Breakout years can define a top-level driver’s career and can shake up an entire generation, come along only rarely. In 2014 Daniel Ricciardo had that kind of season and last year the young Max Verstappen impressed us. But a quarter of a century ago, with legendary talent spotters Eddie Jordan and Ken Tyrrell behind him, Jean Alesi became the hottest prospect on the Grand Prix grid.
Alesi’s amazing 1989 story really began in Macau at the end of ’88. He was trying to salvage his career after a woeful FIA Formula 3000 debut season with ORECA, where he scored one podium (in Pau). The season ended with a dispute between him and his miffed race engineer who suggested that whoever worked with Alesi in the future would require a psychology degree.
Jean Alesi had pulverised the French Formula 3 opposition with ORECA in 1987, himself admitted that ‘88 was a very bad moment. And Macau was going very well until he got a puncture. From leading the race he ended up finishing 11th on three wheels.
Fortunately, Eddie Jordan was there and was pretty impressed with what he had done, so he went to his brother Jose, who was also Jean’s manager, and asked if Jean was free for next year. The history books tell us that Jean Alesi tied on points for the 1989 FIA F3000 title with Erik Comas. In reality, it was only because of Comas’s win in the season finale at Dijon that he equalled the tally of the absent Alesi, who was contesting the Japanese Grand Prix at the time and whose three victories for Eddie Jordan Racing meant he couldn’t be surpassed.
In a scenario that’s unlikely to happen today, Alesi made his F1 debut at the drop of a hat – or, at least, after an argument about cigarette sponsorship. Erstwhile incumbent Michele Alboreto fell out with Ken Tyrrell on the eve of the French Grand Prix because his personal Marlboro sponsorship clashed with Uncle Ken’s new Camel deal. Despite an excellent third place in Mexico earlier that season, proving the Tyrrell 018’s huge potential, Alboreto walked out. Having already placed Martin Donnelly with Arrows for this race, replacing the injured Derek Warwick, Jordan was required to turn F1 super-sub wheeler-dealer again…
Alesi was testing the Formula 3000 car at Monza. There were no mobile phones in those days, and he got a message from Eddie: ‘Hurry up, you need to be at the Tyrrell factory today.’
So he jumped in his road car and drove from Monza to Avignon. He picked up his brother and the next day, the Wednesday, in the Tyrrell factory, signed the deal. So the one-off race contract was signed with Tyrrell (with Jordan present) that day, and just 24 hours later Alesi would be making his F1 race-weekend debut, having never sat in an F1 car before making his seat.
He was too shy to ask for any alterations from Alboreto’s set-up, but there were more embarrassments to come…
On the race weekend Eddie bet with Ken that he would finish higher than team-mate, Jonathan Palmer right in front of Jonathan.
So the man whose helmet is a tribute to Elio de Angelis would make his F1 debut at the circuit that claimed his childhood hero’s life. His first task was a series of short, five-lap runs to learn the car. But when he did a 10-lap run, he realised Alboreto’s seat gave him severe back pains, which led to adjustments that made him feel perfect for his grand prix debut. Before qualifying, Migeot warned Alesi to beware that some drivers won’t qualify for the race, and that if he was one of them, not to worry about his future chances with the team. So Alesi went out on the afternoon and set the seventh-fastest lap, and everybody was really happy. Traffic in Saturday’s second qualifying demoted him to 16th for his first F1 start, but it kept him out of the firing line for the huge crash at the first corner, where Mauricio Gugelmin famously flew through the air, causing chaos and a red flag. After a small repair was made to a steering-wheel bracket, which had been damaged in his evasive action through the debris field, Alesi made one of the most dramatic F1 debuts of all time.
He concentrated lap by lap, not making any mistakes, and was very careful to use the tyres in the best way possible. He ran a long first stint and was able to run second to Alain Prost’s McLaren. Everything went well, and he finished P4 in his first Grand Prix with zero testing. The way it all happened was great.
Suddenly Alesi went from an unknown, who’d walked into the paddock quite unrecognised on Thursday, to a national hero and future F1 star. “The garage was full of journalists when I got back, so many people, and I understood at this moment that I had arrived in motorsport. I enjoyed the moment”, a nostalgic Alesi summed up his debut in an interview many years later.
Alesi couldn’t celebrate too much because the British Grand Prix was only seven days away. There was also another small hitch… He had no contract and Eddie was pushing for one. Eddie finally got him a contract with Ken to finish the championship and a full season for the following year.
His British Grand Prix ended with a crash trying to take Club Corner flat-out while lining up Philippe Alliot for a pass, but points finishes followed at Monza and Jerez. He finished ninth in the points in 1989, despite starting only eight races, and missing the Belgian and Portuguese GPs to finish his F3000 campaign.
As if an FIA F3000 campaign (plus selected All-Japan F3000 races) and eight Grands Prix weren’t enough, Jean Alesi also contested his first Le Mans 24 Hours and a round of the IMSA GT series in the US in 1989. Alesi drove a Team Schuppan-run Porsche 962 at Le Mans, sharing with British ace Will Hoy and IndyCar racer Dominic Dobson. But it did not turn out to be a good memory. The car on the long straights, with such high speed, was very difficult to control and he never got any good feeling with the car. Alesi’s car would retire dramatically with a turbo fire on Saturday evening with Dobson at the wheel. All the Porsches had this defect, and caught fire one by one.
A machine that Jean Alesi preferred was the Ferrari France-entered F40 he drove in IMSA at Laguna Seca. He led for six laps against the all-conquering Audis of Hurley Haywood and Hans Joachim Stuck. But tyre trouble hampered his efforts in the three-litre, twin-turbo machine in the one-hour race. “I loved driving it; it was all wheelspin and oversteer – just my style!” exclaimed the French after the race.
Williams was going up, getting stronger at exactly the same time that he was. In his head, everything was set: he had 1990 at Tyrrell and then was a Williams driver from ’91. He signed the contract with Williams for three years. The announcement was supposed to come at Paul Ricard, in July 1990. And after this, if the announcement was not made, it reverted to being an option until September.
It will be one of grand prix racing’s great unknowns. Had Williams confirmed Jean Alesi as its driver for 1991, instead of him joining Alain Prost at Ferrari, might he have become world champion in ’92 instead of Nigel Mansell?
Williams didn’t do the announcement there, so he pushed them for Silverstone because Ferrari was by now pushing very hard for him. He said to Frank Williams, ‘If you don’t announce my drive at Silverstone then I will sign for Ferrari.’
But the announcement never came.
Frank wanted to wait, to see if he could get Ayrton Senna. He and his brother talked together with Frank, and it’s a long story, but everything would have been perfect if he’d driven for them. It’s easy now to say what might have happened and will forever remain a good old Formula One ‘What if’ story.