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Geared-up Alesi on red alert

Richard Williams at Imola meets the Ferrari driver eager to rise to the challenge
DURING his schooldays in Avignon, his classmates called him "Jean Spaghetti". He was proud of his Sicilian blood, and he hated the taunts. Many years later, the sting of the memory could still bring a flush to his cheeks.

Jean Alesi is an emotional chap. Which is one of the reasons why he is so greatly loved in Italy, despite being arguably the least successful Ferrari driver in history. And after four years, 64 grand prix races and no wins, he hasn't given up hope.

"He thinks that getting paid for driving a Ferrari is ridiculous," Ken Tyrrell, one of Alesi's early champions in Formula One, said at Imola this weekend. "In almost every practice session at a grand prix meeting, one of the first cars out on the track will be Alesi's. He wants to get out there and get stuck into it. And whenever he gets into that car, to him it's like Christmas Day."

The fans' enthusiasm is as boundless as his own. Last Thursday, Alesi and the red Ferrari headed the timing sheets after both unofficial practice sessions, arranged to allow the drivers to familiarise themselves with the new lay-out of the circuit. Imola is Ferrari's home track, and there were already pockets of banner-waving fans in the stands as the cars ventured out in mid-morning. They cheered Alesi even as, true to form, he waited at the head of the queue for the circuit to open, making the engine scream with his impatience. And at the end of the day, as he saluted them on his slowing-down lap, you'd have thought it was Sunday night and he'd won the grand prix itself.

If he does win today, finally putting an end to the drought that has blighted the career of a universally popular driver, the pretty little town of Imola will witness its biggest party since liberation from the nazifascisti 50 years ago this month. But then it sometimes seems almost as long as that since Ferrari's army of fans had anything much to cheer about. For a team that holds (jointly with McLaren) the record of 104 grand prix victories, the years since a red car last carried a driver to the world championship - Jody Scheckter in 1979 - have been an apparently endless purgatory. Gerhard Berger's single grand prix win in 1994, their first since 1990, was a meagre consolation for a team that, however unreasonably, is expected to be the class of the field.

The pressure on Ferrari's drivers is immense, and the list of distinguished men who have left the team in acrimony probably exceeds the roll of those who have departed with honour untarnished. Which might make Alesi's survival a surprise, were it not for the fact that he is the kind of racing driver most of us dream of being.

Watching him throw the Ferrari around the hills of Emilia Romagna over the last few days, you couldn't miss the sense of sheer enjoyment as the pretty red car twitched and slid on the slippery tarmac ribbon. Brave, modest, approachable, aware of his good luck yet cognisant of a responsibility to his intuitive talent, Alesi doesn't mind letting us see that he enjoys his job. Now, however, he would like the statistics to back it up.

When he arrived in grand prix racing in 1989 with the under-financed Tyrrell outfit, the 25-year-old Alesi managed two second places, both behind Ayrton Senna. The result was a deluge of offers from other teams, notably Williams and Ferrari. Yet when he joined the Italians, several good judges voiced the suspicion that he had made the wrong choice.

At Imola four years ago, when Alesi was already looking bewildered by the attention during his first appearance for Ferrari on home ground, Ken Tyrrell told me that he feared the pressure would hinder Alesi's development. Last week he was entitled to endorse his own judgement. "I think he went to Ferrari too soon," he said. "He would have been better off at that stage with a team that wasn't expected to win every race. But being an Italian at heart, even though he was born in France, he couldn't resist the red Ferrari, could he?"

In four and a bit seasons with Ferrari, Alesi has managed just three second places (the latest of them three weeks ago in Buenos Aires). He lived through the darkest days of the Piero Fusaro regime, when drivers were being sacked in mid-season - most notably Alain Prost, Alesi's first team-mate at Maranello. But in the past two years a new and more rational structure has been imposed by Luca di Montezemolo, the team manager during the Lauda era and the chief organiser of the successful 1990 World Cup. Now the tasks are shared out between a multinational cast: an English chassis designer, a Swiss aerodynamicist, a Japanese engine specialist, an Austrian guru (Lauda) and a French team manager (Jean Todt).

Of them all, Todt is probably the key to the team's improving form. "If he hadn't arrived, I think Ferrari would have been finished," offered Rene Arnoux, another Frenchman, who won three grands prix for Ferrari before leaving the team in 1985, under a cloud. "He works hard, he chooses the right people, and the best thing about him is that when he gives you a job he gives you a hundred per cent confidence to get on with it. That's good for Alesi, who can get very nervous, very excited. Todt will tell him how to drive with his head."

In between practice sessions at Imola, Todt confirmed his faith in Alesi. "He's quick, and he has a good fighting spirit," he said. "When you set yourself a target and you don't reach it, you can get depressed. But that's part of the job. And being with Ferrari - that's hardly a nightmare, is it? This is a wonderful team. He needs a good car, and let's hope we'll give him one."

Alesi is managed by his older brother, Jos, a similarly unpretentious soul who also works in their father's car body repair business just outside Avignon. "Ken Tyrrell is probably right that Jean went to Ferrari too early," he said last week, "but we signed the deal because it offered a guaranteed seat in the team, which Frank Williams's contract didn't. After two years, Jean hadn't won a race. But he decided to stay and sign a new contract because he had worked hard for the team, and he wanted to get the results he deserved."

The deal expires at the end of this season, and what happens next depends on those results. There are other possibilities, Jos Alesi said. McLaren, Benetton, maybe Williams again. "Jean is a very experienced driver now. He doesn't make mistakes, and he's very strong and confident. And it hasn't been much fun for him sometimes, to read in the papers during the winter that the team is going to replace him with Mansell or somebody. The decision will be nothing to do with money. Our objective is simply to have a contract with a serious team, putting him in a position to win races."

Most people think it would be a shame to see this distinctive talent come to fruition anywhere else. "I can win this race," Jean Alesi said at the start of this weekend's meeting, his optimism un-dimmed. And he knows that if he wins the grand prix at Imola today, Jean Spaghetti will not have to pay for a bowl of pasta in Italy as long as he lives.