Alesi's passion for racing the prancing horse

The marriage between flamboyant French driver and tempestuous Italian team was not expected to last. But the magic is still there, says Derick Allsop
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The Independent Online
There is a theory that only the strong, cold, emotionally detached driver has a hope of fulfilling himself at Ferrari. A driver like Niki Lauda, for instance. The allure of the scarlet beauty, it is said, will destroy the passionately inclined and the romantically vulnerable. A driver like Jean Alesi, for instance?

Many have doubted Alesi's prospects of finding true happiness in the bosom of the eternal temptress. They may still do, despite his maiden Formula One victory, in Canada, earlier this month. Brilliant talent, spectacular style, a spirit worthy of the venerated No27; but a volatile temperament, fragile powers of concentration, his Sicilian stock as conspicuous as his commitment.

Into his fifth season with Ferrari, the pressure was deemed to be taking its toll. The first win still eluded him; he fell out with his team-mate, Gerhard Berger; he went way over the top in castigating a rival, Martin Brundle; the temptress was believed to be coveting Michael Schumacher. His only chance of salvation, it was suggested, lay with a British team.

Alesi has heard it all and dismissed it all. He remains adamant, as he builds up to this weekend's "home" grand prix at Magny-Cours, that Ferrari is his rightful home, that he will not be evicted, that his mission is to return the world championship to Maranello.

Take him away from the tearful pandemonium of that win in Montreal - on his 31st birthday and in his 91st grand prix - and the celebrations in his home town of Avignon, and he presents an entirely different persona: calm, analytical, pragmatic, even philosophical. He likes to stress he has Italian blood, yet his French accent is distinct in English or Italian, and on Sunday he will be accorded the welcome of a national hero.

"Honestly, I had no problems in my mind waiting for a win," Alesi said, brought back down to earth here by the drudgery of testing. "There was no point thinking about the other years because it was not so easy to win with the cars I was driving in the past.

"Now it's fantastic because I have a car that gives me a chance on all the circuits. Before I had two or three opportunities. But, for example, last year, at Spa, after three laps my engine exploded, at Monza, a gearbox problem, at Hockenheim, just one corner."

Therefore did he not fear he was cursed, that he was destined to be unlucky? His response reveals another feature of that sensitive nature, confounding the spoilt, wild-child caricature. "Unlucky people are not in my situation. Unlucky people are the people who are working day and night, they have just enough money to live and they have also health problems. I am not unlucky."

Then perhaps he will discover, as other drivers have, that subsequent victories come more easily. "I don't know, I have not been in this position before," he said, breaking into a boyish grin. "I have heard people say this, but the problem is to get everything right and I think everything is coming together for me now, especially on the technical side.

"I have a big experience in everything now. OK, in some moments you can make a mistake, but I feel very confident in what I am doing, of what I am changing on the car. That is experience, it is not instinct. It is nothing to do with being quick or not quick.

"The team is now well organised and very professional. We improve a lot of small things, every race, and we have good results everywhere and everybody has a big motivation. Ferrari is ready to be at the top again.

"The first race was more or less like last year, not very good, a big panic. But we said: 'OK, we don't know anything about the car'. After Brazil we started to grow and now we can fight all the time."

That growth has given Ferrari the lead in the constructors' championship and Alesi third place in the drivers' standings, behind Schumacher and Damon Hill. It has also, along with seemingly boundless resources, fed the rumours linking Schumacher's name with Ferrari, so threatening the position of Alesi or Berger.

Alesi said: "You know, to be serious, we can speak just about Schumacher because he is the world champion and I think everybody would like to have him. But he is not a problem, honestly, for me, because I know how much I can do for the team. They know how much I can give, so I'm not in a position where somebody can take my seat. I have no problem."

Does he not, though, have a problem with Berger? "We have been together two and a half years and had just one problem, in Monte Carlo. Maybe I blocked him, as he says, and I am sorry, but I never wanted to do that, especially to him. I know how much the Italian press will destroy the team, to create war between us. We talked together about this and it's finished. A problem can waste three hours' work. We are able to solve these problems."

Alesi almost went to Williams rather than Ferrari after his Formula One initiation with Tyrrell and there is a widely held belief that would have been the better move for him - and might still be. "It is not as simple as that," he said. "You have so many examples. The best one, I think, is Senna. He was the greatest and when he signed for Williams everybody said the championship was done, every race, every pole position would be Senna's. But he died. So you can never plan the future, thinking about being in the position of somebody else.

"What I can say is that I am really pleased to be in a team who love me and I love this team. They help me a lot because if I am popular it is also because I am driving for Ferrari. Even in the bad moments, they talk a lot about this team.

"It's not the case with other teams, even Williams and McLaren. If they are not doing well, nobody talks about them anymore. I have had the possibility to show my capacity, even without winning, because I was with Ferrari. Of course I would like to be world champion with Ferrari. Already I have had what could be half my Formula One life with Ferrari. If I am with this team so long it is because I trust them and I want to win the championship with them."

Alesi succeeds as France's No1 driver his mentor, Alain Prost, and many contend that if he is to be that country's next champion he must moderate his expansive style and play the percentages more, as the four-times title winner did. Heaven forbid. Thankfully, Alesi forbids.

At a time when Formula One has been struggling to raise the temperature in the gallery above lukewarm, Alesi's exuberance - head cocked to one side, hands wrestling with the steering wheel, tail wagging - has warmed the soul. He bears more than a passing resemblance to the young Tony Curtis and no driver likes his racing hotter.

"You know why it was not so frustrating to be in Formula One for 90 races without a win? Because I have this big feedback from the public," he said, his blue eyes alight. "That makes me even more happy than the victory.

"Of course I wanted the victory for me, but I have had no big pressure for victories because I know how much people love my driving. I haven't thought about changing my driving style because if I have not had wins in the past it is not because I am spectacular. It is my car that has not been competitive.

"I love to get people's impressions after the race. I ask friends and other people what they think of the grand prix. You can also look at the figures for French and Italian TV. When I have to stop in the race, the figure is two points less.

"This communicating with the people is something I need. If I waved to the crowd and no one responded it would hurt me. They lift me. Not when I'm driving, but when I finish a qualifying lap or a race. I love it."

The breakthrough achieved, can he now aspire to becoming the best? "It would be easy to say: 'Yes'. But it is so difficult to show it. Just what I would like is to drive a car like I am driving now and I'm sure I can show a lot of things to people. Then it is for them to say: 'He is' or 'He is not'."