As F1 returns to Paul Ricard, so does proud Provencal Alesi
Scuderia Ferrari F1 winner Jean Alesi was born in Provence, and grew up dreaming of racing cars. His local circuit, the magnificent Le Castellet racetrack (these days called Circuit Paul Ricard) situated between Toulon and Marseilles, holds a special place in his heart. In 2018, F1 returns to Paul Ricard, so we joined Alesi for a homecoming tour. The tifosi favourite was born in Avignon on June 11th 1964, and less than a decade later, he had caught the bug. “I came to Castellet to watch my father, who ran a car repair shop in Avignon, race the Tour Auto 1973 in a Chevrolet Camaro,” he told us. “I saw my first Formula 1 GP here; Alain Prost won with Renault (1983). I learned to drive racing cars here, taking a race driving course at the Winfield school.
I won the F3 title here, in 1987.” But the relationship with this beautiful sun-drenched racetrack doesn’t end there. Because then came one of Alesi’s best racing memories, in 1989. “My first Formula 1 Grand Prix!” he exclaims with delight. He was racing in the International F3000 Championship when well-known F1 team Tyrrell called him up, mid-season, to step into F1. Remarkably, despite being overcome with emotion during the weekend – at one point, he left his helmet behind in his hotel room – the Frenchman finished fourth, in his home Grand Prix, on his debut. “I came here, nobody really knew who I was, and I left having made my dream come true! A real fairy tale.” So who better to take is for a tour of the region in a buttercup yellow Ferrari 812 Superfast? Alesi loves Provence. “It is my region.”
He has bought his “retirement home” in Avignon, “with chickens, sheep, honey bees”. The diet is healthy, and ever-changing. “One season, it’s asparagus, during another, it’s chard. Melons from Cavaillon. Strawberries...” No wonder he visits as often as he can. We tour gently around the region, V12 engine purring. Alesi is a skilful driver, the 812 Superfast an instrument in his hands. We stop to tour the hilltop village of Le Castellet, where Alesi is inevitably recognised. “We are here to create a bit of a buzz around the French Grand Prix!” he exclaims. Later, there’s a photo session with the buttercup yellow Ferrari – which is captured by a mass of smartphone ‘selfies’ from admiring onlookers.
The famed Ferrari racer is drawing them, but so too is the car, he says. “Ferrari is unique. No one can help but admire a Ferrari, and smile as one goes by. For someone like me who has always been such a passionate admirer of the marque, it really warms my heart.” Ferrari is now helping foster the next generation of Alesi racers. Jean’s son, Giuliano, was inducted into the Ferrari Driver Academy at just 18 years of age. He is racing in the international GP3 Championship, in which he has already won four races. Amazingly, the next round will be a support race for F1’s return to Paul Ricard. “How symbolic!” says Alesi, smiling proudly.