Going into the final two European Formula 3000 Championship rounds, both of them in his native France, Olivier Panis was a clear title favourite.
And yet . . .
Its hard to know which is the more astonishing: the fact that Panis failed to add to his championship score, or the fact that his main adversaries failed to do so sufficiently to knock him off his perch.
Hence the 32 points he had accrued after Spa, when he had moved into the series lead for the first time, were enough to make him the ninth European F3000 champion. It was the lowest ever series-winning points haul (though there were fewer rounds this season).
In the end, victory at both Magny-Cours and Nogaro went to Panis’s team-mate Franck Lagorce, who ended the dismal run of form which had followed his thumb-breaking accident at Hockenheim in the most emphatic way possible. Lagorce, a confident, slightly distant 25 year-old, mastered difficult wet/dry conditions at Magny-Cours, impressing particularly as he stayed out on the track on slicks, in deteriorating conditions, for he was prevented from pitting while the DAMS team wrestled to free a jammed wheel nut retaining pin on Panis’s car. This delay, ultimately, was to cost Olivier the chance of securing the title that weekend, though he might have salvaged at least a couple of points in the foul conditions had he not spun off with only a couple of laps to go. The indiscretion persuaded him to postpone a promised F1 test with Benetton until his main objective – the F3000 title – was under wraps. The main beneficiary of Panis’s error was Pedro Lamy, who finished third. This was a triumph for tenacity in an ill-handling car, whose understeering tendencies were, ironically, reduced after Lamy had been clattered by Jules Bouillon when the latter almost lost control as he swept through to finish second. The young Frenchman was left to contemplate what might have been, for his inexperience led him to make no fewer than three tyre stops, which accounted for rather more than the 65 seconds which eventually separated him from Lagorce (F3000 teams do not make tyre stops as a matter of course, and cyclone changes in the F1 mould are, as yet, unknown). Everyone else made just the one.
The result closed the gap at the top of the championship to just a point in Panis’s favour, and Lamy was given a further boost in the week leading up to the Nogaro finale when confirmation of his 1994 F1 with Lotus, which had been signed at Monza, one month earlier, was made official.
The only man who could overhaul the top two was David Coulthard, who learned the hard way that it was raining at Magny-Cours, skating off into the gravel as he was challenging for second place. The Scot’s hopes were slim, however. Only a win would suffice, and then only if Lamy and Panis were outside the top five. His chances were further diminished by the fact that French teams DAMS and Apomatox were permitted by the regulations to test at Nogaro during the week leading up to the event. Teams based outside the host country were not, and their consequent disadvantage was to be immediately apparent.
It was the first time since 1985 that three drivers had entered the final round with their championship hopes intact. On that occasion, at Donington Park, two of them, Emanuele Pirro and Mike Thackwell, had tangled at the first corner, allowing the third, Christian Danner, who needed to finish in the top three, to take victory and, with it, the crown.
The destiny of the title was to be decided with even more haste this year, for the protagonists were effectively eliminated before the race was three laps old. Coulthard, impressively fastest in the warm-up, and confident he could challenge the French quartet who had monopolised qualifying, was first to suffer. Of all the banal things to go wrong with a £120,000 racing car, his throttle cable snapped as he changed up to fourth gear after the start. He took his disappointment with good grace, but engineer Paul Owens was supremely confident, when surveying the pace of the front-runners afterwards, that David had had a car good enough to win.
Panis was next to go. After a cautious start, which saw him running third behind Lagorce and Bouillon, he was rashly assaulted at the hairpin on lap two when Vincenzo Sospiri spun while trying to wrest third place from the Frenchman. The two cars touched, sustaining suspension damage. It would be the first time since round two at Silverstone that Sospiri had failed to score a point, but more significant was the fact that Panis’s car was unable to continue beyond the pits.
He was, understandably, furious.
Seeing Sospiri’s similarly crippled car entering the pit lane, Panis leapt out and made a dash for the Italian’s Mythos pit. There followed a huge scrum as mechanics tried to keep the drivers apart, but the commotion was defused by DAMS principal Jean-Paul Driot, whose own anger subsided when he noticed Lamy trickling into the pits, front left wheel askew after he had become involved in somebody else’s accident.
As it happened, it is improbable that Lamy would have been able to make up the necessary ground in any case. He looked lost all weekend, qualifying a dismal 12th, and he was running 14th at the time of his own misfortune. He rejoined, three laps down, but the crown was Panis’s.
“I’m happy, of course, but upset that the season finished in this way,” said the Frenchman. “I don’t usually react the way I did, but I was just so angry. We’ve all worked so hard this year, and for a moment I thought that Sospiri’s moment of stupidity was going to put it all to waste.”
Certainly, the Frenchman is noted for his placid temperament. Some feel he projects too dour an image, but in truth he’s a thoughtful, approachable individual, who – unusually for a racing driver is well liked by many of his rivals. When he took his first win, at Hockenheim, the other French drivers were genuinely delighted. Lagorce, whose victory at Nogaro was achieved under considerable pressure from Boullion, which bodes well for his own title chances next year (particularly if, as seems likely, he stays with DAMS, which won the last five races, and became the first team ever to have taken two European F3000 titles), was quick to pay tribute to his team leader.
“He’s helped me an awful lot. Whenever I’ve needed help, setting up the car for instance, he’s always been totally open with me. I’m very grateful, and pleased that he’s won the title.”
The French have received welcome help from both Elf and the government this season, the sports ministry providing welcome funds to bolster the ambitions of young drivers such as Panis, Lagorce, Boullion and Emmanuel Collard. Collard, whose vast potential remains largely untapped, took his first F3000 pole at Magny-Cours, and was running comfortably at the head of the field when he left the track at some 150 mph. The massive impact at Estoril corner cleft his car in two, the engine finishing up many yards from the tub. Collard stepped out with nothing worse than a headache. The cause of the accident has not yet been confirmed, though initial indications suggest that a top rear wishbone may have broken.
Whatever, Collard was unfazed, taking the team’s hired replacement chassis to third place at Nogaro seven days later. The smart money says he’ll partner Lagorce at DAMS in 1994. That, on paper, looks like a strong team. It remains to be seen what will happen to Boullion, whose confidence in Apomatox may have improved after the late-season upswing brought about by changes to the engineering staff, but France has always had an enlightened attitude to promoting its young drivers. Just look at the present crop in F3000.
France, like Italy, has provided three Formula 3000 champions. Britain, despite several worthy candidates, the most recent of whom is Coulthard, has yet to supply its first. While the latter is keen to continue in the formula next year, possibly dovetailing a season with an F1 test programme, it is unlikely he will spend quite as relaxed a Christmas as some of his French counterparts as he searches to put together a budget.
If there is a sudden new wave of French drivers in F1 over the next few years, Elf’s investment will have been worthwhile.
Mind you, budgets – theoretically – should be a little easier to obtain next season. After numerous meetings, Formula 3000 teams finally agreed at Magny-Cours, where there was almost as much action off-track as there was on, to reverse their original decision not to use new cars next year. A compromise agreement thrashed out between teams and suppliers means that a new car will cost £90,000, or, for around half the price, you can have a kit tub included to transform your 1993 Reynard into a 94D. The decision also opens the door for the return of Lola, and at least one team was due to test the Huntingdon marque’s product in the close season. Engine suppliers Cosworth and Zytek-Judd have similarly agreed to prune costs. “I think,” said a relieved Adrian Reynard, “that we’ll be able to offer the best value for money the formula has ever known.”
All in all, the future for F3000 looks almost as bright as it does for French motor racing. The British government please take note . . .