Olivier Panis

Full Name:
Olivier Denis Panis
Born:
2nd September 1966 (Age 53)
Oullins, Lyon, Rhone-Alpes
Nationality:
French
Most recent race (in database):
Biography

France was blessed with a plethora of Formula 1 talent during the late 1970s and 1980s. However, by the time of Olivier Panis’s final Grand Prix start in 2004, he was that country’s only representative – a sad reflection on the dearth of talent available to the nation that invented motor racing.

The highlight of Panis’ 158 GPs was his 1996 Monaco win on a track made treacherous by heavy Riviera rain. His Ligier JS43-Mugen climbed from 14th on the grid and took the lead when Jean Alesi’s Benetton retired with 15 laps to go. It was a popular victory based on perfect pitstop timing, overtaking aplenty and not crashing when others did.

Early racing career

Panis had impressed in France’s junior formulae since winning an Elf scholarship at Paul Ricard in 1987. That promise was confirmed by winning the national Formula Renault title two years later and he then starred in Formula 3 – finishing as runner-up behind Christophe Bouchut in 1991 when driving a La Filière Ralt RT35-Alfa Romeo.

Formula 3000 with an Apomatox Lola T92/50-Cosworth followed in 1992 and Panis qualified second and finished third on his debut at Silverstone. Second in the final round at Magny-Cours, he moved to former champions DAMS for 1993. That included victories at Hockenheim, the Nürburgring and Spa-Francorchamps. But his title challenge appeared over when he was eliminated after a first-lap accident in the Nogaro finale and Panis was certainly angry as he tried to find the alleged perpetrator – Vincenzo Sospiri. However, his mood soon softened when title rival Pedro Lamy later retired to confirm Panis as 1993 F3000 Champion.

Formula 1 with Ligier

He joined Ligier at the start of the 1994 F1 season, initially on a race-by-race basis. Flavio Briatore acquired the team in May and immediately signed Panis to a long-term deal. The JS39B chassis was past its sell-by date although the prodigious power of the Renault V10 engine certainly helped. Panis regularly out-performed team-mate Eric Bernard and finished a welcome second in Germany after first-lap accidents eliminated 11 cars.

His 1995 campaign was blighted by too many driving errors although Panis’s Ligier JS41-Mugen survived a race of attrition to finish second in the Australian GP, albeit two laps behind Damon Hill’s Williams-Renault. Overshadowed at times by part-time team-mate Martin Brundle, Panis was still retained for 1996 although that Monaco victory was one of only three points’ finishes that year.

Prost Grand Prix

Alain Prost acquired the team in 1997 and the re-branded Prost JS45-Mugen showed well with Panis third in Brazil and second in Spain. That progress was halted in Canada when his suspension broke in a 145mph right-hander and Panis fractured both legs in the ensuing accident.

He returned for the final three races of the year and stayed with the team for another two disappointing seasons. His relationship with Prost soured during 1999 and Panis was criticised for holding up David Coulthard’s McLaren for four laps while being lapped at Imola. The Scot believed that lost him the race so it is ironic that Panis’s next job would be as test driver for McLaren-Mercedes.

McLaren test driver and race return with BAR

He spent 2000 pounding round Jerez and Barcelona before joining the well-funded British American Racing as race driver for the following season. He was fourth on the road on his debut for the team in Australia before being penalised for passing under a yellow flag. He did finish fourth in Brazil but the BAR 003-Honda proved to be a difficult car to develop.

Further disappointment with Toyota

The 2002 season was equally disappointing so Panis joined Toyota in 2003 for the Japanese manufacturer’s second GP season. Like BAR, the Cologne-based team was well funded but it would fail to deliver during its seven years in F1. The Frenchman’s two seasons racing for Toyota included fifth place finishes in the 2003 German and 2004 United States GPs.

Subsequent career

He retired from F1 at the end of 2004 but Panis remained as Toyota’s test driver until 2007. Back racing in sports cars from 2008, his ORECA Courage LC70-AIM finished fifth at Le Mans and won the Silverstone 1000Kms during 2009. The team acquired an ex-works Peugeot 908 HDI for the following season and Panis won at Portimão.

Panis began 2011 by winning the Sebring 12 Hours and he finished fifth at Le Mans once more. However, he decided that was to be his last appearance at the Circuit de la Sarthe as the chances of having a truly competitive car in the future were remote. He continues to compete in GTs and the Trophée Andros ice racing series.