“Winning with Ferrari is special, something you cannot get with any other team.”
When he burst on to the F1 scene in 1989 many people had Jean Alesi down as a future world champion. As it turned out he would only win one grand prix, and he did it in Canada 6 years after his debut. It was his 31st birthday, and one he will never forget.
Qualifying fifth, Alesi’s road to victory was aided by some good luck. The Williams of David Coulthard departed on lap one, spinning in to the gravel; a collision between Mika Hakkinen (McLaren) and Johnny Herbert (Benetton) at the hairpin ruined their races; and the second Williams of Damon Hill dropped out on lap 51.
These might have been challengers, but Alesi had done the hard work too, and their retirements weren’t the root of his victory. He’d passed teammate Gerhard Berger early on and fought his way past the Williams of Hill on lap 16 – the Frenchman deserved to be up there.
All this had left Jean in second, behind Michael Schumacher’s Benetton, though he was nowhere near the German’s pace. But, with 10 laps to go, Michael’s race ran in to trouble.
Suddenly slowing dramatically, the Benetton crawled in to the pits and didn’t emerge for another minute and a half, handing the lead to Alesi. Schumacher was now 8th, and despite a huge speed advantage had no hope of catching the Ferrari.
And so Alesi was able to bring it home for the victory. Montreal has a genuine love for the Ferrari team thanks to Gilles Villeneuve’s heroics for the Scuderia, and with Alesi being a Frenchman his victory in this predominately French-speaking part of Canada was naturally very well received. Fans flooded on to the track to celebrate the team’s first win in nearly a year.
The man himself was overjoyed too. He’d finally claimed victory after close to 100 grand prix, and after the race Alesi jubilantly threw his helmet in to the crowd. Six years later, in 2001, he finished fifth in Montreal, securing his and the struggling Prost team’s first points of the season. Once again the little Frenchman threw his helmet to the crowd. That fifth place meant almost as much as the win – Montreal had been good to him.