Jean-Louis Schlesser

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Last updated: 15-May-2002


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Before F1

Schlesser famous for making history by preventing history!

Of all the drivers on this site, Jean-Louis Schlesser is the only one who made history by preventing history from being made. Whether it was his fault or otherwise, the record books will recall that it was his Williams that tangled with the McLaren of race-leader Ayrton Senna in the dying laps of the 1988 Italian Grand Prix, thereby preventing McLaren from taking a clean sweep of the season's races, and handing a famous victory to Gerhard Berger's Ferrari in front of the tifosi, just days after Enzo Ferrari's death.

Coming from Nancy in the Lorraine region of France, Schlesser spent his early years in Morocco, where his father was an agricultural engineer. The local culture influenced him so much that when he started racing bicycles and motorcycles, he based his distinctive helmet design on the Christian cross motifs of North African nomadic tribes. In 1963, though, he returned to France, firstly to study and then to complete his compulsory military service.


Tragedy doesn't stop Jean-Louis taking to motor racing, F3 to start

It was in this stage of his life that tragedy struck the Schlesser family. Jean-Louis' uncle, Jo Schlesser, was a renowned sports car and Formula 2 driver in the 1960s, and a close friend of Guy Ligier. For the 1968 French GP at Rouen, Jo was given his opportunity to make his Formula 1 debut at the wheel of a Honda, but in an horrific early-race incident he perished in a fireball. In future years, when Ligier ran his own team, he would give his cars the 'JS' designation in honour of his friend.

Undeterred by the fate that befell his uncle, in 1970 Jean-Louis enrolled in the racing school at Le Mans where he came 2nd, and for 1971 tried to enter Formula Renault, but he didn't have enough money. And so the next few years were spent doing development work for car companies, mixed with the odd bit of rallying, a discipline which was to play a big part in his later career. It was only in 1976 that he had the finances to compete in some F3 races in France, before attempting European F3 but scoring no points in 1977.

Schlesser's second attempt at le Mans in 1982 with Hans-Joachim Stuck ended sadly in retirement for the Frenchman.
Schlesser's second attempt at le Mans in 1982 with Hans-Joachim Stuck ended sadly in retirement for the Frenchman.


Joint F3 Champion with Prost a good start, before some fruitless years

By 1978 he was 29 going on 30, not really the time to start progressing up the single seater ladder. But in his private Chevron B38 Toyota, he finished the season as joint French F3 champion with none other than Alain Prost, a brilliant result (although in the European championship he only scored 3 points to come equal 20th with six other drivers). Another fruitless season in European F3 followed in 1979, before a return to the French series in 1980 saw him come 5th overall in a March 793 Alfa Romeo with 56 points.

In 1981 he decided to have one last crack at European F3, having been taken on board by the Martini team to partner Alain Ferté and Philippe Alliot. Schlesser didn't too badly, taking 3rd at Misano and scoring 18 points in all in his Martini Mk34 Alfa Romeo, and this left him 7th overall. But a step up into a works Maurer MM82 BMW for 8 starts in European F2 the following year once again proved difficult. Jean-Louis recorded two 7ths at Spa and Mantorp Park, plus two 8ths, but failed to make it into the points.


French Touring car Champ with TWR, attempts his first Paris to Dakar

Although he did debut in F1 in 1983, and spent several years in a testing capacity for Williams, in reality his single seater career seemed as good as over. But being such a relatively late starter, right from the outset Jean-Louis had kept his racing options open by competing in other categories. For instance, he had raced in the French Production Car championship in 1978 and 1979, and in 1980 through to 1983 participated in the French Touring Car series.

But in 1984, he joined the Rover team run by Tom Walkinshaw Racing, and with the same outfit won the French Touring Car crown in 1985. That year, TWR also entered Schlesser in their Austin Rover team for the European Touring Car Championship, where in a Rover Vitesse he came 10th in Class 3, scoring 97 points. Furthermore, 1985 was also the year when he returned to his North African and off-road roots by competing in the Paris-Dakar rally for the first time, driving a Lada, returning for more in 1986.

Jean-Louis' rise to fame on the sportcar scene started in 1986 when he was driving for TWR Jaguar.
Jean-Louis' rise to fame on the sportcar scene started in 1986 when he was driving for TWR Jaguar.


Second place at Le Mans 24hrs with Streiff and Haran

Yet apart from production cars, touring cars and rally machines, in terms of racing with a roof over his head Jean-Louis carved out a very nice niche for himself in the world of sports car racing. As early as 1977 he had driven in the World Championship round at the Nurburgring in a KWS Motorsport Ford Escort with Rudolf Dötsch, and in 1979 he had competed at the Spa 24hrs, although the BMW 530i he was sharing with Claude Ballot-Léna and Gérard Bleynie crashed out of the event.

In the 1979 World Championship he had also done three rounds in a Jacques Guérin Porsche 911SC with Guérin and Bleynie, coming 6th at Silverstone. He remained with the same team for two more events in the 1980 championship, but it was in 1981 that Schlesser truly came to sports car prominence, when with Philippe Streiff and Jacky Haran he took his Rondeau M379C Ford to 2nd in the Le Mans 24hrs, scoring 20 points and finishing equal 112th in the points standings!


More Le Mans attempts; makes his one and only start at Daytona

Another start later in 1981 again with KWS Motorsport in a Ford Capri at the Spa 24hrs with Ferté and Anny-Charlotte Verney ended in retirement, as did his return to Le Mans in 1982, where he shared a Sauber SHS C6 Ford with Hans-Joachim Stuck and Dieter Quester. In the following three years in the 24hr classic, Jean-Louis would come 10th in 1983 in a Porsche 956, retire in 1984 in another 956, and then DNQ in 1985 after the Porsche 962C he shared with Kenny Acheson and Dudley Wood collided in practice.

Whilst many sports car drivers also made an annual pilgrimage to the Daytona 24hrs and Sebring 12hrs in America, Schlesser was not amongst their number. It was in 1985 that he would make his one and only start in the Daytona classic, retiring from engine problems in the Porsche 935 Turbo he was driving with Harald Grohs and Walter Brun. And while up to this point his sports car career had been restricted to the odd start here and there, it was in 1986 that it really began to take off.

1988 was a great year for Schlesser. Here he takes a win at Sandown in his Sauber, en route to 2nd place overall behind Martin Brundle.
1988 was a great year for Schlesser. Here he takes a win at Sandown in his Sauber, en route to 2nd place overall behind Martin Brundle.


Scores points in WSC for TWR Jaguar, before joining Sauber

That year, his TWR connections landed him a seat in a Jaguar XJR-6 for the 1986 World Sportscar Championship, alongside such drivers as Gianfranco Brancatelli, Derek Warwick, Eddie Cheever and Jan Lammers. However, several driveshaft failures limited Jean-Louis' points scoring to a 4th at Brands Hatch with Warwick, and 5th at Spa with Cheever. The combination of Warwick, Cheever and Schlesser retired at Le Mans, though, due to irreparable damage caused by a puncture.

Leaving TWR Jaguar at the end of 1986, Schlesser struggled to find a seat for 1987, but eventually linked up with the Kouros Racing Team to drive the works Sauber C9 Mercedes at Spa with Mike Thackwell, coming 7th. This led to a full-season drive in the Sauber C9/88 Mercedes for 1988, and Jean-Louis thrived in the new environment. Teaming up alternately with Mauro Baldi and Jochen Mass, Schlesser had an amazing run, finishing in the top three in all but one of the races he drove in.


Four WSC wins plus the Supercup title in top year for JLS

The one race where he didn't get onto the podium was at Fuji, where Schlesser, Mass and Acheson came 5th. In the rest, Jean-Louis took wins at Jerez, Brno (at the first major event held on the Czechoslovakian circuit), the Nurburgring and Sandown, scoring 5 fastest laps along the way and amassing 208 points, which put him second overall and the best of the Sauber Mercedes drivers, although not enough to beat Martin Brundle's Jaguar XJR-9 to the crown.

Apart from the World Championship, there was also the Supercup series of races in Germany, and after one solitary start in both 1986 and 1987, Schlesser took the title in 1988, driving his Sauber C9/88 to wins in 3 of the 4 races (out of the 5 in the whole series) he entered. But it was not all a bed of roses; in 1988, Jean-Louis had become embroiled in controversy when he refused to drive at Le Mans, a place which held little passion for him. It would not be the only controversy he found himself in that year.

Formula One

Finishes 6th in his first ever (non champ) Formula One race

As mentioned above, Schlesser's F1 career had theoretically started in 1983. Despite his dismal season in F2 in 1982, he had nonetheless been granted a test with Williams, but when given the chance what he really wanted to do was to race in F1. That opportunity arose when the RAM team, which had bought the March outfit, put a second RAM March 01 Cosworth up for grabs alongside the main team car belonging to Eliseo Salazar. Jean-Louis gathered the necessary finances, and the drive was his.

Schlesser's first taste of F1 action was at the non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, where thanks to a small field and several retirements, by race end he found himself in 6th place albeit a lap down, which would have been a points-paying position if it had been a championship event. But when the next World Championship event came around, the French GP at Paul Ricard, Jean-Louis was very quickly brought back down to earth.


Fails to qualify on home soil, joins Williams as test driver

With 26 cars to qualify, in Friday qualifying Schlesser ended up 27th. Unable to improve his time on Saturday, he dropped down to 29th. Prost, with whom he had shared the 1978 French F3 crown, was on pole, by a staggering 2.308s over his Renault team-mate Cheever. Schlesser was 9.194s slower than Alain, and 0.793s behind Salazar, who in 27th had also failed to qualify. Indeed, Chico Serra's Arrows was the last car on the grid, 1.088s faster than Jean-Louis' best time.

At this point in time, Schlesser's finances dried up, and that was it as far as his involvement with RAM March was concerned. He had to content himself for the next few years with a testing role for Sir Frank Williams, who appreciated the Frenchman's skill and technical feedback. From 1983 to 1987, Schlesser was an integral part of Williams' testing efforts, and played a vital role in the development of their active suspension system that made its race debut in 1987.

Driving his RAM March, Schlesser took a fantrastic 6th place in the 1983 Race of Champions. It was a non-championship race.
Driving his RAM March, Schlesser took a fantrastic 6th place in the 1983 Race of Champions. It was a non-championship race.


Search party sent out to find a sub for chicken poxed Red 5

But come 1988, Schlesser found himself involved full-time in sports cars, whilst Williams faced a year in midfield with non-turbo Judd engines powering the FW12s of Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese. At the Hungarian GP, though, Mansell faced an additional hurdle - a bout of chicken pox. What's worse, a subsequent viral infection kept the Englishman out of the following Belgian GP, where Brundle was drafted in at short notice as a replacement.

Mansell was expected to be fit enough to return for the Italian GP, but on the eve of that meet he called the team to say he had not recovered in time. This precipitated a mad rush to find a suitable replacement. Walkinshaw would not release Brundle from his Jaguar commitments for a second time; Williams could not get around Roberto Moreno's testing contract with Ferrari; they even tried to lure Keke Rosberg out of retirement, but the Finn didn't feel up to stepping back in with so little warning.


Having been away from F1 for 14 months, making the grid was tough

And so, in the end, very much as a last resort, Williams turned to Schlesser. If Jean-Louis made it onto the grid, which in all likelihood he would do, then the Frenchman would be finally making his World Championship Grand Prix race debut at the ripe old age of 40. Having not driven an F1 car for 14 months, little was expected of him, and after encountering some understeer on the Friday, he ended the day a creditable provisional 21st on the grid, believing that he had at least a second in hand.

Unfortunately that proved not to be the case. Schlesser found his car sorely lacking in grip come Saturday, and bent his front wishbone when he caressed the armco barrier. Unable to improve on his Friday time, he slipped to 22nd, with his best a full 5.608s slower than Senna's pole time and 2.113s adrift of Patrese, who was up in 10th and second of the non-turbos. By contrast, Schlesser had been out-qualified by both Zakspeeds, both Minardis and even the Osella of Nicola Larini.

A once-in-a-lifetime chance to drive for a top team was Schlesser's invitation to accidentally create F1 history...
A once-in-a-lifetime chance to drive for a top team was Schlesser's invitation to accidentally create F1 history...


Schlesser mnids his own business as history comes up to lap him

The dominant McLaren Hondas of Senna and Prost had won all previous 11 races of the 1988 season up to that point, and when they waltzed serenely into the distance come race day, it looked like victory number 12 was on the cards. But on lap 35, Prost suffered an inexplicable engine failure, and as the race drew to a close, cheered on by the fervent tifosi, the Ferraris of Berger and Michele Alboreto were actually started to catch Senna's McLaren out front.

The gap was down to a handful of seconds at the start of lap 49 of 51, and even if Senna had things under control, the last thing he would have wanted was to be unnecessarily held up by a backmarker. It was at this very point in time that he came up to lap Schlesser, running his own race in a lowly 11th, and about to be put two laps down. However, as fate would have it, Ayrton caught the Williams at the worst possible place - the tight left-right-left-right Retafilio chicane just after the start-finish straight.


Senna clash at the Retafilio leaves Jean-Louis remorseful, but famous

As they approached the braking zone, Schlesser saw Senna coming and expected the McLaren to pass on the inside, and as a result decided to go wide into the first left bend. The Brazilian duly pulled alongside, but right at that moment Schlesser ran out of room and, wishing to keep his Williams on the track, turned sharp left to make the corner. Senna, meanwhile, was busy straight-lining the chicane, but in doing so his rear right wheel clipped Schlesser's front left. The McLaren spun, and beached itself on a kerb.

In Schlesser's own words: "At the last possible moment I had to turn. When I went he was on the kerb inside and then he hit my wing. I feel very sorry for him, but I don't think it was my fault, but I am going to see him and say sorry." But the fact was that both McLarens were out at Monza. Berger took an emotional win and halted the McLaren steamroller; it proved to be the only non-McLaren win all year. Quite simply, Schlesser's intervention had prevented McLaren from taking an unprecedented 16 out of 16.

After F1

Schlesser dominant in Sauber Mercedes, becoming World Champion!

In truth, for Schlesser the Monza incident was no more than a blip in what was otherwise a blossoming sports car career. Having come close in 1988, in 1989 the Sauber Mercedes C9s dominated the World Sportscar Championship. Schlesser won at Suzuka with Baldi, and then drove with Mass for the rest of the season, coming 2nd at Dijon, 1st at Jarama, 3rd at Brands Hatch, 1st at the Nurburgring including fastest lap, 1st at Donington, retiring at Spa, but taking victory plus fastest lap in the last race in Mexico.

That early driver juggling proved crucial. Schlesser accrued 115 points to Mass' 107 and Baldi's 102, became World Champion. He was also coaxed into racing again at Le Mans, a non-championship event, but only came 5th with Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Alain Cudini. Then, for 1990, he found himself teamed permanently with Baldi after both of them decided they did not want to partner Karl Wendlinger, Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Michael Schumacher as part of Mercedes' junior driver program.


Joint Champion with Baldi, becoming a two-time WSC victor

But in terms of championship success, Schlesser and Baldi's decision worked a charm. Starting the season in the old Sauber C9 before upgrading to a new C11, Jean-Louis and Mauro took six victories at Suzuka, Monza, Dijon, Nurburgring, Donington and Montreal, taking three fastest laps in the process, although they retired at Silverstone and were disqualified in Mexico. With 49.5 points each, Schlesser and Baldi became joint World Champions, and Jean-Louis successfully defended his crown.

For 1991, Baldi had been lured away to the works Peugeot team, while Frentzen had left the junior program. That left Schumacher to be paired with Wendlinger, and Schlesser to be reunited with Mass. The Sauber Mercedes plan for '91 had been to start the year in the trusted C11s before changing to the new C291 after Le Mans, but in the face of the Peugeot challenge and a revitalised Jaguar effort, Schlesser and Mass could only come 2nd, 3rd and 4th in the first three races.

Schlesser's Sauber at Silverstone in 1990 - one of only two WSC races that season Jean-Louis did not win!
Schlesser's Sauber at Silverstone in 1990 - one of only two WSC races that season Jean-Louis did not win!


Takes pole at Le Mans, but winless season sees him look for other challenges!

They were joined by Ferté at Le Mans, where Jean-Louis shook off his dislike of the place to claim pole, but an engine failure put them out after 319 laps. The C291 was subsequently introduced but proved to be grossly unreliable, the Schlesser machine dropping out of three consecutive races before salvaging a 5th at Autopolis in the curtain closer. All in all, it had been a disappointing season for the double World Champion, failing to record a win en route to only joint 7th in the title with 45 points.

But with the imminent demise of the WSC and with Sauber withdrawing anyway to concentrate on F1, Schlesser found himself looking for something new. He had done another IMSA race in 1990 in a Ferrari at Topeka, but that was not a path he wanted to head down. In his own words: "What interested me was to have another challenge. But I wanted something that would allow me to surpass myself in another domain. I said to myself that it would be a fun challenge to try to make a car."


Builds his own buggy, and is soon taking class victories in off road rallying

With that, Jean-Louis turned his attentions back to rallying, and in particular the all-terrain off-road cross-country variety. He had competed in the Paris-Dakar from 1989 to 1991, and in 1992 participated in the Paris-Le Cap. But in this category dominated by four-wheel-drive jeeps, Schlesser decided to embark on a unique project, to create a two-wheel-drive buggy in his new factory near Cannes, with help from Renault, engines from Seat, and a chassis moulded in the USA.

Though he originally only had one mechanic, in 1992 his buggy proved to be successful immediately, taking overall victories in the Baja Portugal and the Rally of the Pharaohs, and winning the 2WD Trophy in the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup. He took the trophy again in 1993 and came 7th overall, finishing 3rd in Tunisia and Portugal, and 2nd in the Rally of the Pharaohs, as well as 14th overall but 1st in the 2WD class in the Paris-Dakar, his contraption proving capable of handling the conditions.

1991 saw Schumacher and Schlesser part of the Sauber WSC tilt, but they never got to drive together...
1991 saw Schumacher and Schlesser teammates in the Sauber WSC tilt, but they never got to drive together...


Schlesser master of the 2WD Trophy, before developing new X202 buggy

In 1994, 1995 and 1996 he placed 3rd overall, whilst making the 2WD Trophy his own. He took outright wins in the Rally of the Pharaohs and the UAE Desert Challenge in 1994, the Desert Challenge again in 1995, and the Rally of Morocco in 1996, as well as eight other top-four outright finishes as well as a brace of excellent 2WD class results. In addition, in 1996 he came 1st in the 2WD class of the Granada-Dakar (the yearly classic constantly changing starting locations) after finishing 14th overall.

However, in 1997, despite winning the 2WD Trophy for the 6th time, he dropped to 4th overall. With no wins, he recorded two outright 2nds, a 3rd and a 4th, but in the Dakar-Agades-Dakar was forced to retire. Come 1998, and the cross-country rally scene had become much more professionalised. Schlesser was forced to develop a new Megane X202 model in conjunction with Renault in order to stay competitive, and take on navigators such as A. Pauwels, Jean-Dominique Comolli and Philippe Monnet.


Back to back WCCR titles, including winning Paris to Dakar outright!

These changes brought Schlesser right back to the forefront. He came 5th overall but 1st in 2WD in the Paris-Dakar with Pauwels, and with Monnet (who in 1980s had set a record for the solitary circumnavigation of the globe in a yacht), took overall victories in the Baja Italy, the Rally of Tunisia and the Rally of Morocco, as well as 3rd in the Baja Portugal and 2nd in the UAE Desert Challenge. Add to that another win in the Baja Spain with Comolli navigating, and Jean-Louis became World Cross Country Rally Champion.

Pushing the envelope in 1999, he came out with a new Megane X301, and with Monnet won the Granada-Dakar outright. Then in the six main championship events, with Monnet, Henri Magne and Thierry Delli-Zotti alternately doing the navigating, Schlesser finished either outright 1st or 2nd in each of them, including 4 outright victories in Tunisia, Argentina, the UAE and in the Master Rally. Not surprisingly, he claimed the World Championship for the second year running.

One of Schlesser's first outright wins using his own buggy in Cross Country Rallying came in the UAE in 1994.
One of Schlesser's first outright wins using his own buggy in Cross Country Rallying came in the UAE in 1994.


Champ again, dominating WCCR in his self-made buggy

Jean-Louis then made it three titles in a row in 2000, when with Magne, Comolli and Richard Micoud alongside alternately, he added five more outright victories to his collection, as well as the Paris-Dakar-Cairo. By now there was no doubt that Schlesser's two-wheel-drive buggy had become the dominant force in cross-country rallying, an amazing achievement considering that he was up against four-wheel-drives which, on paper, seemed much better suited to this discipline of motorsport.

At the start of 2001, however, Schlesser once again found himself embroiled in controversy which threatened to take the gloss off his successes. Going into the second-last stage of the Paris-Dakar, Schlesser and Magne found themselves behind the Mitsubishi of Hiroshi Masuoka. This meant that the Japanese driver would start the stage first, with the advantage of not having to drive through the sand thrown up by competitors ahead.


Team orders lead to penalty, and landmark win to ex-Schlesser pilot

In order to negate Masuoka's advantage, Schlesser sent his second team buggy driven by José-Maria Servia (he had been running a second car for several seasons now) illegally away on the stage first. Servia succeeded in blocking the Mitsubishi and spraying sand all over Masuoka's windscreen, forcing the Japanese driver to go off the main course to try to pass the Megane. In doing so, Masuoka hit a rock, broke his suspension, and was forced out of the event.

Schlesser inherited the lead in these dubious circumstances, and with only the short final stage to go, looked set to win the event for the third straight year. However, officials did not look kindly on the trick he had pulled, and penalised both he and Servia an hour each, dropping Jean-Louis to 3rd outright, and handing victory on a plate to Jutta Kleinschmidt, a former Schlesser buggy driver herself, who became the first female winner of the annual classic.

One of Jean-Louis' many outright wins in 2001 came in Argentina. That year he won his 4th consecutive WCCR title.
Another of Jean-Louis' many outright wins in 2001 came in Argentina. That year he won his 4th consecutive WCCR title.


New Kangoo suffers Moroccan meltdown after injector leakage

Putting the episode behind him, though, Schlesser and Magne then recovered from two more retirements in the Baja Italy and the Rally of Tunisia to take outright the Rally of Morocco, the Baja Spain, the Master Rally and the Rally Argentina, en route to his fourth straight World Cross Country Rally Championship success. Thus, going into 2002, there was little doubt that the two-wheel-drive Schlesser Megane buggies would continue to be a force to be reckoned with.

However, not everything has gone as expected in 2002. The year started with the Arras-Madrid-Dakar, with Schlesser temporarily switching from the trusted Megane to the Kangoo model instead. But on 2 January, whilst in Morocco, only a day after the retirement of the other team car of Stephan Henrard, an injector leakage sprayed oil over the exhausts causing the Kangoo to catch fire. Schlesser and Magne had to make a hasty exit, and could only stand and watch the car burn to the ground.


Sometime Andros ice racer still the rally benchmark

In the end, all three Schlesser team cars retired from the Dakar as Gregoire de Mevius took the win, making it their most unsuccessful attempt in many years. Reverting to the Megane for the Baja Italy, Schlesser bounced back immediately to take the win, but in the Rally of Tunisia last month, crashed out of the event. It will be interesting as the season progresses to see if Jean-Louis can hold onto his world title in the face of increasing competition.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that off-road rallying has not been Jean-Louis' sole forte in the 1990s, as he has also proven a very capable ice racer. In 1992, he won a 24hr event in Paris, while in 1997 the Andros Trophy event at Narbonne in an Opel Astra. In February 2000 he won the Andros Trophy final at the Stade de France, and came 4th in the Ice Racing Series International race at Sherbrooke in a Peugeot 306. In addition, in 1994 he also took out the annual Historic Race of Champions held on the Canary Islands.

Jean-Louis' 2002 Paris-Dakar campaign started well  but on January 2 a fire saw the car burned to a crisp!
Jean-Louis' 2002 Paris-Dakar campaign started well (left), but on January 2 a fire saw the car burned to a crisp! (right).

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