Retro: How Jean Alesi rocked F1 at Paul Ricard 30 years ago

Charles Bradley

Thirty years ago Jean Alesi established himself as the most exciting driver of his time, announcing his presence on the Grand Prix grid with an astounding F1 debut with the Tyrrell team at Paul Ricard. With legendary talent spotters Eddie Jordan and Ken Tyrrell behind him, Alesi became the hottest prospect on the grand prix grid at the start of the Nineties.

When asked to reflect on it all, Jean says: “I can’t believe it, because today my kid is racing and I am the one who is doing all the watching! But when you have a chance, you just have to take it. In 1989 I had the chance, in F3000 and then in F1, and I just said to myself: ‘Go for it.’”

Jean Alesi and Giuliano Alesi in the paddock

Jean Alesi and Giuliano Alesi in the paddock Zak Mauger / LAT Images

Zak Mauger / LAT Images

And this is how…

EDDIE JORDAN ‘SAVED MY LIFE’

Alesi’s amazing 1989 story really began at Macau at the end of ’88. In the Portuguese enclave’s F3 showpiece event, he was trying to salvage his career after a woeful FIA Formula 3000 debut season with ORECA, where he scored one podium (at Pau) among a meagre four points-scoring finishes. The season ended with a dispute between himself and his miffed race engineer (who suggested whoever worked with Jean in future would require a psychology degree!) in Autosport’s letters pages…

“It was a very bad moment for me,” Alesi says of ’88, after he’d pulverised the French F3 opposition the year before with ORECA. “And Macau was going very well until I got a puncture. I was so upset, because I was leading the race and ended up finishing 11thon three wheels.

“Fortunately, Eddie Jordan was there and was pretty impressed with what I had done, so he went to my brother [Jose, who was also Jean’s manager] and asked if I was free for next year. We made the deal, and basically he saved my life.”

THE TITLE CAMPAIGN

History books tell us that Alesi tied on points for the 1989 FIA F3000 title with Erik Comas, but it’s a misnomer to take that at face value. In reality, it was only due to Comas’s win in the season finale at Dijon that equalled the absent Alesi’s tally (Jean was contesting the Japanese Grand Prix at the time), but his three victories meant he couldn’t be surpassed. “But, you know, I don’t care,” he says of the outcome, “I achieved the championship and I did it for Eddie as well as myself. For one of the two races Comas won, I wasn’t even there.”

Alesi knew he had to make a total break from France with the move to Eddie Jordan Racing, so he took the plunge and moved to England and away from the bosom of his family in Avignon, France.

“Eddie understood that I spoke extremely weak English, so he said ‘OK, you need to leave your family home’ and he invited me to stay in his house with his family. Because of that, we developed a very close relationship together. It was perfect; it was really the best time of my life. I had a lot of freedom in my mind, I could concentrate just on my racing and it was the key to my success that year.”

His season didn’t begin in Europe, but in Japan. Loaned out to Team Kygnus Konen for the opening rounds of the All-Japan F3000 series, but running on uncompetitive Yokohama rubber, it was here that he began to form a great relationship with Kiwi race engineer Paul Crosby that he had so lacked the year before.

“Paul was a big part of that success, he was very close to me and really understood me and the way I was driving the car,” he says. “Even though we were uncompetitive on those tyres, it was our first experience of working together and we built our relationship straight away. It definitely helped for why we were so quick straight away in Europe.”

And what a European season it was: three races wins, two on the streets in Pau and Birmingham, and one of the fast, flowing sweeps of Spa-Francorchamps.

“I always drove on instinct, rather than making lots of laps to learn tracks, and I had a passion for what I did – I loved racing, I could be quick everywhere. It was not that I was only fast on the street circuits in that championship, I was enjoying the races so much.

“Being behind the steering wheel was what I was living for, whether it was Spa, Silverstone, Monza – wherever. I was getting so much feedback from this car, so whenever I produced my best, I was quick.”

Bear in mind this was no easy season to conquer – Alesi was up against fellow future F1 racers Comas, Eric Bernard, Marco Apicella, Eric van de Poele, Eddie Irvine, JJ Lehto, Mark Blundell and team-mate Martin Donnelly.

“It was not easy, and although I don’t remember exactly how many, I think we had three red flags after the first corner a minimum of five times that season! It was very, very hard fighting with plenty of accidents. To win the championship was not so easy, and I think it helped me that I wanted to finish the season as quickly as possible, so I could do more F1 races because of the date clashes.”

Of course, this was a title that was won simultaneously as Alesi was already racing in Formula 1…

THE BIG F1 BREAK

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 as 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 supersub wheeler-dealer again with his other F3000 driver…

“It was certainly not planned, put it that way,” says Alesi. “I was testing the 3000 car at Monza. There were no mobile phones in those days, and I got a message from Eddie: ‘Hurry up, you need to be at the Tyrrell factory today.’ I called him and said, ‘Eddie, are you joking? Physically I have no time to get there.’ He said, ‘Do anything, just get there!’ So I jumped in my road car and drove from Monza to Avignon. I picked up my brother and the next day, the Wednesday, we were in the Tyrrell factory, signing the deal.”

That led to his first embarrassing moment, when Tyrrell’s technical aces Jean-Claude Migeot and Harvey Posthlewaite didn’t quite know who this chap was chatting to the mechanics on the factory floor: “Harvey said, ‘Might you be Jean Alesi?’ And when I said yes, he said, ‘Well, we’d better get you comfortable then’. They were so nice, I felt at home straight away.”

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 setup, but there were more embarrassments to come…

“Eddie was as crazy then as he is now, you know? He was telling Ken so many things: ‘he’s going to be quick, he’s going to be right at the front…’ and, for me, I was saying ‘Eddie, you have to shut up, it’s embarrassing, after all this is Ken Tyrrell you are talking to here!’ Remember, Ken was very popular in France, because of his long Elf links. I knew exactly how important he was.

“Then on the race weekend Eddie bet with Ken that I would finish higher than my team-mate, Jonathan Palmer. Once again, that was embarrassing – Eddie did it 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, 5-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. “I said, ‘Jean-Claude, we don’t know each other very well, but I will show you what I am able to do.’ So I 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.

Start: huge crash for Mauricio Gugelmin, Leyton House March CG891

Start: huge crash for Mauricio Gugelmin, Leyton House March CG891 LAT Images

LAT Images

Was Alesi worried? “I wasn’t shocked at all. In F3000, it happened all the time! A restart was nothing for me, I was more surprised when nothing happened at the restart!” 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.

“The car was fantastic, the balance was perfect,” he says of the race. “I concentrated lap by lap, not making any mistakes, and I was very careful to use the tyres in the best way possible. Everybody else seemed to struggle with the wear of the tyre, but mine were very good.

“I ran such a long first stint, that was why I was able to run second to Alain Prost’s McLaren. Everything went well, and I finished P4 in my first grand prix with zero testing. The way it all happened was great. It was also my first ever pitstop – it was difficult with no speed limit, so the braking point, while aiming at the mechanics, was very interesting!”

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, and we had a good time with the people who had put their trust in me that night in Nice.”

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell Sutton Images

Sutton Images

FINISHING THE SEASON IN STYLE

Alesi couldn’t celebrate too much as the British Grand Prix was only seven days away. There was also another small hitch…

“I had no contract and Eddie was, er, pushing for one!” he chuckles. “It was so funny to watch him push for a deal, and it was great for me because he got me a contract with Ken to finish the championship and a full season for the following year.”

His British GP ended disappointingly with a crash trying to take Club Corner flat-out while lining up Philippe Alliot for a pass, but more points finishes followed at Monza and Jerez.

“It was not easy to finish in the top six in those days,” he says. “For me, the car was amazing, technically the best of the year, but obviously the [Cosworth V8] engine’s power was poor. The package was good, the philosophy was always to run very little wing, and I always felt we could finish in the top six wherever we went.

“The balance was great for the tyre, much better than the V10s and V12s which had to run much more fuel. So, even in Monza, being economical was as quick as being able to do fast laptimes.”

He’d finish ninth in the points in ’89, despite only eight starts – and having to miss both the Belgian and Portuguese grands prix to finish his F3000 campaign, which was another sore point…

“Going back to after Ricard, I told Eddie: ‘Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for me, now I’m in F1 so thank you.’ And he said, ‘No, no, no – no thank you AT ALL. You need to FINISH the 3000 championship and you have to win. Otherwise, you will never race in F1 – I will not accept it!’ I argued, ‘But I’m at Tyrrell now, I don’t care about F3000 – I’m in F1 now.’ But he wouldn’t let me, so I had to finish my job with him. I owed him that, but missing Spa was a massive shame.”

Jean Alesi gets ready on the grid

Jean Alesi gets ready on the grid Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Rainer W. Schlegelmilch