27 January 2011
MUST-READ: Alesi and Prost: The French dream that became a nightmare
Controversial Ferrari team manager Cesare Fiorio was removed from office, the 642/2 chassis that started the year was massively out-dated, its replacement 643 wasn't any better and the V12 engine produced as much horsepower as a sloth in motion.
“We should have had a great car that year,” sighs Alesi. “There was so much we could have achieved, but the management at Ferrari was all over the place once Fiorio went and some of the time it felt like it was me and Alain against the rest of the team. There was no direction, and Alain got more-and-more frustrated with what was happening and then they fired him, which was the worst thing that could have happened.”
Prost's sacking on the eve of the season-ending Australian Grand Prix served to underline the self-destruction Ferrari was intent on creating, and the whole episode proved tough for Alesi to handle. He is adamant, though, that his compatriot was fired simply for being himself and for speaking the truth.
“Alain was a great team-mate and we had a great year driving together in 1991,” he reminisces. “He helped me with so much – especially with the demands being a Ferrari driver places on you. Despite all that he went through, it never changed him as a person, just the way he conducted himself around those he was unsure of.”
Prost retired at the end of his title-winning 1993 season with Williams and worked over the next few years in an ambassadorial role for Renault and McLaren. Yet the lure of team ownership became too much, and in 1997 he realised a dream first born in 1989 and bought Ligier from Flavio Briatore.
Over the next few years, the team flattered to deceive on a continual basis, topping the timesheets during winter testing, then – 1997 aside – finding themselves running in the midfield at best during the season proper. Alesi – who was forced out of Ferrari for '96 following the signing of Michael Schumacher – moved to Benetton and then Sauber before being offered the chance of driving for his former team-mate Prost.
“I did have a few options open to me at the time,” the 46-year-old confirms, “but the package presented to me by Alain was impressive. He wanted a French national team with a French driver, French engine manufacturer and French owner. It all sounded great, then I drove the car and realised we were in trouble. It never changed to be honest, and for sure, it was very frustrating for all of us, not just Alain.”
Following Alesi's well-documented defection from the team to Eddie Jordan's outfit in the middle of the 2001 campaign, the countrymen fell out as Prost felt his driver had reneged on a gentlemen's agreement not to publicly criticise one another. Time, however, healed the rift and today, the two are good friends.
Prost Grand Prix folded in 2002 with debts in the tens of millions and, while the episode was a disaster for the proprietor and for French motor racing in particular, Alesi is sure the Alain Prost he drove with in '91 is no different from the man he drove for eleven years later.
“Alain was a fantastic champion driver, but when he became a team owner, everything changed,” 'Jeannot' concludes. “He found the driving far more enjoyable than team ownership – as I think most retired drivers have done – but he gave it his best shot. As a driver you always want to win and I felt that driving for Alain would prove to be successful but I was wrong, and so was he.”
by Max Davies
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