Thursday, January 9, 1997

The Buggy Takes on Motor Racing's Giants

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
It may look like something out of Mad Max, but the Schlesser-SEAT Original X 462, otherwise known as ''the buggy,'' is beating every other two-wheel drive and almost every four-wheel drive in the 19th Dakar rally.

Jean Louis-Schlesser and his car stood 4th overall Wednesday after the 5th stage of the 16-day race through Senegal, Mali, Niger and Mauritania. He trailed by 15 minutes 21 seconds, having lost about 15 minutes Tuesday because of a navigation error.

If the privately made car beats competitors carrying familiar Japanese brand names when the rally ends next week, then Schlesser will take more pleasure in collecting the trophy for the top constructor than for first-place driver.

It is the realization of a dream for Schlesser that began in 1991, when he decided to stop driving other people's cars and build his own.

Schlesser said he had ''won in just about every discipline except Formula One.''

He was World Sports Car Champion twice for Mercedes in 1989 and '90, (beating future Formula One stars Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, and Karl Wendlinger driving in another Mercedes). He had been champion in French Formula 3, and in the French and the German prototype sports car series, and had driven for Williams in Formula One.

He said that he felt he ''no longer had anything to prove'' so he decided to build a car for the World Rallying Championship.

''What interested me,'' he said, ''was to have another challenge. But I wanted something that would allow me to surpass myself in another domain. I said to myself that it would be a fun challenge to try to make a car."

"When I went to meet sponsors," he said, "they would accept to see me because my name was well known. All the doors were open, but each time I asked for something, they would respond very politely, 'Well, please understand, Jean-Louis. You're a driver. If you continue driving, we'll continue sponsoring you. But to make cars? It's not the same job.'''

He managed to put together enough of his own money to hire one mechanic in 1991 and to make a single buggy.

The car looks unusual because it was designed for rallying while most of its competitors are adapted from production-line models.

He started racing it in the World Rallying Championship in 1992. That year he won two races.

"So I added a second mechanic," he said, "and now today there are 14 of us, and we have sponsors, and we've won the World Cup four times: '93 to '96."

His factory is near Cannes. The engine is supplied by SEAT. His tires are B.F. Goodrich/Michelin. His chassis is molded in the United States to his design.

He entered two buggies in the Dakar-Agades-Dakar rally, and is driving one with navigator Philippe Monnet, who is equally adept in a yacht, having set a record in solitary circumnavigation of the world 10 years ago.

Schlesser, 48, said he drives "for the pure fun of it."while dreaming of expanding his business.

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