A red-blooded racer

profile; Jean Alesi
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NOBODY has ever had to court Lady Luck quite so assiduously as Jean Alesi before being rewarded with his maiden grand prix victory. Some, like the great New Zealander Chris Amon, who also drove for Ferrari, upset the old bawd so much that she delighted in letting him lead countless races only to stumble at the last. Others, such as Nigel Mansell, simply made up for lost time once she had finally smiled in his direction.

It took Mansell 72 attempts before he finally won her favour. For Alesi it was 91st time lucky when he won the recent Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal three weeks ago. Few men can spend so long in the wilderness without losing their credibility or their dignity, but Alesi, like Mansell, is one of them.

Ironically, he might have won his first Formula One race, the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard back in 1989, when he had been drafted into the Tyrrell team. At one stage he was running second to Alain Prost, who would become his great friend when they both wore the red of Ferrari two years later; in the end he finished an excellent fourth. Later that year he clinched the Formula 3,000 Championship for Eddie Jordan, who had recognised his talent and plucked him from despair after an appalling season in 1988 when everything had gone wrong.

A year later he raised pulse rates by leading the US Grand Prix round the streets of Phoenix, until Ayrton Senna overtook him in his more powerful McLaren - only to have Alesi insouciantly re-pass at the next corner. Senna eventually pulled away but Alesi finished second, a result they repeated at Monaco. In the paddock after the race in Phoenix Senna had wagged a reproving forefinger at him, but a wry smile robbed the gesture of offence. A champion was simply acknowledging the threat from a new pretender.

Since then there have been numerous strong performances with Ferrari, whom he joined in 1991, but by the beginning of 1995 more than a hint of desperation had crept not only into his driving but also into his off-track demeanour. In Argentina he triggered a first- corner shunt that necessitated a restart, while in Imola and Monaco he launched into outbursts against David Coulthard and Martin Brundle whom, he alleged, had not played fair.

Observers were reminded of a tit-for-tat brush he had with Mansell in practice in Hungary during his first year when, having been pushed up a kerb by Mansell as a punishment for getting in the way, he calmly returned the compliment by re-passing the Briton and jumping on the brakes. In Formula One today, pots calling kettles black are commonplace.

Alesi's attitude after that Hungarian spat impressed Ken Tyrrell. Mansell made himself busy in the paddock, letting everyone know what had happened. "And he did that to me, a Ferrari driver." Tyrrell said: "I asked Jean if he felt that he wanted to apologise to Mansell afterwards. And he thought about it for a minute before he simply said: 'No'. Even at that stage he knew his own mind." There were complications, though, when he appeared to have committed himself to both Williams and Ferrari for 1991. In the end, he admitted, he let his heart rule his head and joined the Italian team. Had he gone to Williams he might well have won at least one World Championship by now.

What would at times be unacceptable behaviour in many other drivers can somehow be tolerated in Alesi, whose occasional tantrums are like those of a boisterous child. He is stocky, and has the dark good looks of a dashing brigand, yet something of the boy is still visible in the man. His expressive face, with its blue eyes and heavy brows, is the complete mirror of his emotions of the moment.

There is no side to Jean Alesi. What you see is what you get. He detests polemics and he says what he thinks. It is not always right, but thank the lord for a driver who doesn't give a damn for political correctness. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and many times his emotions rule his head. Hence the spur-of-the-moment verbal attacks and his outspoken magazine column.

After retiring from the lead of the Italian Grand Prix at Monza last year he stalked into the pits, hurled his helmet at the wall, and then with brother Jose, who is his manager, stormed off to his Alfa Romeo. But instead of heading for the airport, he drove straight back to Avignon. Flat out all the way. Even Jose, who has seen him in a variety of moods over the years, admits that his heartbeat quickened more than usual.

Such tantrums - born of the frustration of one who needs to prove he can win - are balanced by a childlike simplicity, an engaging naivete, products of an uncomplicated background. He was born in Avignon in 1964, after his father had moved the family from his native Alcamo in Sicily to set up a panel-beating business. Alesi Snr had been a rally driver, and by the time he was 16 Jean was racing karts and being nicknamed Jean Spaghetti at school. His successes eventually led him to Formula Three, the stepping stone category, and once the family had reorganised themselves after a disastrous start to the 1987 season by deciding to switch to a more competitive chassis, he dominated the French Championship.

Alesi has strong senses of loyalty - his family is his emotional anchor, especially after his marriage to his childhood sweetheart Laurence ended shortly after their daughter was born - and humour. At the height of Batman- mania in 1989, he appeared on the victory rostrum at Brands Hatch clad in his yellow overalls, and wearing a black Batman mask.

Last year he drove me around Silverstone in an Alfa road car. "Let's pretend we're leaving Monza," I suggested. Despite the rain he almost took to the grass to overtake Michele Alboreto's Jaguar but suddenly slapped his forehead in a typically Gallic gesture. Smoke obscured everything. "First Monza," he groaned. "And now the engine has blown . . ." Later, he collared a passing Ken Tyrrell and the two of them sniggered like naughty schoolboys at the faux pas.

In a sport that frequently seems populated by the grim-faced and the colourless, Alesi stands out as a beacon of individuality, a charismatic man with human strengths and weaknesses. True, he too has his moments of being po-faced on the podium, but many see in him the closest anyone has come to touching the hem of greatness that was the French-Canadian star Gilles Villeneuve, who drove for Ferrari from 1977 until his death in practice for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder in May, 1982. Villeneuve was one of those drivers who could charm or bully better performances out of a car than it wanted to give, a throwback to the legendary Tazio Nuvolari of the Thirties, a man who would press on even when he had only three wheels left on his car. Alesi bears many of Villeneuve's traits, and makes no secret of the fact that he was his hero.

When he finally won in Canada, he did so on the circuit named after Villeneuve, and there were many damp eyes as he stood on the top step of the rostrum. Back in 1992, when Prost had left Ferrari, Alesi asked if he could run the number 27 instead of his regular 28, because 27 had belonged to Villeneuve.

"Gilles was a great star and he won this race many years ago," he said in Montreal. "And to win on the Gilles Villeneuve circuit, and to win with this car, the car of Villeneuve, is something very special for me.

"I waited a lot of time to get this," he continued. "Honestly, there were times when I said to myself: 'I don't know what I did to God'. Finally, I won, so maybe now my life will be easier." An emotional man, he admitted that his biggest problem in the race was seeing where he was going once he realised he was leading and the tears started to flow.

Typically, in his elation at winning, he almost stepped out of the car while it was still rolling during the slowing-down lap in his anxiety to salute his faithful fans. His brother said recently that Jean would not permit any books about himself, nor the formation of a fan club, despite many requests, until he had won his first race. Without that triumph, he felt he was letting his fans down. On 11 June 1995, his 31st birthday, as he seduced a fickle mistress, he finally delivered.

On track, and in testing, Alesi is driving better than ever. Now that he can relax slightly after finally finding the right way to court Lady Luck, he is perfectly poised to launch himself into a series of victories like Nigel Mansell before him. A fighter and a racer in the never-say-die mould, he is the sort of character that enlivens any era. Gilles would surely have approved.