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The Cult – Jean Alesi

Jean Alesi was a Formula One driver for more than a decade, winning a grand prix and taking 32 podiums. Yet, by the high standards he set, this must be classed a failure.
Illustration by Dan Evans

Our latest addition to The Cult is a grand prix driver who promised much but never truly achieved his potential. You can (in fact you must) read our previous entries here.

Cult Grade: The Qualified Failure

When an out-of-their-depth driver crashes, it is often said that they have run out of talent. This is just a polite way of saying that they never had any to begin with. Talent – at least by my definition – suggests a level of ability considerably above the norm, and by this meaning plenty of drivers have made it to Formula One without possessing any real talent. Motorsport is weird like that: you can basically buy your way right to the top, through karting and F3 and on to GP3 and GP2, and then you're an F1 driver. Not a very good one, but you get to wear the team gear and add it to your Twitter bio.

When it all goes wrong for these drivers – when they inevitably run out of talent in a rain-soaked FP1 at Spa and find themselves beached in the gravel wandering what the point is – I would not say they have failed. Sakon Yamamoto had no discernible talent, so his utterly underwhelming F1 career came up about even. The same goes for Giovanni Lavaggi, Taki Inoue, Jean-Denis Delatraz, and plenty more names you'll have read in 'worst driver' listicles. None of them failed, because the bar was set very low from the outset. Not hurting themselves or anyone else on a weekly basis must count as a qualified success.


You know who did fail? Jean Alesi. Odd that, because all of the guys named above would have killed for his career: the French-Sicilian spent more than a decade in F1 and was always hired on talent, scoring 32 podiums and one grand prix win. He drove for Ferrari, stood on the rostrum at Monza in the red of the Scuderia, and won in front of the Canadian tifosi at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.

READ MORE: The Cult – Juan Pablo Montoya

There is currently a crop of young drivers forking out literally millions per season in the hope of emulating this. And if they managed Alesi-grade stats, those drivers (and their wealthy fathers) would probably consider it money well spent.

And yet for Jean, one win was a failure. For a man who announced himself by making Ayrton Senna sweat, taking it to the McLaren while Jean piloted a humble Tyrrell over the bumps of Phoenix, anything but success of the highest order was going to be classed a qualified failure.

I don't want to exaggerate Alesi's talent – he was not exceptional in the way of a Schumacher, Senna, or Hamilton. But he undeniably possessed talent, an ability to drive racing cars that went well above the norm. His gift was innate and unique, something money could never buy. That is why he was French F3 champion in 1987, Formula 3000 champion in '89, a brilliant fourth on his F1 debut that same year, and a superstar in the early races of 1990.

That's a hell of a lot of fanfare to enter the upper echelons with, and it suggested more than a single win and zero appearances in the top three of the world championship. Put simply, it set the bar very high. And although there were great moments, the decade that followed simply didn't live up to those expectations.


Point of Entry: Low (adjusted for ability)

Alesi's showings in the first few races of 1990 marked him out. The season-opener in downtown Phoenix was maybe his greatest drive in grand prix machinery. Piloting the nimble Tyrrell 018, a car designed by the great Harvey Poselthwaite, Alesi stole the show between the barriers.

From fourth on the grid he made a perfect start, ducked through a few gaps, and had the lead into turn one. Though he was eventually caught and passed by Ayrton Senna in the McLaren, Alesi returned fire, taking the great Brazilian by surprise and seizing the lead back. Senna eventually grabbed P1 for good, but it is for this fightback that Alesi's showing in Phoenix is really lauded.

Later in the season he was second at Monaco, again to Senna. Jean was now being talked about as the natural successor to the Brazilian, and to fellow Frenchman Alain Prost. Jean would soon join his countryman at Ferrari.

It is often reported that Alesi was offered a Williams drive for 1991. Within a year the British team had developed the fastest car on the grid by some margin. Had he made that move, he'd have almost certainly won a world title; less talented drivers than Jean did so in the Renault-powered cars.

READ MORE: The Cult – Gerhard Berger

But Jean could never have gone to Williams. It was no more a possibility than him deciding to relocate to the moon. Alesi – a man who felt the tug of his heartstrings, passionate and susceptible to nostalgia – could only ever go to Ferrari. Here he joined a far more pragmatic Frenchman in Prost; it is telling that Alain had been fired (perhaps by his own design) by the season's end, and was soon driving that dominant Williams.


There could be no easy options for Alesi. Instead, toil and suffering in the intense heat of nineties-era Scuderia Ferrari, in those dark years following Enzo's death when a uniquely Italian flavour of politics threatened to drag the team under. 1991 and '92 saw unreliable and underwhelming cars, while neither the '94 nor '95 efforts were world-beaters. He was able to take several podiums and a pair of fifth-place finishes in the world championship, but the man who wrestled with Senna in '90 should have been king of the world by this point.

In total he drove for Ferrari for five years, finally taking that elusive win at Canada's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. It was an appropriate venue: they love the red cars in Montreal, so Monza and Imola aside he probably couldn't have picked a better place to do it. His car ran out of fuel on the way back to the pits, so Alesi hitched a ride with Michael Schumacher. The German, it had already become clear, was the true heir to Senna's throne.

Jean was moved aside for Michael in 1996, sent packing to replace the German at Benetton. His two years there actually yielded his best world championship finishes, a pair of fourth-places, but the team were soon on the hunt for young blood.

And then the decline: two years at Sauber brought a few strong results, before he left to join his old teammate Prost's fledgling team. French outfit, French engine, French driver. It was an unmitigated disaster, the 2000 car so bad that Jean didn't score a single point. In 2001 he departed mid-season to re-join his old Formula 3000 boss Eddie Jordan, and though there were a few flashes it was never likely to last into 2002.


At his final race, Alesi was chasing a young Kimi Raikkonen when the Finn suffered a suspension failure. There was nowhere to go; Jean ploughed into the spinning Sauber, eliminating both from the grand prix. The game was up. But Jean had not run out of talent: he was simply out of time.

The Moment: Running on empty, Australia 1997

Passing Senna for the lead at Phoenix? The Canada win? Or does the 1997 Australian Grand Prix – where Alesi inexplicably ran out of fuel – better sum up his F1 career?

I'm still not entirely sure how this happened. For several laps, his Benetton team desperately tried to get their man into the pits to refuel but, for reasons unknown, he ignored them. On lap 35 he ran dry and retired from the race. Nothing does this justice quite like Murray Walker's commentary at the time: "Oh, Jean, you may well look a bit worried. You've got a major problem, sunshine."

Given that he had to trudge back to a furious team boss in Flavio Briatore, Murray was probably spot on there.

Closing Statements

"I was quite excited, but I was sure I wouldn't win the race. I am a realist." –– Jean Alesi

Words: @jim_weeks / Illustration: @Dan_Draws