Should Jean Alesi Race In The 500?

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If you didn’t agree with my rant yesterday, you’re probably not going to like this one either. When we heard this past Saturday night that Jean Alesi had finally gotten a team to run him in this year’s Indianapolis 500; it was a case of good news/bad news.

The good news was that it appears that there will be thirty-three entries when practice gets underway this weekend. The bad news is that the most recent entry will be former Formula One driver Jean Alesi. After being turned away from Newman/Haas and HVM, he’s finally found a taker with Fan Force United – Tyce Carlson’s tiny Firestone Indy Lights team.

It’s not that I have anything personal against Alesi. He is obviously a competent driver or he would never have been able to keep his Formula One ride with Ferrari for four years. The problem is, those four years took place in the early nineties. His lone Formula One win came during his last year with Ferrari, when he won the Canadian Grand Prix in 1995.

Alesi has not raced an open-wheel car since his last Formula One season in 2001. He has stayed busy driving in German Touring Cars and various forms of racing, but has not experienced open-wheel completion for eleven-plus seasons. Added to that is the fact that he has never raced on an oval in any form of racing. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a curious place to start an oval career for someone who will turn forty-eight next month.

I know what will be said – "Be open-minded and see how he does before proclaiming this to be a disaster". The thing is, my thoughts are not original by any stretch. I’m just a fan. There are many that are so much closer to the situation than I am, that are extremely concerned about this.

Since last fall, we’ve been hearing that Jean Alesi was intent on running this year’s Indianapolis 500. He has a relationship with Lotus and it seems they thought this would be a great way to showcase the Lotus brand. Not to keep picking on Lotus, as I’ve been accused of doing – but their brand has already suffered enough black eyes recently. Why compound it with running a has-been driver in his first oval race ever, in a slow car prepared by a team that has never run an IndyCar race. To be kind – this situation just does not sound optimal.

Since yesterday, Lotus has received even more bad news. Dragon Racing announced they were severing ties with the troubled engine supplier, just days before Rookie Orientation which both drivers will be taking part in. Katherine Legge is a true rookie at Indianapolis, while Sébastien Bourdais will be required to take a refresher course since he hasn’t driven any oval since 2006 and has not driven in the Indianapolis 500 since 2005 – his only 500 start.

Lotus is down to one full-time car on the grid – the car driven by Simona de Silvestro for HVM. For the 500, they’ll have two; Simona and now Jean Alesi.

It’s rare that I go into the month of May actually pulling against a particular driver to make the race. Once bumping starts, there are certain drivers I want in more than others – but it’s rare that I’ll ever say “Gee, I sure hope [blank] doesn’t make the race.” But in Alesi’s case, I’m going to.

This isn’t a case of being anti-Formula One. Those that know me know that I welcome foreign drivers, so you know that’s not the case here. Nor is this a case of expecting a driver to “pay their dues” before being deemed worthy of a ride in the Indinapolis 500. None of these apply here. As I said, this is nothing personal against Jean Alesi.

Instead, I’m concerned how sharp the skills are for a driver approaching fifty that hasn’t driven anything remotely similar to these types of cars in well over a decade. Throw in the fact that it’s his first time on any oval and the whole thing sounds like a recipe for disaster. A couple of years ago, fans cringed at the kind of mayhem that Milka Duno could potentially cause at the type of speeds run at IMS. Fortunately, Milka ran four Indianapolis 500’s without causing many in-race problems. Milka had at least run on an oval before tackling IMS and had driven these type of cars before.

Anything can happen in a race to anybody, but I truly think that Alesi’s presence on the track poses a legitimate threat to the other drivers. Lotus has suffered a PR nightmare for the past few months. Can anything that Jean Alesi does, short of winning the Indianapolis 500, make those issues disappear in fans minds? Probably not. The best they can do is let him give it a good shot at ROP on Thursday and then let him announce that it would be in everyone’s best interest for him not to run the Indianapolis 500. Otherwise, what has been a disastrous season thus far for Lotus could become a lot worse.

George Phillips

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25 Responses to “Should Jean Alesi Race In The 500?”

  1. “A has-been driver in his first oval race ever, in a slow car prepared by a team that has never run an IndyCar race” will likely not qualify to race.

  2. Ha. I hope he kicks Simona’s butt in qualifying.

    As for the race, neither of them will see lap 20, so who cares.

  3. I understand your concern, George, and it may well be that Alesi has a horrible month. However, it sounds like they have some solid personnel behind the scenes at FFU, and to be honest, the only thing we can do right now is *suspect* Alesi isn’t up to the task. I think the benefit of the doubt has to be given; that’s what Rookie Orientation is for. If he does that, then we move on to the next step, then the next, and so on.

    Arbitrarily eliminating any driver from the running, especially a former F1 winner who has been working extremely hard to make this happen, is a bad precedent to set. Concern over his abilities does not immediately equate into proof of lack of ability. He’ll hardly be the first “has been” or questionable driver to try Indy. I say, let him try, and unless he is found grossly deficient in the requisite skills for this endeavor, let him give it a shot.

  4. IIRC, Dave McDonald didn’t have a lot of open wheel experience and qualified for a shoe-string team back in ’64. I’m just saying.

  5. Bob F. Says:

    This sums up what is wrong with Indy car in a nutshell. And why the ovals are suddenly so dangerous.

    A new F1 Lite league for has been F1 drivers.

  6. Brian in NY Says:

    Jean may not have been doing much open wheel racing, but he has been doing some sport cars racing and he is the developmental driver for the Lotus T-125 project. The Lotus T-125 project is an open wheel car that has a 3.5 liter 640 bhp V8 Cosworth engine that runs similar times as a F1 car. For a million you can get behind the seat and have Jean coach you on the finer points of driving an open wheel car.

    Jean looks in shape and has been training hard and I think he will do fine on the track. IndyCar has had countless less qualified drivers in the past especially during the early split era. The fact that Jean has been running an open wheel car on a regular basis puts him ahead IMO of several older drivers who have been sitting on a couch for a year.

    • Excellent point, Brian. This is not some sudden whim on Alesi’s part. By all accounts, he’s been doing the requisite training and working hard to make this happen. Knowing what we do of Alesi, I don’t see him approaching this month in anything but a respectful and serious manner.

  7. Alesi may not have RACED in an open-wheeled car in a while, but don’t let that fool you – besides the Dallara simulator, he’s also been Lotus’ ambassador driver in its T125 project. Think of it as a track day F1 car, equipped with a 3.5 liter Cosworth V8 engine (sound familiar, fans of IndyCar’s former engine formula?). I have no doubt that Alesi’s reflexes within an open-wheeler are strong, and combined with the fact that he scored multiple Le Mans Series podiums and finished fourth in class at Le Mans just two seasons ago, a lot of people are going to be wrong about him.

    Yours isn’t the first, nor will it likely be the last, example of people dismissing Alesi without analyzing his recent career. May we all do our research on the driver himself before idly speculating on how he adapts to the Speedway. Pretty sure a lot of people predicted that Juan Montoya was going to fail miserably in 2000… not that Alesi is Montoya, but how’d that one work out?

    • Can’t recall anyone predicting trouble from Montoya. If they were, they had an agenda.

      He was the defending champion of the better series in 1999 with 3 oval wins in his rookie year.

      Most of us figured he was going to cream the IRL in 2000.

  8. Ron Ford Says:

    Well, I believe he has been the development driver for the T125 from the beginning. The T125 is certainly a very fast open wheel car. Let’s see how he does in the rookie orientation instead of dismissing him out of hand.

    By the way, if you have a extra million lying about you can have a T125. It comes with a few amenities of course, such as its own luxury transporter and its own racing league.

    Since it has a Cosworth engine it begs the question of why Lotus went with Judd instead of Cosworth. Has that question been answered?

    • Cosworth is owned by Kevin Kalkhoven of KVRT these days… as I understand it, the Lotus/KVRT relationship was a bit shaky towards the end there, which is what led KVRT to go Chevy.

  9. Thank you George. I have no doubt that Alesi is a very talented driver, and hopefully he proves us all wrong, but I am more concerned about the multitude of unknowns already on the docket this month. (how will the engines/car perform, how will this new car run in traffic, at high speeds, on an oval, etc… etc… ) Add to that this giant unknown, and well… Drivers who have driven these tracks their whole careers struggle here. Maybe I’m just too skittish when it comes to these damn ovals.

  10. JohnMc Says:

    This year has come to a lack of bump day, however it is just this year and it was expected to be a tough year with getting teams financially square with new cars. Even though, the series has all of the earmarkings of getting bigger and better. I expect a great race and I find the new car pretty exciting. I would love to see a Chevy Honda dual to the end. As for Lotus, I never expected much from them and after reading Dragon Racing’s lawsuit I expect that this new Lotus group is on the way out after sullying one of the greatest names in all of racing.

  11. Steve K Says:

    I do not agree with the likes of our wonderful blogger or The Lee Corso-like Robin Miller. Alesi has raced with the best of them. Sure he hasn’t been full time for a while, but we arent asking this guy to run the 24 hours of Le Mans all by himself. This race isnt the marathon that it used to be. He will be fine for the 500 mile sprint. Age wont be the reason he doesnt fair well. Lotus will be. Put him in a Chevy and he will be fine.

  12. Gurney Eagle Says:

    I agree with zacharythefirst. Evaluate him during ROP and then move on from there. I also think Barfield shoud institute a minimum time to achieve in qualifying, such as 105% of the pole time. If the Lotuses can’t meet that then they shouldn’t be allowed to race, even if it means a short field.

  13. Golf In Chicago Says:

    Better a former F1 driver who has worked extensively on an open-wheel car (the aforementioned T125) than Ms. Duno or one of the early IRL-era drivers. Jack Miller, say. If Alesi turns out to be a moving chicane (likely given the Lotus powering him) he can always be yanked after the second pit stop. Even Barnhart did that with Duno on some tracks.

  14. billytheskink Says:

    Drivers have failed Rookie Orientation in recent years and if Alesi joins their ranks we will all have nothing to worry about (other than possibly only 32 cars). If he pleasantly surprises this month, I hope he gets some credit from his doubters. I see no reason to root against him, as he seems enthusiastic about Indy and I trust that the new race control is willing to park him if they think he will be a danger.

    To be fair to Alesi, Milka ran AN oval before her first Indy 500. As in ONE oval (Kansas). It’s one more than Alesi has driven, yes, but is it really that much more? Milka had been out of open-wheelers for several years as well, prior to her Indy debut.

  15. Big Knocker Says:

    “Alesi, I don’t see him approaching this month in anything but a respectful and serious manner.”

    Yes, buying a ride with a team that didn’t even exist a week ago (this deal was literally put together last Friday and this team had no plans for a Indy 500 effort until then) and on a oval for the first time in your life, is the definition of a “respectful and serious” effort.

    This is a field-filler deal. They needed somebody to be the the 33rd qualifier. This is #33. Its not serious. Its certainly not respectful to all of those who busted their asses over the years at IMS, just trying to make the race (back when the field of 33 wasn’t determined by the engine manufacturers before the track even opens).

    The Indy 500 has fallen to a point where a 47 year old, who hasn’t driven a open-wheel car in a decade and has never driven on a oval of any kind, has to beg literally anyone to run him in a engine nobody wants, so they can fill the traditional 33 car field. Its sad to see it come to this. But that’s where we are.

    Meanwhile, Buddy Rice, Tomas Scheckter, Paul Tracy, Alex Lloyd, Davey Hamilton, Vitor Meira, Bertrand Baguette, Jay Howard and John Andretti will all be watching on TV (maybe) this year. Maybe one of them can come back in 10 years and play race driver then at Indy. If its good enough for Jean and Michel, why not?

    • The man is doing what he needs to do to race in Indy. I don’t deride that. I would also like to see many of the drivers you list at Indy this year, but also understand it’s a peculiar year. I won’t use that to denigrate Alesi’s efforts; I’ll just wish him the best and see what happens.

  16. Steve C Says:

    One may ask, “Why Jean Alesi?”, but look at the multitude of forgettable drivers who did nothing in the IRL’s first dozen years. There are so many worse choices than Jean Alesi. He lacks oval experience and has never raced an IndyCar, but he is a Formula One race winner (only 102 men have ever done that), he raced for Ferrari, and in his second season he had a terrific fight with the late great Ayrton Senna at Phoenix. Compare that to the “qualifications” of Milkmaid, Jon Herb, Scott Mayer, Dr. Jack Miller, Marty Roth, etc. In Jean Alesi, we get a professional driver. And in this first season of the new formula which has given us an engine shortage, we need a 33rd entry and, I say again, we could do MUCH worse than Alesi.

  17. I really can see why people who do not know much about Alesi think this is a bad idea. But if you give him your support and give him a chance to get through the Rookie Programme I think you wil change your mind.

    Alesi is a racer through and through and remains so, he has so much experience and passion and wants to take part in one of the greatest motorsport events in the world. He knows that critical opinion will try and rip him to shreds, for his age or whatever else. But he doesn’t care, he cares about driving fast, trying to impress the fans and completing a dream.

    Don’t dump the Lotus baggage on him, I believe Lotus promised him a drive in his contract as an Ambassador. Why shouldn’t he hold them to it? Yes, it makes Lotus look silly bandling money behind Alesi when they can’t sort their engines out but that is not Alesi’s problem to solve. If promised you you can race Indy when it is your one and only chance, you would make sure they lived up to it.

    In these days when we are all complaining about how indycar is run, internal corruptions and drivers with no passion, what could be more back to roots than Crazy Jean Alesi, an F1 has-been in a brand new indy500 graduating team, chasing the 500 dream. Isn’t that the kind of thing racing is truly about?

    Watch some youtube videos, see how he reacted to finishing sixth in an F1 car at Montreal in a Prost Peugeot. A car which was about as useful as a lotus engined indycar. Get behind him and give him support for trying, if he isn’t good enough they wont let him race, simple as.

  18. franchittilitter Says:

    I can’t see why he shouldn’t have a shot. And he has been in an open-wheel car recently, as mentioned before. I’d rather have him than some NASCAR reject. Or even Paul Tracy (kidding on that one…)

  19. If you told me this preseason, I’d say he has as much right to being in the field as Michel Jourdain or Katherine Legge.

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