Alesi writes his own script in fond farewell

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The Independent Online

As a piece of grand theatre it could not have been better. And Jean Alesi knew it as he waved happily to the crowd.

The Frenchman, a veteran of 200 grands prix, has announced that he will hang up his helmet after tomorrow's Japanese GP (most likely he will throw it to the appreciative crowd, for he has always been one for the grand gesture), so his achievement in setting the fastest time on a circuit he loves was all the more poignant yesterday.

But before Alesi's Honda engine had cooled his team owner, Eddie Jordan, was making an impassioned plea to the sport's top teams to help it through the financial meltdown that is predicted following the terrorist attacks of 11 September.

As McLaren and BAR chiefs Ron Dennis and Craig Pollock admitted to feeling the chill wind of recession, as prospective sponsors have decided after all not to proceed with planned investment, Jordan said: "It would be preposterous of this sport to think we are immune, when everyone else is cutting budgets by 20, 30, 40, 50 per cent to make sure they can survive the tough times. And it's not just September 11th, I think it's been on the cards. I think there is immense responsibility on teams like McLaren, Williams and Ferrari to guide us through this time because the people who will suffer least will be them. But if we want to have a strong, meaningful Formula One championship for years to come, we need to make prudent steps that encompass the crisis we are about to incur."

Dennis agreed: "No one is immune to what's happening. Share prices have gone through the floor, companies look immediately to their advertising budgets and that, ultimately, trickles into motor sport. And it does trickle. We tend to be the last in and last out of any recession, and that's going to happen this time around."

For Alesi such concerns are academic. "Things cannot be better than finishing first for my last Friday," he said. "I really enjoyed the session. From first thing this morning the car felt really competitive, and then, working with my race engineer, we made even more progress. I find it so enjoyable to drive on this circuit – the track gives you so much feel. On most circuits you reach the limit of what the car can do so quickly whereas here you can keep pushing the boundaries." Alesi, the grand old man of the sport, upstaged Juan Pablo Montoya, who impressed again by learning the track very quickly and annihilating BMW Williams team-mate Ralf Schumacher, who ran on different compound tyres.

Montoya, like Alesi, bubbled with enthusiasm. "The track is brilliant, you really have to drive it," the Colombian said. "It is one of those tracks where you have got to push in every corner. It's very exciting."

Suzuka is a fast, flowing circuit with a bit of everything: A long pit straight, a series of increasingly fast ess bends that demand spot-on precision, the fast Spoon Curve and a tight hairpin, the daunting 130R right-hander that the aces take flat, and the silly chicane that ends the lap. There is even a flyover. It's one of those tracks that is increasingly rare in modern F1, a place where the real stars can draw something extra from themselves and their cars.

Montoya's performance was all the more impressive because he has never driven here before. To achieve second fastest time he therefore had to commit himself every lap and trust to his ability and confidence.

But Suzuka can also bite. Both Tomas Enge and Nick Heidfeld found that to their cost as major accidents left wreckage strewn all over the road.

Enge, still finding his feet in preparation for his third grand prix with Prost, went off at 130R in the morning when he failed to negotiate the corner. Heidfeld, going well in his Sauber-Petronas, spun in the S bends and scattered his car over a couple of corners.

There was minor drama, too, for David Coulthard, who will battle to retain his second place in the championship stakes tomorrow. As he sat in the garage, heat from his brakes ignited a strap of tape that had not fully been torn from a front brake duct on his McLaren. Later he slid off the road in the first corner.

The Scot ended his day only seventh, ahead of Michael Schumacher but behind Alesi, Montoya, Pedro de la Rosa, Mika Hakkinen, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Eddie Irvine.

* Sauber-Petronas confirmed that 20-year-old Brazilian Felipe Massa, the new Euro F3000 Series champion, will partner Nick Heidfeld as Kimi Raikkonen's replacement in 2002.