Motor Racing: Ferrari's charger on revival mission: Jean Alesi has unfulfilled talent in Formula One. Derick Allsop reports on the Frenchman with a need for speed

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The Independent Online
HE WAS just another figure - small, lean, nimble - on the white mountain above Chamonix. The challenge of the winter slopes is his idea of festive fun but also part of a serious strategy to find the ultimate satisfaction on warmer, more horizontal terrain.

Skiing, gym work and massage have been preparing Jean Alesi for what he describes as his moment 'to explode', the year when he joins the ranks of grand prix winners. He suggests he might even dispute Ayrton Senna's claims to the Formula One world championship.

That may be optimism induced by the altitude, yet clearly Alesi possesses a talent unfulfilled. His burgeoning skills and commitment produce rare spectacle and the first rewards could be at hand.

Back down at ground level, testing in the new Ferrari will provide Alesi with a more realistic gauge to his prospects for the 1994 season. The team appeared to have turned the corner in the later stages of last year and, given Jean Todt's leadership and John Barnard's technical ingenuity, ought to be back in the business of competing for victories.

For Alesi, that scenario is overdue. If Formula One needs a successful Ferrari, it can only be the healthier with the 29-year-old Frenchman cast in a starring role. The No 27 on his scarlet car is not the only evocative link with the legendary Gilles Villeneuve; such speed, courage and style are bound to stir the emotions of the faithful.

And there is more than that to Alesi. He is disarmingly straight, polite and humble in manner, yet strident in his opinions. He abhors and shuns politics and foul play. Ayrton Senna is not one of his favourite people.

With a Sicilian family background, it is hardly surprising he is prone to the occasional, volatile outburst. The dust quickly settles about him to reveal an uncomplicated, purist racer.

The racer of exceptional ability first became apparent in unexceptional circumstances, driving karts. He advanced to Formula Three and was the French champion in 1987. Two years later, he won the International Formula 3000 championship, taking victory at, among other events, the Birmingham Super Prix.

His rapid progress caught the attention of Formula One and Ken Tyrrell, that old master of snapping up the young and gifted, gave Alesi his debut in the 1989 French Grand Prix at Le Castellet. He finished fourth, behind Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese. From just six races he accumulated eight points and came ninth in the championship.

In the opening race of 1990, the United States Grand Prix at Phoenix, he had the audacity, as well as the craft, to take on Senna. The Brazilian and his McLaren-Honda eventually proved too strong, but Alesi had made his mark and we waited for more.

Frustratingly, there has been too little. He was second, again behind Senna, at Monaco that season and a move to a 'leading' team became inevitable. He almost went to Williams, only for that deal to break down. Instead, Mansell joined the Didcot organisation and Alesi replaced him at Ferrari. Fate had dealt the cards. Within two seasons Mansell was world champion; three years on, Alesi continues to seek a race win. It is the worst spell in Ferrari's history.

That plight has, at least, served to test Alesi's character and few would deny he has passed with distinction. The in-car camera enabled us to appreciate - even marvel at - his tenacity and control during qualifying for last season's Monaco Grand Prix. His wheel-to-wheel confrontation with Senna on the opening lap in Canada gave us an abiding image of the year. And at Monza he rose above the expectations of the home crowd, enthralling them through practice and delivering second place in the race.

After 71 grands prix, a maiden success still eludes him. Mansell made that breakthrough at the 72nd attempt. Alesi says he anticipates being in contention from the first round of the 1994 championship, in Brazil, on 27 March.

'The programme and the intention is to have a competitive car for the whole season,' he said. 'It is normal for a new car to have a few problems initially, but we are convinced we can make the podium and score lots of points from the start. We want to be winning by the half-way stage of the season or even before.

'The car looks good, the team has been restructured and I believe Gerhard Berger and I form the best driver combination in the championship. Yes, stronger than Senna and (Damon) Hill. We are aiming for the constructors' championship and I personally intend to compete with Senna for the drivers' title.

'I have been training hard and skiing to make sure I am in the best possible shape for the new season. I am sure I am coming into the position to explode.'

(Photograph omitted)