I’m jumping on the back of a bit of a bandwagon here, following the publishing of an article by Charles Bradley on motorsport.com and the subsequent chatter about an apparent opportunity missed by Jean Alesi to secure himself a championship or two.
Williams apparently expressed an interest in French-Sicilian Alesi as the new boy making quite a name for himself in 1990 – his first full season in Formula 1 – a season he opened with an almighty duel with Ayrton Senna in his McLaren-Honda for the win around the streets of Phoenix, in an unfancied Tyrrell-Ford that was a far-cry from the Championship winning Tyrrells of the 1960s and 70s.
A brace of podiums followed that season in a purple patch of form that alerted the attention of the big boys. Williams F1 was the first to strike early in the season with an offer of a deal that would see Alesi drive for Sir Frank from the beginning of 1991.
Alesi and Williams agreed terms and a contract was signed.
Meanwhile, Ferrari, unaware of his deal to drive for Williams, were formulating their own offer to Alesi, so keen were they that Ferrari boss Cesare Fiorio was furious to find out that the Scuderia had seemingly been beaten to one of F1’s hottest prospects by their rival.
As this was unfolding, Nigel Mansell, then Ferrari driver, was becoming more and more unsettled, and following a disastrous British Grand Prix where he felt team-mate Alain Prost’s political manoeuvrings were robbing him of any opportunity to compete for wins and championships, announced his retirement from Formula 1 in a pique of rage.
Frank Williams, a long time fan of ex-Williams driver Mansell, and desperately seeking a team-leader after a missed opportunity to fight for the 1990 championship with Thierry Boutsen and Riccardo Patrese – two number 2 drivers as some critics described them – saw an opportunity to bring Mansell back into the fold to spearhead their 1991 challenge.
Sir Frank held off and held off officially unveiling Alesi as a Williams driver for 1991 – perhaps with one eye on Mansell, or perhaps monitoring Senna’s discontent at McLaren – despite pressure from the Alesi himself, fully aware that once he was announced, he was as good as in the car.
The British Grand Prix came and went and still no announcement, prompting Alesi to inform Williams that if there wasn’t official word soon, he’d be free to speak to other teams.
And speak to other teams he did.
When, on the back of these talks he agreed terms with Ferrari, a three way battle for his services ensued, with Williams, Tyrrell (Alesi’s then employer) and now Ferrari all believing they had the right to his services for 1991.
With Alesi’s clear preference being Ferrari, and with Williams (allegedly) inching ever closer to their #1 choice Mansell, Sir Frank happily agreed to accept a compensation package (allegedly worth $4m and a Ferrari F1 car) in exchange for ripping up the contract he and Alesi had signed.
Williams’ decision to delay making an announcement/commitment and Alesi’s knee-jerk reaction consigned him to a career that aligned with some of Ferrari’s worst in living memory, Alesi finally leaving the team at the end of 1995 with just one win to his name. It also robbed him of the opportunity to drive two of Williams’ most dominant cars that romped to four championships in two years.
But did it prevent Alesi from winning a Formula 1 championship or two as is widely speculated?
Well I don’t think so. Potential championship winners don’t tend to end their #F1 careers with a single race win. As blisteringly quick as Alesi undoubtedly was at times, he was often accused of driving with his heart and not his head, which is why perhaps he ultimately opted for Ferrari and not Williams and something that can contribute to the odd fantastic performance but not a sustained title challenge.
Had he joined Williams he’d have been in his second full season in Formula 1 and as such probably lacked the leadership and experience Williams needed as they came to terms with the new-fangled gadgetry that Mansell brought and that would guide the pairing to the WDC in 1992.
And had Sir Frank chosen to pursue his option on Alesi for 1991 and 1992, it’s unlikely he’d have been a match for Alain Prost who joined the team at the behest of (and supported by) Renault in 1993.
It’s all speculation of course, because there’s no way we can know what would have transpired should the course of history have changed. But in my view, whilst he might have won a few more Grand Prix, it’s more likely he would have ended his Williams career as more of a Patrese than a Mansell or a Prost.
And as it transpired, he’s now a Ferrari legend, and the money he’s saved on not buying a drink or having to settle a restaurant bill in Italy in the intervening 27 years must be worth more than any prize money he’d have earned in Formula 1.