Road to Rouen
By starting the 1968 French GP in a works Honda, 40-year-old Jo Schlesser realised his life's ambition. But a mere two laps later the dream turned into a nightmare. Adam Cooper pays tribute to a gentleman driver
One of the most fascinating scenes in the film Grand Prix is the GPDA meeting at Spa, in which actors James Gamer, Yves Montand and Antonio Sabato mix it with a dozen real stars — half the 1966 field, in fact. But among them is a ringer, who at the time could not truly lay claim to being a Formula One driver. And while the likes of Jochen Rindt and Jo Siffert are content to grin inanely, this card-playing impostor is actually allowed to contribute to the safety debate, albeit in French.
Two years later Jo Schlesser justified his place in the movie's elite group. He had run in the F2 class at the German Grand Prix a couple of times, but that didn't really count. Nor did a handful of appearances in non-championship races in the 1.5-litre era. His dream finally came true at the 1968 French GP. And he did it at the age of 40, thus becoming the oldest rookie since the influx of pre-war racers in the early 1950s.
But just minutes after starter Toto Roche waved the tricolore, Schlesser was dead, the fourth victim in a freakish same-time-of-the-month line of fatal accidents that had claimed Jim Clark, Mike Spence and Ludovico Scarfiotti. The chilling statistic of dying in his first GP doesn't do justice to the man.
"He was a cheerful bloke, and a lovely guy," recalls friend Jabby Crombac. "He had a lot of guts — a 'big balls' driver."
Schlesser was born on 18 May 1928, the son of a civil engineer who spent much of his time in Luxembourg. He had two older brothers, Norbert and Jean-Charles, or 'Carlo'.
"When I was very young, my uncle came many times to take me to school," recalls Carlo's son, Jean-Louis, who was born in 1948. "He'd take me in his car and drive, and teach me to repair things if we had a problem with a carburettor or something like that. He'd take me to the airfield in Nancy. He was very friendly, very nice. Everybody liked him."
Crombac: "He was a bit of a bad boy initially, from the area of Nancy that had a bad reputation. He didn't really know what he was going to do, but he had a doctor friend who owned a Panhard and was very keen on rallying. He knew Jo could drive better than him, so they did an event together — and they won."
The following year Jo showed some promise in the Monomill single-seater category, winning at Montlhery. Deciding he needed to earn money in a hurry, he spent several years in Madagascar, where skilled Frenchmen could double their wages. He worked for a company that sold adding machines and cash registers, occasionally racing a Triumph TR2, before graduating to a Mercedes 300SL.
In 1957, Jo appeared at Le Mans with a works DB-Panhard, while later that year he took the 300SL to second place in the gruelling Liege-Rome-Liege rally, with wife Annie co-driving.
Schlesser saved enough to replace the Merc with a Ferrari 250GT, and it was with this car that he began to make a name for himself internationally, showing well on the 1959 Tour de France before crashing out. The following year he finished second, behind Willy Mairesse.
Single-seaters beckoned, however. Schlesser had become friendly with Crombac and his partner Jean Lucas, who had a management business. They arranged for Jo to buy Harry Schell's old F2 Cooper, and he raced the car throughout 1960.
"He was very impressive for a total newcomer to important racing," says Jabby. "I entered him in quite a few good races, and he did quite well."
Jo intended to run the same car in 1961, but his career suffered a huge blow when he crashed a works Ferrari at the Le Mans test weekend. He suffered a broken right leg, arm and other injuries, but still worse was the knowledge that he'd blown a big chance.
"It was terrible for him," says Jabby, "and I don't think he ever recovered full movement of his leg."
He was out for most of the season, and when he first returned he used a string arrangement to help shift his leg from accelerator to brake.
Jo's Madagascar funds now depleted, Annie took a job as secretary at Crombac's Sport Automagazine to help pay the bills. Fortunately, the sociable Jo now found the first in a series of enthusiastic patrons, namely Jean Moench, an old friend from Nancy who had come into money when his family business was sold. Moench wanted to start a two-car team with Schlesser, and had his eyes on the new machine being built by Jack Brabham and Ron Tauranac.
"In those days the car was called MRD, and you know what that sounds like in French!" smiles Jabby. "I told Tauranac, if you will change the name to Brabham, we'll buy two, one for Moench and one for Schlesser. Of course they changed the name, and it took years for Ron to forgive me."
Armed with the first production BT2, Schlesser gave Brabham its first-ever victory, at Montlhery, in 1962. The following year he proved a regular winner all over Europe, although he was lucky to escape unhurt from a huge crash at Chimay in a Lotus. He also appeared in a few non-championship F1 races, and drove a works Aston Martin at Le Mans. At his side throughout these weekends was Annie, who effectively acted as team manager.
As Crombac recalls: "If she thought he wasn't going quickly enough, she would say, 'Jo, you are walking instead of racing!' She was very good at lap scoring and doing the letters for him."
Schlesser was established as France's most promising prospect, although the competition was slim. But he was now 35, and few considered that he had a future. Crombac came to the rescue when a new Ford France PR man turned up at the infamous bar below the office of Sport Auto.
"We more or less became advisors to this guy, and the first thing we did of course is say you should sponsor Schlesser. He was really never sorry for it, and for years he was backing Jo in a big way. Jo really was, at that time, the best French driver."
With backing from Ford France, Jo launched a serious F2 programme with a Brabham in 1964. He won a poorly-supported race at Vallelunga; more impressive was third behind Brabham and Stewart at Montlhery. He also had sportscar outings, sharing a GT40 with Richard Attwood at Le Mans, and finishing fifth in a Cobra with Phil Hill at Sebring.
Schlesser was a natural choice for the new works Matra F2 team in 1966, but he was gradually overshadowed by rising star Jean-Pierre Beltoise, who was nine years younger. Jo regularly qualified well, but appalling reliability spoiled the season until he finished second to Brabham at Albi.
In 1967, Beltoise took centre stage in Matra's works F2 team, while Schlesser retained a seat only with Ford France sponsorship.
"The Matra hierarchy never considered him as a Matra driver," says Crombac. "Part of the reason Matra was racing was to attract young engineers to work for them, and they didn't want the image of old drivers."
That year Jo was often the leading non-graded driver, taking thirds at Oulton Park, Rouen and Brands, the latter behind only Rindt and Stewart. He also drove a works Ford MkIIB at Le Mans with Guy Ligier, and was caught up in the crash that claimed team-mates Mario Andretti and Roger McCluskey. A fortnight later the pair overcame early delays to win the Reims 12 Hours in a MkIIB against strong opposition. It was Jo's biggest win to date.
The 1968 season started well when Jo took a works Porsche 907 to third at Daytona; a broken alternator cost the car half an hour and potential victory. For F2 he teamed up with old pal and regular sportscar partner Ligier to run a pair of McLaren M4As under the Ecurie Intersport banner. Jo was on the pace, qualifying fourth at Pau and third at Jarama, but again reliability was poor.
Relief came at the end of May when he had another run in a works Porsche 907 in the Spa 1000 Kilometres, just eight days after his 40th birthday. Sharing with Gerhard Mitter, he finished a close second. When conditions were at their worst he lapped quicker than the GT40 of winner and local ace Jacky Ickx. A month later his F2 season got back on track when he finished fourth at Monza.
It was then that he got the opportunity he'd dreamed about, courtesy of Crombac. At the time Jabby assisted the French GP organisers, and when a last-minute entry was received for a second Honda, his advice was sought.
"One day I had a phone call from Rouen. They said, 'We've just had a letter from Honda France, who want to put Eric Offenstadt in a second car."
Offenstadt, a Parisian Honda dealer, had raced in F2, but was not regarded as top-notch material.
"They said, 'What do you think of him?' I said, 'Absolutely no way. He has no experience of fast cars. If you exclude the Matra drivers — Matra won't let them drive a Honda — there's only one guy: Schlesser.' Since the beginning, he was always broke, so I never charged Jo anything. It was not because I was his manager that I gave his name; it was in my capacity as advisor to the Automobile Club of Normandy. I rang up Jo, and he was delighted."
Schlesser arrived at Rouen in an excited mood, unaware of the political unrest within the Honda camp caused by the twelfth-hour entry for the unproven RA302 (see sidebar overleaf). There was much to learn, but the organisers did him few favours by restricting practice to short sessions on Thursday and Friday evening, with nothing at all on Saturday. Jo spun and damaged a wheel on the first day, but improved a little on the second.
"We spent Saturday evening together," says Crombac. "We didn't talk much about the car, because frankly it was a disaster. Although Jo was thrilled to be in a works Honda, he said it was awful and unbalanced. But he said he'd do his best; in his mind, he was going to be number two to Surtees."
When the race got underway, some 15 minutes late, rain was already falling. Schlesser struggled around at the back, and the car could be heard misfiring, perhaps because water had got into its complex electrical system.
On the third lap he lost control at the fast right-hander before the Nouveau Monde hairpin. The RA302 slammed into an earth bank, and turned over, spraying burning petrol as it did so. The fire took hold, fed by the V8's large oil supply and the extensive use of magnesium in the chassis. Marshals were slow to react, but Jo probably had no chance.
"I have never seen such an inferno develop so quickly," wrote Innes Ireland in Autocar, "and this great towering column of flame and black smoke reached high into the skies."
"It was absolutely horrible," says Vic Elford, who also made his GP debut that day. "The thing was like a giant firework, and it went on for laps before it finally shut down."
The race carried on, and for several laps cars had to pass through the smoke and huge puddles of foam. In a scene uncannily reminiscent of Grand Prix, Schlesser's body was brought to the paddock before the end of the race. Friends and officials kept Annie away from the awful sight. That evening Crombac faced the task of looking after her: "All the Paris chums were in the hotel room and, suddenly, they looked at their watches and they said, 'We must get going because we are having dinner.' And, like birds, they flew off. So I was alone with Annie Schlesser, her daughter, and my wife.
"Fortunately, Mrs Louis Stanley turned up, and she spent the night in Annie's room to stop her jumping out of the window, which she was threatening to do. 'Big Lou' has really been badly branded, but whenever there was a thing like that, he was there. I'll never forget that. My wife and I took the little girl, who was 12 or 13, in our room."
"When it happened I was in Morocco," recalls Jean-Louis Schlesser. "My father came in during the night and he was crying. He said, 'Tomorrow morning I have to go to France, because Jo died.' That was it."
The following day Ligier flew Annie and her daughter back to Paris. Later, when he started his F1 team, he would give her a job as secretary.
Crombac says the whole episode was the worst time of his life, and he'll never forget the emotions surrounding that weekend.
"I spoke to Annie and said, 'I am so sorry I put him in this.' She said, Jabby, this was the best day of Jo's life. If he had been given a choice, he would have still driven the car. For him, the impossible thing was to die without having driven a works Formula One car.' "