x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Jean-Louis Schlesser's drive for challenge in the desert still strong

His career is interwoven with some of the most famous names in Formula One, yet the Frenchman regards his dominance in the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge as his proudest moment.

Jean-Louis Schlesser comes with racing in his blood. He designed the car himself to handle the treacherous sand dunes in the Empty Quarter in Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Total Communications
Jean-Louis Schlesser comes with racing in his blood. He designed the car himself to handle the treacherous sand dunes in the Empty Quarter in Abu Dhabi. Courtesy Total Communications

Sports quiz: Which driver has shared a title with Alain Prost, collided with Ayrton Senna, beaten teammate Michael Schumacher and yet only competed in one Formula One grand prix?

The answer (and, yes, the question might be worded ambiguously) is Jean-Louis Schlesser, a multi-series driver who tied at the top of the French F3 Championship standings in 1978, competed in the Italian Grand Prix 10 years later and, post-F1, became a two-time world champion in Supercars.

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Schlesser's career, which has spanned more than 35 years, is as steeped in sand these days as it is in sepia.

Although he has raced with some of the finest drivers to ever grace the earth, ask him about his proudest moment in racing and he will point at the ground with a meaty right fist and a long, weathered index finger.

"This race here in Abu Dhabi, the Desert Challenge, is nice for me because I designed and built my own car and have won now six times," he said this week. "It is a little different to the rest of my achievements; there is more personal pride here."

Schlesser raced in his custom-made prototype machine once again. and won the last three stages of the five-day endurance battle to finish second overall - 47 minutes behind winner Nani Roma.

Earlier this week, a veteran motorsports photographer who has covered the Frenchman's exploits in the Empty Quarter for more than a decade, relayed a story of the 64 year old once losing his temper with a noisy hotel guest and knocking the culprit out cold.

"He is like the Gerard Depardieu of motor racing," the photographer said, grinning.

Whether such a tale is gospel or gossip, the simile is certainly a more cultivated billing than what Schlesser is provided by F1rejects.com, a website that refers to him as "the only man who made history by preventing history from being made".

The reference is regarding the former Williams test driver's solo outing in the F1 World Championship, when he crashed into his "good friend" Senna at Monza.

The Brazilian was leading the 1988 race in his McLaren, yet on the 49th of 51 laps, as he was trying to lap the debutant Schlesser through a chicane, the two cars collided.

With Senna forced to retire from the race, Ferrari completed a one-two finish just weeks after the death of Enzo Ferrari and in front of their adoring Tifosi.

Courtesy of Senna's shunt with Schlesser, Italy proved to be the only race of the 1988 season that McLaren did not win; the sole smear on the team's hopes for an unprecedented championship whitewash. At the time, Schlesser refused to accept the blame. Now, 25 years on, he acknowledges "my mistake was maybe that I hit the brakes too late".

The incident had little bearing on his friendship with Senna, who he would regularly socialise with in Monaco. However, it did ensure he never drove in Formula One again.

"The main goal was to get to F1, so I am happy I achieved it," Schlesser said.

"But it was very difficult for me to get there. I am a tall, strong guy and the weight difference between me and the other drivers was terrible. The rules are different now, so for me it would be easier.

"Also, I came from a family with no money or anything. Don't get me wrong, my family were nice and I was happy, but I had to race in order to be able to eat. Of course, I enjoyed myself as well - but the main reason was for eating."

The Schlesser name was already widely recognised in F1 by the time Jean-Louis made his bow, although not for reasons anybody would have wished.

The Frenchman's uncle, Jo Schlesser, died on his Formula One debut at the French Grand Prix at Rouen in 1968, succumbing to a crash early in the race that resulted in his Honda bursting into flames.

Safety has come a long way since then and such was the work of the late Professor Sid Watkins, the pioneer behind so many of the sport's new safety measures, F1 has not recorded a fatal accident since Senna's crash at Imola in 1994.

The death of the two-time world champion deprived the world of seeing Senna battle with a young Schumacher competitively throughout a full season.

Schlesser had raced alongside Schumacher in the World Sportscar Series for Sauber-Mercedes and been crowed champion in 1989 and 1990. The insight he got into the German's mindset and determination to win at all costs proves fascinating.

"Look, Alain [Prost] is a super guy and Senna was the guy people dream about - he was like an angel to people; he was something special," Schlesser said.

"But Schumacher is much nicer than what people think; he is not a bad guy. He was not at all like what we see from him. You know, people often say he is arrogant and all that - but he is not like that.

"When we see him acting in a race, he is just a fighter; he wants to win. That is all."

It is with this understanding that Schlesser grew increasingly frustrated having watched the Malaysian Grand Prix last month.

Sebastian Vettel, the three-time world champion, ignored his Red Bull Racing team's orders and insolently fought his way past his vulnerable teammate Mark Webber to snatch a controversial victory. Vettel's actions were likened to Schumacher; a comparison Schlesser sees as unfair.

"Michael would never do this," Schlesser said. "He would try to pass and block you, but in this case, he would not do this.

"I was a fighter and I still am, otherwise I wouldn't win the races here, but if your teammate slows down because he has an order and you pass him, this is not fair.

"I have a lot of respect for Vettel because, as a pilot, he is really fantastic, but on this occasion, he acted very badly. It is like he stuck a knife in the back of Webber."

The two teammates return to the track today for the opening practice sessions of the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai. How they interact three weeks after the unsavoury incident will prove enthralling viewing. Schlesser said "there is no solution" and expects Vettel to get his own way.

"He is a very good driver, but what can Red Bull do? Sack him? Never. I think if he gets the chance to give a win back to Webber, he will do it. Then he will be seen as a great guy again.

"That's what Schumacher would do - and I would know because we raced together for two and a half years. I was world champion."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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