On this week #24: Jean Alesi's best ever birthday | Pirelli

On this week #24: Jean Alesi's best ever birthday


The 11th June is a special day for Jean Alesi, it being his birthday and it's extra special this year in fact as he turns 60. However, there's another reason why the Frenchman will never forget the date, as it was on that day in 1995 that he took his one and only Formula 1 win, in the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal.

The win was all the more special as it was unexpected and, up until that day, victory had seemed unattainable, always just out of Jean's reach and indeed it would be again from then onwards. The win came in part because the leader Michael Schumacher had to make a long pit stop on lap 57 with an electrical problem, but Jean was there when it mattered, having started fifth, he was promoted to fourth when David Coulthard retired and then moved up to second place by overtaking his Ferrari team-mate Gerhard Berger and Damon Hill in the Williams. This time, fate smiled on the 31 year old lad from Avignon, who was hugely popular, not just with the Italian Ferrari fans but also with a much wider audience which admired him for his courage, his passion and his impetuous nature. After the race, Jean explained he had tears in his eyes for the last few laps and after he took the chequered flag he could not make it back to the pits as the 12 cylinder engine on his Ferrari 412T spluttered to a halt having run out of fuel. In fact, he ended up coming back astride the back of the Benetton of Michael Schumacher, who stopped to give him a lift.

“The memory of that day that has stayed with me the most is not so much taking the chequered flag, nor the prizegiving ceremony on the podium, but it was the explosion of joy from the spectators at the moment when I took the lead,” Jean told Racing Spot. “I could see the Ferrari flags flying and it was an incredible feeling. Montreal is one of the circuits where the drivers can really see the grandstands very well and when the fans realised that Michael had a problem, they went mad. You have to remember that at the time, I was racing with the number 27, Gilles Villeneuve's number and to race at that track in a Ferrari with that number meant you were automatically considered to be a Canadian and personally, I felt an even greater responsibility to give my all when I raced in Montreal. Gilles was my hero when I was a kid and I reckon it was a gift from heaven to win that race in a car bearing the number 27. As a fan of Ferrari and of his, it seemed to me a bit as though he had won…” That win in 1995 was also special for another reason, in that it turned out to be the last for a twelve cylinder engine in Formula 1. Ferrari had been the only constructor to stick with that configuration when the engines went back to being normally aspirated. But by then the decision had been taken to go for the compact and efficient ten cylinder and Maranello wasn't about to change its mind just because of the win in Montreal.

“Driving a twelve-cylinder powered car was really special, something completely different to today, it was Formula 1 in another era,” recalled Jean. “There were so many different types of engine: there were the eight cylinders, the ten and then the twelve which was regarded as a sort of Holy Grail. It revved to over 17,000 rpm, it was music. Contrary to what people said, it was also quite easy to drive because, even if it didn't have the torque of an eight or a ten, it was still very flexible and this allowed you, in the wet for example, to make the most of its amazing power. Of course, it vibrated a lot. I remember that the first years in Maranello, the day of the launch and the first tests, we did a lot of work on the seat to ensure that the vibrations from the engine that went through the chassis did not upset your driving. However, hearing that roar behind you was crazy. I can imagine what the fans must have felt when they saw a Formula 1 car with that engine whizzing by, even more so if it was Ferrari red!”

Alesi's Montreal victory came at the wheel of a Goodyear-shod car, but during the course of his long Formula 1 career, during which he took part in 201 Grands Prix, secured two pole positions, four fastest race laps and 32 podium finishes, he drove with four different brands of tyre: apart from the American marque, the list also features, Bridgestone, Michelin and Pirelli. In fact it was with the current Global Tyre Supplier to motor racing's blue riband category that Jean first made it to the podium. It happened at the 1990 USA Grand Prix on the Phoenix street circuit and his performance that day put him on the map. The Italian tyres were clearly superior that day as can be divined from the fact that behind Berger's McLaren on pole came the Minardi of Pierluigi Martini, the Dallara of Andrea De Cesaris and Jean himself in his first full season in Formula 1, driving for the English Tyrrell team. Jean got a brilliant start to lead the race, where he stayed up to lap 35, despite constant pressure from Ayrton Senna in the McLaren. The pair fought tooth and nail for two entire laps before the Brazilian got past and went on to win.

“It's been a real privilege to have raced with four truly iconic tyre manufacturers,” said the Frenchman “I found each and every one of them to be amazingly professional to work with. I am particularly fond of Pirelli because, in a way they brought me to the attention of the fans. At the time, we used qualifying tyres and the Pirelli ones worked really well and gave you a bit more performance, especially on street circuits and those where grip levels were low. My driving style was very aggressive and the Pirellis allowed me to push flat-out and to put on a show. On top of that, I really liked working with the Italian engineers to create what were practically tailor-made, handcrafted tyres. At the time, for qualifying, there would be a self-vulcanising solution of a super sticky compound deposited onto the tyre surface which gave you incredible grip for the flying lap. This task was carried out by a technician whom I reckoned was an artist, a Michelangelo of tyres. I was told that every time he finished the job, he would use chalk to make a mark on the glue, like a signature! That same year I visited the factory in Bicocca and they got me to try my hand at doing it, but let's say the result wasn't exactly perfect…I think they threw that tyre away!”