INTERVIEW

Olivier Panis dreams of F1

Olivier Panis, the new Formula 3000 champion, does not know what he is doing next year. The newspapers in France say that he will be in Formula 1 but no deal is yet done. But it probably will be. Racing is in his blood and with a little help from Elf Panis will now take the next step in his career.

Olivier comes from a racing family. In fact he can claim to be real racing baby because both his mother and father were hillclimbers.

"I didn't want to be a racing driver when I was young," he explains. "I wanted to be a professional soccer player. I played football from when I was six and I really loved it. Then 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 my father said: 'Give it up. Go back to playing soccer' but by then I had begun to develop a passion for racing. I decided to try 125cc karting and I did that for six years. I learned about mechanics at school and then I worked in a garage in Lyons for two years while I was karting. If I hadn't been successful I'd probably still be there now."

Olivier's career took off when he went to the famous Winfield School at Paul Ricard in 1987. He won the Volant Elf in November and with it came a year racing with Gerard Camilli's famous Winfield Racing team in Formule Renault.

"I was with Gerard Camilli for four years," he says, "and 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."

Panis has a reputation of being a nice guy. Is it a true picture?

"I like having meeting people," he explains, "and as long as they are nice to me I am nice to them.

"But he adds, 'I don't want to be taken for an idiot. I'm not difficult to get along with and I don't think that will change. In fact, I think it is strange that people do change when they go to F1."

Oliver may soon find out. All the previous F3000 champions have gone to F1 and he is unlikely to be the exception, particularly when he has the backing of French petrol giant Elf. But he has been amazed by some of the stories he has read.

"I went to the Portuguese GP and when I flew back I bought L'Equipe and I read that I was going to join Senna at Williams next year," he smiles. "It made me laugh. It is all a bit exaggerated. There have been stories saying I would drive for Benetton, Ligier and Tyrrell. I was supposed to test for Benetton. That didn't work out because of my F3000 schedule. There have been contacts with Ligier and Tyrrell but there has been nothing concrete. I wanted to wait until the F3000 title was over and then see what was happening."

The F3000 showdown at Nogaro was disappointing with all three championship rivals Panis, Pedro Lamy and David Coulthard going out of the race in the first three laps.

"I would have liked to have finished the race on the track with my friends and rivals," says Olivier, and he means it. "But, this has been a great season for me. I don't want to dwell on it, but Manu (Emmanuel Collard) and I had a difficult time at Apomatox last year. We had to live through some difficult times. I had won races in Formula Renault and Formula 3 but not winning in Formula 3000 was frustrating.

"This season I was playing for my racing career but, strangely, I didn't feel the pressure. It is a bit strange because for me 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.

"I joined a team that was really welcoming right from the start and 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

"At Silverstone I had an engine trouble and then at Pau the qualifying was good and I was on the front row. In the ace I had trouble with the brakes and went straight on by the station. That was a brake balance problem but to me it was a failure because that is something know how to do. Then afterwards I had a spin, which was my fault. I was very disappointed for myself, but also for the team because there was no reward for their hard work.

Then in Enna I was handicapped in qualifying because of a gearbox problem, but despite all this I knew that the team was worked right to the limit. I remember always saying that we had a car that could win. At Hockenheim we were successful for the first time. We had made it through the difficult times and it had paid off.

"Jean-Paul Driot is the boss and he is someone who really knows how to manage people. He could yell at me one day, like after Pau he said I was an idiot, but after Hockenheim he said that I had driven a perfect race. He is honest and that is how it should be. I compare him to Camilli in many ways.

"My engineer Claude Galopin seems a little cold when you first meet him but he is really nice. He has incredible experience in engineering in F1 and for the team that was very valuable. Claude is very calm and always analyses each problem."

And what about Franck Lagorce?

"He's a nice guy," says Olivier. "He has a very different character to me. He's a lot more excitable than I am, but we work well together and things have been good all year with him.

"I have been well-advised and supported by people and by the team. All the attention I was getting was good for everyone, and we've had some good laughs from it as well, but it didn't affect me. I simply put it aside and continued my work. I was lucky to be able to do that and not place too much importance in it all. The press articles sometimes pleased me, and sometimes they made me laugh but they weren't a pressure. I don't feel pressure. Racing is my job. I try to be as professional as the team and I suppose I am I'm a bit of a fatalist. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. I take it race by race.

"I hope to make it into F1. We'll have to see what happens."

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