How Jean Alesi and Tyrrell shook Ayrton Senna in Phoenix

With his nemesis Alain Prost gone to Ferrari, Ayrton Senna was looking forward to an easier time of things in Formula 1 1990 with the all-conquering McLaren team. While Prost would continue to be a thorn in his side in the title reckoning, it was another Frenchman – driving for an F1 giant-turned-minnow – that got his attention early on…

How Jean Alesi and Tyrrell shook Ayrton Senna in Phoenix

Ayrton Senna is perplexed. He’s just won the 1990 United States Grand Prix but has been surprised by the fighting spirit of young Tyrrell racer Jean Alesi, who had the impudence to repass him after what was supposed to be the winning overtaking move in a vastly-superior car on better tyres.

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 018 Ford leads Ayrton Senna, Mclaren MP4/5B Honda
Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 018 Ford leads Ayrton Senna, Mclaren MP4/5B Honda
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Photo by: Sutton Images

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-5B Honda, leads Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 018 Ford, and Gregor Foitek, Brabham BT58 Judd
Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-5B Honda, leads Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 018 Ford, and Gregor Foitek, Brabham BT58 Judd
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Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Ayrton Senna, Mclaren MP4/5B Honda leads Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 018 Ford
Ayrton Senna, Mclaren MP4/5B Honda leads Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 018 Ford
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Photo by: Motorsport Images

Ayrton Senna, McLaren Honda MP4/5B leads Jean Alesi, Tyrrell Cosworth 018 and Gregor Foitek, Brabham Judd BT58
Ayrton Senna, McLaren Honda MP4/5B leads Jean Alesi, Tyrrell Cosworth 018 and Gregor Foitek, Brabham Judd BT58
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Photo by: Sutton Images

Not only did it mean he had to pass Alesi again on the following lap, even then the upstart almost got by him once more. But there was another confusing development after the flag had fallen…

“Why did you fight so hard like that?” asked Senna upon greeting runner-up Alesi. The response he got from Alesi was probably the last thing he was ever expecting: “Because today I was Senna, and that’s how I drive!”

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell, 2nd position, Ayrton Senna, McLaren, 1st position, and Thierry Boutsen, Williams, 3rd position, on the podium

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell, 2nd position, Ayrton Senna, McLaren, 1st position, and Thierry Boutsen, Williams, 3rd position, on the podium

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Ayrton’s justifiable bemusement quickly turned to anger, as Alesi pulled the zip down the front of his overalls to reveal the name on his fireproof vest: ‘Ayrton Senna’.

Alesi takes up the story of how he came to be wearing one of Senna’s own vests in the pulsating race that made his name…

“Ayrton said: ‘Where did you get that?’ I was laughing but he wasn’t!

“At the time, McLaren was looking after Tyrrell’s marketing. Just before the race, as I was going to the grid, I was wearing a regular Marlboro t-shirt. The McLaren guy responsible asked, ‘is that fireproof?’ and I shrugged ‘I don’t know’.

“So we ran to the McLaren motorhome, and he grabbed a fireproof for me. It was one of Ayrton’s; I wore it because it was given to me. So when Ayrton said that to me, I showed him his name on my fireproof, he was a bit upset!”

Jean Alesi and Ayrton Senna

Jean Alesi and Ayrton Senna

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

SO THE STORY BEGAN

Alesi had already made a huge impact the previous season when he made his F1 debut in the French Grand Prix in 1989.

“Everything went so fast,” he says of his F1 call-up. “I was doing Formula 3000 with Eddie Jordan – I was living in his house in England, which was pretty crazy in itself – and one day we were testing at Monza. There were no mobile phones in those days, and I got a message from Eddie at the end of the day: ‘When you finish testing come back to England to fix your contract for the French Grand Prix.’ I thought he was joking!

 Jean Alesi, Tyrrell

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

“I flew back with my brother Jose and I signed the contract with Ken Tyrrell. Eddie was there too; it was an unbelievably memorable moment for me. The factory was very modest, with the woodshed still there, but the car was terrific. It was one of the best cars at the time, and it had much more extreme aerodynamics compared to the others.”

With the contract done and dusted, there was the small matter of pre-race preparations.

“I was sent to the workshop to make my seat. I was sat in the car, then [aerodynamicist] Jean-Claude Migeot and [designer] Harvey Posthlewaite appeared next to me. They didn’t know me at all: ‘Who are you?’ I was really embarrassed. I told them who I was and why I was there, so they said, ‘Well, we’d better get you comfortable then’. They were so nice.”

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 018

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 018

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Alesi’s F1 debut came at Paul Ricard: “When I arrived at the track, nobody knew who I was. I was totally unknown, and no-one outside of the team spoke to me in the paddock. I was invisible! So I got in the car, pulled out of the pitlane and was queueing with everyone else. I remember looking up and down at all the famous helmets and thinking, ‘I’m in Formula 1!’ It was so exciting.

“I thought I’d follow someone to get used to the speed. I followed [Riccardo] Patrese. After two or three laps he was slowing me down – I was quite happy with that! Then I followed Gerhard [Berger] and again he was slowing me down. So I passed him, but spun at the chicane soon after. Gerhard came to Ken after the session and asked: ‘Who is this crazy guy?’

 

“Before the race, Eddie bet with Ken that I would finish higher than my teammate, Jonathan Palmer. Once again, that was embarrassing – Eddie did it right in front of Jonathan. I was there to start my first race, I didn’t want to start a problem with my teammate.

“I was flying that weekend. The race was crazy, with the big accident at the start started by [Mauricio] Gugelmin flying over everybody, so it was red-flagged. The restart went very well, and I was up to P2 before my pitstop, and finished fourth. An amazing day.”

Start: huge crash for Mauricio Gugelmin, Leyton House March CG891

Start: huge crash for Mauricio Gugelmin, Leyton House March CG891

Photo by: Motorsport Images

With his name well and truly established as a star of F1’s future, his short-term needed rubber-stamping. Oh, and Eddie won his bet!

“My contract was just for one race but, of course, Ken asked me to stay,” he says. “We had just three days to agree the contract, and did it on the Thursday afternoon before the British Grand Prix. That was it, I was a full-time Formula 1 driver, and the good times began.”

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PHOENIX INFLAMED

That part-year yielded eight points from eight races, but it was his first full season in 1990 that Alesi truly made his name. Tyrrell cut a late deal with tyre supplier Pirelli, which gave the tiny Ockham, Surrey-based squad the chance to make a huge impression with its clever little Ford V8-powered car.

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

“We hadn’t tested on Pirellis at all,” says Alesi. “When Harvey told me we would be using them, it was a big surprise! I arrived at Phoenix not knowing what they would be like to drive. The grip level [of the track] was very low, and this played into our hands. Even the Minardi was quick! I qualified fifth, and I was leading by the first corner.”

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 018 Ford, Gerhard Berger, McLaren MP4-5B Honda, Andrea de Cesaris, Dallara BMS-190 Ford, Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-5B Honda at the start

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 018 Ford, Gerhard Berger, McLaren MP4-5B Honda, Andrea de Cesaris, Dallara BMS-190 Ford, Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-5B Honda at the start

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Before the race, Alesi had told Tyrrell he would do that: “Ken said: ‘No, no! I don’t want you to lead into the first corner, I want you to lead exiting the final corner.’ He was really good. I learned a lot from him. He was very close to his drivers, but he’d always give you confidence after a scary moment.

“I once spun at Monza on the straight – I hit a puddle in the wet and did a big 360 but it wasn’t on the TV. I came back to the pits and Ken said: ‘What’s wrong?’ so I said, ‘The circuit is a little too slippery, let’s wait a little bit.’ Immediately he knew – ‘What’s happened?’ – and I admitted I’d spun on the straight and scared myself. And he said, without hesitating: ‘OK, the spare car is over there, hop in it.’”

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 019 Ford

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 019 Ford

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Back to Phoenix – after rocketing from fifth to first at the first corner, Jean takes up the story.

“I was really hoping I’d finish the lap in the lead. I just wanted to be classified as leading a grand prix. Then it was two laps, then three laps. I was really tense in the car, but slowly I started to relax and felt like it was normal to lead an F1 race. Then Ayrton started to come back at me.

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 018 Ford leads Ayrton Senna, Mclaren MP4/5B Honda

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 018 Ford leads Ayrton Senna, Mclaren MP4/5B Honda

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“He was catching me fast, so I thought, ‘OK, I cannot win, because the race is too long, but I will give him a hard time.’ I was really braking late, doing the maximum. So when he outbraked me, he had to brake really late, which is why I knew I could attack him again at the next corner, and make him go straight, so I could repass him. I loved to race like that with a driver I respected.”

It was the moment that really brought his fighting spirit to the fore, the commentating James Hunt exclaiming: “That’s a bit cheeky, isn’t it? Fantastic stuff from Alesi; tremendous opportunist driving. Sloppy Senna wasn’t expecting that!”

Alain Prost, Ferrari 641/2, heads Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 019 Ford, Gerhard Berger, McLaren MP4-5B Honda leads at the start

Alain Prost, Ferrari 641/2, heads Jean Alesi, Tyrrell 019 Ford, Gerhard Berger, McLaren MP4-5B Honda leads at the start

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Alesi finished second, but his next big chance to shine was Monaco, where he would drive the new anhedral-nosed Tyrrell 019. Uncle Ken did his best to rein in Alesi’s supreme confidence, but…

“I had said in the press: ‘I’m going to win at Monaco. I am going to be quicker than Ayrton.’ I was really pushing! We were testing at Paul Ricard, as a shakedown, and Ken said he needed a quiet word. He said [in Jean’s best Ken impression, hushed tones]: ‘Jean. We are a small team. We don’t have the budget of McLaren or Ferrari. Concentrate on finishing the grand prix, and you will finish well.’

“So, I wait a moment, and say, ‘Well Ken…NO! NO! [arms waving, shouting] YOU WILL SEE! I’M REALLY GONNA WIN IT!’

“You should have seen his face…he really was a great guy. Monaco was my place. I loved it. And I finished second [by 1.087s to Senna], so Ken was right – as usual!”

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4/5B Honda leads Gerhard Berger, McLaren MP4/5B Honda and Jean Alesi. Tyrrell 019 Ford

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4/5B Honda leads Gerhard Berger, McLaren MP4/5B Honda and Jean Alesi. Tyrrell 019 Ford

Photo by: Motorsport Images

But those points were sadly his last of the season. Despite some stellar qualifying performances, even at a high-power dependency circuit like Monza, frustrating spins there and at Jerez – where he’d qualified fourth – restricted him to ninth in the championship. His apprenticeship served; a future joining Prost at Ferrari awaited.

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell Ford spins

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell Ford spins

Photo by: Sutton Images

Marshalls remove the car of Jean Alesi Tyrrell 019 Ford from the track

Marshalls remove the car of Jean Alesi Tyrrell 019 Ford from the track

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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