It's no surprise that from a young age it was Jean Alesi's dream to represent the Scuderia. Despite being born in Avignon, France, his origins are almost entirely Italian with both of his parents being raised in Sicily. Even Alesi's stereotypically French first name is not the name that was given to him at birth. Originally Giovanni Alesi, he had to change his name to Jean at a young age due to a significant amount of bullying at school. Combine his Italian heritage with a childhood where cars and racing were prevalent (His father owned a repair garage and was a keen amateur racer) and it's no surprise that Alesi always had eyes on a Ferrari seat.
A long time before that dream would become reality, Alesi was performing encouragingly in lower formulae. Running his own Dallara-Alfa Romeo, Alesi put together a strong season in 1986 in French Formula 3. 2 wins and 7 podiums from 11 races gave him second place. Following this introduction to the series, Alesi enjoyed a dominant season in 1987 and won the French F3 title in convincing fashion. 1988 was a difficult one as Alesi moved to Formula 3000, results were hard to come by, but he would move teams in 1989 after one man had seen the talent in him. That man was Eddie Jordan.
The team of Jordan and Alesi worked wonders, the struggles of 88' were behind the Frenchman and he won the championship in 1989. Impressive and noteworthy as this was, this wasn't the biggest story to come out of his season. Halfway through the year a space became available in F1 at Tyrrell and Alesi was given the nod. His first outing at his home Grand Prix of France could hardly have gone much better, after racing in second for much of the GP, he ultimately fell just short of a podium in 4th. However, Ken Tyrrell was so impressed by his performance that he offered him an 18-month contract straight away. Alesi would then pull double duty for the rest of the year and performed admirably well in both.
Alesi racing for Tyrrell in Phoenix, 1990
1990 was another year of progress as he secured two podiums in the opening four races. Unfortunately, results dried up for Tyrell after this, but Alesi maintained a fair share of plaudits for regularly outdriving the car. Alesi's time at Tyrell ended following the conclusion of the season and attention turned to where he was heading next. It would prove to be the most important decision of his career.
After a rather unspectacular season, it was Williams who made a play for Alesi. Despite being off the pace for the majority of the season, Williams were in a considerably better position than Tyrrell and there was hope that something special could be around the corner. A "contract-of-intent" was signed and that was seemingly that. This was until it was announced Nigel Mansell would not be returning to race for Ferrari, leaving a seat free at the team. Ferrari were clear that they also wanted Alesi, suddenly the man with just 18 months F1 experience had two top teams after him. Alesi ultimately decided the way of Ferrari, a fair choice considering the team were McLaren's closest challengers the year before, and of course it was his dream.
The 1991 season was a disaster for Alesi and for Ferrari: the chassis was outdated, the engine was weak and team manager Cesare Fiorio was removed. The team went from title challengers the year before to not winning a race all season. Alesi was able to claim a few podiums, but it must have been little consolation as Williams claimed 7 victories.
The next few seasons proved to be a similar story, a few podiums here and there but nothing in comparison to Williams who were winning championship after championship. 1995 ended up being his final season for Ferrari, and also Alesi's most successful for the team that included a long overdue win after 90 previous attempts. Michael Schumacher seemed set to win the Canadian Grand Prix, however he suffered an electrical problem with just 13 laps to go. This allowed Alesi to claim an emotional first victory, on his 31st birthday.
Alesi finally gained victory in Canada, 1995
Unfortunately for Alesi, that would be his one and only victory. After leaving Ferrari, he would join Benetton for 2 years and he achieved 4th in the drivers' standings on both occasions, but no victories. After Benetton came Sauber, again for 2 years, where he achieved his final career podium at that crazy 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, however this would be the only notable highlight. He would see his career out with Prost and with Jordan. Both of which were uncompetitive.
Following F1, he enjoyed some success in DTM where he picked up wins in multiple seasons and more recently he competed in the 2010 24 Hours of Le Mans and at the 2012 Indy500 at the age of 47. The Alesi name continues to live on in motorsport through his 18-year-old son Giuliano who is showing real promise in GP3. Don't be surprised to see him make waves in F1 at some point.
Le Mans, 2010
Seeing just one in Alesi's win column feels wrong and doesn't reflect the amount of natural talent he had. It also feels quite strange that Alesi's success in F1 was almost solely dependent on off-track actions and nothing to do with racing itself. In hindsight, the decision between Williams and Ferrari seems obvious, but at the time you couldn't blame Alesi for his decision. No one truly knew the surge that would happen at Williams and the downturn that would happen at Ferrari. How successful would he have been if he'd stuck with Williams? It's tough to say, but I wouldn't have bet against the term 'world champion' preceding his name.