Murray's Memories: Jean Alesi makes an impression
'Murray's Memories' are Murray Walker's personal recollections of some of the most dramatic moments in the history of F1. This time, he remembers the 1990 United States GP at Phoenix...
Unless I'm very much mistaken, America has tried to make Formula 1 succeed at no less than 10 different locations.
One of them was the unloved street circuit at Phoenix, Arizona, where the local ostrich races had more spectators than the grand prix.
But in 1990 the Arizonans who preferred watching flightless birds to the world's greatest cars and drivers missed an epic performance.
It was Gerhard Berger's first race for McLaren and the Austrian started from pole position, with team-mate Ayrton Senna only fifth. But it was Jean Alesi, fourth on the grid, who brilliantly thrust his Tyrrell into the lead at Turn One.
Alesi's Tyrrell team had switched to Pirelli tyres only two days before the race, after 18 years with Goodyear.
At the time, Pirelli had a bit of a reputation for producing occasionally brilliant qualifying tyres, but being… well, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit rubbish in the races.
A glance at the grid seemed to suggest nothing was very different about this race, for between Berger and Senna were two further Pirelli-shod cars - the Minardi of Pierluigi Martini and the Dallara of Andrea De Cesaris, neither of which were what you would call regular front-runners.
So no-one expected Alesi - or Martini or De Cesaris - to figure particularly strongly in the race.
Sure enough, the Minardi and the Dallara quickly went backwards, but to everyone's amazement Alesi pulled away in the lead. Berger spun out trying to keep up with him, and it was the great Senna who was left grimly trying to close the gap to the flying Tyrrell.
It took the Brazilian almost half the race to catch and pass Alesi - only for the young Frenchman instantly to pass him back!
This was amazing - it was only Alesi's ninth grand prix but in his nimble new Tyrrell he was matching the master's McLaren.
Next time around, though, Senna re-took the lead and this time made it stick, going on to win the race relatively comfortably.
But Alesi hung on to the end - crossing the line only eight seconds behind. His sensational second place electrified Formula 1.
The next year - Phoenix's last - he was driving for Ferrari.