the hairpin, pushed Hill to the outside and managed to get past for second place.
Alesi was the first to pit on lap 34 and on the next lap Berger suddenly slowed. He was coasting down to pit lane. At first it looked like a mechanical failure and then suddenly it became obvious – he had run out of fuel. He did manage to get his car back to the pit but he had lost a lot of time.
Schumacher didn’t pit for another five laps and with a 12.9 second pit stop had a faster stop than anyone else up until that point. He continued to maintain over a 30 second lead over the rest of the field until on lap 58 his car suddenly began to be passed by several drivers that had been behind him. Murray Walker excitedly joined in the jubilation of the partisan crowd full of Ferrari fans as Schumacher pulled into the pits and Jean Alesi took the race lead.
In the pits everyone watched as the mechanics pulled off Schumacher’s steering wheel and replaced it with another one. Then a mechanic rested a computer on the side of the car and quickly reprogrammed the electronics. After enduring a prolonged one minute and thirty-two seconds in the pits Schumacher re-joined the race, now back in seventh place.
Jean Alesi led for the last eleven laps, the masses of Ferrari banners in the stands waving jubilantly. As he crossed the finish line a throng of fans invaded the track even before the other competitors had finished the race. On the back straight Alesi bought his car to a stop and stood up in the car to acknowledge the crowd. His engine stalled and he was picked up by Michael Schumacher who gave him a ride back to pit lane.
It would be Ferrari’s 105th win, making them the most successful F1 team ever as they had been tied with McLaren at 104 wins each prior to this race. It was Ferrari’s first win since Germany the year before. It was Jean Alesi’s first win in Formula One.
Jean Alesi stood on the podium in front of the main straight that was packed with his elated fans. French, Italian and Ferrari flags were everywhere and it looked like every Italian living in Montreal had come out to the track to see Alesi win. The crowd went wild as he was presented with the best birthday present in the world – the trophy for winning the Canadian Grand Prix.
After the race, Alesi said “I feel fantastic, but it was very difficult for me because I really waited a lot of time for this first win. To have this victory with Ferrari is something unbelievable. Gilles Villeneuve was driving this car and he won this race and to be on the Gilles Villeneuve circuit and to win with his car is very nice.”
There are many who have tried to define what constitutes greatness in Formula One. Some have used statistics, giving different weighting to wins, poles and fastest laps to try to compare racers in different cars and different eras. Others have used more esoteric methods, trying to assess differences in skill and speed as well as a driver’s ability to place an un-competitive car where it seemingly shouldn’t be.
In researching this article I found Jean Alesi on a list of the top 20 Formula One drivers ever. He was surrounded by drivers who had won multiple world championships, or at the least multiple races in the case of Sterling Moss. There was also an article about him on F1 Rejects – 201 races and only 1 win – seemingly a failure.
There are 32 drivers who have won only one Grand Prix. Nine of these were American and won the Indianapolis 500. Of the rest most were lucky to achieve their one win due to attrition of superior drivers in front of them due to weather, crashes or mechanical failures – in other words, luck. Then there are those who were unlucky to have the only the one win and of these Jean Alesi was probably the unluckiest. No one else on this list came even close to his 32 podium finishes over his career. The majority had less than ten with a scattered few in the teens. Most drivers with 32 podiums had wins closer to double than single figures.
Jean Alesi was passionate and he was fast, his skill in the rain superb. He spoke his mind about what he was thinking and feeling to anyone who asked. He drove for Ferrari and the Tifosi loved him. His strengths were his speed and willingness to put his car on the edge. These were probably also his weaknesses which only made him more appealing. He drove the number 27 car at Ferrari and reminded everyone of what they loved most about Gilles Villeneuve: speed and passion…