Jean-Louis Schlesser is one the biggest French racing legends because he was a champion in different racing disciplines and his career lasted for more than 40 years.
Schlesser won his first title in the 1978 Formula 3 French Championship. In 1985, he became the French touring car champion. The next title was the 1988 German Supercup with the astonishing Sauber-Mercedes C9. With the same car, Schlesser was the World Sports-Prototype champion in 1989 and 1990.
After leaving the circuit racing, Schlesser focused on rally-raids, winning the FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup titles five times and taking two overall victories at Dakar Rally in 1999 and 2000. Schlesser also recorded one participation at the Formula One championship, in 1988 at Italian Grand Prix in Monza.
Schlesser shared his first title with Alain Prost
Jean-Louis Schlesser was born on September 12, 1948, in Nancy, in north-eastern France. He grew up in Morocco before returning to France to study and to serve in the French army. He gained his first racing experience in the racing school at Le Mans. His first competition was the Formula Renault European Challenge. In 1976, Schlesser stepped into Formula 3, competing in France and the UK in the next three seasons. In 1978, he was the French F3 champion, sharing the title with Alain Prost.
Between 1979 and 1981, Schlesser continued to race in the Formula 3 race but also added touring car and sports car races to his schedule, participating in the World Manufacturers Championship with Jacques Guerin's Porsches.
1981 - podium for Schlesser in the Le Mans debut
In June 1981, Schlesser partnered Philippe Streiff and Jacky Haran in the #8 Rondeau M379C at 24 hours of Le Mans. In his debut at world's greatest endurance race, Schlesser reached the overall podium, finishing second, behind Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell in Porsche 936.
Schlesser had a similar schedule in 1982, combining Formula 2, French touring cars and sports cars, including Le Mans. At 1982 Le Mans race, he partnered Hans-Joachim Stuck and Dieter Quester in the #20 Sauber SHS C6 of GS Sport team, but they didn't reach the finish. In other competitions, he also had no notable results.
Qualifying fail in the Formula One Championship debut
The 1983 season was a year with more driving duties in different cars, including Formula One for the first time. Schlesser was working as a test driver for Williams but he had no chance to drive in the championship races, so he bought a seat in the Cosworth-powered March-RAM Formula One car.
In April, he debuted in the F1 Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, starting last on the grid (13th) and finishing sixth. A week later, at French Grand Prix at Circuit Paul Ricard, Schlesser failed to qualify, setting the lap time nine seconds slower than the pole-sitter Alain Prost.
10th place at 1983 Le Mans with Porsche 956
Schlesser decided to focus on other disciplines. He competed in the Formula 2 with Maurer Motorsport and in the French Touring Car Championship with Alfa Romeo GTV6. In the sports car racing, he visited Le Mans for the third year in a row, this time driving the Porsche 956 for Fitzpatrick Racing, alongside Preston Henn and Claude Ballot-Lena. The trio finished 10th overall.
1984 - Dakar Rally debut with Lada
The season 1984 started with Schlesser's first participation at Dakar Rally, driving the Lada. In June 1984, Schlesser returned to Le Mans with Joest Racing's Porsche 956, sharing the car with Stefan Johansson and Mauricio DeNarvaez. They started third on the grid but retired after 170 laps. At the 1984 European Touring Car Championship, Schlesser competed with TWR Jaguar XJS and Rover Vitesse.
1985 French Touring Car champion with Rover
Rover Vitesse was Schlesser's championship-winning car in the 1985 French Touring Car Championship. He won three out of twelve races and took his second championship title in a career. Besides touring car races, Schlesser competed with TWR Jaguar XJR-6 at the FIA World Endurance Championship. In February 1985, Schlesser competed for the first time at 24 hours of Daytona, as a member of Henn's Swap Shop Racing team in the #16 Porsche 935, but didn't finish the race.
Driving Silk Cut Jaguar in the World championship
In 1986, Schlesser stayed with Tom Walkinshaw Racing and drove the Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-6 in the World Sports-Prototype Championship. His co-drivers were Gianfranco Brancatelli, Derer Warwick and Eddie Cheever. At 24 hours of Le Mans, Schlesser was competing alongside Warwick and Cheever in the #51 car. They retired after 239 laps with damaged suspension.
For the 1987 season, Schlesser made a double change. In the World Touring Car Championship, he replaced Rover Vitesse with Alfa Romeo 75 Turbo, in the sports car races he joined Kouros Racing Team to drive Sauber C9-Mercedes. His only victory of the year was in September's Supercup Supersprint at Nurburgring, driving Sauber C9.
The German Supercup winner with Sauber C9
For the 1988 season, Schlesser joined Team Sauber-Mercedes and he had a very successful season, he won several races both in the German Supercup and in the World Sports-Prototype Championship. With three wins in five races, he was the Supercup champion. In the World championship, Schlesser won four times in ten races and finished second in the points, behind Jaguar's Martin Brundle.
As a Mercedes factory driver, Schlesser also participated in two DTM races with Mercedes 190E 2.3-16. At 24 hours of Spa, he was driving Bastos-sponsored BMW M3, together with Marc Duez and Jean-Pierre Jabouille, and they finished 8th.
Infamous crash with Senna at 1988 Italian Grand Prix
Although Schlesser had good results with Sauber during 1988, the highlight of the season was his Formula One one-off appearance at Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Williams invited him as a replacement for Nigel Mansell, who was affected by chicken pox.
Enzo Ferrari died a month before the race (August 14) and Tifosi was praying for Ferrari's victory at Monza. He also wanted to dedicate the victory to Enzo. The season was dominated by McLaren, with 11 consecutive wins before visiting Monza, so the win for Ferrari seemed like the mission impossible. However, it turned out to be mission possible when Ayrton Senna and Jean-Louis Schlesser crashed out on the last lap, handing the 1-2 victory to Ferrari's Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto. Since then, Schlesser became the hero of Ferrari's fans.
On the top of the world with Sauber-Mercedes C9
In 1989, Schlesser reached the top of the world, winning his first title at the World Sport-Prototype Championship. The mighty Sauber-Mercedes C9 was victorious in seven out of eight races and four teammates took four leading places in the points. Schlesser participated in five wins and he was first in the points, Jochen Mass second, Mauro Baldi third and Kenny Acheson fourth.
At 24 hours of Le Mans, which wasn't a part of the championship, Team Sauber-Mercedes scored a 1-2 victory, but Schlesser missed the win and the podium. He was in the #62 car that finished fifth. His co-drivers were Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Alain Cudini.
One more world's title for Jean-Louis
In 1990, the domination of Sauber-Mercedes cars continued, with a new car on the grid – Sauber C11. German team took eight wins in nine championship races. Schlesser participated in six victories, every time alongside Mauro Baldi, so both drivers took the world's titles.
In 1990, Sauber-Mercedes skipped Le Mans race, but they returned in 1991. It was Schlesser's eighth and last Le Mans participation. He shared the #1 Mercedes-Benz C11 with Jochen Mass and Alain Ferte. They retired after 319 laps due to engine failure. The 1991 World Sportscar Championship was also Schlesser's last season in the circuit racing. With two podiums in eight races, he finished 8th in the points.
Leaving circuit racing and focusing on rally raids
In 1991, Schlesser participated for the fourth time at Dakar Rally and since then the cross-country rallying became his main occupation. After competing with different cars in the previous years, Schlesser began to build his own cars in 1992. His first car was the Porsche-powered Schlesser Original and it brought him an overall victory at Baja Portugal 1000.
In the next couple of years, he continued to build 2-wheel-drive dune buggies, taking the engine from different manufacturers (Porsche, Seat, Renault). In 1998, he won his first FIA Cross Country Rally World Cup, taking few wins and finishing fifth at Dakar Rally.
Jean-Louis took two consecutive wins at Dakar Rally
The first overall victory at Dakar Rally followed in 1999, with Philippe Monnet as a copilot. This was the first time that this race was won by a 2WD vehicle. During the year, Schlesser scored many wins and took another world title.
At 2000 Dakar Rally (Paris-Dakar-Cairo), Schlesser won again after a great battle against Stephane Peterhansel. Schlesser continued to win during the year and added one more world title to his account.
Controversial end of the 2001 Dakar Rally
As one of the favorites of 2001 Dakar Rally, Schlesser was fighting against factory-entered Mitsubishi cars. After lots of controversies in the penultimate stage, he was penalized because of unsporting behavior and finished third, behind Jutta Kleinschmidt and Hiroshi Masuoka. Schlesser's consolation was his fourth world title at the end of the year.
At 2002 Dakar Rally, Schlesser competed with Renault Kangoo buggy, equipped with the last generation of the diesel engine, but he retired after a fire caught the vehicle. For the rest of the season, he was using the old buggy and took his fifth consecutive world title.
Three more Dakar wins in 2WD category
In 2003, Schlesser used Ford V6 engine at Dakar Rally and retired again. In the championship, he was the best among 2WD drivers and second in the general classification. In the next couple of years, his buggy wasn't competitive against 4WD factory prototypes and he wasn't good enough for Dakar victory, but in the 2WD category, he was still the leading driver and he won the race three more times (2004, 2006 and 2007).
Six consecutive wins at Africa Race
When the Dakar Rally was moved to South America in 2009, Schlesser didn't travel across the Atlantic. He competed in the inaugural 2009 Africa Race instead, taking the overall victory. It was first out of six overall wins between 2009 and 2014. In the same period, he was the vice-champion in the FIA World Cup and winner in the 2WD class three times in a row (2011, 2012 and 2013).