Tuesday May 22nd, 2001
By Alan Baldwin
Olivier Panis is not worried by old age, nor by the youngsters breaking into Formula One. Now 34, the British American Racing (BAR) driver insists he still has time on his side to force himself back into the championship reckoning.
Panis is actually the youngest Frenchman on the Formula One grid, Prost's Jean Alesi will be 37 next month and is his only racing compatriot.
"Nigel Mansell won the championship when he was 39. Age is not very important," Panis said in an interview ahead of Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix, a race he won five years ago against all expectations at the wheel of a Ligier. "We see some very good young drivers but also some old, I mean older, drivers who are very good too. I think motivation is more important."
Motivation is something the cheerful Frenchman, always an optimistic voice in the paddock, has in bucket loads and which he has needed in a far from straightforward career. He made his race debut in 1994 but in 1997 his career was seriously threatened by a crash at the Canadian Grand Prix where his Prost speared into a concrete wall.
The high-speed impact left him with broken legs. In the previous race, in Spain, he had finished second behind the Williams of Canadian Jacques Villeneuve.
The ensuing surgery left Panis with metal pins in his legs and medical advice that another crash while they remained in place would signify the end of his career. He raced on anyway, trying to forget the metal in his legs and the pain the morning after a race.
Panis left Prost, who took over Ligier, at the end of 1999 and stepped back from racing to act as McLaren's official test driver in the absence of a competitive drive. It proved an astute move. Panis was rarely much off the pace set by McLaren's Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard and other teams began to pay attention.
BAR wanted a replacement for Brazilian Ricardo Zonta, whose relations with Villeneuve had deteriorated noticeably after unfortunate incidents between the two on the track, and Panis was given the nod.
The two French speakers hit it off immediately and the team were soon singing Panis's praises for giving Villeneuve far more of a hard time than his predecessor had. "He's been a total asset to the team. His feedback is one of his great strengths and he's a very focused driver," says his number one mechanic Darren Beacroft. So far this season, Panis has outqualified Villeneuve twice and has also scored more points than the Canadian.
"Me and Jacques work very well together, we push hard all the time," said Panis. "We are a team and we need to continue this way. But I am very positive about the BAR Honda set-up. Jacques knows the team very well, when I have some question I speak to Jacques in French and he explains the situation.
"It is quite good to speak French together but after that we speak all the time in English, when we work and in meetings or debriefing or about the set-up of the car."
Villeneuve is a proven champion, winning the title in 1997, but Panis has started more races and has done better at Monaco where Villeneuve has yet to finish higher than fifth.
"I know Monaco very well...I like the circuit, I like the ambience but five years ago is a long time," said Panis. "I would like to, and I need to, get back on the podium."
In 1996, he had lined up in 14th place at the start in a race where overtaking is tricky in the extreme. But he led for the final 15 laps, keeping David Coulthard's McLaren behind him, after others slipped up in the wet. Damon Hill led at the start until the engine of his Williams blew and Michael Schumacher's Ferrari crashed on the opening lap. Jean Alesi's Benetton also led but suffered mechanical failure.
"In 1996 we had a quite reasonable car," said Panis. "The car balance for Monaco was unbelievable, it was really quick all the weekend and I profited from that. To be honest, I didn't see I had the possibility to win but I knew the car was good enough for a good result.
"This season we are always fighting between sixth and eighth position on the grid and I think if we do the same thing at Monaco there is quite a good chance for a good result."
Panis arrives in Monaco on the back of a fifth place in the Austrian Grand Prix, a result subject to appeal against Sauber by his team and that might yet become fourth place.
The Frenchman finished fourth in Australia, but an appeal by the Sauber team in that race stripped him of his points, and an uncontroversial fourth in Brazil. He recognised that BAR, who secured their first podium with Villeneuve's third place in Spain last month, had made big improvements since last year but still had much to do.
"The engine and chassis are fine but we need, if we want to fight with the top cars, to move a step up," he said. Panis is adamant that the one win from Monaco is not enough. He has tasted victory and wants at least a second helping. "I don't know how many but the more the better," he said. "One is not enough. I need more."