Jean Louis-Schlesser is not a name that would stand out among many Formula 1 fans. As it happens, a man who entered two races in the series and only qualified for one. Yet his impact in one particular race in 1988 is forever remembered by McLaren as the day that shattered their dream of immortality.
1988 to this point was a golden year for McLaren and Honda (yes, when they were the engine manufacturer to beat). They were undefeated, the pairing of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost were engaged in their own war, and between them had won the season’s 11 races to date. Having qualified comfortably clear of the two Ferrari’s, they were expecting another cruise to victory. It was an emotional time within the paddock, with the death of the great Enzo Ferrari prior to the event. So where does Schlesser come into this? Well, as the Williams test driver, he wasn’t actually expecting to race at all. However, with Nigel Mansell having to miss a second race with chicken pox of all things, and original deputy Martin Brundle unavailable, Schlesser was put in the car, and qualified a rather lowly 22nd, and some 5.5 seconds off the pace.
The race commenced with Prost stealing the lead early, however a misfire handed the lead back to Senna. Prost retired later in the race with the only engine-related issue Honda had in 1988 (if only the same was true in today’s era). Senna held a narrow lead over the Ferraris of Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto, and was in control with two laps left in the race, approaching Schlesser entering the Rettifilo Chicane (the older version of this corner, which in my view was significantly better).
However, disaster was about to strike for Senna and the hapless Schlesser. At this point, his Williams was in 11th, a decent effort. Senna took the inside line for the chicane, but Schlesser locked up. He went across the chicane, and gathered the car up by turning left. Senna took his normal line, presuming Schlesser wasn’t going to be there. But he was, and Schlesser hit the rear tyre of Senna, who spun onto the kerb, and with broken suspension wasn’t going anywhere. The Tifosi were delirious, as their beloved Ferraris were now just a few miles away from a one-two finish, which they subsequently brought home.
McLaren won every other race, to finish with 15 wins out of the 16 races. But Monza 1988 always rankled Ron Dennis, a man who demanded perfection and almost got it. And what became of Schlesser? Well firstly he never drove a Formula 1 race ever again. However, he had a very successful career thereafter, winning the World Sportscar Championship in 1989 and 1990, as well as winning the Dakar Rally on two occasions. He was clearly a very talented racer, but in Formula 1 circles will always be remembered as the man who broke the unbeaten streak.