Features - Interview


Jean-Louis Schlesser


Jean-Louis Schlesser is a popular man -- particularly among the Italian tifosi -- in their eyes he is the man who ensured that Ferrari scored a 1-2 at the team's home Grand Prix last year. It was his Williams which made contact with Ayrton Senna's McLaren and resulted in the Brazilian spinning out of the lead. The general consensus is that it was not Jean-Louis's fault, but it brought him more publicity than an entire career in racing - and a splendid season in the World Sportscar Championship...

Jean-Louis Schlesser is a popular man -- particularly among the Italian tifosi -- in their eyes he is the man who ensured that Ferrari scored a 1-2 at the team's home Grand Prix last year. It was his Williams which made contact with Ayrton Senna's McLaren and resulted in the Brazilian spinning out of the lead. The general consensus is that it was not Jean-Louis's fault, but it brought him more publicity than an entire career in racing - and a splendid season in the World Sportscar Championship...

When you ask people in racing about their favourite drivers, you get many different answers. Some like the winners; some the battlers; others prefer those who are fun to be with.

You can respect a driver immensely, but with some you know you couldn't ever survive a dinner with him. Their lives are dominated by an obsession with racing or with themselves. There are times when you have to block it out, when you feel the evening would pass more easily with a train-spotter, detailing the movements of shunters at Crewe; when the idea of discussing the plot of Neighbours or mulling over mortgage rates suddenly seems scintillating...

Meeting Jean-Louis Schlesser is never like that. He may be deadly serious when it comes to racing, but at all other times his company is a pleasure, a man with whom you could spend a pleasant relaxed afternoon sitting under a tree chatting. There is no pretence, no need to prove anything.

Despite this 'Schless' has a slightly cultivated image of mystery - you feel he likes it. There are many very funny stories about him and if you've spent any time with him, you know that most are probably true.

Once I was a passenger with him in the traffic around Monza. "Pah," he said finally, tired of the eccentricities of Italian drivers. "I'll show you how to drive like an Italian!" Never did the roads of Monza clear so fast...

It is the image that people expect from a racing driver. If you call him a playboy, he will laugh, rather than threaten to sue.

And, of course, he makes gossip columnists' hearts beat that little faster. He is married to Marianna, the ex-wife of tennis star Bjorn Borg, he lives in France, sometimes in Luxembourg, but he spends a lot of time on the boat in Monte Carlo. He flies. He has a ready charm and a sense of humour...

You get the feeling that he likes the image that surrounds him.

"I am a racing driver and I think racing drivers should be like I am," he says without a hint of self-indulgence. "Not too serious."

Did he ever think of doing anything else? "Yeah, maybe becoming an actor, whatever!" He shrugs. "No, not really. I like to invent things.

"I do patents to improve things. I have something at the moment which helps a car in ice and snow. It is very interesting. Maybe I will sell it to someone."

An inventor? You check to see if there is a twinkle in his eyes, but he is serious. He used to be in the jewellery business in Paris, but now he is a fulltime racing driver.

An actor? "Sure," he says.

You think about it for a second and yes, he would be good at that too, in the Jean-Paul Belmondo school. The gangster with the golden heart or the down to earth likeable cop. Perhaps a comedy or two...

"But I've always wanted to be a racing driver," he says finally. "I race to enjoy myself and to earn a living. I have a good life. I will race anything where I enjoy myself: sportscars, Group A, Formula 1, whatever."

There is, as is often the case, a family connection with the sport. His uncle was Jo Schlesser, killed at Rouen in 1968 at the wheel of a Honda F1 car. Jo was a great friend of Guy Ligier and, to this day, Guy still produces cars with the JS prefix in memory of his friend.

Born in Nancy, Jean-Louis was brought up in North Africa in the former French colony of Morocco.

"My father was an agricultural engineer. He taught Moroccans how to grow things, to build things out of the ground."

There was little in the way of motor racing in Morocco. "There's a different mentality there to that of France, " he says. "When I was young in Morocco we were always in competition , always fighting, on bicycles, on motorbikes and then in cars. We were always fighting in Morocco.

"I came to France to go to the racing school at Le Mans, it was the Volant Shell at Le Mans and I was runner-up and I won a car for Formule Renault. I did a season without money. I had nothing."

After that he did some development work with Modus in 1974 and 1975.

"My first race in European F3, I was on pole at Croix against people like Connie Andersson, Gianfranco Brancatelli and so on. The year after I did the first race and I was again on pole. After that I did Formula 3 in France."

It was the first year that Formula 3 was reinstated in France and Schlesser was up against a youngster called Alain Prost. The two ended the year sharing the title. "I would say that Alain is maybe the best driver the world ever had," he says of his old sparring partner. "I was not good like Alain. Of course he had the push from Elf as well, I had nothing."

While Prost rocketed to Grand Prix stardom, Jean-Louis's career has been varied and unconventional, it was to remain that way with intermittent appearances in Formula 3 and French production racing. He finished second at Le Mans in 1981 with Jacky Haran and Philippe Streiff.

"I went to European Formula 3 Championship in 1981," he says, "but I had Avon and M&H tyres while my Martini team mates Alain Ferte and Philippe Alliot had Michelins."

A year later he was with Maurer in Formula 2 and at the end of the year he did the first test with Williams.

"Why me?" he says. "You have to ask them. I have always tried to give the best information I can. I try to do as much as possible to assist them. I like to test cars. I like to find the small differences. If I find something I'm happy, and I like to laugh and joke. We have a fantastic time. I am really serious -- that may surprise you -- but it was sad that Nigel lost the championship in 1987. He's a really good driver, attacking a lot."

But while Jean-Louis was always happy to test for Williams, his racing career was proving as difficult as ever.

There was a Formula 1 outing in the 1983 non-championship Race of Champions at Brands Hatch with RAM and then a non-qualification at the French GP.

Jean-Louis found he needed his sense of humour. The Williams work went on. To this day the mechanics at Williams love working with him. There are no histrionics, he gets on with the job, does a good job and has fun too.

For racing he turned fulltime to the French Production Championship, where he caught the eye of Tom Walkinshaw.

Two years driving a Marlboro-sponsored Rover Vitesse saw him win the French title in 1985. Then Tom took him on for the European Touring Car title.

It let to a drive with Walkinshaw's Group C Jaguars and, ultimately to his signing for the Sauber Mercedes team, Jaguar's opposition, after the TWR team let him go.

There were times in 1988 when they must have regretted that for Jean-Louis produced some outstanding performances for Mercedes in the World Sportcar Championship.

"Last year was a bit more exciting than normal," he says. "I was leading the World Championship from the beginning. I won the German Supercup and there is also the French sportscar championship (awarded to the highest placed Frenchman in the World series). That was nice. At the beginning of the season we were not expecting to have those kind of results.

Many were surprised when the series leader declined to race at Le Mans, not caring if it affected his championship chances.

"The problem with Le Mans," he explains,"is that it is not like any other race. It is such a gamble to win and you take so many risks on the straight that it is just crazy. I don't want to do it because it's too dangerous, sometimes you see people exploding tyres and things like that. The straight is too long at that sort of speed you can do nothing at all if something happens. Nothing at all."

Jean-Louis's fears were realised when Sauber driver Klaus Niedzwiedz had a tyre explode on the dreaded Mulsanne. The team packed up and went home when no explanation for the incident could be found. It was too much of a risk to race...

While his performances in sportscars were making people sit up and take notice, Jean-Louis truly hit the headlines at Monza, at the Italian Grand Prix. Nigel Mansell was out with chicken-pox and Martin Brundle, Jean-Loui's chief rival in sportscar racing, turned down the drive to concentrate on beating the Frenchman! Williams called up their sometime test driver and a gleeful Jean-Louis turned up the Autodromo to make his Grand Prix debut with the Williams team.

"The thing about Monza," he says now, "is that I should have tested before the Grand Prix. At the beginning of the season Patrick (Head) rang me for a test but I couldn't do it.

"When I went to Monza, it was 13 months since I had driven a Formula 1 and the car was quite different from what I remembered. Still, it was super...

"I knew what the car could do and I knew what I could do. It was a bit of a problem finding a set-up. I qualified on the Friday time because on Saturday I had a problem with the engine. I was about 1sec slower than Riccardo (Patrese) which is normal when you are not in the car for a long time."

The race saw him doing a steady job, but close to the finish he and championship leader Ayrton Senna arrived at the first chicane together. The rest has been shown a hundred times on television.

"After the race I talked to Ayrton. I am happy now that he won the championship, if he had not won it, for years it would have been said that it was Schlesser's fault or whatever. It was not my fault. I tried to stay out of the way as long as possible. I had to turn then otherwise I would be in the sand. Inside I don't think he was upset afterwards."

With a Ferrari 1-2 the result of Senna's retirement, Jean-Louis instantly became an unwitting Italian national hero.

Since then his name has cropped up in connection with several F1 drives for the future. Is he interested in F1?

"I don't want to do Formula 1 just because it is Formula 1," he says. "If I go to a team I can give lots to it, maybe some teams need a guy like me, to help to develop the car. There will be a lot of teams like that this year. It would depend on the programme they might offer. But, why not?"

As things stand, with the remaining possibilities closing up, a Formula 1 drive is unlikely. He will probably go on testing with Williams and he looks ahead to the World Sports-Prototype series, once again with Sauber.

"I am very happy at Sauber," he says. "It's a very good team, I don't like 1000km races. They are too long really, too hard for everybody. It isn't good for the drivers, nor the mechanics and look at the press. If you have a 1000km race in England it finishes too late for the deadlines in Europe, so there are no reports of the race."

Jean-Louis actually thinks about things like that. He is often aware of things other drivers may not consider. Has his exploits in 1988 made him better known in France? "Yeah," he laughs, "maybe 10 more people know me now! It hasn't changed anything really I am not running after publicity. I have the driving, the patents, I have to see my children, my boat and go. I like to fly, I learned two years ago. Before that I hated flying.

"I live a perfect life."