From supersprints to sand dunes, Jean-Louis Schlesser’s career is peppered with major titles in a diverse range of disciplines. Yet still his successes can seem forgotten. By John Davenport
Famous men are not always remembered for what they might consider important. Our late Lord Chancellor is recalled for his choice of wallpaper rather than his reorganisation of the judiciary, and George Washington for his veracity relating to a cherry tree rather than being commander of the army that defeated the English. So it is for Jean-Louis Schlesser, a man who has been twice champion of the world in sportscars, the French touring car champion, the German Supercup champion and four times world champion in cross-country rallies in a vehicle of his own design.
That’s because Schlesser is universally remembered for one incident in Formula One. It was at Monza in 1988 when Jean-Louis, at that time the test driver of the new Renault V10 engine for the Williams team, was deputising for an unwell Nigel Mansell in its Judd-powered FW12. Near the end of the race, while running steadily towards a top-10 finish, he was about to be lapped for the second time by Ayrton Senna in the McLaren MP4/4-Honda. Senna was leading comfortably from the two Ferrari F187/88Cs of Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto. He caught the Williams under braking for the Rettifilio chicane at the end of the start/finish straight.
Jean-Louis recollects: “I saw Senna okay and I kept to the right, and he came past. But then I had to turn left as I had nowhere to go and he just caught my left-front with his right-rear.”
Thanks to this mild contact Senna spun and beached the McLaren on the outside of the chicane. Berger went on to win in front of the tifosi and McLaren, which had won all 11 of the preceding GPs and was to win the last four, had had its 100 per cent record ruined.
In that race, only his second in a Formula One car, Schlesser finished 11th, but it was the coming-together with Senna that made the news: “I saw Ayrton after the race and he was very nice about it. Perhaps I should have braked earlier, who knows? Ayrton and I stayed friends and I saw him sometimes in Monaco. But I never got an offer of a drive from Ron Dennis…”
Jean-Louis’ career in motorsport is a story of true skill and determination against that most fearsome of drawbacks: a lack of money. He was born in Nancy in 1948 and the family moved to Morocco, where his father worked as an agricultural engineer. At the age of 15, Jean-Louis returned to France to study and then undertake his military service. He trained as an engineer specialising in metallurgy, alloys and welding, but his weekends started to be taken up by bicycle racing, and then motorbikes.
A formative influence was his uncle Jo Schlesser, whose CV included a wide spectrum of motorsport from rallying to single-seaters. Jo’s fiery death in an F1 Honda at Rouen in 1968 did not deter Jean-Louis from pursuing the same interests, though it is a subject that does not come up in conversation.
Jean-Louis entered for the Volant Shell, a talent competition held annually at Le Mans, and came second. He wanted to go into Formula Renault but the funds needed were beyond his means, so he raced whenever he could borrow a car and got work testing cars for Modus and Van Diemen. Many a damp day in the 1970s was spent circulating Snetterton or Croix-en-Ternois.
His first serious drive was in a Toyota-powered Chevron B38 Formula Three car. The chassis was owned by German firm KWS, for which he had been driving a Ford Escort in races and rallies. The engine belonged to Didier Pironi and it needed a rebuild. So Jean-Louis drove to Novaro, where some gentle persuasion convinced Novamotor’s Pedrazzani brothers to do the work as a favour. All were rewarded for their efforts when Jean-Louis put the car on pole for the French F3 round at Paul Ricard, and led the race until a gear linkage problem intervened. At Croix, he was again on pole, but was beaten to the flag by Anders Olofsson.
Eventually some regular support was forthcoming and, in 1978, he did a complete season of F3 in France, tying with Alain Prost for the national championship. At the same time Jean-Louis was driving a KWS Escort in the French production series. It was not a winning car, but KWS was sufficiently impressed to suggest that Schlesser do the Rallye des Cevennes in its rally Escort RS. He took Bernard Giroux as co-driver, and they were giving a fair account of themselves when Jean-Louis found himself on ice: “We were climbing this mountain when the road went round the north side of it. There must have been half a dozen cars in the wall. We slid around for another seven kilometres and then I rolled it.”
Despite this experience, Jean-Louis continued to drive for KWS, migrating up into the French Supertourisme championship in 1980. F3 still featured, with more European races, first in a March 793-Alfa Romeo and then a Martini alongside Alain Ferte. A move into sportscars reaped a second place at Le Mans with Rondeau in ’81.
In 1982, he did a season in Formula Two with a Maurer MM82-BMW — and moved to a BMW in French touring cars. A year later he made his Formula One debut with a RAM March-Cosworth, entering three races (he started only one) before the money ran out. During this period Jean-Louis’ driving ability and technical skill meant that he was frequently fast in qualifying, but his underfinanced cars often failed to deliver the goods in the race.
This changed when he was signed by Austin Rover for the 1984 French touring car championship. In the TWR Vitesse he finally had a car that would go the distance at a winning pace. He would have been champion at the first attempt in the Marlboro-sponsored car but for losing his win at Dijon. “The scrutineer objected to our rollcage that was welded to the bodyshell,” he explains. “I took a welding torch to it and cut the links myself and still won the race — but they took the points away just the same.”
The following year there was no such problem and he won the championship easily. At the same time he had been inducted into the Austin Rover European Touring Car Championship team in which he proved to be one of its stalwarts, winning races ahead of the factory BMWs and Volvos.
During this time he had also maintained his links with sportscar racing, driving Group C Porsches at Le Mans for Henn, Joest and JFR, but in 1985 he also did the Paris-Dakar for the first time. It was an inauspicious start for a man who was to to win the event twice: “There were three Ladas for me, Pierre Lartigue and Jean-Pierre Jabouille. We only managed about 25km before all three broke down.”
He contested it again the following year and had a character-building experience in an ARO, a car built on a Range Rover chassis and fitted with an American V8. “We broke all the forward gears so I turned it round and drove in reverse,” he says. “We did about 90km before we found a Tarmac road. My neck and arms were almost finished.”
Jean-Louis hit the big time in 1986 by landing a drive with TWR to race its Silk Cut Jaguar XJR6s in the Sportscar-Prototype World Championship. This he did alongside his Rover tin-top duties, but when Austin Rover stopped at the end of that year, the Jaguar drives dried up as well.
A testing contract with Williams to sort out its new Renault-engined chassis was in the pipeline, but more was needed. He had a contract with Alfa Romeo to drive its 75 Turbo touring car in 1987, but then late in the year came a call from Max Welti at Sauber. Could he race with Mike Thackwell at the Spa 1000Km in the Sauber-Mercedes C9?
The answer was affirmative. Thackwell put it on pole, but during the race the car misfired in the rain, losing 7min with two long pitstops, and the two drivers had to play catch-up. Thackwell set fastest lap and Jean-Louis was only 0.2sec slower. The car simply flew and they finished seventh, five and a half minutes behind the winning Jaguar.
This was a critical period for Sauber. It needed a firm contract with Mercedes to guarantee its future.
A week later, Thackwell and Schlesser were in two Saubers for the Nurburgring round of the ADAC Supercup in front of all the Mercedes top brass. Jean-Louis netted a front-row slot alongside Hans Stuck’s Porsche 962, with Thackwell behind. The Saubers leapt into the lead, ignoring worries about fuel consumption. At about half-distance, Thackwell decided to play it safe and let Stuck through. Jean-Louis had no such intention: “My fuel gauge wasn’t working so all I could do was keep ahead of Stuck and just accelerate if he got close.” The resulting victory was just what Peter Sauber wanted: he got his five-year Mercedes contract and Jean-Louis got his works drive.
J-L finished second in the 1988 World Sports-Prototype Championship — “only one failed wheel bearing stopped me winning” — but he won the ADAC Supercup outright. The following year he won the WSC outright and repeated the feat with six wins from nine races in ’90, sharing the title with team-mate Mauro Baldi.
It was the year of his first WSC title that Jean-Louis returned to the Paris-Dakar, where at first he drove other people’s cars. But his true desire was to design and build his own two-wheel-drive buggy, which he was convinced would outperform all the 4WD machinery then in vogue. Within two years he was on the startline with just such a car. And it had one very unusual feature: no passenger seat. For the first four years of his independently funded project, Jean-Louis drove and navigated alone. By 1992, after the Mercedes GpC programme had been canned, he was notching up outright wins and won the special trophy for cross-country rally vehicles that only had two-wheel drive. Between then and ’97 he won many events outright, and was third overall in the championship three times and fourth once. His buggies had by now evolved into two-seaters with Renault power and were called Meganes. With these Jean-Louis won the world championship for four successive years and continues to pursue the title (now powered by Ford). To fill in time during the winter he does some ice racing, but the main occupation is with the Cross-Country World Championship.
Designer, constructor, tester, race driver, rally driver — Jean-Louis Schlesser is a cross between Leonardo da Vinci and Errol Flynn: a man who is well connected, larger than life, and who insists on performing his own stunts.