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Ever since joining Ferrari in 1991, bad fortune, lacklustre machinery and unreliability had conspired to prevent Jean Alesi - universally acknowledged as one of the finest natural talents of his generation - from becoming an F1 race winner. But as he reeled off the final laps of the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix it was the Frenchman himself who was in danger of sabotaging his latest shot at victory.
Having inherited the lead a little over 11 laps from the finish when Michael Schumacher’s dominant Benetton was struck by gearbox problems, the enormity of what he might be about to finally achieve suddenly hit Alesi and he started to cry.
“Every time I braked, my tears were hitting my visor,” the ever-emotional racer would later reveal. “For about a lap I felt a bit disorientated, but then I said to myself: ‘now you have to get back to driving…’”
Although he’d made a decent start from fifth on the grid and managed to snatch P2 from Williams’ Damon Hill by a quarter distance, Alesi had long since settled for second place when he happened upon Schumacher’s ailing B195. Now he faced 11 agonising laps to the flag, all the while wondering whether his luck - and his fuel load - would hold.
Earlier in the race a faulty instrument display had seen team mate Gerhard Berger’s car unexpectedly stop on the entry to the pit lane, its fuel tank run dry by a thirsty V12. But surely fate wouldn’t be so cruel to Alesi, would it?
To the near universal delight of the paddock, the answer was no, and as the Ferrari driver negotiated the final chicane and accelerated towards the finish line a mass of arms - including those from rival teams - extended out from the pit wall to greet him.
At the 91st attempt Jean Alesi was finally a Grand Prix winner - and even better he’d achieved the feat on his 31st birthday. It was only on his slowing down lap - when his 412T2 spluttered unceremoniously to a halt - that he realised how close he’d come to further heartbreak.
To say that Alesi's triumph - Ferrari’s 150th in F1 competition and their first in Montreal for ten years - was well received by the locals would be an understatement, and as he hitched a memorably jubilant lift back to the pits on Schumacher’s revived Benetton, thousands of flag-waving fans spilled onto the track to join in the celebrations.
Their joy was understandable. Seventeen years earlier home hero Gilles Villeneuve had claimed his maiden win at the very same circuit, and now another Ferrari bearing the Canadian’s famous number 27 had been driven to glory - by a fellow French speaker no less.
“Winning with Ferrari is special, something you cannot get with any other team,” said Alesi in a typically emotional post-race press conference. “I could not have wished for a better birthday present.”
Many more second places would follow, but for one memorable day Alesi lived his dream as a Grand Prix winner.