Features - Interview
MAY 1, 1996
BY JOE SAWARD
Olivier's father Philippe today runs a small karting circuit at Crolles, near Grenoble, and is guiding the career of another young driver Laurent Redon, who won the French Formula 3 title last year and now drives for DAMS in F3000 - just as Olivier did in 1993.
In the old days, however, Philippe owned a small garage and competed when Olivier was born he retired from hillclimbing. He had ambitions for his son but Olivier preferred football.
"I wanted to be a professional soccer player," remembers Panis. "I played football from when I was six and I really loved it. One day my father bought me a kart and made me drive it. I said I'd give it a try, but I wasn't convinced. It was very casual and he didn't put a lot of pressure on me. I did three or four races and I was always finishing fourth or fifth and so my father said: "Give it up. Go back to playing soccer" - but by then I had begun to develop a passion for racing."
For the next six years he raced kartsI decided to try 125cc karting and I did that for six years. He trained as a mechanic and then spent two years working at a garage in Lyons while he was karting.
"If I hadn't been successful I'd probably still be there now," says Olivier.
During 1987 Olivier took a race driving course at the world famous Winfield School at the Paul Ricard circuit in the south of France. He was quick enough to be selected for the final at the end of the year and in November won the Volant Elf prize and a fully-sponsored season in French Formula Renault. It was the same competition which had launched such famous names as Patrick Tambay, Didier Pironi, Alain Prost, Olivier Grouillard, Eric Bernard and Erik Comas and he found himself working with legendary Winfield Racing boss Gerard Camilli.
"He taught me my profession. He taught me many things about racing: how to set up the cars and work with them and how to be correct with everyone around me. I think that is very important."
Success was not immediate. Olivier failed to win any races in his first year but finished fourth in the championship and Elf agreed to sponsor him for a second season in Formule Renault. The 1989 season was to be a classic one for the Formule Renault series as Panis and another youngster called Emmanuel Collard met head-to-head. They won five races apiece but Panis took the title on points.
Elf came up with the money for Panis to graduate to the French Formula 3 series - with Winfield Racing. Once again the first year saw no wins but he was fourth in the championship but in 1991 he won four times but still managed to lose out to Christophe Bouchut - who had won only three races.
Once again it was Elf who pushed Panis onwards, teaming him with Collard in the Apomatox Formula 3000 team in 1992. It was not a successful year.
"I had won races in Formule Renault and Formula 3 and not winning in F3000 was frustrating. In 1993 I knew I was playing for my racing career but, strangely, I didn't feel the pressure. The game was much more important than in the past, but I didn't feel the pressure. The DAMS team gave me such confidence that I felt free of pressure. We worked a lot and did a lot of winter testing and that was the basis of our results. We always had a competitive car but we had some problems at the start of the year and not many results. I remember saying that we had a car that could win but it was not until Hockenheim in July that we were successful."
That was the start of an impressive hat trick of wins which took him to the final race challenging David Coulthard and Pedro Lamy for the F3000 title. He was approached by Benetton to test but decided to concentrate on his F3000 schedule instead.
The showdown was at Nogaro and the normally placid Panis was beside himself with anger after being knocked off the track by Vincenzo Sospiri. He set off down the pitlane to see Sospiri but his mechanics, seeing the look in his eye, tried to stop him doing so. As this was going on Lamy came touring into the pitlane his car damaged beyond repair. Olivier noticed this and suddenly stopped fighting with his mechanics. If Lamy was out he was the champion because Coulthard had stopped on the first lap. The anger turned to joy...
The anger was a new side to his character. He had always been calm, unlike many young drivers. He was never wild nor irresponsible. The most remarkable thing was that everyone liked him - even his rivals. In fact Olivier and Guillaume Gomez - his rival and team mate on a couple of occasions - actually shared an apartment at Paul Ricard for four years.
"As long as people are nice to me, I am nice to them," says Olivier, "I am not difficult to get along with but I do not want to be taken for an idiot."
The passion to be successful was carefully nurtured by the DAMS team that year and Olivier remembers them fondly.
"Jean-Paul Driot - the boss of DAMS - is someone who really knows how to manage people. He could yell at me one day, if I was an idiot but he would say is I had done well. He is honest and that is how it should be. I compare him to Camilli in many ways. My engineer Claude Galopin seemed a little cold when you first met him but he had incredible experience in engineering. He was very calm and analysed each problem.
"With them I didn't feel pressure. I tried to be as professional as the team. Now I suppose I am a bit of a fatalist. Racing is my job. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. I take it race by race."
At the start of the 1994 season that was all he could do because his contract with Ligier was a race-by-race one. He had to prove himself. He proved to be one of the revelations of the season, overshadowing the more experienced Eric Bernard and finishing a fine second at Hockenheim. He finished 11th in the World Championship. Last year he scored 16 points - including another second place (in Australia) - and he was eighth in the World Championship. Despite the good results, Olivier did not have an easy time in 1995 with the British takeover of Ligier - led by Tom Walkinshaw - leaving him feeling a little exposed. Because he had never driven for British teams he had never learned to speak English. This had two effects: he had trouble communicating with the team bosses and as the international media speak English he was not getting the credit he deserved.
Since the departure of Walkinshaw in Australia Olivier has flourished, although he now speaks much better English having spent the winter learning the language. He is much more relaxed in the team - and with Pedro Diniz as his team mate he is the undisputed number one driver. He has become something of a joker: teaching his Japanese engineers all the wrong things to say to people in French.
At the start of the year Panis said that he thought he could win a race in the Ligier-Mugen Honda. No-one took him seriously. Drivers always say things like that at car launches. The early races showed that it was not going to be easy and when it was time to get ready to go to Monaco Olivier did not even think about packing a dinner jacket in case he was at the post-race gala banquet in the honor of the race winner.
But he knew that he could do well.
"I love Monaco," he explains, "and I know that if one can drive hard you can overcome some of the handicaps of a car and so show well against the better machinery. The car was easy to drive and that is crucial at Monaco. I thought I might be on for a result in the points - in the best of cases on the podium - but hardly a victory."
Qualifying on Saturday smashed all Olivier's hopes. An engine problem left him 14th on the grid and a very depressed man.
"It is such a shame," he said. "I had incredibly bad luck. For once I had a car with which I could go fast on a track which I really enjoy driving and then this happened."
But Sunday morning was better and Olivier was fastest in the warm-up session.
"I was confident then," says Olivier. "In the warm-up I had a good car. I set the best time with 50 kilos of fuel onboard."
The rain confused matters but Panis was quietly confident that he might be able to get a good result despite his lowly grid position. In the early laps he was stuck in the traffic jam of cars but quickly began to overtake those ahead - the only man pulling off overtaking manoeuvre. It was clear then that he had a good car. In the pit stops the Ligier strategy worked brilliantly. He went into the pits in seventh place and came out in fourth and then began setting a string of fastest laps as he chased Eddie Irvine's Ferrari. On lap 36 he drove down the inside of Irvine at the Loews hairpin and gently pushed him out of the way. The message was clear. Olivier was not going to be stopped.
There were some more fastest laps and then a spin when he hit oil dumped by damon Hill's Williams-Renault when it blew up but Panis kept the car going and chased after Jean Alesi. Now he was fighting for the lead.
"I was watching the big TV screen every lap and suddenly I saw that number nine was top of the list. It was my number. I didn't know why I was top. I thought Jean had done a pit stop to change something. Then I realized that he had not come out again and so I said to myself: "You must concentrate, keep the rhythm going, continue doing fast laps and forget all the others". In such situations you think only about yourself.
"In the closing laps the pit was radioing me every lap saying: "Olivier, go carefully". We were worried about fuel and I was trying to conserve it without letting Coulthard get too close to me. I did not expect to see the chequered flag when it came out, but when I did it was like an explosion. I had not won a race for two and a half years. I don't think I'll ever forget the sound of the yacht sirens in the harbour during my lap of honor. Someone handed me a French flag and I could not resist taking it. Ever since I saw Alain Prost do it I had always wanted to see it happen again. I didn't imagine it would be me doing it!"
For French fans all around the track this was a great event. It was the first time the race has been won from so far back on the grid; it was the first Ligier victory for 15 years and the first time a French driver has won in a French-built car at Monaco since Rene Dreyfus did it for Bugatti in 1930. But, for Olivier Panis, all this is extra. The victory is all that matters.
He remains with his feet firmly on the ground. He has won his first race now, he says, he wants to win another and if he can he wants to finish fifth in the World Championship this year.
"My ambition is to be the World Champion," he explains, "but if I am not in a position to do that I do not intend to hang around and take part in 250 Grands Prix just for the pleasure of being in F1. I want to win."