An interview with Jean Alesi, F1 legend and brand Ambassador for Montegrappa
Angus Davies (AD): Thank you for the interview. I just wanted to ask you a few questions for an article I am writing for my on-line magazine on wrist watches and “the finer things in life” and which includes, of course, Montegrappa pens.
I know you have a passion for cars and speed but I note that you have taken up a number of new challenges, and a that you are now a member of the Montegrappa board.
Jean Alesi (JA): You are asking me why I decided to join Montegrappa?
AD: Yes, on the website you speak of love of craftsmanship. I wondered if any member of your family was a craftsmen.
JA: Yes, I admire craftsmanship. No, it does not come from my family but I love what is handmade. I love the people who can do something, make something by hand, it’s like an art, you know. I was really impressed the first time I visited the factory and could see what they were able to do, that was, of course, something I admired and I fell in love immediately. It is also a very different world from what I used to do, my role at Montegrappa. But in some ways it is very similar. It is teamwork. It is handmade work. Everybody tries to do their best and make the best. That was where I feel a kind of link between Formula 1 and the company.
Sometimes impetuous as a driver… on the other hand you have a patient side
AD: That is interesting because in Formula 1 you are used to shaving seconds off lap times and you are at the cutting edge whereas to make a fine pen takes infinite patience. I notice you are a winemaker and that too needs time. So I see someone who was sometimes impetuous as a driver, competitive, aggressive and on the other hand you have this patient side when you make your wine and appreciate the care taken in creating and designing wonderful pens.
JA: Certainly. The two go together in anyway because you need to be patient before go out with a product and as a driver you have to wait to go out in the car and I had to fine tune everything with my team to be sure everything was going to be perfect. That everything was on the limit. Then, when I drive the car and when I go on the track, I give my maximum and then I shock everyone, you know. It is a long process but in both cases when we deliver, it has to be number one, perfect.
An eclectic mix
AD: Another thing which interested me was your car collection. Included in it you have a Fiat 500, a Rolls Royce, a Ferrari, very different cars. You have got the new, something a little bit different, something traditional; it is quite an eclectic mix. Does that sum up Jean Alesi?
JA: Yes. You know I love history and I love tradition. I have a lot of respect for the what used to be the Rolls-Royce era, the early years of motoring. Now it is different, I would say because there are so many competitors but at the time Rolls-Royce was the bench mark for all the car manufacturers, you know. In terms of speed, I mean, Ferrari is the tradition. So I have cars which make history and I can afford it anyway!
Involvement with Montegrappa
AD: Yes I understand that. Another fact I noted in your ties with Montegrappa is that you not only sit on the board but are involved in design. I know Montegrappa produce watches some with Guilloché pattern dials, I love that detail, and I like the cufflinks with a sort of innovative pivoting device, have you focussed specifically on the pens, or the range, pens, watches, cufflinks ..?
JA: You know what, I love fashion and I love tradition but my job is not to make pens but sometimes when talking with our team, talking with Giuseppe, I can say, look as a fashion lover I would not be impressed with this pen or I would be with that, or that, or that…So I give my input in this way .But I have to say that technically and historically they have made so many wonderful, successful pens that I am with a very good company. So, I have a good group around me, surrounding me, I just give my opinion but I do not ask for a specific type of design.
AD: I understand. I can empathise. I love wrist watches, pens, bespoke tailoring. I am attracted by the craftsmanship involved which is way beyond my capabilities and which I admire so much in the work of others. It comes in so many areas where I have an interest.
I love wine and champagne. We have written recently about Petrus with their guidance, so I was interested that you have your own vineyard. Again, how has that come about?
JA: O.K. For the wine it was a different story. Everything started because I bought this house and I was interested in the house and in the garden. There was this vineyard. At the beginning it was kind of can I keep it, can I continue or what can I do? It was a difficult question, you know, because in France it is so competitive, the wine business and there is so much tradition behind it. You need to be again with the correct people who know what to do and I have been lucky, I would say to have theses people who were already making very good wine of a high quality. But it was not enough for me that luck. I wanted to keep it only if we are sure to be at the top. So they show me what to do in terms of investment, because we had to buy barrels and we made a new plantation of grapes. We were immediately written about by Robert Parker as producing one of the best Côte du Rhone of our region and when he decides to follow a vineyard it means a lot. I have to say that I have been very, very happy about what we have achieved.
(Robert Parker produces the Independent Guide to Fine Wines)
Born in Avignon with an Italian Lineage
AD: I just wanted to ask you. You received France’s Legion d’honneur. You were born in Avignon but you have the Italian lineage. Is that in part what drew you to Montegrappa and to Ferrari, that Italian lineage?
JA: Yes. Well you know my mother and father are from Sicily. They moved to France when they were more or less twenty years old. So, I was born in the south of France but I have a strong link with Italy. So, I was very keen on what is going on there. I know the handmade skills and the tradition of (I don’t know how to say it in English) but the people who really work with their hands and are a kind of artists, you know.
JA: I am sure that in my interest in Montegrappa my origins help a lot.
AD: I understand that. The other Italian tie; you had the opportunity of driving for Williams but you chose to go to Ferrari at a time when they had some reliability issues and Williams were in the ascendancy, did the adoration of the Tiffosi compensate for that? Or do you sometimes think I could have gone to Williams and been world champion with them?
JA: Yes, it was difficult to see what I missed but, you know, the group, the fun, the added emotion with Ferrari is definitely something unique and I cannot regret anything.
The greatest F1 driver
AD: To drive for Ferrari must have been fantastic. I can’t comprehend that. You won the Canadian Grand Prix in 1995, on the track that bears Villeneuve’s name. You wore his number 27 in Canada. There was the Villeneuve connection then but even your vineyard includes the name Villeneuve in its address. I would have thought that Villeneuve would be someone you particularly admire but who would you choose, living or dead, as the greatest F! driver, known to you personally or not?
JA: Yes, you know when I was a kid, of course I was a Villeneuve fan and I never tried to drive like him because when you have a hero he stays forever your hero and you cannot say you want to drive like him because he is your hero, you just want to be close to him. And this is what I tried to do all my life and I had the chance to drive for Ferrari, I had the number 27, and it means a lot to me for my entire life.
Other racing greats
AD: Yes, I understand that. I notice a few years ago, people talked about, and we heard in England, that you were very close to Michael Schumacher, is there any specific driver who for you stands head and shoulders above everyone else? Is it purely Villeneuve for you or is there someone else?
JA: You know he’s not the best. There are iconic drivers and there are also drivers of your moment. You are following the sport and they are there. If you look at the history of Villeneuve, he was not as successful as Nikki Lauda or Fittipaldi but for his time he was so emotional when he was driving. He had so much charisma when he was driving and you can say he is my hero and I’d have liked to be like him, but not to be him. You cannot take his place. But of course I was very lucky to race with Ayrton Senna, Mansell, Prost. These people have been unbelievable and own their place in motor sport history.
A new challenge with Lotus
AD: Now you have a new challenge with Lotus. Is it the history of Lotus that attracted you?
JA: Now it is a bit different. I am the Ambassador of Group Lotus. When I joined the company I was not to drive but to help with the new cars coming out like the Lotus Esprit and the new Evora. They asked me to join…, bring my knowledge and to be a name for the company. I have been driving for them, we have a formula 1 car for customers called the T125 and driving this car wakes me up a little bit!
The last time I was on the track I was very quick and the chairman of the company asked me “Why are you not driving any more?”
And I said, “I would love to but what can I do?”
And he said “Do Indianapolis!”
AD: That was my next question! “Why Indianapolis?” So that is how it happened!
JA: Everything started like that because you know Indianapolis, I always wanted to do it. But, you need a car company behind you. You cannot do it as, shall I say an invitation driver. So now that I have Lotus behind me, I can say, “Yes, O.K., I can do it”. So that is how it all started.
AD: You pre-empted my asking more about you and Indianapolis. Lastly, you have been most kind and gracious in answering my questions, what actually drives you, motivates you, makes you leap out of bed in a morning?
JA: You know I have a massive passion. My way to live is that I need challenges. I need to express myself in something I love. So for me being in motor sport has been absolutely fantastic and to find a way to stay in it is so good, because the fire is still in me.
AD: It has been wonderful. Thank you, you have been so very kind and patient. I wish you well in your role with Montegrappa, with your winemaking and with Lotus. Good luck for Indianapolis in 2012.