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Old 27th November 2011, 18:43   #1
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Default Alesi and Ferrari's dark era

Alesi during Ferrari’s dark era – he was not the dark horse, the prancing horse was :

I have been compelled to write this long over-due memoir after sharing the disappointment of Alesi, and Tifosi week after week and year after year, with the light at the end of the tunnel seemingly close, yet never to be seen – Even as I write this, I feel certain emotions come to life that have remained dormant for a while! – After all, I did belong to the “last of Alesi believers” group throughout his career at Ferrari.

Monza - La Pista Magica, 1994, with caffeine and a liberal dose of anxiety and hope, I fixate my eyes on a small TV screen with my heart rate hovering around Zone 2. The entire F1 community is still mourning the loss of Senna (and Ratzenberger.) With a heavy heart, the field lines up after the formation lap with the two scarlet Ferrari 412 T1s, #27 piloted by Jean Alesi and #28 piloted by Gerhard Berger slot into the front row. Alesi’s first career pole and he had been strong all weekend. They have a saying in Monza that the Tifosi spirit can bring down the lap times by upto half a second if you are a Ferrari driver. For me, nothing short of a victory will do - a sentiment likely to be shared by Tifosi and Alesi fans world-over.

Alesi makes a clean start and gets away with Berger in tow and seconds later there is a first corner pile-up that Berger barely escapes caused by a fast starting Irvine who hits Herbert’s Lotus. Red flag shown as the Ferrari duo exit Parabolica and they head back into the pit-lane. I do not like it one bit. Restart, and to my relief, Alesi makes another good start and rockets away setting fastest laps at a pace that no one else seems to be able to match. Every lap was thoroughly enjoyed and I was even imagining Tifosi frenzy during the cool-down lap and the ensuing podium ceremony and the press conference where Alesi dedicates his victory to the late Ayrton Senna. I should have known better – you will understand why after reading through the memoir in its entirety. 15 laps into the race, Alesi pits with a good lead over his teammate. His crew does the job and as he tries to exit his box, the V-12 screams at stratospheric RPMs with my heart rate now at Zone 3 – something’s amiss. The mechanics desperately try to push the rear to get him on his way - absolute drama - all in vain. Moments later, Alesi tosses the steering wheel, gets out of the car fuming while Jean Todt tries to console him. We would learn later that Alesi headed straight home in his F40? – continuing the race that was to be. Could Alesi’s Ferrari have been good only for one race start? – So I pondered with no further interest in the race. It was not uncommon to design and build components that will only last through the absolute minimum – Colin Chapman took it to the extreme but he was not a part of this episode.

I am believer in momentum in its broadest sense. You win a race at Monza in a Ferrari during a period of tragedy and draught – it could bolster the much needed motivation for the entire team. But Alesi was up against an uncompetitive car which was also unreliable – in boxer’s lingo, a formidable 1-2 combination. Exceptional talent and luck can overcome the former. He may have used #27 during most of his Ferrari years; an iconic number inherited from the great Gilles Villeneuve who was known to go “over the limit” and was somewhat merciless on machinery, but Alesi did not inherit this particular trait.

The French Sicilian from Avignon could have never imagined what would transpire during his tenure at the fabled Scuderia. If you trace the lineage of the machines that let him down, you can see that Prost and Mansell had their share of success with the 640 and 641. (Berger had managed 3 wins in 87 and 88 but that was during Turbo charged era and irrelevant.) 1989 saw the debut of the V12 powered 640. Despite record breaking DNFs caused by gearbox failures, the car showed potential with Mansell winning the season opener in Brazil. It is during this time, that the designer genius John Barnard pioneered the semi-automatic gear box [with paddle shifting.] Such was his reputation that he could dictate the terms of employment with the Scuderia.1990 would see Prost contending for the title with the 641 before his infamous get-together with his archrival Senna. The 640 series in my opinion is still the best looking and best sounding F1 cars ever to hit the tracks. This is during an era when McLaren had the handsome MP4 on the grid. The song of two 3.5L V-12s at WOT in Monza, must have been intoxicating – with the sound just hanging in the forest. Well, so much for romance, but beauty and melody do not win championships. In 1991, Ferrari surely looked to have a strong base to start with, albeit without John Barnard. The onus of wrestling the constructor’s title back to Scuderia was now in the capable hands of American, Steve Nichols, a highly successful former McLaren designer. Interestingly, McLaren-Honda would move to V12 in 1991

Ferrari debut for Alesi was to be a fairy-tale beginning. He would replace Mansell who would go to Williams – what timing! Great hopes were pinned on a young Alesi who had made quite an impression in 1990 driving a Tyrrell. His bare-knuckle duel with Senna in Phoenix and his sensational drive at Monaco had impressed the Tifosi. The beginning of the journey started to a take a dramatically different course - the proverbial “there are no guarantees in life” begins to unfold.

The Alesi-Prost French duo would commence the 1991 season with the 642, a reworked successor of 641. Prost opens the season strong with a 2nd place and even running upfront. Alesi would have to wait till Monaco where he secures a podium. However, retirements continue to mount without a single victory. Mid-season, the team decides to introduce the 643 which fails miserably and cracks begin to show within the team. Prost goes public with his accusations of how bad the car is. Ferrari in-turn fires him. Prost sues Ferrari and the team finds itself in complete disarray. Without the power and command of Enzo Ferrari, the team was acephalous.

What a debut year for Alesi. He was an emotional driver who drove with his heart and was mentally fragile and he could not have chosen a more inopportune moment to be a part of the stable.

The saga resumes in 1992 with Italian Ivan Capelli taking over Prost’s seat. This rather strange choice only shows the state of the stable. To their defense, it was hard to come up with a list of qualified drivers who would have accepted the vacated frying pan. Capelli being Italian was received well by the Tifosi. Apparently, the announcement had such a profound effect on his popularity that he was being congratulated and being treated like a hero when he was fueling his car at night only hours after signing his contract. A privilege enjoyed by Mansell when his contract was announced at the end of 1988 season, when you could see Tifosi cheering for him when he was still with Williams. Talk about passion.

The duo would start their season in an uncompetitive and unreliable F92. Magny Cours would set the stage for Alesi to demonstrate his incredible car control in treacherous conditions while on slicks. He would score a DNF with an engine failure but makes a solid impression. Spain would produce a master-class drive - after an early spin caused by Berger, Alesi mounts a charge in the wet, finishing 3rd after pursuing Senna who would spin off with only 2 laps to go – alas for Alesi there were not enough laps to pass Schumacher. However, mechanical issues continue to plague the team while the superiority of the Williams-Renault combination has started to establish a threatening pattern.

1993 would see the former Ferrari ace and nemesis Prost sign with Williams after a year break with Gerhard Berger joining the Scuderia. I recall reading an article in an F1 magazine that touted Berger’s arrival with some hope. While Berger was experienced and was family to Ferrari, he was by no means an ace. On a positive note, John Barnard rejoined the team working from his newly opened Ferrari F1 design center in England. This is rather a blasphemy for a team that prefers R&D to be close to their HQ in Maranello.

The F93A is neither fast nor reliable – in addition to engine failures, suspension failures creep in. Alesi wraps up yet another year with a podium in Monaco and 2nd place in Monza. In Monza, during the post qualifying cool down lap, he weaved across the track while waving to the crowd having given a solid fight for pole and Berger who was behind him had to take evasive action that resulted in him getting off and crashing somewhat unceremoniously – Alesi did have brain fade on occasions. The pivotal moment has to be Portugal where Alesi made a blinding start and actually led for 20 laps keeping cars much faster at bay. He would eventually finish 4th.

1994 dawns the 412T1 with pioneering aerodynamic enhancements by Gustav Brunner. With the re-fuelling ban lifter for the first time in 10 years, it was expected to help the competitiveness of the thirsty V12. The winless draught for Ferrari would end in Hockenheim although in the hands of Berger. You can literally see Alesi’s disappointment as he tries to celebrate the victory from across the pit-box as the #28 shrieks past the start finish. The team is elated but Alesi must have been pondering the outcome had his car not let him down yet again. Berger had pole and fended off a hard charging Schumacher until he retired with a mechanical. Ironically, it is Berger who would get a second chance in the season finale after Schumacher and Hill come together and finds himself leading his old rival Mansell who had taken a hiatus – translation: driving in the IndyCar series for Newman-Haas team alongside Mario Andretti. It was a battle of the veterans – Mansell had qualified on pole on his return and looked to be quicker. By the way, the venue was not the boring Albert Park but the street circuit of Adelaide. Closing stages, Berger makes a costly error running over kerbs that throws the car completely off the racing line and Mansell goes through without looking back. Berger finishes second.

1995 starts promising for Alesi and the Ferrari team. Alesi starts strong and scores 2 second place finishes in Argentina and San Marino. Ferrari would even temporarily lead the constructor’s championship after a few races.

Come Monaco, expectations are high. Alesi starts the weekend with a bang setting the fastest times on Thursday wringing the 412T2’s neck for what its worth. You should watch Alesi at full tilt in the Ferrari as he wrestles the car with his head tilted over, it is quite a spectacle. His team-mate Berger’s effort was equally commendable at the Principality where you can see him power slide the car. The V12’s Achilles Heel was its inability to squirt out of tight-slow corners– which is a hallmark of the Principality. Qualifying would bring yet another blow with Alesi’s car loosing hydraulic pressure before he gets a chance to throw down the gauntlet. Trying to salvage a good position using his team-mates’ chassis comes down to a single flying lap that falls short of his best time set on Thursday which is good enough for a 5th place on the grid. Winning in Monaco requires a strong qualifying accompanied by a good start. If you are not up front, the chances of winning are slim to none. You are better off not looking at the statistics if you are not at the front and want to win. (Olivier Panis’ victory at Monaco in 1996 was indeed under exceptional circumstances – with only 4 cars finishing the race – Alesi having the fastest Lap again albeit in the Benetton-Renault

Well into the race, Alesi finds himself in a strong second pursuing Schumacher with a chance to fight for the lead. He sets the fastest lap of the race that would stand. Disaster strikes as he exits the tunnel and collides with Brundle’s stricken Ligier. He is lifted and carried across the fence by course marshals - race over.

Montreal 2005, Alesi would turn 31 on race day. Racing with the #27 at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in a Ferrari – Alesi was set to capture the hearts of the Canadians. I so much wish I had been there for this event instead of the 1996 event. A top 3 finish would be considered a good result given the Ferraris never really showed the pace needed to run upfront. 11 laps to go, Schumacher looks set to win over Alesi who was clearly the second best on race day. Suddenly, the Renault motor in Schumacher’s car experiences a glitch and refuses to get out of 3rd gear and he is forced to pit - Alesi inherits the lead and tears of joy splatter his windshield every time he brakes. He manages to hold it together and cross the start-finish in first place for the first time in 92 attempts. Premature track invasion ensues while Alesi runs out fuel and has to get a ride back on Schumacher’s car. Everyone on the pit wall cherish the moment. Is there more to come? I definitely thought so.

1995 marked the return of Nurburgring after a decade. The race started off in damp to drying condition and Alesi started his race on slicks and would move up into the lead after the front runners pit for slicks. Well into the race, his pace looks strong despite the fact that he has Schumacher in his hot pursuit closing in rapidly. But Alesi had enough fuel to last the race while Schumacher had to dive into the pits on lap 52 of 67. But did Alesi have the tires to finish ahead? Schumacher starts to turn laps that should have caught Alesi’s attention. He gets hampered by traffic and start to get frustrated even running over gravel losing valuable seconds. Schumacher starts to eat up his lead and is the Ferrari’s tail on lap 65. After a brief tussle, Alesi has to relinquish the lead. On this day, I don’t feel Alesi had the pace even if he were on fresh rubber. Of course this is not the only time Schumacher has demonstrated his ability to run that much quicker allowing his team to have a flexible pit-stop strategy.

When Schumacher signed with Ferrari, there were banners that said 1 Alesi – 100 Schumachers. This shows the Tifosi support that Alesi enjoyed. Alesi was not known for his ability to develop a car which involves hours and hours of deliberate testing that is an integral part of development. Alesi moves to Benetton and the main threat to the Williams team is expected to come from the Benetton duo. But the Benetton team is devoid of some key people that were a part of Schumacher’s team – including the man himself. James Allen talked to Alesi in Manhattan where he was vacationing after the conclusion of 1995 season. Alesi sounded confident and upbeat to be moving to a world championship winning team. His results at Benetton unfortunately would not silence naysayers.

I will stop here. Will upload some pics later.


Last edited by ksanjee : 27th November 2011 at 19:00. Reason: copying from MS Word..a nightmare..
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Old 28th November 2011, 20:28   #2
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Default Re: Alesi and Ferrari's dark era

A couple of snaps that I took in 1992 at the Mecca - Maranello

The banner was pretty cool - Alesi top left

others - Alboreto, Johansson, Regazzoni, Lauda, Prost, Badoer, Mario...
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Old 28th November 2011, 20:56   #3
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Default Re: Alesi and Ferrari's dark era

I know one liners aren't allowed but great write up, your passion clearly shows through
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Old 29th November 2011, 11:39   #4
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Default Re: Alesi and Ferrari's dark era

Great stuff! Feel free to write more.

Sorry mods but this needed more than a click on the "thanks" button.
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Old 29th November 2011, 18:58   #5
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Default Re: Alesi and Ferrari's dark era

Thanks folks.

This thread will be remiss without this picture: Not taken by me.

The car sold circa 2009 for 350kE - a bargain IMHO given it's history: the very car [641/2 Chassis 121] that was involved in the Suzuka incident! - fully restored by the factory [I assume - who else can touch these fine beauties]

[Source: Tom Wood/RM Auctions]
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Last edited by ksanjee : 29th November 2011 at 18:59.
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