The Mean Machine?
AFTER the Italian Grand Prix in 1988, a story circulated about Jean-Louis Schlesser. He was seen approaching the McLaren motorhome in which Ayrton Senna and Ron Dennis were consoling each other, and a quickthinking employee locked the door in his face. But, protested Schlesser, he went there to apologise to Senna, to explain how hard he tried to make space for the Brazilian to overtake entering the chicane!
Irrelevant as it may be, the story says quite a lot about Schlesser. He is tall and burly, not everyone’s idea of a racing driver, and has a mean reputation which he likes to maintain. He’s a man you’d want on your side in a contest, and admits that he likes to have his own way in most things. And yet among his peers, the 1989 Sports Car Champion driver is known to be warm-hearted and genuine, a true friend to people who offer their hand.
He and I might have met in 1967 at the Reims 12-Hour race, won by uncle Jo Schlesser in a Ford France Mk2 7-litre model. “”Well, I was a boy in short trousers then,” says Jean-Louis, who was actually 14 years of age, “but it was so nice to see my uncle win, and I suppose I always wanted to be a racing driver after that.” A few months later Jo died at Rouen when his Honda Formula 1 car crashed and burned but thankfully his nephew didn’t attend that race and his ambition wasn’t snuffed out.
Then, Jean-Louis lived with his family in Morocco (his father was an agricultural engineer), and he doesn’t hide his reputation for “fighting, always fighting other boys” while he was there. At the age of 18 he joined the Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s racing school and his competitive urge took a more disciplined form as he was the runner-up in the Shell Volant challenge, earning himself a Formule Renault Martini for the 1972 season. But there was no money to keep the car going and it was a struggle to get results. . . not just that year, but throughout the 1970s when he bobbed around in Formula 3 and saloon car racing.
All being well Schlesser’s career should have blossomed after the 1978 season when he shared the French Formula 3 championship with Alain Prost, a man he regards as “maybe the best driver the world ever had”. Prost, with Elf behind him, went onwards and upwards but Schlesser fell back into the pack and says with a realism that’s exceedingly unusual in a racing driver, “If I haven’t had the same success, maybe I don’t deserve it. You’ve got to be realistic about this sort of thing.” Uncle Jo was well-rated in formula cars but was really a sports car man, and that’s how it has been with Jean-Louis. Frank Williams has kept him on as a valued test driver since 1982, and in 1983 he had some drives in the RAM March owned by John MacDonald, with Kenny Acheson as a team-mate. As a single-seater driver, though, his fame (or notoriety!) was sealed at Monza in September ’88 when he deputised for Nigel Mansell in the Wil
hams, and finally ended the McLaren team’s run of victories in the chicane incident that’s celebrated among the Italian fans. Schlesser’s first major result was second place at Le Mans in 1981, sharing a Rondeau with Philippe Streiff and Jacky Haran. Rondeau had won the 24-hour race the year before, certainly, but with Jacky lckx and Derek Bell on top form in
the Jules sponsored factory Porsche 936, they were quite unbeatable. Second place was definitely an honourable result that year.
By another quirk of fate he drove for Peter Sauber at Le Mans in 1982, the year when Porsche’s new 956 model took the top three places. His driving partners were Hans Stuck and Dieter Quester, but their 3.9-litre, Cosworth V8-powered Sauber C6 went the same way as all the other DFLs and retired after a few hours with a broken engine mounting.
At that time Jean-Louis’ cv referred to him as a Parisian jeweller, but nowadays his former wife runs the business in the Avenue des Champs Elysees. Last year he married Marianna, formerly Mme. Borg, and gives Luxembourg as his main address but he also has a yacht at Monte Carlo, where co-driver Jochen Mass makes his home, and spends his spare time inventing things and patenting them — not the wheel, but wheel designs, and recently a device that would make a car move easier on ice or snow. He is, you might say, a man at peace with the world, happy with his new-found success, but the struggle to become a World Champion was a hard one.
Thanks to Tom . . .
“I would like to say a big thank you to Tom because I won many races in his cars, for the team, and although in the end we disagreed over small things, I was very happy there in the Rovers and Jaguars. It was a very important time for my career and I don’t regret anything.”
Schlesser feels that too much has been made of his departure from Tom Walkinshaw Racing, a relationship that withered and died at the end of 1986. By September some of his team-mates couldn’t quite look him in the eye, put up the shutters when he came into the room, and he sensed the end of his time with the Kidlington team. This is nothing unusual. It has happened to other drivers there, and elsewhere. Kenny Acheson felt it in Mexico. What made it different, and more colourful, was the fact that Schlesser went away and
made it his business to beat the Jaguars as often as possible.
Although Schlesser got to the bottom rung of Grand Prix racing in 1983, his failure to qualify for the French GP came as a shock, and he lost heart to pursue his claim to a place in Formula One. He may have regretted it since but, with his usual honesty, he admits that his attitude wasn’t right. With a World Championship title he can now say that he made the right decision, but at times it was a close-run thing.
In the latter part of 1983, he concentrated hard on saloon car racing in France, and the following year the Rover distributor recommended him to the Tom Walkinshaw directed Rover team. His contract was for the French saloon championship, an important Group A series, and early in the season he won a race at Nogaro in the Marlboro sponsored Vitesse V8.
Schlesser might, in fact, have won the French Championship in his first year but for a disagreement between the scrutineers and TWR over the welding of the roll cage. Such a dispute, won as usual by the scrutineers, is make or break in Group A racing but in 1985 the team made no mistake at all in elevating Schlesser to the French championship, and some good results at European level too: no victories but four second places, always playing second fiddle to Tom Walkinshaw and Win Percy. Schlesser was quick, as some pole positions and fastest laps confirmed, and his reward was a Jaguar contract as soon as the XJR-6 was ready. The debut was at Mosport, where Martin Brundle rocketed past Stuck’s Porsche at the start and led the race in his green V12-powered car for nine laps, until a wheel bearing tightened up. Going for a finish, Schlesser made sure
of third place in company with Mike Thackwell and Brundle, the team leader having moved over to the second car.
“Jean Lewis”, as Tom called him jovially, was a full member of the Silk Cut Jaguar team in 1986 along with Derek Warwick, Eddie Cheever and Gianfranco Brancatelli. The trouble was that Warwick refused to drive with Cheever again after the Norisring, more to do with the points situation than anything personal, and the team was far from happy. “Always problems. They were fighting like two teams. I was always the second driver and only once I had the chance to qualify the car myself. It was at Jerez, and I showed them what the car could do.” That fateful weekend, Warwick cast his
intended race car aside and Schlesser took it out next morning. To coin a phrase he “wrung its neck” and set a time that was good for pole until Frank Jelinski went fractionally quicker, at the end, in a Brun Motorsport Porsche.
One reason contributing to the breakdown between Schlesser and the team was his refusal to drive at Le Mans in 1987. At eight o’clock in the morning, when lying second, a rear tyre blew out while Schlesser’s Jaguar was travelling at a full 220 mph. He had to fight to get the car back under control and later, when safely home, he resolved not to drive again at the Sarthe.
Last year he was commentating for a French TV station when Klaus Niedzwiedz had a massive tyre failure on the Mercedes, much like Schlesser’s two years before. What changed in the next six months?
“I never wanted to do Le Mans but this year I was determined to be the champion. If that meant driving at Le Mans then I’d do it. First though, I had to be satisfied with the car. We made a test at Le Castellet (the Ricard circuit) to see how the car behaved. It was very good you know, the tyres were no problem, the car behaved and I knew the car could win, so I decided to do the race.
“I could not go with any car, only the best one, so I committed myself. When 1 heard that Le Mans was not in the championship I was pissed off, but I didn’t change my mind. That would let the team down, all the mechanics too, I didn’t want to do that.”
Not only did Schlesser drive there, but he claimed pole position at a record average of 155.236 mph. His Uncle Jo would have been very proud of him. “If you are a driver, what’s the difference between 95% and 100%? Nothing, certainly, in a straight line. Of course I tried, I tried like hell. I was there so I wanted to win.”
In the third hour Alain Cudini spun and damaged the car, and that seemed to knock the stuffing out of the crew which went on to a very subdued fifth place. Apart from tail and rear wing damage the car wasn’t knocked about, but it didn’t go so fast afterwards. “To be honest I was upset,” Schlesser admits. “I chose the drivers myself, and it didn’t work out as I hoped. I don’t know if I’ll go there next year. If the race is not in the championship there’ll be no reason to go. After what happened in 1986 I can never say I like the race . . . it doesn’t have a fascination.”
Spa-Francorchamps, the haunting Belgian circuit, marked the highs and lows of .Schlesser’s sports car career. “The first time I drove the Sauber Mercedes it was at Spa, in 1987. Sauber asked me to drive at Le Mans but I refused. I was surprised to be asked again, to drive with Mike Thackwell at Spa, and of course I accepted.
“I quickly realised that it was a good car, when we started from pole position. It was the first time for the car on pole but we soon dropped back due to a broken seat catch. Then they asked me to drive in the German Supercup at the Niirburgring, which was good. We spent two days there setting the car up perfectly, and I had such a good race. It was a good fight between Mike, me and Hans Stuck, and I won it.”
Schlesser was offered a full contract for 1988 as team leader, but he was sorry to see Thackwell go into retirement. “Now the car is so much nicer to drive, he would like it. It is much lighter on the steering wheel, our main complaint in 1987, we worked on that.”
With full backing from Mercedes the 1988 season began well with an outright victory at Jerez followed by second place at Jarama a week later. Schlesser was the points leader in the driver’s championship — until Spa, where a rear suspension link broke on the leading car. “I lost the World Championship at Spa, just a year after my first drive in the Sauber. Can you believe, I nearly lost the championship again this year at Spa?” All for the sake of 11/2 litres of fuel, a team error that Jochen Neerpasch stressed was no fault of the driver, Sch
lesser ran out of fuel 600 metres from the finish line. “The problem started at Donington, where my computer told me I had 13.5 litres for the last seven laps. I know we used two litres per lap so I slowed down.
“I had the race in my pocket, we won by 50 seconds, but when I told the team afterwards they said ‘Oh, don’t believe the computer, rely on us’. So at Spa the same thing happened, and I trusted the team more than the computer. They knew something, but they didn’t say it. I could see the championship slipping away, for the second time, unless I could beat Mauro in Mexico.”
No doubt about it, Schlesser became a very worthy World Champion in Mexico. The Italian may have started from pole position but once again the Frenchman had the better race set-up, and could pull away at will in the first stint.
“I was much stronger than Mauro, you could see that. That’s why Kenny crashed. I pulled out ten seconds in an hour, so Kenny knew he had to pull out twenty seconds on Jochen or they wouldn’t win the race. That’s all there was to it. “Jochen and I made the stronger pairing most of the season but I will be happy to drive with Mauro. Why not? We don’t have the choice, anyway. If you look at my record last season, and Mauro’s, and add
them together we should make a great team. The new car is very good, especially in the fast corners, but we have some more work to do in the winter to make it better in the slow corners.
“I don’t know if I can be the World Champion again but I’m going to try very hard. Jaguar will come back, Nissan will be good, so will Toyota. It will be a good fight next year, I’m sure, and I’m looking forward to it.”
As World Champion, Jean-Louis Schlesser has new responsibilities as an ambassador for sports car racing. Nor does he forget, in every interview. “Just think, in Formula One Honda is the top make. But in Japan, Honda is the smallest manufacturer. In Group C we have all the big makes, Nissan, Toyota and Mazda, versus Mercedes, Porsche and Jaguar. Now Peugeot is coming, so we are not a circus supported by the cigarette manufacturers of the world.” Serious when the occasion demands but more often throwing dazzling smiles, slapping backs and having a nice time, Jean-Louis Schlesser is going to be a popular champion. It was unfortunate, we felt, that Martin Brundle never raced a Group C car in 1989 in defence of his title, but in 1990 ‘Schless’ will make up for that in his usual, larger-than-life fashion. MLC