27 January 2011
MUST-READ: Alesi and Prost: The French dream that became a nightmare
Jean Alesi recalls that he knew the French national dream of Prost Grand Prix was 'in trouble' as soon as he drove the car - but as he reflects on that episode and also his Ferrari days alongside 'Le Professeur', he admits he'd do it all over again...
There is a very popular programme on Sky television that has amassed a global audience over the past six years or so. 'The Deadliest Catch' follows the life and times of fishermen trailing the harsh waters of the Bearing Sea for the valuable King Crab off the Alaskan coast. Venturing out into open waters through some of the roughest conditions imaginable, these men battle for their lives in deceptively small boats, working with minimal sleep and in freezing temperatures. It is widely-perceived as one of the toughest jobs in the world. There is, however, a certain Frenchman who might take issue with that.
As one of the most successful F1 drivers of all time, Alain Prost's foray into team ownership in 1997 was, not to put too fine a point on it, disastrous. Like one of those fishing vessels sailing the vicious Bearing Sea, Prost Grand Prix always appeared to be navigating the harshest conditions the sport could throw at it.
It was a difficult time for the four-time world champion as he continually struggled to generate interest in the proposal of having a national team. Since Jack Brabham first entered a car under his own name in 1959, many drivers have turned their hand to team ownership – usually once their helmet has started gathering dust on the shelf. Whilst some have enjoyed success of varying levels, Brabham still remains the only man to claim a world title both as a driver and team owner.
The difference between the two is stark and can break a driver's resolve, not to mention the bank. Just ask Prost, John Surtees, Jackie Oliver et al. But does it change the retired driver himself?
Jean Alesi is suitably qualified to answer this question having driven alongside Prost in 1991 and having driven for Prost from 2000 to 2001.
Bursting onto the F1 scene at his home grand prix halfway through 1989, Alesi quickly captured the interest of the paddock's leading teams and towards the middle of the following year, was hot property. Signing a contract-of-intent with Williams, it seemed inevitable he would depart Tyrrell for Sir Frank's team. That was until Silverstone that year, when Nigel Mansell declared he would be leaving Ferrari at the end of the season and heading off into retirement to practice his golf swing.
Ferrari soon set about seducing the impressionable Alesi and, lured by the sheer prestige that comes with seeing the Prancing Horse emblem on a driver's overalls and steering wheel, the young Frenchman signed a two-year deal immediately. There then developed a minor tug-of-war between Ferrari and Williams, who were convinced they had signed a kosher deal with the young hotshoe. They hadn't.
“When I first came into the sport, I of course knew Alain and he had already had much success and was very helpful in small ways to me in my first two years with Ken Tyrrell,” Alesi confirms. “Then, when I went to Ferrari, many said I must be crazy and that Ferrari would destroy my career – but Alain was very helpful to me, as it was scary for me at the beginning and I wasn't experienced in driving for a big team.”
After a 1990 season that saw Prost claim five wins on his way to battling for the championship with arch-rival Ayrton Senna, much was expected for '91 – but what a disaster it proved to be.
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