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The Driver Files: Jean Alesi

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

Next to be profiled was an enigmatic and often moody, yet spectacular Frenchman who had only one moment of glory to show for his 200+ events in the sport, Jean Alesi.

Jean Alesi celebrates his one and only win at the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix (MotorsportRetro)

NAME: Jean Alesi

TEAMS: Tyrrell (1989-1990), Ferrari (1991-1995), Benetton (1996-1997), Sauber (1998-1999), Prost (2000-2001), Jordan (2001)

POINTS: 241

GP STARTS: 201

BEST FINISH: WINNER (1) – (1995 Canadian GP)

JEAN Alesi was one of Grand Prix racing’s leading stars in the 1990s.  He was awesome in the rain, often searing fast on a flying lap and put in some spectacular performances against the odds.  Therefore, for someone who drove for Ferrari and Benetton between 1991 and 1997, it seems staggering to think that the Frenchman only ever won one Grand Prix in his entire career.  Alesi had some rotten luck and also had his off days.  Plus he was never shy to criticise anyone if he was unhappy with the setup of his car.  An emotional character who was always committed and in many’s eyes, deserved more but for some dodgy career moves.

Alesi was a rising star from an early age and was actually into rallying rather than motor racing in his early days.  He graduated through the French motorsport system which was thriving at the time and won the F3000 championship in 1989.  Tied on points with compatriot Erik Comas, Alesi’s three wins including at Pau and Birmingham were enough to give him the title as Comas could only win twice.  This followed a French Formula 3 title in 1987.

By now, Jean’s big break in Formula One had already arrived.  Ken Tyrrell gave him his debut at the 1989 French Grand Prix, replacing the experienced Italian Michele Alboreto.  He finished a stunning fourth on his debut and further points finishes at Monza and at Jerez meant despite only contesting eight races, Alesi finished in the top ten in the drivers championship.

1990 was his first full year in F1 and Alesi stayed at Tyrrell, now partnered by Satoru Nakajima.  At the season opener in Phoenix, he wrestled his car to fourth on the grid and then took the lead at the first corner.  He easily resisted the challenge of Gerhard Berger’s McLaren and then went on to have an entertaining dice with Ayrton Senna for the lead.  Senna overtook him but the Frenchman was not daunted and cheekily repassed the great Brazilian on the very next corner.  Senna eventually overwhelmed him but Alesi’s star was born with a brilliant second place.  A fine second placed finish in Monaco backed up his talent and although there were some iffy performances in the second half of the season, 13 points was enough for ninth in the championship.

Tyrrell were keen to hold onto him, especially with Honda engines coming onboard.  However Williams signed a contract with him although Alesi’s preferred destination was with Ferrari.  Nigel Mansell’s decision to leave Ferrari opened the door for Alesi to get his dream move.  He would be partnered alongside three-time world champion Alain Prost.  Surely it was a match in heaven.  However 1991 was a disaster as Ferrari entered a period of being in the doldrums.  Alesi retired nine times, often because the car let him down.  Third placed finishes in Monaco, Germany and Portugal reminded everyone of his skill but with little reward.  Prost was fired before the season’s end after describing the 1991 Ferrari as a ‘truck.’  Williams went onto dominate the 90s so had Alesi gone with his head over his heart, he could well have been a multiple champion.

Ferrari continued to struggle in 1992 and 1993 and Jean’s frustration began to show with regular mistakes creeping into the car’s abysmal reliability issues.  A fine second placed finish at Monza in 1993 was the only highlight of a dreadful two seasons.  The Ferrari 412T1 in 1994 was a marked improvement, taking Alesi to podium finishes in Brazil, Silverstone and in Japan after a thrilling dice in the rain with Mansell.  1994 also saw his maiden pole position at Monza of all places but gearbox failure in the pits whilst 12 seconds ahead of eventual race winner Damon Hill robbed him of certain victory.  The final year with the Scuderia brought more consistent results although he still could not better fifth in the drivers championship.

There were second place finishes in Argentina, San Marino and Britain and fine performances led to nothing from Japan in a trademark Alesi surge through the field, Spain with a blown V12 engine and again at Monza, as wheel bearing failure denied him another potential success on tifosi homeland.  Alesi broke down in tears after this event.  However there were no such issues at the Canadian Grand Prix.

Having qualified fifth, Alesi snatched third from his team-mate Gerhard Berger when the Williams of David Coulthard spun off on lap three.  He eased past Damon Hill and on his 31st birthday, looked set for an excellent second place finish.  For once, lady luck was shining on Alesi and dominant race leader, Michael Schumacher suffered a gear selection glitch that lost him a full minute.  Driving the famous No.27 in Montreal, the number Canadian hero Gilles Villeneuve had in his Ferrari days, Alesi took the chequered flag at his 91st attempt.  His Ferrari ran out of fuel on the slowing down lap to complete his lucky day.  However after all the bad luck in his career, no-one could deny Jean his deserving moment on the top step of the podium.

With Schumacher moving to Ferrari for 1996, Alesi and Berger moved from Ferrari to double champions Benetton.  Fourth in the championship with 46 points, Alesi’s best total for any season.  There were eight visits to the podium but no wins, although the crazy Monaco Grand Prix was his until wheel bearing problems intervened, AGAIN!  Alesi’s relationship with Flavio Briatore was always a strained one and a kamikaze attempt to take the lead from row five at the start of the 1996 Japanese Grand Prix saw him destroy his Benetton B196 on the exit of turn two.  Briatore was furious, as it allowed Ferrari in to finish second in the constructors championship and claimed that Alesi had crashed on purpose to help his former team.  From that moment on, he was damaged goods at Benetton and 1997 was not much better.  At the season opener, Alesi blatantly ignored constant pit calls to come in for fuel and ultimately grounded to a halt, out of petrol.  ITV commentator Murray Walker summed up the mood in the Benetton pit during the race, as they looked absolutely furious at Alesi’s refusal to come into the pits.  He said; “Oh Jean, you’ve got a major problem when you get back to the pits sunshine.”  There were second placed finishes at Montreal, Silverstone and the Nurburgring and another pole position at Monza but Jean’s time was up with Benetton and he jumped ship to Sauber.

Partnered with Johnny Herbert, Alesi cleverely moulded the team around him and drove out of his skin in 1998 to often qualify the car in the top ten and run strongly in the race.  He survived the Spa carnage to finish third, pushing the two Jordan’s all the way to the finish.  Fifth in Argentina and Monza plus sixth at Imola enabled Jean to outscore Herbert by 9-1.  1999 was more disappointing, with some shambolic performances such as qualifying 21st for the German Grand Prix!  When another mechanical problem cost him a potential fourth place in Budapest, the emotional Alesi announced he was leaving Sauber at the end of the year, frustrated with lack of progress and more preferential treatment that paydriver Pedro Diniz seemed to be getting.  Mind you Diniz outscored Alesi in 1999, so the team had a point.

A link-up with former Ferrari team-mate Alain Prost at his team for 2000 was a disaster.  There were no points, with ninth and last at the Nurburgring being his best result.  There were 12 retirements, the Peugeot engine kept blowing up and the car was a slow as a Morris Minor.  In Austria, Alesi committed the ultimate crime by driving into his rookie team-mate Nick Heidfeld, two weeks after Heidfeld had hit him at his home race in Magny-Cours.  He was happier in 2001 with a customer Ferrari engine and there were superb drives in Monaco and Montreal to gain much-needed points for the ailing Prost outfit.

When Jordan mysteriously sacked Heinz-Harald Frentzen on the eve of the 2001 German Grand Prix, Alesi decided to leave Prost, much to Alain’s annoyance and join Jordan.  It led to a brief reunion with Eddie Jordan who had Alesi in his F3000 team during 1989 when he won the title.  Sixth place at Spa and seventh on his 200th GP start at Indianapolis were the best results as Alesi fought to retain his drive for 2002, alongside one of his best friends in the paddock, Giancarlo Fisichella.  However Honda’s insistence on placing Japanese backed Takuma Sato in the car meant Alesi made a sudden decision to retire from racing on the eve of the Japanese Grand Prix.  Sadly he was involved in a scary accident on lap six with Kimi Raikkonen, when the Finn’s rear suspension broke on his Sauber and Alesi t-boned him.  Amazingly both drivers walked away.  The DNF denied Alesi a record of finishing in every single Grand Prix in 2001.

Jean has continued to race since his F1 retirement, spending four solid seasons competing for Mercedes in the DTM series, winning four races including two at Donington Park.  He competed at Le Mans in Fisichella’s Ferrari team in 2010, finishing fourth in class and is an ambassador for the Lotus Formula One team.  Later this month, Alesi will attempt to qualify and compete for Newman Haas at the legendary Indianapolis 500.

Jean Alesi was one of the greatest mysteries in the 1990s.  He only won one race but won many fans around the world for his aggressive and charging driving style.  With a bit more luck and better career judgement, who knows what career he could have carved out for himself in Formula One.

NEXT TIME ON THE DRIVER FILES:  The most dominant British Formula 3 career led to a loss of confidence and the sack from a three-time world champion.  The struggles of Dane, Jan Magnussen

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The Driver Files: Satoru Nakajima

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

The next entry was a breakthrough driver and gave Japan its first sight of the sport, which has continued to grow ever since.  A pioneer for Japanese motorsport; Satoru Nakajima.

Limited success, but Satoru Nakajima's time in F1 was big for Japan (datsun)

NAME: Satoru Nakajima

TEAMS: Lotus (1987-1989), Tyrrell (1990-1991)

POINTS: 16

GP STARTS: 74

BEST FINISH: 4th (1987 British GP)

BORN from a farming family, Satoru Nakajima had a passion for motorsport from an early age.  His success in Formula One was largely modest but he set the path for a flux of Japanese drivers like Ukyo Katayama, Takuma Sato and his son Kazuki to have all appeared in the sport.

Nakajima dominanted the Japanese Formula Two series but was a very late entrant into F1 at the age of 34.  He debuted for the famous Lotus team in 1987, part of a new package which included Honda engines and Camel tobacco sponsorship.  Nakajima drove alongside Ayrton Senna in his first season and was determined to be known for his own qualities rather than just a pay driver.  Of course, he couldn’t compete with Senna but he showed flashes of natural speed.  Scoring a point in only his second event at the 1987 San Marino Grand Prix was a good start and Satoru was part of a Honda grand slam at Silverstone, finishing fourth behind Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and Senna.  A further point in the inaugural Japanese event at Suzuka sent his home supporters mad and he finished a creditable 12th in the championship, having scored seven points in total.

As Senna moved onto McLaren and the bitter rivalry with Alain Prost began, Nakajima stayed with Lotus for 1988 and was partnered by the defending champion Piquet.  The season started prominsingly with a point in Brazil but Nakajima’s shock failure to qualify for Monaco was the beginning of the end for the Lotus Honda partnership, compounded when Piquet crashed in the race on the first lap.  Satoru was never a fan of street circuits and he repeated his Monaco abscence on raceday by failing to make the cut on the temporary and dreadful Detroit circuit for the United States round.  A spate of retirements and mistakes followed in the remainder of the season and it was a case of second season syndrome.  Nakajima scored just one point all season and that was in the first race.

As Honda focused on their dominance with McLaren, Lotus decline had begun.  The team had to take the heavyweight Judd engine for 1989 and the failure of Nakajima and Piquet to qualify for the 1989 Belgian Grand Prix was the first time that the British make had no car on the grid in 30 years.  He failed to qualify in Monaco again and Canada but it came good at the season finale in Australia.  Watched by a massive Japanese audience, Satoru benefited from the filthy conditions in Adelaide to finish fourth from 23rd on the grid.  In a race where staying on the circuit was a notable achievement, he set the fastest lap on lap 64 too.

Two lacklustre years at Tyrrell followed for Nakajima.  He paired up with Jean Alesi for 1990 and scored three sixth place finishes in the USA, Italy and once more on his Japanese homeland at Suzuka.  There was a brief link-up with Honda again in 1991 as Stefano Modena joined Satoru.  Fifth in Phoenix was his only highlight of 1991 although a mechanical problem robbed him of fourth in another wet race at Imola.  He announced his retirement from Formula One at Hockenheim and bowed out with the minimum of fuss.

His F1 career ended but involvement with motorsport didn’t end there.  Satoru worked closely with Honda and helped develop their engines for use in the CART and IRL series over in America.  He managed the brief career in F1 of Tora Takagi in 1998/1999 and he owns the Nakajima Racing entry in Japanese Formula Nippon.  He helped Tom Coronel and Ralph Firman to titles in this competition.  His son Kazuki raced for two seasons with Williams in 2008 and 2009 and today, Satoru still owns his own team in Formula Nippon with both of his two sons competing in the series.

Success in Formula One was limited for Satoru Nakajima but his impact put Japan firmly on the Grand Prix map for good.

NEXT TIME ON THE DRIVER FILES: Moments of glory at the Nurburgring and Monza in a largely unspectacular career and a Spaniard on the grid before the Alonso days, Marc Gene.

The Driver Files: Stefano Modena

IN A NEW regular series, I will be profiling the careers of those drivers who won races and championships and those who either didn’t get the luck, or just failed at the top level of motorsport.  All drivers featured will have competed between the years 1991-2011.

The second driver featured in The Driver Files is another Italian driver whose promise never got fulfilled, Stefano Modena.

The 1991 Tyrrell was the peak of Stefano Modena's F1 career (RichardsF1)

NAME: Stefano Modena

TEAMS: Brabham (1987, 1989-1990), EuroBrun (1988), Tyrrell (1991), Jordan (1992)

POINTS: 17

GP STARTS: 70

BEST FINISH: 2nd (1991 Canadian Grand Prix)

MANY Italian drivers have tried their luck in Formula One over the past 20 years.  There are some who have not had the chance to prove themselves in decent equipment, such as Gianni Morbidelli and Alessandro Zanardi.  Then, there are those who had the car at their disposal and blew their big chance; Ivan Capelli and Giancarlo Fisichella spring to mind.  One driver whose promise never got fulfilled was Stefano Modena.  Two words finished off his career, Jordan-Yamaha!

The 1992 Jordan Yamaha partnership is akin to McLaren’s turbulent partnership with Peugeot in 1994.  They never got on and along with Mauricio Gugelmin, Modena could only wonder as his talent was wasted and in the end, so was his F1 career.

Before this horrendous season, Stefano had been forced to work hard and shown what he was capable of on occasion.  He won the F3000 championship for Onyx at his first attempt in this category in 1987.  It led to a one-off event for Brabham at the 1987 Australian Grand Prix, as Riccardo Patrese had left early to replace the injured Nigel Mansell in the all-conquering Williams Honda package.  He qualified a respectable 15th, ahead of both Tyrrell and Lola cars, but wasn’t quite ready for the physical challenge of Adelaide’s streets and had to retire after 31 laps.

When Bernie Ecclestone announced that Brabham were withdrawing from the sport, Modena was forced into a move to the uncompetitive EuroBrun team for his full debut season in 1988.  It was a real baptism of fire.  No points and the embarassment of being excluded from two successive race meetings.  He missed a weight check in Monaco and was thrown out of the event in Mexico for his car having an illegal rear wing.  Stefano managed to record five race finishes with the limited resources; the best being 11th in Hungary.

Under new owners, he moved back to Brabham for 1989 but the Judd engine turned into an unreliable nightmare, so Modena was going to be fully prepared for later disasters.  There was another exclusion for coming in underweight after qualifying at the Italian Grand Prix.  However, when the Brabham package worked in Monaco, Stefano showed what he could do.  Although team-mate Martin Brundle was robbed of a deserved podium by battery problems, his Italian team-mate stepped up when the team were feeling low and grabbed his maiden podium.  Alongside Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost on the Monaco rostrum, Modena had made his name, but still craved a better package.  Fifth in the 1990 season opener on the streets of Phoenix was his sole reward the following campaign, as Brabham’s BT59 package took the team backwards.  As their financial problems started to unravel, Modena’s stirring performances began to make him hot property in the paddock.  In fact, he was mentioned in the rumour mill as a potential replacement for the retiring Mansell at Ferrari.  Eventually, the lure of Maranello persuaded Jean Alesi away from Tyrrell and it was to Stefano’s benefit, as he moved to Tyrrell for 1991.

Alongside Satoru Nakajima, Ken Tyrrell’s wise negotating skills saw his car armed with the best engine around at the time, the works Honda V10.  With major sponsorship from German electrical company Braun, 1991 looked to be the season where Stefano Modena could become a leading star in Grand Prix racing.  In fairness, the relationship started rosy.  He finished fourth in the USA, ran third at Imola before mechanical problems intervened and then, a magnifcient front row starting position in Monaco.  On raceday, he held off Patrese until an engine failure in the tunnel saw his race cruelly end and take Patrese out too.  Even Senna mentioned after qualifying how impressed he was with Modena’s efforts.  If Monaco was desperately unlucky, Canada was more fortunate.  With frontrunners such as Senna, Prost and Alesi dropping out through reliability gremlins, Stefano inherited second place when Mansell’s Williams stopped on the final lap.  It was his landmark result but didn’t lead to better things.  Only one more point, in Japan followed.  Honda withdrew support for Tyrrell, Nakajima retired and Modena moved onto Jordan for 1992.

The writing was on the wall when he failed to qualify for the first race in South Africa.  A pitlane start in Mexico followed and he didn’t even last a lap in Brazil.  If the engine wasn’t failing spectacularly, the gearbox was breaking instead.  Modena failed to qualify for three more events and his morale was zapped.  The package was pathetic and frankly should have been put in the scrapyard as soon as it raced.  The frustrated Italian didn’t record a finish until 15th at the Belgian Grand Prix in August!  A small improvement in the last two races saw Stefano score a point in the Australian Grand Prix, but he was damaged goods and left the sport unsurprisingly for pastures new.  He carried on racing in German and Italian touring cars with mixed results for a number of years after the F1 adventure.  The tragic death of his good friend and fellow Italian Michele Alboreto in a sportscar accident in 2001 prompted Modena to retire from competitive action.  Since then, he has acted as an advisor and done occasional tyre testing work for Japanese tyre manufacturer, Bridgestone.

Stefano Modena never quite delivered on what he had, but he was a victim of one of the worst cars to have ever left a Grand Prix factory!  Sometimes, that’s the way it goes in the harsh world of Formula One.

NEXT IN THE DRIVER FILES: The Dutch boss that is Jos Verstappen!