Back in the mid 1990's & stretching into the early 2000's, I used to be a very devoted fan of Formula 1 automobile racing. I was a fan of IndyCar racing as well starting sometime in the late 80's (I remember watching the race they had in the parking lot of the Meadowlands sports complex in New Jersey on TV a couple times), and for some reason Jacques Villeneuve became my favorite driver. When he left IndyCar after the 1995 season to go to F1, I simply followed him over there, continuing to follow IndyCar as well, where Greg Moore took over my "favorite IndyCar driver" slot.
My F1 roots go back much earlier though, as I used to love watching the race from Monaco on ABC's Wide World Of Sports in the early & mid 1970's. TV coverage of F1 in the US at that time was practically non-existent, but I have very specific and fond memories of wanting to see the race where they went thru the tunnel, as that was a phenomenon that was unique to the race thru the streets of Monte Carlo. I was quite a young'n at the time, but I was into sports from a VERY early age. Seeing as how I was actually watching a few minutes of qualifying from Monaco this morning, that must be what triggered this journal entry.
I became such an ardent follower of F1 in the late 1990's that I actually journeyed twice to the Grand Prix Of Canada, held at the Gilles Villeneuve Circuit in Montreal. The 6 or 7 hour drive from New York City was a very pleasant one, except for a brief scare on the 1998 journey north involving Dave Winfield and a bird, and one incident on the 1999 return trip involving a flywheel in my 1983 Chevy Malibu that is a separate blog entry unto itself...which I'll get to someday.
But in thinking about my trips to Canadian F1 races, I stumbled across a very fond memory involving a driver named Jean Alesi. Alesi had tremendous talent, but was a bad decision maker as far as deciding when to drive for what team. He always went with his emotions, which endeared him to fans, but prevented him from having any real success at the F1 level. Despite competing in over 200 F1 races in a career spanning 13 years, he only managed one victory. That came at the 1995 Grand Prix Of Canada, driving a Ferrari emblazoned with the number 27, the same car and number that Gilles Villeneuve drove. This was a wonderfully popular victory with fans, and the partially-French Alesi was a hero in the very French province of Quebec. Alesi's car was so light on fuel that he ran out after the final lap, and hitched a ride with Michael Schumacher to make it back to the pits and the podium. Oh, and the Montreal circuit was named for Villeneuve after his 1982 racing death...and yes, Jacques is Gilles' son.
Alesi went with Ferrari in 1991, passing up an opportunity to drive for Williams. This was just as Ferrari completely fell off the map as far as competitiveness, and Williams became the dominant team for the next 6 or 7 years. He then left Ferrari after 1995 and went to Benetton when Schumacher went in the opposite team direction, and Schumacher took Ferrari to undreamed of success (albeit not right away), while Alesi was a "best of the rest" for 2 years with Benetton.
By the time the 1999 Grand Prix Of Canada rolled around, Alesi was with an underfunded Sauber team that, while not the worst in the field, also never had a chance of winning anything. But he was still a popular figure in the F1 world, and in particular with the fans in Montreal. But he sealed his immense popularity with the racing fans in an untelevised incident during practice at the 1999 event.
I had seats at the entrance to the Casino hairpin for the 1999 weekend (just outside the right edge of this picture, about halfway up), affording me a great view of the cars at the slowest point of the track, excellent for taking pictures. In 1998, I'd sat on the opposite side, and enjoyed it, but thought I might like the other side better. The exit side had about 30 or so rows of seats. The entrance side, due to just not having enough room, only had about 6 rows of seats. The first row was within 10 feet of the track, and it made for a great view of the cars as they rocketed up thru the gears on the exit. It also afforded a great view of the incidents that would happen, as the hairpin was a popular spot for things to go wrong. It was also a pretty safe area to pull over if you had a mechanical issue, due to the very slow speeds thru the hairpin itself.
At some point during practice on Sunday morning, Alesi came thru with something wrong with his vehicle. He pulled it over onto the grass on the exit of the hairpin, got out of the car, removed his helmet, and just waited at the wall. The fans, still remembering him for his 1995 victory, started to give him a great round of applause. Alesi, in appreciation, waved to everyone, which only made the applause get louder. With the superstar status afforded to these drivers, plus the performance standards they have to maintain, it's easy to forget that they are people, and some even cultivate the machine image. But Alesi has always been human, faults and all, and this is part of what endeared him to the F1 community. As everyone got caught up in the moment, Alesi got caught up most of all.
Sometimes drivers will throw their gloves up into the crowd after an incident, just as some kind of thanks to the fans. But that is usually over a catch fence where people are standing just on the other side at the same height as them. Alesi wanted to do something for this crowd, but the stands were just a little too far away and a little too high up to have his gloves make it. Seeing a break in traffic, he got over close to the stands on the exit side, and hurled his HELMET up into the crowd! In one magnificent gesture, Alesi went from popular driver to beloved figure in the eyes of everyone in the stands at that hairpin turn in Montreal. Needless to say, the adulation increased even more, and the roar of the ovation was deafening and beautiful. The helmet is something worth thousands of dollars, and my understanding of it was that he did receive some sort of grief from his team upon returning to the pits, as there are bits of technology in those things that the teams are very secretive about. However, nothing could diminish the feeling of the moment. It was truly something special to witness and be a part of, and even remembering it now stirs up wonderful feelings.
All this because I happened to turn on the TV this morning when I realized it was Monaco weekend, and I wanted to see a few minutes of "the race with the tunnel..."
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