F1 | What Might Have Happened If... Jean Alesi Signed For Williams

Murray Walker once famously said 'if' is 'F1' spelt backwards...

... and while that isn't strictly true, we can forgive our Murray as the sentiment is pretty much bang on the nose when it comes to the sport we love.

Those of us with long memories might recall a young French Sicilian named Jean Alesi bursting onto the Grand Prix scene with Tyrrell back in 1989, and despite giving racing fans plenty of thrills and excitement over the years, the emotional driver never quite lived up to that early career promise in the following seasons, but it could have been a very different story indeed.

Alesi 19891.jpg


With the youngster proving himself aboard the now struggling Tyrrell team in the later part of 1989 and his first full season in 1990, competition for his signature ahead of '91 was intense within the Grand Prix paddock. Alesi rapidly made a name for himself as a brave and lightening fast driver during his brief time in the sport, famously passing and then re-passing the master of F1 himself, Ayrton Senna, at the 1990 Phoenix Grand Prix on the way to a spectacular second place finish - by far the best result for Tyrrell in several years.

During the mid-year F1 silly season, former World Champion team Williams would be led to believe they had agreed a multi-year contract with the Tyrrell driver from the start of the 1991 season, joining up with Ricardo Patrese in what the team hoped would be a good mix of youth and experience as they looked to rebound from a couple of years in the doldrums after losing Honda turbo power at the end of 1987.

Alesi Phonex GP1.jpg


With an agreement reached between the two parties, Ferrari would coming calling in a last minute attempt to encourage the driver into the seat vacated by the retiring Nigel Mansell, partnering up with three-time World Champion Alain Prost at the Italian squad.

On paper, Ferrari looked to be the stronger prospect for the year ahead, with Prost in the midst of a fierce fight with McLaren rival Aryton Senna for the duration of the 1990 season. Meanwhile Williams, despite showing some improvements in form over a disappointing 1989, still remained a long way from proving themselves to have consistent race winning potential.

As history would show, Alesi would be unable to resist the lure of signing for the magical red team, spending the prime years of his career in a car and manufacturer that never looked far away from disaster with poor cars, confused technical leadership and basic disarray following the death of their founder, Enzo Ferrari, in late 1988.

Just a single race victory at the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix would be all Alesi had to show for his time in red, with the driver leaving the Prancing Horse just as they returned to form in 1996, joining the formally dominant Benetton team as they began a rapid decline into obscurity..

Alesi Canada1.jpg


But what could have been had Alesi stuck with his Williams deal for 1991?

The most obvious one would have been a lack of room at the inn for Nigel Mansell. Having decided to leave Grand Prix racing at the end of 1990, Williams would throw the Englishman a lifeline in a last minute deal to see him return to the Grove squad - a gamble that paid off mightily for team and driver as they went on to numerous race victories and the 1992 World Championship success.

Had Alesi signed for Williams, with Riccardo Patrese already locked into a contract, that could well have been the end of Mansell's Grand Prix career. Not to mention, Alesi would have been walking into one of the most competitive cars on the grid for 1991.

Despite Mansell having a golden end to his F1 career, teammate Riccardo Patrese still managed to pick up an impressive three victories and a further eight second place finishes over the 91-92 seasons, proving that the cars produced by Williams were indeed at the top of the field during this period.

Subsequent seasons would prove that Alesi was at the very least a match in pace for Patrese at this stage of their careers, arguably quite a bit faster in fact, so it would be fair to say the driver stood a very good chance of repeating the success of the man he would have kept out of the seat - Nigel Mansell.

Alesi Williams1.jpg


Mansell would win 13 races during the same period, with a further seven runners up spots to his credit, leading to the reasonable conclusion that all things being equal, Alesi probably would have taken the 1992 World Championship had he been driving the FW14B that year.

Considerably younger than Mansell, who elected to switch to IndyCar in 1993, Alesi would likely have remained at the Grove squad for 1993, either remaining alongside Patrese who Williams were keen to keep on board, or partnering the returning Alain Prost.

I would argue that with a young Alesi as reigning World Champion, Williams will not have needed to take a big money risk on bringing Prost out of his sabbatical, and would likely have retained the consistency of their 1992 partnership - leaving the door open for Alesi to take championship honours once again in 1993.

With many race wins and a double World Championship under his belt, 1994 could have been an interesting year in our hypothetical scenario.

Wholesale changes in Formula One would see the banning of driver aids for the new season, and Williams would likely have continued to sign Ayrton Senna for the year ahead. Alesi, current top dog in Formula One, would be left with the choice of fighting one of the biggest names in the sport within his own team, or maybe the timing would be right to migrate to his favourite squad at Ferrari, and begin the slow process of rebuilding the once great brand back to a level where consistent race wins are once again a possibility. All with the added confidence as the most successful driver of the last three years.

As we know, Ferrari didn't really hit their stride until Schumacher came on board in 1996, but with a confident Alesi, the prestige of a double World Champion, and a bit of luck, maybe the Tifosi would have had a little more to shout about in 1994 and beyond.

Sadly, these answers we will never know.. but it's been a fun distraction to think about it for a while at least...
 
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alexSchmurtz

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Very nice story Paul, I enjoyed reading it! :) I remember well when Alesi arrived, it was impressive to see this little Tyrell fly and fight with the big name, despite the team being on the edge of bankrupt!

What always surprised me with Alesi, was that once arrived at Ferrari... he seemed like he didn't need more! He was an F1 Ferrari driver, you can't get better than that. It is like he didn't feel the urge to fight for victories, let alone the championship! It has always been said that the most difficult part is not to get to the top (not 100% convinced this is true! ;)) but to stay at the top. I never really liked Schumacher as a driver but he impressed me a few years later with the way he kept fighting for more wins, more championship, and work as hard as he could for that.
So for me, that makes your story even more interesting: I guess he would have fought a bit more as a Williams driver, without the prestige around the red suit... so would probably have got a much more prolific career, I agree. He certainly knew how to get fast in an F1!
 

Brice.S.

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...Ralala, Alesi...what a man...
if you want to know, I saw Alesi in the grand prix de PAU in f3000 ( I lived in this city until 2016), he was so incredible ! when He came to F1, nobody would have believed he wont ever be World Champion...
In France, people mock about it (not sure it's the good word), french are a bit disabused about him, but he's one of the best driver we had, (with prost, Laffite, and Arnoux), this article is very interesting...even if it's a "if"
@++
 

Ruttman98

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Great article, Paul.

As a polyglot Italian-American whose grandparents are from Sicily, I was pleased foremost to learn Alesi was born in France to Sicilian parents.
 

Pepega123

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Probably yeah, he would've beat Patrese, but there are so many 'what ifs'.
The fact that Alesi only managed 1 win in his career...Williams made a good choice not to sign him.
 

Nick Hill

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Interesting write up, Paul - well done!

It's interesting, like a lot of things in life it's a question of timing, but when I first got into F1 mid 90s, so much of the talk regarding Alesi was already pretty negative, I never took him too seriously. It was only much later I realized he was at one point considered a future world champion caliber driver.
 

Celtic Pharaoh

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Nice read @Paul Jeffrey :)

Alesi is definitely one of F1's forgotten talents. That said, in light John Barnard's recent 'Beyond The Grid' podcast, its hard to know whether Alesi had any more to offer. He mentioned that Schumacher commented, during his first Ferrari test in '95, "It would've been easier to win the championship in the '95 Ferrari than in the Benetton" and apparently, Schumacher was very competitive from the outset in the test.

For sure, Alesi would've been a strong contender for the '92 championship though and possibly, '93 with how dominant Williams was back then. Whether he would've won it or not, its hard to say. But he was certainly good.

Fisichella is another special name I believe as well. The smoothest driver I've watched in F1. I know some will probably say Fangio or Clark were smoother but Fisichella was definitely the smoothest of the '90s-'00s guys and was always a joy to watch his onboards.

 

michelforest

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I was always a huge fan of Alesi. He struck me as an "old school" racer and I easily can picture him in a 1975 Ferrari alongside Niki Lauda. I still remember his amazing debut in a Tyrrell. He looked like a future WC. It's a huge shame that he only won one GP. At least, it was in Montreal, in a Ferrari with the number 27 on it. He was always a fan favorite here in Montreal and whenever I went to the Canadian GP, he always got his fair share of applause. In 1999, I was sitting in the hairpin section of the track and during the race, Alesi retired his Sauber right in front of us. He got out of the car and the crowd started shouting "Alesi! Alesi! Alesi!" So he took off his helmet and threw it in the crowd! I don't know who was the luck guy who caught it but he sure got an amazing memento of that race!
 

John B. Ellis

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Alesi was always a natural talent behind the wheel, and always exciting to watch, but I'm unsure whether he possessed the complete skillset, matched with Patrese, to develop the Williams-Renault package to the same level across the 1991 season like Nigel & Patrese did. Nigel's opportunity to establish a lead at Ferrari in 1989 following Berger fiery Tamburello accident, followed by the hard lessons of playing second fiddle to Prost's aspirations in 1990, provided Nigel with an invaluable range of experiences. A great "what-if" scenario regarding Alesi; however, I don't think the jump from single-race winner to World Champion is merely a question of seat swapping. As Prost proved better than anyone, there's so much more intrigue to F1 than what's going on in the cockpit....
 

wombat999

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I just loved Alesi.
He was passionate and totally committed to Ferrari and F1.
Even with an absolute dog of a car (Ferrari F92) he always drove as hard as possible.
He was simply never in the right place at the right time.
 
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pitkin

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Nice read @Paul Jeffrey :)

"It would've been easier to win the championship in the '95 Ferrari than in the Benetton" and apparently, Schumacher was very competitive from the outset in the test.
The Ferrari was pretty unreliable in '94 and '95, more both Alesi and Berger were running near the front at the early part of most of the races during those 2 years, only to be let down by the car. (And their own errors a couple of times) To finish first, first you have to finish and all that...
 
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Alesi once said he had a recurring team as a child: Sitting in the stands at Monza above the Ferrari pits, Enzo Ferrari comes up to him and asks him to drive on of his cars.
He had the talent to become of Williams' world champions, but he made him dream come true: race for Ferrari at Monza.
 

gianlucaP

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Alesi was the third choice of Ferrari. The first one was Senna. He made a pre-contract with Cesare Fiorio (Ferrari's team manager), but Prost said no and Fiorio gave up. The second one was Alessandro Nannini. They did a deal in the summer of 1990 (before his helicopter incident), but Fiorio changed his mind again. Nannini still hates Fiorio. So do I.
Alesi was a great driver, very fast, very talented. The car was a mess though. He said that the engine was unreliable and that they had all kind of problems back then. But since it was Ferrari, the team was always blaming something else, like the aerodynamic. They couldn't blame the engine in public. Also, it seems that he wasn't very good making the setup of the car. But he was fast.
I remember a race under an heavy rain, where in a straight he went on the grass, did a 360, come back to the asphalt and continued racing like it never happened, everything in full speed, I don't think he lost more than a second, he kept the throttle down. I never saw anything like that before in a formula 1 car. I mean, the vehicle was out of control, a rocket doing a donut, but somehow he managed to regain control without slowing down, in the wet grass. And on top of this, I think to remeber that he had slicks. :)
 
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Alesi was always a natural talent behind the wheel, and always exciting to watch, but I'm unsure whether he possessed the complete skillset, matched with Patrese, to develop the Williams-Renault package to the same level across the 1991 season like Nigel & Patrese did.
My guess as well. I once read something about Ivan Capelli being in shock when he drove his first laps of testing in the awful F92A, he couldn't believe how bad the car actually was. Capelli couldn't believe it when he discovered that Alesi had less comments on the car's behavior. I recall reading something along the lines of instead of trying to solve the problems, Alesi simply tried to drive around them. Capelli's frustration grew when the engineers started to listen more to the simple instructions being given by Alesi instead of his suggestions to redesign some parts of the car to solve the fundamental problems.
 

Leonardo Chaves

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"I would argue that with a young Alesi as reigning World Champion, Williams will not have needed to take a big money risk on bringing Prost out of his sabbatical, and would likely have retained the consistency of their 1992 partnership - leaving the door open for Alesi to take championship honours once again in 1993."

I do think Alesi wins the 92 WDC, how could he not?

Prost got himself that Williams seat working with Renault behind the scenes, Frank Williams was just happy to oblige and i think Renault was also in charge of Prost's wages.
So unless Renault tells Prost "we already have a frenchman winning everything" Prost still comes in.
If Renault does say that to Alain, i think Frank goes for Senna one year early, Senna was already trying his best to get a Williams in late 92 and Frank was a big Senna fan, only the "free Prost" for one year delayed him.
Potentially he could've stayed a Williams driver all the way to 97, bagging wins and maybe championships.

I do think the switcharoo with MS put his true value in question.
 
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Rot Teufel

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According to him words, he'll probably never go to Williams, since Frank was already chasing Senna and Senna doesn't want Alesi as teammate.

Source: https://it.motorsport.com/f1/video/jean-alesi-il-motorsport-e-marcio/464378/ (it's in italian)

Speaking about F92A, always according to his words in the same interview, the main problem was the engine that burn up oil too much quickly. At mid gp, car was out of oil. After this discover, both drivers run with an additional oil tank to refill the missing one.

Source: https://it.motorsport.com/f1/news/f...-a-il-doppio-fondo-non-era-sbagliato/4780326/ (always in italian)
 
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John B. Ellis

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In Alesi's defence, after his season with Tyrell in 1990, he was faced with the following career choice for 1991: a) Ferrari with Prost as teammate or b) Williams with Patrese as teammate. Given those options, and the respective team and driver performances in 1990 (Ferrari/Prost contending for championship until Lap 1 Turn 1 crash with Senna vs Williams/Patrese's zero wins), Alesi's choice appears the right one at that time. For one, how else for a young gun to prove himself Senna's equal than using his own yardstick (i.e., Prost)? More than that, from whom would you rather learn: Patrese or Le Professeur? [Prost was the de facto yardstick for French drivers, too.] Finally, I recall how Prost spent countless hours developing the 1991 Ferrari preseason. After Suzuka, Prost was determined to take the crown back from Senna. Pity for him that Senna was, well, Senna.
 
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According to him words, he'll probably never go to Williams, since Frank was already chasing Senna and Senna doesn't want Alesi as teammate.

Source: https://it.motorsport.com/f1/video/jean-alesi-il-motorsport-e-marcio/464378/ (it's in italian)

Speaking about F92A, always according to his words in the same interview, the main problem was the engine that burn up oil too much quickly. At mid gp, car was out of oil. After this discover, both drivers run with an additional oil tank to refill the missing one.

Source: https://it.motorsport.com/f1/news/f...-a-il-doppio-fondo-non-era-sbagliato/4780326/ (always in italian)
Hello there. Huge Alesi fan here.
Thanks for sharing the link to the recent interview, in which he was asked basically the same question, if he somehow regrets the choice of signing for Ferrari. His answer was awesome: "never. i never thought <<oh i could have been driving that damn fast Williams>> even when i was being overlapped by Mansell or Patrese in 1992. Because to become a Ferrari driver was my dream as a kid. And it became real, so i'm 100% happy with that!".
Love this genuine and passionate man.
 

Andrew Harper

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Probably yeah, he would've beat Patrese, but there are so many 'what ifs'.
The fact that Alesi only managed 1 win in his career...Williams made a good choice not to sign him.
Sorry I’m going to have to friendly disagree with you slightly :)

I think he would’ve been world champion with Williams if he‘d decided to go there.

He agreed with Frank Williams, to come to the team for ‘91 but didn’t sign anything. Then Ferrari came calling and the lure was too much....I’m not 100% sure who but someone told him to go there. Can’t remember if it was Bernie, but someone steered him to Ferrari instead of Williams. It’s on his beyond the grid interview.

Unfortunately for him Ferrari were a mess in the first half of the 90’s both with the cars and with the team politics. Ironically that’s what seems to be happening in the last few years there now.

The ‘91 car was a huge mistake. They decided that rather than build a new car for the season they modified the ‘90 car thinking It would be good enough. It wasn’t. Of course everyone had moved on, people were sacked, constant in-fighting, it was a mess. The technical backup simply wasn’t there. It took years for them to recover and the drivers were on the front line of this chaos.

Of all the cars Alesi drove in his time at Ferrari, the ‘95 car was easily the best. He led races in it but the car failed him or the team screwed things up and cost him wins (Berger in the sister car as well). I remember when they were dominating the Italian Grand Prix. Berger suffered some sort of failure, but I remember that Alesi’s car suffered a hub failure at about two thirds distance. It was this sort of thing that didn’t help. So the signs were there that Ferrari were on the way back up but they just needed those last few pieces of the jigsaw.

His raw car control was always very impressive, whenever It rained he came to front.

Just one another of those stories where the driver didn’t get the right car at the right time. However he did win a race, and a lot of very good drivers don’t even get a podium these days.

it may have been contract related (I cant remember) but I wonder if he was offered a seat at Williams in ‘93 opposite Prost? Prost was a good friend of his. Of course the seat went to Damon.
 
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pitkin

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If someone has got the best car in F1, most of the time they only have to beat their team mate. Patrese, IMO would have been beaten by Alesi at Williams, I think Hill would have been too.

On the subject of Ricardo though, when I think back to the 'Agreement' Mansell had to be number one at Williams, I wonder if Patrese would have done better if he thought he had a fair shot? He was a lot closer to Mansell in '91, maybe his motivation was lacking the following year, knowing that Mansell would be getting the sort of support he used to moan about Piquet getting, when they were team mates?


But really, stick anyone in the '92 or '93 Williams and they'd be first or second favourite for the title.