The fans still love him, of course - everybody here does. Jean Alesi walks through the Imola paddock's turnstile under the cavernous grandstand at Variante Bassa, the sun already high and warming everyone below, and as they see him one after another the chant begins: Alesi Alesi, ciao Jean, ehi Alesi Alesi. He looks up and sees them, the fans who came out this Good Friday to watch the sport they love, all waving and yelling, and he smiles that famous smile and waves back at them. He hasn't raced in Formula One for a year and a half, hasn't raced for Ferrari for over seven, and still the Tifosi love him like a brother, like one of their own.
It's easy for them to love him this way, because he is one of them; like them, his great love is Formula One, and has been for as long as he can remember.
In 1986, when Alesi was just starting in Formula Three in his native France, he was stunned by the death in testing of Elio de Angelis, his driving hero. He immediately modified his helmet to take the red and black stripes of the dead man's helmet as a mark of his respect, a badge of the love he felt for the driver who inspired him in his burgeoning career. He kept the stripes from that time up to the present. Like the Ferrari he famously kept in his gym at home as an inspiration for his workout, it shows the nature of the love he has for every aspect of the sport he contributed to for thirteen eventful years.
"I still watch everything" he says, his blue eyes widening. "I love it. It was my passion before to do it, it was my passion while I did it, and it is still my passion. Formula One is everything; I look, I watch, I'm in testing, and I have a lot of friends here."
Of all the recent ex-drivers from the sport, he seems to be the most regular visitor to the paddock (his great friend and former teammate Gerhard Berger, now winding down his involvement with BMW Motorsport obviously excluded), the most likely to be seen popping in and out of the various teams' motorhomes. He's not looking for a drive anymore - he's resigned to the fact that his time has come and gone in Formula One - but his love of the sport keeps him coming back, time and again.
It's not uncommon for Italian TV viewers, following races on the Italian RAI broadcaster, to find Alesi calling in the studio during the race to give his comments on the events. "I am happy to do it," he explains, "because, you know, when you have a link in motor racing like I have you cannot disappear after 13 years and ignore the people below you, and the people who are still looking after you."
"I have a great affinity to be in Italy," he adds. "It is not the country where I live, but the country where I am from - my parents are from Sicily - and I'm so happy to have the possibility to talk to the fans here."
DC: Ivan Capelli, another former Ferrari driver, currently commentates for RAI. Do you have any interest in that kind of job?
Alesi laughs. "No! To be a commentator is not possible, because after half of a race I cannot comment anymore! To be in the studio and explain my feelings is enough."
And it's hard to argue with this; Alesi is famous for his enthusiasm, and his emotions would probably be too much for him to control on a live broadcast, although imagine how hilarious it would be to hear him screaming his way through a race…
Alesi has always been a driver first and foremost. He is one of the old school drivers, the men who would drive anything, anywhere for the sheer joy of driving, a disciple of Mario Andretti, who went on to race anything put in front of him before finally hanging up his helmet at the age of 54. Formula One is a different creature now, of course, and the current crop are not allowed to have adventures like Alesi has, running (and winning) the Andros Ice Trophy for years in the F1 off-season.
Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) is his current stage, and he managed a podium on debut last year before going on to take a win later in the season. He managed to snare a few test drives for McLaren as well, through his friendship with Mercedes vice president Norbert Haug, and this year he has a great opportunity to challenge for the DTM Championship, with the full factory backing of Mercedes Benz behind him. This, along with his stewardship of the Federation Francaise du Sport Automobile (FFSA), where he is taking an active role in promoting promising French drivers through the ranks, and his RAI work should satisfy his motorsport appetites.
DC: Outside of the paddock, what else do you do with your time?
JA: "Well, I'm doing some wine, but it is not really a business because it is not the main thing in my life, because of the price, but it's a great thing I have. It is good wine, good quality."
DC: This is more of a passion than a pure business?
JA: "Yes, it is. When I am saying the price I do not mean the price in money but the price in life. And there is the (world renowned wine writer Robert) Parker book, and in the Parker we are 91st of the top 100, which is fantastic."
DC: Your family must be happy to have you home more often, of course.
JA: "Oh yes. My kids are quite young - nine, six and four years old - and I can now take a lot of time with them."
But, sitting in the McLaren motorhome, where the interview takes place courtesy of press officer Ellen Kolby, it's obvious that he is focused on the circus unfolding outside. I saw Alesi talking to Giancarlo Fisichella earlier, the obvious heir to Alesi in terms of sheer enthusiasm for the sport, and of course he was overjoyed when Fisichella was finally awarded his first win in Brazil.
"I'm very happy for Giancarlo," Alesi smiles. "He got the win, and he really deserves it. Of course, he's driving for Eddie Jordan, and he is my father of motor racing because we won together the F3000 championship, and he put me in F1 with Ken Tyrrell. So that was fantastic for Eddie Jordan as well."
DC: How do you feel about the new Formula One rules, though? With all the changes introduced this year, do you still like it?
JA: "Well, I feel fantastic about it, especially because so far what a success it has been to watch the race on TV. From a spectator's view, what they are looking for is a drive, and it was not there last year. What they were doing was not really emotional, and it's a shame because it's the most incredible sport in the world - it's a shame it was like that, you know? And now it is fantastic action again."
DC: In the flyaway races there was a lot going on, a lot to adapt to. What do you think is having the biggest effect on the series?
JA: "You know, I think everyone is a bit destabilized, because they don't know yet what they can find to make a difference. But I have to say it's a great change; it makes the race exciting to watch, and to follow."
DC: Do you think the new rules take anything away from the drivers' skills?
JA: "No, I think that is coming more from the electronics - the electronics kill the control for the driver, and I hope next year will be different."
DC: You're very good friends with Michael Schumacher, and he seems to be less intense than he once was. Do you think this is because of the change in the rules?
JA: "No, I think it's... you know (laughs) it is like when you are kept from the bullet - you are on the wrong moment, on the wrong place. It's what happened to him for the three races, but he's a champion and I don't think he will have a problem, I hope."
DC: So you're certain he'll bounce back.
JA: "Oh yes, for sure!"
And with that Alesi's manager, Mario Miyakawa, steers him away to talk to some waiting people, something Mario must be a master at after all these years. Because everyone wants to speak to Alesi, to shake his hand and say hello. He smiles at them all, signs everything put in front of him with grace. When a young boy approaches him he takes the time to lean down to the boy's level and say a few words, before coming back up and ruffling his hair. The kid looks wonderstruck, and more than a few adults will look the same way over the weekend. Alesi's lust for life is infectious, and his passion for the sport that gave him the best 13 years of his life is undiminished.
He creates smiles all across the paddock - his enthusiasm is contagious, a virus everybody who comes in contact with him wants to catch.