Examining Jean Alesi, the mercurial French-Sicilian
Jean Alesi was one of my biggest childhood heroes. I was able to particularly relate to his tendency to be passionate and emotional but also calm and calculated at times, and with his all-out attacking approach that often emphasised style over substance, but could be effective at times. Despite generally being a very attack-minded racer, he was prone to being overly cautious when he had a large lead, which served him well in Formula 3000 and when he won the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix, but it also contributed to him squandering a large lead in the 1995 European Grand Prix, where he eventually lost to Michael Schumacher.
I notice strong parallels between all of these traits and my chess playing style, though it may not be entirely coincidental, as he was undoubtedly a major influence on me.
At his best, he was as good as anybody, and he could pull off feats that no-one, not even Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher, could manage. As well as his Phoenix 1990 heroics, stunning wet weather drives at Brazil and France 1992 and Japan 1995 stick out, and he was often excellent at Monaco and at Monza.
However, he was only sporadically able to access that level of performance. For most of the time, he was a good driver rather than a great one, not able to consistently access the level of pace of Mika Hakkinen over one lap, or Michael Schumacher over a race distance. He had sporadic off days when he was well off the pace, such as the occasions at Ferrari when he was comfortably beaten by team mate Gerhard Berger. On occasion he made embarrassing mistakes, infamously making a bizarre defensive move on Michael Schumacher at Australia 1995, and ignoring pit signals and running out of fuel at Australia 1997.
Thus, he was a very entertaining but also frustrating driver, who drew parallels with ultra-fast and attack-minded but inconsistent snooker players such as Jimmy White, Tony Drago and Thepchaiya Un-Nooh, or the Newcastle United association football teams under Kevin Keegan in the 1990s.
I don't think Jean Alesi could have reached the same level as Michael Schumacher, chiefly because he didn't have as much ability off the race track. Unlike Michael Schumacher, for instance, he wasn't good at setting up a car, building a team around himself or giving strong feedback on the car's performance. But I believe that with the right management, he could have reached a similar overall performance level to Nigel Mansell or Mika Hakkinen. Had he gone to Williams in 1991, and had his team mate been Riccardo Patrese instead of Nigel Mansell, he would have been odds on to take the drivers' championship in 1992.
He might also have fared somewhat better in an earlier era of F1, when there was less emphasis on being good off the race track as well as on it. Murray Walker noted in Murray Walker's Formula One Heroes that Gilles Villeneuve (who was racing in the late 1970s and early 1980s) would not have fared as well in later eras of F1. In many ways Jean Alesi was a spiritual successor to Gilles Villeneuve, hence his tendency to aim for Ferrari and/or #27 at every opportunity and his huge popularity with the tifosi.
Overall, regarding where he stands in the list of greatest F1 drivers of all time, I think Alan Henry (53rd) and the F1metrics model (57th) had him placed about right as of the 2010s, just falling short of making the top 50, though he is bound to gradually slip further places as time goes on and new promising drivers arise.
Tyrrell - 1989/90
Jean Alesi won the Formula 3000 championship in 1989. Although he ended up tied on points with Erik Comas, he had skipped the final race because the championship was already won by that point. He entered Formula One and made great waves by finishing 4th on his debut, having run as high as 2nd during the race. He only competed in some of the F1 races that year, due to having to juggle Formula One with his Formula 3000 championship battle. He consistently had the upper hand over team mate Jonathan Palmer.
In 1990 Jean continued to make waves with an excellent performance at Phoenix, when he memorably took the lead for a time and duelled with Ayrton Senna, but lost out in the end. He showed more flashes of brilliance during the rest of 1990, notably at Monaco (a track where he usually went very well), but there were occasional wild moments and silly mistakes, which to be fair one would expect in someone's first full season in Formula One. The Pirelli tyres on his Tyrrell helped him to qualify strongly at many races, but they tended to be outperformed by the Goodyears during the races.
It's often said that he had the chance to drive for Williams in 1991-93, and that he let his heart rule over his head and chose Ferrari, fulfilling his childhood dream of driving for Ferrari. However, it isn't quite as simple as that. While Williams were clearly on the up in 1990, Ferrari were serious championship contenders that year. Also, Jean was not guaranteed a drive with Williams - Frank Williams had been hesistant to confirm his signing - whereas he was guaranteed one with Ferrari.
Ferrari - early promise in uncompetitive cars in 1991-1993
In his first year at Ferrari in 1991, he was paired with Alain Prost, who, alongside Ayrton Senna, had consistently been one of the two best drivers in F1 in previous seasons. Although Jean was heavily outqualified, he was often able to run close to Alain in the races, occasionally getting the better of him. Overall, the average difference between the two drivers was about two or three tenths of a second per lap, not too bad a showing for just his second full season in Formula One. He was looking good for victory at the Belgian Grand Prix until his car broke down. However, there were quite a few wild moments and silly mistakes thrown in.
In 1992 he was paired with Ivan Capelli, and his technical naïvety showed early in the season when he praised the Ferrari F92A, despite it probably being Ferrari's worst car of the post-1980 period. However, he was often brilliant in 1992, and made fewer silly mistakes than in the previous two seasons, often mixing it with the McLarens and Benettons despite his Ferrari often being lower on power. His run to 3rd at the Brazilian Grand Prix, and his wet weather heroics at the French Grand Prix, particularly stuck out.
Ivan Capelli never really got a fair chance, having been compromised from the beginning with an inferior gearbox for example, succumbing to the same "number two Ferrari driver syndrome" that Nigel Mansell learnt about the hard way in 1990. I don't think he was ever likely to be in Jean Alesi's class, but I reckon the true difference between them was nearer half a second per lap, rather than over a second (which was statistically the outcome over the 1992 season as a whole). The season destroyed Ivan's career.
In 1993 Jean was paired with Gerhard Berger, who had demonstrated at McLaren that he was a good, but not great, driver by consistently averaging three or four tenths per lap slower than the pace setter Ayrton Senna. Although Gerhard was not at his best in 1993, often over-driving to compensate for the Ferrari's uncompetitiveness, it was nonetheless impressive that Jean Alesi outperformed him by that same three or four tenths margin over the season. There were occasional off days, notably at Japan (ironically a track where Alesi normally goes well), but on the whole this was probably his most consistent season, being at or near his limit at most of the races and making very few mistakes along the way.
With Ferrari on the way up with the arrival of Jean Todt at the end of 1993, it looked like Jean Alesi could emerge as a serious championship contender with Ferrari in 1994 and 1995, and mix it with the up and coming talent of Michael Schumacher.
If Jean Alesi had gone to Williams and partnered Riccardo Patrese, I reckon he would have been strong favourite to take the drivers' championship in 1992. Had Nigel Mansell been his team mate, though, he would probably not have been consistent enough to beat Mansell to the title. Similarly, Alesi vs. Prost in 1993 could have been spectacular, especially as Alesi would probably have taken an early championship lead with the wet races early in the season, but I reckon Prost's consistency would have won out in the long run.
1994 - the year when the wheels started to fall off
So far, Jean Alesi looked to be delivering on his early promise. He had suffered in uncompetitive cars during 1991-1993, but had often performed brilliantly, and now that Ferrari were becoming competitive, perhaps 1994 and 1995 would be his chance to shine and to mix it with Michael Schumacher, who was emerging as the heir to Ayrton Senna's "best driver in F1" throne.
But in 1994, Jean Alesi's career at Ferrari unravelled. He started off well enough at Brazil with a fine third place where he again comfortably had Gerhard Berger's measure, but then he injured his vertebrae at a testing accident and missed two races. When he came back, he struggled to get back up to speed, frustration took over, and it increasingly showed in his driving. He continued to show flashes of brilliance, but more often than not he was outpaced by Gerhard Berger. When he did run competitively, he was often undone by mechanical unreliability, although, as Alan Henry pointed out in 1994-95 Autocourse (citing Ferrari designer John Barnard), Alesi was probably partly responsible for his gearbox failure in the pitlane at Monza 1994 while leading comfortably.
Ultimately, he managed to keep his Ferrari drive for 1995, but probably only thanks to the tragic death of Ayrton Senna. Senna had been offered a contract to drive for Ferrari in 1995, probably at the expense of Alesi with the idea of renewing his earlier partnership with Gerhard Berger. I think it's highly likely that Ayrton would have accepted it, had he still been around.
One enticing "what if" scenario that I sometimes think of is, what if Senna had lived and gone to Ferrari to take on Michael Schumacher's Benetton, and what if Jean Alesi had opted to go to Williams to partner Damon Hill? Potentially, we could have had a really epic Schumacher-Senna-Alesi-Hill battle for the drivers' championship. I think Jean Alesi, with his greater experience and flair, would have done better in the 1995 Williams than David Coulthard did, and possibly also Damon Hill, while I'm sure Ayrton Senna would've utilised the full potential of the competitive 1995 Ferrari 412T2 more consistently than Alesi did.
1995 - a return to form, but it was too late to save his Ferrari drive
Despite increasingly falling out of favour with the team, Jean Alesi pulled himself together well during the early part of 1995. His insecurities were still evident through his excessive criticisms of other drivers (David Coulthard after the San Marino Grand Prix, and Martin Brundle after the Monaco Grand Prix), but they stopped showing in his driving. Alan Henry, in 1995-96 Autocourse, cited John Barnard as suggesting that Alesi also worked much better off the race track in early 1995 than he did in 1994, appearing calm and confident and making positive contributions to testing. He had a very strong run of form from Argentina through to Britain (races 2-8), which saw him win his only Grand Prix at Canada on his birthday, fittingly in the Ferrari #27 at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. He was also unlucky not to have a good shot at victory at Monaco, where he set provisional pole on Friday, but a hydraulic failure scuppered his chances of fighting for pole on Saturday, and on Sunday he matched Michael Schumacher's race pace before crashing out when unable to avoid Martin Brundle's spinning Ligier.
But then came the bad news that he was going to have to make way for Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, bringing his childhood dream of driving for Ferrari to an end just as he was starting to compete for race victories. As Jean indicated in a subsequent interview, he accepts in hindsight that going with Michael Schumacher was the right decision, but he didn't appreciate the team's refusal to tell him about it (he first found out about it via Benetton's Flavio Briatorie). However, some of his criticisms of Jean Todt in late 1995 (e.g. "breaking my balls") bordered on petulant and reflected his tendency to use his heart but not always his head.
In the second half of 1995, his form was (probably as a result of this bad news) more inconsistent, but he produced some of his strongest performances. He was excellent early in the 1995 European Grand Prix, building up a 40 second lead on slicks on a drying track, but was too cautious in lapped traffic late in the race, throwing away his large lead and losing out to Michael Schumacher. He was denied possible victories at Belgium and Italy by mechanical failures (the Belgium one is often overlooked, but he was leading in the dry before his car broke, and it subsequently turned into a wet race).
Possibly his most outstanding drive of all was at Japan 1995 (instead, Jean Alesi himself has cited it as the race of his life), when he got a questionable jump start penalty early on and, fuelled by anger, stormed through the field, often lapping over 5 seconds faster than everyone else on slicks on a drying track, and ended up close behind leader Michael Schumacher before his driveshaft failed.
But on balance, although his raw ability was still there, Jean Alesi's performances in 1995 were not as strong overall as in 1992 and 1993, and were flattered to some extent by the competitiveness of the 1995 Ferrari 412T2. He tended to underachieve in qualifying, being outqualified 12-5 by Gerhard Berger despite usually being faster than him in practice and in the races. He had more off days, and spoilt his season with a bizarre move on Michael Schumacher at the last race in Australia, probably the second most embarrassing moment of that race. (David Coulthard crashing into the pit wall naturally takes the number one spot).
Benetton in 1996 and 1997 - arriving at the wrong time
Jean Alesi went to Benetton for 1996, but he quickly fell out of favour with the team and wasn't very comfortable in the operating environment there. It didn't help that the team was reeling from the loss of Michael Schumacher, who was a big force, often at the expense of his team mates (Johnny Herbert was probably compromised by around half a second per lap, or half the deficit to Schumacher, in 1995). Being partnered with Gerhard Berger, who joined him, wary of partnering Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, might not have helped, for although he and Gerhard got on very well when they were at Benetton (unlike at Ferrari, where they often clashed over the team politics), Gerhard was sometimes a bad influence on him over a race weekend.
He was probably also still reeling from having lost his drive at Ferrari. It might also not have helped that F1 changed its numbering system so that he ended up carrying car number 3 in 1996, and number 7 in 1997. Had F1 stuck with his old system, he'd have got to carry his number 27 across from Ferrari to Benetton.
Early in the 1996 season, he was in contention for race wins at times, but made a large number of silly mistakes. After a clumsy move on Eddie Irvine's Ferrari at the opener in Australia, he pushed Damon Hill hard in the wet at Brazil, but an off-track excursion late in the race scuppered his chances. He was also in contention at Argentina, but stalled during a pit stop. There were errors galore at the European and San Marino Grands Prix.
For the rest of the 1996 season, Alesi largely cut out the silly mistakes, but, to me, he seemed to lose some of his passion and his determination and desire to win, and his flair and moments of brilliance that he showed at Ferrari were absent. A number of podium finishes followed, and he ran in the lead for a large part of the Italian Grand Prix before being outgunned by Michael Schumacher. Although 1996 was statistically his best season, finishing fourth in the championship with 47 points, it didn't really live up to past glories, as his Benetton was much, much more reliable than the Ferraris that he had driven in previous years, and he finished behind Michael Schumacher despite Schumacher's Ferrari having often been unreliable and well off the pace.
The 1997 season was an unhappy one, starting with him infamously running out of fuel at the opening Australian Grand Prix. He took a while to recover from that, but put in some very good performances mid to late season, notably a fine run at the Italian Grand Prix when he took pole position and led for much of the race before being jumped at the pit stops by David Coulthard. At times, he looked more convincing and more likely to win a race than in 1996, showing that his ability and his flair were still there. However, even late in the season, there was still too much inconsistency, too many off days and too many silly mistakes.
However, despite all of this, it's worth noting that he finished ahead of team mate Gerhard Berger in the drivers' championship in both 1996 and 1997, making it four years out of five that he beat him in the championship, and he finished on the podium 13 times.
The later years
In 1998 Jean Alesi went to partner Johnny Herbert at Sauber, probably influenced to some extent by Sauber's strong links with Ferrari. Johnny was in a strong position, having thrashed a few Ferrari rejects the previous year, Nicola Larini, Nolberto Fontana and Gianni Morbidelli (and Morbidelli in particular was no slouch). It took Jean a couple of races to get the Sauber set up to his liking, so he was well off Johnny Herbert's pace in the opening race at Australia.
Once he was up to speed, though, he was evenly matched with Johnny in qualifying, and generally faster than him in the races, not unlike how he compared to Gerhard Berger in their five seasons together. He regained the passion and determination that he had showed at Ferrari, and that had been lacking at Benetton. The Sauber wasn't on the pace of the cars he'd previously driven, but he put in some fine performances nonetheless, including a strong 5th at Argentina, running 5th at Monaco before his car broke, running 4th for much of the race in the wet at Britain, and finishing 3rd in the wet in Belgium. He also made very few mistakes this year, and it was chiefly unreliability that stopped him from regularly finishing in the points. In the second half of the season, as the Sauber team got behind Alesi, Herbert got demoralised and fell off the pace.
1999 was a strange season in that Alesi only scored 2 points and was actually outscored by team mate Pedro Diniz, and yet he was clearly the faster of the two drivers for the vast majority of the season. Several strong performances early on, including a stunning charge through to 5th at Brazil, and qualifying 5th at Spain and 2nd at France, were not translated into points finishes, mainly due to mechanical unreliability, although he also made some errors, including spinning out in the wet at France and hitting a wall at Monaco. Alesi's form tailed off a bit in the second half of the season, probably not helped by him falling out with Peter Sauber after disclosing his desire to leave too early.
For 2000 he joined his old friend and former team-mate Alain Prost in the Prost team, but the car was a disaster. Although Alesi never gave up, he did seem to lose some of his speed during the season, and in the second half he was often outpaced by rookie team mate Nick Heidfeld. He still showed moments of brilliance, though, notably a fine charge up to 4th at the Belgian Grand Prix (the same race that was famous for Mika Hakkinen brilliantly "overtaking the Michael" with the aid of a backmarker) by pulling off the trick of going onto slicks early on a drying track and relying on his excellent car control.
In 2001 the Prost car was more competitive and he picked up a couple of points finishes, notably at Canada when he finished 5th and threw his steering wheel into the crowd. However, when he left Prost for Jordan and partnered Jarno Trulli, it was clear that he wasn't quite as fast as he used to be, as he was generally outpaced both in qualifying and the races. The 1991-1993, 1995 and 1998 spec Jean Alesi might not have beaten Trulli in qualifying, but I reckon he'd have beaten him comfortably in the races.
I attended the 2001 Belgian Grand Prix, so I'm pleased to say that I got to see Jean Alesi actually racing. He did a spectacular power spin in front of the fans in qualifying if I remember rightly, resulting in cheers from the crowd. It was probably his strongest performance in the Jordan, although he was slightly outpaced by Jarno Trulli in the race. Late in the race he did a very good job of holding off Ralf Schumacher. I remember sitting next to a couple of fans of his who kept shouting, "Aller Jean!".
As a result, Jordan opted to go for youth over experience and replaced Jean Alesi with Takuma Sato for 2002. In hindsight, this didn't work well, as Sato was off the pace and accident prone in his first season in F1, and Alesi's performances in late 2001 showed that he was still near enough to the pace to be capable of regularly scoring points in a Jordan, as well as making very few mistakes (were it not for encountering Kimi Raikkonen's spinning Sauber at the last race, he'd have finished every race in 2001).
The number 27 and Gilles Villeneuve's legacy
27 became Jean Alesi's number largely because it had become associated with Gilles Villeneuve, who used the number in his penultimate season and when he died in 1982. He revelled in using the number at Ferrari during 1992-1995 and also chose it when racing in the 2009 Speedcar Series.
It proved highly infectious, as he was primarily responsible for it becoming my favourite number, too. Many fans of the Ferrari #27 thing associate it with the "Villeneuve values", and I grew up to associate the number 27 with the "Alesi values", which essentially combine the "Villeneuve values" with a hefty dose of emotional intensity. Undoubtedly, through these associations with the number 27, he has ended up as one of my main role models.
To this day, I have doubts about the well-intentioned decision to retire the number 17 after Jules Bianchi's death. There are further parallels - like Jean Alesi, Jules Bianchi was French, he had an Italian surname, and he was also looking set to drive for Ferrari. I'm mindful of the fact that if F1 had retired the number 27 after Gilles Villeneuve's death, Jean Alesi wouldn't have got to use it, and as a result, Gilles Villeneuve would probably have developed very little significance to me. I'd have liked to see another emotional Jean Alesi type driver carry the #17 and use it to introduce Jules Bianchi's legacy to future generations. But you could argue that the world of F1 has moved on and that it increasingly doesn't have much of a place for Alesi type drivers.
The "unlucky" issue
He did have a tendency to be unlucky, but as luck does tend to broadly even out over a number of seasons, it's worth looking at the reasons why. I think some of his apparent bad luck was down to him driving for teams with unreliable cars. Ferrari was plagued by unreliability throughout the 1980s and up to and including 1997, making the probability of his car breaking when he was in contention for victories relatively high.
Contrary to popular belief, it probably wasn't due to him being overly hard on his cars, for, as F1Metrics pointed out, he actually had slightly better reliability on average than his team-mates. He also had very little mechanical unreliability when at Benetton in 1996 and 1997, which contributed to him frequently finishing on the podium.
However, where Alesi made his own bad luck was with his deficiencies at the technical side - building a team around you, building good relationships, being diplomatic, "playing the game" with F1's political side, and contributing to car setup and development. To some extent I'm reminded of Fernando Alonso, whose on-track abilities were right up there with those of Michael Schumacher and Lewis Hamilton, but he kept ending up in the right team at the wrong time due to his deficiencies off the race track. In particular, not unlike Jean Alesi, he fell out with team personnel due to "speaking his mind" on several occasions.
I reckon that Jean Alesi would have fared much better in an earlier era of F1. Widely viewed as the spiritual heir of Gilles Villeneuve during his days carrying the iconic Ferrari #27, he could well have been as consistently brilliant as Gilles Villeneuve had he been racing around 1980, when there was less emphasis on the technical side of F1. Alesi was more of an out and out old-school racer who, like Gilles Villeneuve before him, just wanted to get out there and race.