The Footnote Ferrari: Revisiting Jean Alesi’s 643 Formula 1 Car In South Africa
In normal circumstances an original 250 LM body mounted on the wall as a display would be the center of attention… but not when there is one of the two 643s that Ferrari ran in the second half of the 1991 F1 season parked in front of it. If a workshop ever doubled as a fine art gallery Pablo Clark in Johannesburg, South Africa would be it. One craftsman was working on a gleaming aluminum block out of a BBi, while another was putting the finishing touches to the trim on a glorious silver “chairs and flairs” Dino 246. They also have the expertise to work on F1 cars, as evidenced by the 643.
There are a few good reasons why someone would buy an ex-works Ferrari F1, but by accident probably is not one of them. As a day job Peter Bailey runs Bailey Cars, a South African company that makes stunning replica P3 and P3/4s as well as Porsche 917s (one of which I had the chance to drive on track), so he has long been familiar with high performance machines. A couple of years ago he was at an auction to bid on another car but the end price went above his budget. Not really in the mood to go home with an empty trailer, a later lot didn’t go for as much as he was expecting and he found himself raising his hand over the 1991 ex-Jean Alesi 643. When the hammer fell with a call of “Sold to the gentleman with a rather bemused look on his face,” he had an amazing F1 Ferrari to call his own.
However, after buying such a car on what amounted to not much more than a whim, he soon discovered that there were a couple of small problems with his new acquisition. First came the disappointment of realizing that there was simply no way he was going to fit his 6’4″ frame inside. “You need to be about the size of a jockey to get in the cockpit,” he laments. It’s so impossibly confined inside that there is no way you can just bend your knees so that you can shuffle down more.” Secondly, and a little bit more importantly, Peter hadn’t quite anticipated the astronomically high running and repair costs that such a car requires should something go wrong, or even worse, should something break.
“For example we had a problem with the gearbox ECU. Its gear selecting brain. It wasn’t anything too serious but the result of the seven-speed semi-automatic gearbox selecting second instead of fourth is not a very nice thought. There aren’t too many people who have the software to be able to work on that though, so it had to be sent to Italy to be fixed. I don’t even want to think about how much that cost!”
Also, as glorious as the 3.5L Tipo 291 V12 sounds, something most of us would be happy to listen to all day, it has a life of a hilariously scant six hours, and then it’s a £100,000 strip down and rebuild. “That’s the nature of the beast though. If you have expensive toys you need to have deep pockets to fix them,” he shrugs.
However, on the positive side, although there is no such thing as a cheap or easy-to-own F1 car, especially ones from the modern era, a ’91 car is actually a vintage year in many senses. It has massive power, a high-revving V12 that sounds quite sexual, yet it came just before the time of the insanely complex, high-tech, yet not exactly reliable years of active suspension, mechanical traction control, and other electronic driver aids, all of which are now about a quarter of a century old. “Some of the more modern cars actually need a team of engineers just to get them started but while the 643 isn’t anywhere near as complicated as that it’s still a very sensitive and complex car,” Peter explains. “And it didn’t take me long to realize that I was a bit out of my depth with it.”
But the thing about a car with such pedigree and prestige is that as long as the economy is healthy it will never lose its value, so will always be an investment. And if you are lucky the appreciation in value will actually cover some of the costs of running it… unless you do something silly like crash it… So with the risks involved, any time the car was going to be out on track was going to have to be a special occasion with someone equally as special wedged in behind the wheel. Fortunately Peter knows a driver good enough to be trusted with it out on track. Mention South Africa and Ferrari in the same sentence and the name Scheckter will come up, and 1979 F1 world champion Jody’s nephew Jaki was more than happy to put the famous name back in an F1 Ferrari again.
The F1 cars of the early 1990s were pretty fragile machines and weren’t exactly known for their reliability, and things such as the paddle shift gear change system was pushing the limits of technology back then when it was put into the car 25 years ago (it was first introduced to the sport by the Ferrari 641, a predecessor to this car).
So to make sure nothing went “pop,” a few things were detuned slightly. At flat chat the engine was designed to rev to an ear-splitting 13,800RPM, so that was pegged down to a slightly less screaming 12,000 and instead of the special high-octane fuel it ran on in F1 Peter filled it with 90 RON, something normally old Ladas run on. The lower flash point means that the delicate engine internals aren’t put under so much pressure.
In period race trim it put out an incredible 710BHP, but with a carbon fiber and kevlar composite monocoque chassis it only weighed a featherweight 505 kilos, including the oil and water, so only the best drivers in the world could ever hope to wring the maximum performance out of it. Jaki, after winning the South African Formula Ford championship and competing in the Indy Lights championship in America doesn’t claim to be a driver of such caliber, but also the Zwartkops Raceway circuit near Johannesburg isn’t actually a fast enough track for an F1 car to get up to its operating window where the tire temperatures get high enough that the malleable rubber sticks to the track and for the wings and diffuser to be activated to press the car down into the ground in the corners.
Even at what Jaki estimates was about 85% its speed, it was still a spectacular sight to see. “It was a special day,” Peter smiles. “He was just warming up and broke the track record on his second flying lap.”
Jaki thoroughly enjoyed himself too. “The 643 was designed around Jean Alesi who is much smaller than me, so it was a tight fit and not that comfortable. However, when I drove, I felt fine, although I was nowhere near limit of what the car could do. The only F1 experience I’d had of an F1 car before was a 1974 Tyrrell at the Kyalami Top Gear Festival in 2011 but that was absolutely no comparison at all!
“My uncle Jody was a world champion for Ferrari so there were a lot of emotions because of that, but for me I think that the pinnacle of F1 was when the likes of Senna, Prost, and Mansell were all racing so getting to experience the thrill of the acceleration of an F1 car from that period was amazing.”
It might not be the most successful or best remembered of Maranello’s parthenon of F1 stuff, but it is still an insanely stunning race car, one mere mortals such as me can only gawk at and professional drivers feel blessed with the privilege to be allowed to do a couple of demonstration laps in… and even even more fortunate people like Peter to own!
For those interested in the history of the car and its driver, a brief summary of each follows:
The Ferrari 643
In the early races of the ’91 season it was apparent that the 642 wasn’t competitive enough so with a reworked chassis that allowed for a softer suspension set-up more suited to Prost’s driving style. The 643 was ready for the French Grand Prix at the beginning of July, the seventh round of the championship. It looked to be an instant success as Prost qualified on pole and led the race twice before finishing 2nd behind Nigel Mansell. Alesi qualified 6th but finished 4th, just a second behind that year’s champion Senna.
He followed that with 3rd at the next race in Germany, a 5th in Hungary but sadly the initial success proved to be a false dawn. One more podium in Portugal was the best result but he also had four retirements. Some hastily pushed engine upgrades didn’t improve matters and Prost’s vocal criticisms of the car meant that he was fired from the team before the season finale in Australia.
In 1990 the 25 year old Frenchman made an outstanding impression as a newcomer to F1. At the opening round in the Phoenix Grand Prix in America he led Aryton Senna for 25 laps before finishing 2nd in what was considered a completely uncompetitive Tyrell. He made such a name for himself that by the end of the season he had a golden ticket to the top; a drive with Williams while they were in the ascendancy. For 1991 he would have been in Riccardo Patrese’s seat, a driver who regularly out-drove team leader Nigel Mansell and would have then been the World Champion’s teammate in 1992 in the FW14B, the car that blew the rest of the field away… If he’d have followed that route, the general consensus is that he had the talent and speed to have gone on to multiple championship wins.
But the young Alesi chose another path instead, one that is heart plotted rather than by a manager. Alesi was born in France but his parents were Italian so the Williams contract he had in his pocket was torn up and he joined the Ferrari team instead. The first part of his F1 dream was fulfilled, yet being the one to lead the team back to their former glory sadly never came to pass. For Ferrari the 1990 championship had gone all the way to the first corner of the last race where Prost and Senna tangled into the Suzuka sand trap and settled the championship in the Brazilian’s favor. The early 1990s weren’t exactly Ferrari’s zenith and despite some stand out performances from Alesi, out-qualifying and out-racing his vastly more experienced teammate and multiple World Champion Prost, the period was absolutely dominated by Williams and then Benetton with Ferrari playing only a supporting role. Alesi would go on to win just one single Grand Prix, Canada 1995, on his 31st birthday, and although that would be the highlight of his racing career it was overshadowed in Ferrari history as the day Michael Schumacher signed with the team. What the German meister went on to achieve in subsequent years pretty much relegated Alesi’s years with the team to a mere footnote.