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How Alesi battled tears to take his only F1 win

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How Alesi battled tears to take his only F1 win
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Jun 11, 2020, 12:49 PM

Few victories in Formula 1 have been as popular as the one that Jean Alesi delivered at the Canadian Grand Prix on this day 25 years ago.

Driving the number 27 Ferrari made famous by Gilles Villeneuve, at the circuit named after the country's fallen hero, Alesi finally delivered a win after years of frustrating near misses in F1. To cap it all, it came on his birthday too.

But as was so typical of his career, the afternoon in Montreal in 1995 was not a straightforward affair. It was one full of challenges, frustrations, emotional highs and lows, but ultimately some fond memories.

Perhaps most remarkable was how, having finally been on the verge of his greatest success, Alesi had to fight back the tears when it finally hit home to him that the win was him.

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That moment came with around 10 laps to go, after then race leader Michael Schumacher had been forced to pull into the pits with a gearbox problem that was eventually traced back to a fault on his steering wheel.

As Alesi surged into the lead, the local fans went crazy – and for a while, the French-Sicilian driver did not know what was going on.

"The public is really close to the track in Montreal and when that happened, I started to see a lot of movement in the Tribune [grandstands]," he told Motorsport.com in an exclusive podcast looking back on that win and his career.

Jean Alesi, Ferrari 412T2

Jean Alesi, Ferrari 412T2

Photo by: Motorsport Images

"From the hairpin going back to the pits, there is a big TV screen and I started to watch on the TV screen but I miss the image. So I didn't know really what's happened.

"Then when I passed the pits, my mechanics didn't have the time to to put my new position, so I was still P2. And I said okay, nothing different: I continue to push. And then I was really seeing the public, that the flags and everything, there was a big, big movement around me.

"Then when I came back past the pits I saw P1. From this moment it was such a huge emotion inside of me that I started to cry. And it was not something intelligent because I was not able to control it.

"When I was braking into Turn 1, I had the tears in my eyes and it was not easy to catch the right line. Then I've been very angry with myself, but I start to slowly understand maybe it's my day."

The day had certainly not started with any guarantee of success. After topping the wet morning warm up, Alesi had hoped the race would continue in rainy conditions – but those prayers weren't answered.

 

And it had so nearly gone wrong on lap one when, as he pulled a brave move to get past teammate Gerhard Berger, he nearly got tangled up as David Coulthard spun out ahead of him.

"At the time, you remember we had the warm up in the early morning, and this warm up was completely wet so we had rain tyres," said Alesi, who had started fifth. "I finished P1 in the warm up and I had a very good feel of the car.

"I was really dreaming to have the race on wets, but it was not the case. We start with slicks, but the circuit was not 100% dry, so it was very slippery.

"And, when I make the move to overtake Gerhard, I was not thinking of overtaking at the same time also David, and he spun. So it was a very tough time, but I catch up the car because my car was also sliding, and I made a very good overtaking."

Jean Alesi, Ferrari 412T2

Jean Alesi, Ferrari 412T2

Photo by: Motorsport Images

There was also an element of luck having stayed with him in the race, as Ferrari had been left slightly nervous about the accuracy of its fuel reading when Alesi's teammate Gerhard Berger ran out of fuel on his way into the pits and lost valuable time.

"We were very tight on fuel," recalls Alesi. "We had the choice to have a two-stop strategy and we decided to do one, but the rules in the team were that the driver who was leading had the possibility to decide when to stop. And that was for me my luck, because I just catch the right moment for refuelling.

"Gerhard made an extra lap and then when he positioned his car for the pits, the car stalled, he had no fuel. For me, it was on an in lap so that was good enough."

That last comment relates to Alesi's car running out of fuel on the slow down lap, leaving him stranded out on track before he could make it back to the podium celebrations.

Schumacher, who had got going again after the delay of more than one minute with a new steering wheel to finish fifth, was the next car past and picked Alesi up to take him back.

"It was unbelievable because when I stopped at the hairpin, the public was really shouting my name and enjoying my win," remembers Alesi. "I've been very lucky to win in Montreal on the same circuit and at the same place that Gilles Villeneuve won his first race.

Jean Alesi, Ferrari 412T2, takes his first win

Jean Alesi, Ferrari 412T2, takes his first win

Photo by: Sutton Images

"So everything together made a special day. And to be honest, it was a huge party for me, not going out and having a party with some friends, but just having a party with the fans and with Michael, because when he brought me back to the pits, I said to him, 'Look, I don't care if you had a technical issue. I really enjoyed my win. It happened to you to give me the position. So let me enjoy it.' And he said: 'Of course'. He was happy as well. It was a good time."

Alesi didn't know it at the time but that Montreal success would be his only win in his F1 career. Other opportunities slipped from his grasp through pretty appalling luck at times, but he says he has peace with his career because there was at least that one triumph.

"This result was just confirmation of a tough time I had in F1. You know, from my first race I was fighting for a win because I finished P4 in my first race with Tyrrell.

"And the following season, I joined the team for the full season and I fight with Ayrton Senna for the first place on the podium, from lap one to the last one, [in Phoenix]. So you know, it was a bit frustrating sometimes in my career to stop for mechanical problems or to have something that was not working properly.

"I [often] had to finish the race without a good result. So that was difficult for me. That's why the victory in Montreal was a kind of freedom on my mind."

Jean Alesi, 1st position, celebrates his maiden Grand Prix win on the podium

Jean Alesi, 1st position, celebrates his maiden Grand Prix win on the podium

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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Series Formula 1
Author Jonathan Noble