There are racing drivers, and then there are racing heroes, and Jean Alesi indisputably falls firmly into the latter category – and on his return to the iconic Le Mans 24 Hours more than two decades on from his first appearance in the round-the-clock classic, the former F1 star admitted that he was in his element.
Alesi was palpably one of the most popular participants in the traditional pre-race drivers' parade through Le Mans town centre, as the French-Sicilian found himself mobbed by fans eager for autographs or to have their photo taken with the man who so famously and emotionally scored his sole F1 victory for Ferrari in the Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal in 1995. On his 46th birthday, there is little doubt that 'Jeannot' remains every bit as much a legend as he ever was.
“I'm enjoying it a lot,” he enthused, speaking to Crash.net
straight after the parade. “To be surrounded by all these fans from all over the world, and to have all these pictures in front of you to sign from the beginning of your career to now, is a fantastic feeling for a driver. It means a lot. It was a good birthday present – the best time for me when it's my birthday is to be at a motorsport event.”
Alesi's original outing at La Sarthe came back in 1989 – the same year as he made his F1 debut with Tyrrell – in a Porsche 962C, but that effort ended in retirement. This time, the man from Avignon makes clear, he has only one goal – 'P1' in the GT2 class in the AF Corse Ferrari 430GTC he is sharing with fellow ex-grand prix ace Giancarlo Fisichella and Finn Toni Vilander – and should he prove successful, he hints that it could just be the beginning of a long-term Le Mans love affair.
“Then I was really a beginner and I had a lot more peace,” he reflected of the 1989 race, when he was not yet the superstar he would go on to become. “Now I have to learn a lot because the track is a bit different, and obviously with this car I'm driving at the moment I need to understand how everything works.
“I'm enjoying it very much, though. Giancarlo and Toni are fantastic team-mates, and we've already had two podiums together in the Le Mans Series, so we are competitive. I'll do my best not to be the slowest driver in the team!”