Born in Nancy, France in 1948, Jean-Louis Schlesser grew up in Morocco before returning to France as a teenager to study.
After joining the racing school at Le Mans, he began rallying before entering the French Formula 3 series in 1976 enjoying some success, tying with Alain Prost for the 1978 title.
By this time he was also involved in sportscars and in his first crack at Le Mans in 1981, he finished second, in a drive he shared with fellow Frenchmen Jacky Haran and Phillippe Streiff.
He turned his hand to touring cars in 1980, before a move to Formula 2 in 1982 threatened to curtail any progress when he ended his lone season pointless.
Undeterred, and whilst continuing campaigns in both sportscars and touring cars, he managed to convince (£££) the RAM team to give him an F1 drive, thanks, in part, to his role as Williams test driver that gave him the F1 experience he required.
After a top six finish in the 1983 ROC at Brands Hatch, he made his first of two attempts to qualify for a Grand Prix, missing out on a place in his home Grand Prix at Paul Ricard when he was the slowest of all the qualifiers.
Despite this, he was retained by Williams as test driver, and it was this relationship that gave him his second opportunity to make it into an F1 race.
Schlesser and the 1988 Italian Grand Prix
In 1988, with Schelsser aged 39, he was called on by the Williams team to deputise for an unwell Nigel Mansell in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza (some say it wasn’t a coincidence that wily old Nige was ‘unable’ to race at a circuit totally reliant on top speed when his Williams-Judd was totally incapable of producing it!).
Of course Schlesser jumped at the chance of finally making his Grand Prix debut, and duly qualified 22nd out of the 31 who made the attempt, 26 going into the race.
At lights out, Schlesser made good progress and was knocking on the door of the top ten when three laps from the flag leader Ayrton Senna, being reeled in by the two Ferraris in second and third, attempted a straightforward overtake on him going into turn 1 – the Rettifilo chicane.
Schlesser ran wide to allow Senna up the inside, and in doing so ran onto the dirty part of the track and locked his front wheels.
Not wanting to run off the circuit, Schlesser then turned hard left and clattered Senna’s right rear tyre sending the Brazilian spinning off into the sand, his car terminally damaged.
This allowed the Ferraris of Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto to romp home for a Ferrari 1-2 in the first Italian Grand Prix since founder Enzo’s death a month earlier, in front of an emotional Tifosi.
It was Ferrari’s first and only win of the season, and the only blip in McLaren’s otherwise perfect record of 15 wins from 16 races.
Coming so late in the race, Schlesser was classified in 11th place out of 13 finishers, directly behind Senna to whom he would tearfully apologise after the race.
It was later reported that post-race an overjoyed Ferrari fan shook Schlesser by the hand and barely able to speak, mouthed the words “Thank you, from Italy”.
It was Schlesser’s last Grand Prix foray, and he would turn his focus to sportscars, finishing runner-up in the 1990 WSC, behind Martin Brundle.
He also demonstrated his versatility off-road by winning a brace of Paris-Dakar Rallys, a handful of Cross Country Rally World Cups, and every Africa Eco Race between 2009 and 2014.
But it’s that afternoon at Monza in September 1988 for which most F1 fans will forever remember him.