INTERVIEW

No Pains for Panis

At the launch of the new Prost-Peugeot AP02 Olivier Panis admitted that for much of last season he was worried about that if he crashed we would injure his legs so badly that his F1 career would be over.

Panis broke both of his legs in a huge accident in Montreal in 1997 but made a quick recovery to return to the Prost team before the end of that year. He now admits that despite what he said at the time he was worried.

OP: "It is true that I was keeping a little secret last year. I did not always want to be seen talking about the accident but when I was operated on after the crash the Canadian surgeon said that I would still have some pins and stuff inside my legs and that there would be a risk that if I have another accident and hurt my legs again, my career might be finished."I didn't have any choice but to accept at the time because I had to get back into a car as quickly as possible. But throughout the 1998 season this was always something that was in the back of my mind. It was always worrying me a little. In fact it did not really make much of an impression on my performance because the car was so bad."

Q: As soon as the season ended you flew to Montreal and underwent further surgery to remove the material and the pins in his legs. Is the problem now solved?

OP: "Today everything has been taken out and I feel completely fit. We have a completely new car and a highly-motivated team so I hope that this will be the last time that I have to talk about the accident. I am thinking about the new car and its development programme."

Q: Do you think that your experiences have made you a lot tougher mentally?

OP: "Sure. I think that given everything I have been through I am stronger. I always had a group of people around me to support me and Alain Prost was very important. He was always there during my convalescence - it was pretty tough at the beginning - and he helped me. It was good for building my character. When things are going well there are always people around you, but when things go wrong a lot of them forget you. So when you come back you have a new idea about people and you become much more objective. You know what are the important things in life and now little things which used to annoy me I don't care about any more. I am looking at 1999. It is a really important year for me and for the whole Prost team. I am preparing for it like I have never prepared before. It is hard from a physical point of view but I have big ambitions. I am 100% free of the problem of my legs and now I really want to do well in 1999."

Q: Can you be a little more specific about those aims?

OP: "We want to do better than last year. That will not be too difficult because last year's performance was terrible. The good thing was that despite all the problems the team stayed together, stayed positive and concentrated on the job of improving the old car and building a much better one in 1999. It was also a good season because the relationship between Jarno (Trulli) and I was very good and we were able to keep a good ambiance in the team. This year's car is very different. It is completely different to the AP01 with completely new technology; input from John Barnard and a great deal of work which has been done by Loic Bigois and his team on aerodynamics and work on the engine at Peugeot Sport. They have all built the fastest car they possibly can. It was a lot of work."

Q: You talk about keeping a good ambiance inside the team, but it must have been difficult to keep up your motivation given the car and the fact that you were worried about your legs?

OP: "Formula 1 is my passion and I want to win races. That is what I wake up every morning wanting to do. I had a few sleepless nights in 1998 that is true but I really believe that 1999 will be a different story."

Q: How difficult is it to be on good terms with a team-mate? Ultimately the F1 world will judge you on how you do in competition to him. It must be difficult to keep up a good relationship.

OP: "Jarno is quick and there is always a risk that there can be a problem between two drivers. We have had our moments of doubt but when that happens we have talked to Alain. If there is a decision to be taken he takes that decision and we live with it. We are not children and so when there have been things Jarno and I have talked together. He is a driver of the future. That is obvious. He is fast but he remains objective and very correct towards me. In the races we fight each other like we would any other driver but in general we work together for the team. That is very good to keep the team motivated."

Q: Last year at the launch of the AP01 you said that you were confident in the car and that you were looking forward to a successful new season. What makes you think that this year will be any different?

OP: "Last year when I saw the new car I thought it looked good. We were all hoping to produce miracles. Well, miracles don't exist. After the first few laps we were a little bit disappointed but we said: "OK. It's going to be a tough year" but we did not give up. We went to work to make the car reliable and then tried to improve the speed.

"This new car is a different story. We have already done a lot of testing with the new engine. The new gearbox has done 3700 miles of testing. We know from the figures that the chassis is more rigid, the aerodynamics are better, the engine is better and all these things mean that I am much more confident much more optimistic than I was a year ago."<\#026>

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