Should Jean Alesi Race In The 500?
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.