FEATURE | What it's actually like to own a Formula 1 car from the 1990s

Who needs a Formula One scale model when you can have the real thing? Especially when it happens to be an ex-Jean Alesi Ferrari 643

26 February 2019 - 11:58 By Thomas Falkiner
The car in action with Jean Alesi at the wheel
The car in action with Jean Alesi at the wheel
Image: Sunday Times Lifestyle

So you're a Formula One fan with a few bob lying about - what do you do? You might swing past the hobby shop and pick up a 1:10 scale model of Ayrton Senna's championship-winning McLaren MP4/6 and proudly position it on the shelf behind your bar.

Occasionally visitors would catch you eyeballing it from afar, marvelling at that geometric Marlboro livery and nostalgic silhouette. I'm guessing that this pricy nugget of die-cast perfection would, generally speaking, be more than sufficient to express your deep love of the world's most revered motorsport.

Well I know a chap who pulls his nose up at the very idea. The man known only as "The Collector" decided to take his adoration for slicks and wings to an enviable new level. Most people walk away from auctions clutching antique furniture. Or obsolete office equipment.

But he jetted back to his Pretoria residence the proud owner of a Ferrari 643 - a genuine Formula One racing car that was campaigned back in the 1991 season. This particular example wears a white number 28 on its nose, which means it was driven by Jean Alesi. A talented driver who former commentator Murray Walker referred to as "the enormously impressive little Frenchman". Its sister car, number 27, was piloted by his infamous compatriot, Alain Prost.

"I bought it from a deceased estate," says The Collector. "The previous owner had imported the car from Maranello, Italy, and kept it in his private collection in Cape Town. Because it came from the factory its engine had been slightly detuned and all the fancy electronics removed. Ferrari had to do this because things like the onboard telemetry systems were still top-secret back then. But this is actually a blessing in disguise because it makes the car a lot easier to work on and operate. You don't need a team of 30 manic Italians running around to get it started."

I follow him into his impeccably kept workshop where the machine in question squats low in silent menace. The Ferrari is a lot smaller than I had imagined. In fact its chassis is kind of dwarfed by the four enormous Goodyear slick tyres that loom large at each corner.

"She's real pretty," mumbles The Collector to nobody in particular, seemingly transfixed.

I have to agree. Today's Formula One cars look a lot like scientific experiments gone wrong, their ugly step-noses and baroque front wings failing to raise my pulse rate much. But the 643 comes from an era of true beauty, a pocket of Formula One history in which the starting grid was awash with wonderfully streamlined and uncomplicated shapes.

Jean Alesi and Alain Prost were teammates in 1991
Jean Alesi and Alain Prost were teammates in 1991
Image: Sunday Times Lifestyle

I walk past a set of spindly front wishbones, sticking out like smooth black branches, and peer into the cockpit. It is ridiculously tight and basic in there - a cramped carbon-fibre cocoon home to nothing more than a few rudimentary gauges, one minute Momo steering wheel and a seat. Well, if you can call it that. It's a curved sliver of what looks like chamois leather, and I can't imagine sitting on it for more than a minute. Never mind two hours.

"Cars of this vintage are rather low-tech compared to today's machines," says The Collector. "If you purchased a modern Formula One, you would need a team of technicians and laptops just to get the thing going. So I suppose you could say that this Ferrari 643 is the perfect introduction to classic Formula One ownership. It's still reasonably trick - carbon monocoque chassis, paddle-shift gearbox - but not in a way that requires a PhD in rocket science."

What it does require, nevertheless, is the original logbook. Printed on faded green graph paper, the Prancing Horse rearing up in the top right-hand corner, it gives a concise set of instructions for cranking the car's engine into life. I won't go into too much detail but part of the process involves preheating the motor for no less than four hours.

"This V12 is a really complex piece of equipment," says The Collector. "In order for the internal tolerances to be 100% correct, you need to warm the engine oil and coolant up to exactly 60° before you even think of starting it. So we've got this kiln-like device that plugs into the block and pumps hot water through the chambers.

"While this is going on, you have to prime the fuel pressure system. After that you just whack in the external starter motor and you're good to go. I've never tried it before but I have seen somebody else do it and it seems pretty straightforward."

I half expect him to break into laughter but he doesn't. Nope, he's being dead serious. Even more so when he briefly touches on the topic of safety.

"Yep," he says, sucking air through his teeth, "I really wouldn't like to have a prang inside this thing."

The driver is very exposed to the elements with the top of the carbon tub ending below his shoulder line. And inside that claustrophobic cockpit there's precious little padding. So in the event of a collision, rock-hard carbon fibre will meet bone with shattering consequences.

"It is from a time when men were men and drivers were disposable," explains The Collector. Scary.

Similarly frightening are the running costs. Expect to cough up R150000 for new brake pads and discs; R25000 will buy you a set of tyres that will last exactly one hour when used on a racetrack. The clutch, God forbid you ever need to replace it, will set you back an eye-watering R50000. Then there is the issue of petrol. The Ferrari 643 burns 146 litres of high-octane race fuel for every 100km travelled, at about R25 a litre.

So owning a classic Formula One car like this certainly isn't cheap. But all the financial trauma must surely be worth the pleasure of driving the Ferrari around a racetrack?

"I wouldn't know," laughs The Collector, "I am actually too big to fit inside it. The typical driver should weigh 65-70kg and be no more than 1.7m tall. At the moment I am 100kg and 1.9m, so do the maths.

"But you know what, I am quite content for it to just stay here in my collection. It's an investment. It's a piece of art, a piece of art on wheels. And if I can show it off once or twice a year, share it with a few people, then I am happy."