Jo Schlesser was a successful sports car and GT driver. He drove in three Formula One races, the 1966 and 1967 German Grand Prix in F2 spec cars and the 1968 French Grand Prix in which he was killed in the Honda RA302.
Born in Liouville in North-East France, Schlesser spent most of his youth growing up in Madagascar. He moved back to France and studied at Nancy before starting work as a clerk in a factory that made adding machines.
He started racing in 1952 in a Dyna-Panhard, taking part in the Rally of Lorraine. He cut back on his racing after going back to Madagascar to work. The low cost of living there coupled with a salary three times more than he had been earning in France meant that not only could he continue to compete, winning the Coupe des Monomill at Montlhéry in a Deutsch et Bonnet in 1954 and finishing second in the Circuit de Majvmga on Madagascar, but by 1955 he could afford to buy a Mercedes 300SL.
That year he drove it to victory in the Circuit de Majunga and the Grand Prix de Fianarantsoa and the following year took wins at the Circuit d'Ivato and the Grand Prix du Sud, all on Madagascar.
Back in Europe in 1957, he finished second in the Liège-Rome-Liège Rally with the Mercedes.
By 1960 he had replaced the Mercedes with a Ferrari 250 GT Inter (1509GT). He took second in class at the Nürburgring 1000 Km driving with Lucien Bianchi and second overall in the 4 Hour Rouen GP. He took a class win in the GT Grand Prix d'Allemagne, a second in class in the Tour de France Automobile and a third overall in the 1000km de Paris at Montlhéry with André Simon. At Le Mans he drove the North American Racing Team (NART) Ferrari 250 GT Calif (2015GT) with William Sturgis but they retired with engine troubles.
In single seaters he drove a Formula 2 Hume-Cooper Climax FPF but a sixth place at Syracuse was his only finish of any note.
In 1961 he won the Rallye des Routes du Nord in a Lotus Elite. He came second in the Grand Prix de Cadours in the Ferrari 250GT and took third in the Coupes de Paris. however his season was cut short by an accident in practice for the Le Mans 24 Hour race which left him with a badly broken arm and leg.
He returned in 1962 with a Formula Junior Brabham BT2 Ford and became one of the top drivers. He also teamed up with Henri Oreiller that year and together they purchased a grey Ferrari 250 GTO (3851GT). They finished second overall in the Rouen-Reims but in October competing in the Coupes du Salon at Montlhery Oreiller had a huge accident. He was taken to the Hôpital Cochin in Paris where he died later the same day. In 1965 the car, which is now red, was sold to Fabrizio Violati who still owns it today.
In Formula Junior he took wins in the Coupe de l'U.S.A. at Montlhery, the Circuito Internazionale Riviera di Cesenático at the Circuito di Cesenático in Rimini, the Grand Prix de Nogaro and the Prix de Paris at Montlhery.
In the Grand Prix de Monaco Junior he could only manage 7th but was second in the Grand Prix de Magny Cours, the Grand Prix des Frontières at Chimay in Belgium and the Trophées d'Auvergne in Clermont-Ferrand. He ended the year with the French Formula Junior Title.
In 1963 he teamed up with Guy Ligier and became a Ford dealer in Paris, his connections getting him a job with the Ford France team. He again won the French Formula Junior Title in a Brabham BT6 Ford with four wins, two seconds and two thirds, including 3rd in the GP de Monaco FJ.
In sports cars he drove and Aston MArtin DP214 at Le Mans with William Kimberly retiring on lap 139 with a burnt piston.
Driving an AC Cobra with Hal Keck, he took a class win in the Daytona Continental and followed that with two more class victories at Sebring and the Reims 12-hour race with Bob Bondurant. He had a number of other good finishes with the Cobra including wins at Vanson and Criterium des Cevennes and a second in the Tour de Corse Automobile.
He continued to race the Cobra in 1964 finishing 6th overall and third in class with Phil Hill at Sebring and taking a class win in the Nürburgring 1000Km race with Richard Attwood. At the April trials for the 1964 Le Mans race he drove a GT40 but he crashed heavily at the 150 mph kink on the Mulsanne Straight after the car's rear end became light.
He had a couple of good results in F2 with his Brabham Ford winning the F2 Grand Prix de Rome at Vallelunga and finishing third in the French F2 Grand Prix at Montlhéry
He also teamed up with Pedro Rodriguez in a Ferrari GTO, finishing second in the Paris 1000km race. He also 4th Angola GP Jo Schlesser Porsche 904 GTS.
Always know for driving a wide range of cars and competitions, he took part in a number od NASCAR stock car races in America during 1964.
At Daytona in 1965, the Cobra Daytona Coupe, with Jo and Harold Keck driving, was first in the GT class, then driving with Bob Bondurant he piloted the Cobra Daytona Coupe to fourth overall and first in class in the 'Sebring 12 Hours'.
In 1966 he joined the works Matra team driving a Formula 2 Spec Matra-Cosworth. In the 1966 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring he finished 10th in the overall Classification and 3rd in the Formula 2 Classification.
He took a class win at the Nürburgring 1000Km race with Guy Ligier in a Ford GT40 but crashed the Matra M620 BRM at Le Mans
For 1967 he continued with the Matra but now under the Ford France banner. At the German Grand Prix he retired with clutch problems after 2 laps. In sports cars he won the 1967 Reims 12-hour race in a Ford France GT40 with Guy Ligier.
In 1968, Jo and Guy Ligier ran a pair of customer McLaren M4As under their Ecurie InterSport banner during the first half of that season. Schlesser drove his McLaren M4A to 4th place in the important Monza Lottery GP, 5th at Crystal Palace, 6th place at Hockenheim (the race in which Jim Clark was killed), 8th at Jarama and 12th at Hockenheim.
Honda France wanted a French driver in a second Honda F1 car. The drive was offered to Servoz-Gavin, but he opted for a Cooper-Maserati. Thus Jo at 40 years of age cancelled a vacation to the Seychelles Islands and accepted the offer.
Surtees, who had done the testing of the experimental air-cooled Honda RA302 F1 car, had told the factory that it was not ready for racing, and was potentially dangerous, however Honda entered it for the French Grand Prix at Rouen.
Right from the start the car had problems and in Jo only just managed to qualify the car on the back of the grid, 8 seconds off pole and 3 seconds behind the car in front of him.
By the second lap, Schlesser had lost contact with the pack. On the third lap the car slid wide at Six Frères. For a moment Jo managed to catch it, but the car was too unstable. It left the track and and crashed sideways into a bank. The magnesium bodied Honda with 58 laps worth of fuel ignited instantly, leaving poor Schlesser trapped inside the wreck with no chance of survival.
Ickx who won the race, went and placed the laurels on the spot when poor Jo died. Surtees who was second in the other Honda dedicated the race to his team mate.
As result, Honda withdrew from Formula One at the end of the 1968 season.
His friend Guy Ligier called all his Ligier cars JS after Schlesser. A practice that was contined when the team was bought by Alan Prost.
His nephew Jean-Louis Schlesser later became a successful racing driver, who started one Formula 1 race and won the Paris Dakar.