The Vault

The next post of “The Vault” comes from this photograph which hangs on the wall of my writing studio.

This is Rouen-Les-Essarts and it was the location for the 1968 French Grand Prix. The track was wet.

In this photograph, Denny Hulme in his McLaren-Ford leads John Surtees in the Honda followed by Bruce McLaren. Notice the lack of any run-off area whatsoever, the raised curbs on the edge of the circuit and the trees, branches hanging over the track. In the background, behind Bruce McLaren, to the left you will notice a clump of trees set on a bank. No barriers. No tyre walls. No safety. This was motor racing in the sixties.

This was the sixth race of the season. Graham Hill lead the championship with twenty-four points, Jackie Stewart was second on twelve and then came Pedro Rodriguez, Denny Hulme and Bruce McLaren.

It was Jochen Rindt who took pole for the race, he had Jacky Ickx and Jackie Stewart behind him on the grid. This was not going to be Rindt’s race, he would retire on lap forty-five with a fuel leak. He faired better than his Brabham-Repco team mate, Jack Brabham, who retired on lap fifteen with a fuel pump problem.

These retirements paled into insignificance after the tragedy on lap two. Honda, who had their sole entrant John Surtees in the race, had been experimenting with an air cooled car which Surtees himself had tested. He would tell Honda that it was not ready to be raced and was a potential deathtrap. Honda, with financial assistance from Honda France, decided for reasons of their own to enter the car for the French Grand Prix and gave the drive to forty year old Jo Schlesser.

Schlesser started out in rallying in the 1950’s, he took a break from racing whilst working in Africa and then returned once again to drive for Mercedes in the Rome-Liege-Rome Rally. He would go on to compete in Formula Two, then Le Mans where he was involved in an accident. On his return to racing he competed in the European Formula Two Championship and joined the Matra works team. He raced at the 1966 and 1967 German Grand Prix, held at the Nurburgring, in a Formula Two specification car before Honda came knocking to invite him to drive their new experimental F1 car, against the advice of Surtees. He also competed in NASCAR at the 1964 Daytona 500.


On the second lap of the race, Schlesser’s Honda slid wide at the Six Freres curve, just before the tight Virage Du Noveau Monde right hander. He crashed into a bank close to the circuit and the car erupted in flames. It was laden with fifty-eight laps worth of fuel and the magnesium bodywork just ignited. Schlesser stood no chance of survival.

During the race, Jacky Ickx battled furiously with Pedro Rodriguez for twenty laps. Ickx had a brief spin, even though he was on full wets unlike the rest of the field. He lead from the opening lap to lap eighteen, Rodriguez briefly took over but after his spin Ickx was back in the lead and pulled away. Surtees, in the Honda, finished second and Jackie Stewart in third completed the podium positions.

This was a tragic reminder of the dangers which faced racing drivers in this era. In Formula One championship or non-championship sponsored events, fourteen drivers lost their lives from 1960 to 1969. It was an extremely dangerous period to be a racing driver.

Jo Schlesser was a good friend with Guy Ligier, the future team owner of the Ligier Formula One team and if you look at all the Ligier cars over time that raced in Formula One, you will notice the model numbers all begin with the letter “JS”. This was Guy Ligier’s tribute to his friend, Jo Schlesser.

Every picture tells a story, sometimes they are exciting and other times they are sombre and tragic. Whatever the outcome, this is the history of motor racing and these pioneers laid the foundations for the future of motor racing.

See You At The Chequered Flag.

Neil Simmons

Twitter: @world_racing

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