Throwing out the baby

Olivier Panis, European GP 2003

Olivier Panis, European GP 2003 

 © The Cahier Archive

It's Wimbledon time and, inevitably, that means a burst of rain across Europe and so, rather than flitting around in sunny Parisian cafes, I am at home contemplating making soup. A lot of the Formula 1 circus is already down at Magny-Cours getting ready for the weekend. I like the place but a lot of F1 people don't actually bother going to the French GP because it is not an easy race to do. I am fortunate to get a room each year in the village of Magny-Cours and so I can appreciate more of this charming nowhere of tumbledown chateaux, lazy rivers and wonderful food and wine. It is the rural France of which you read in guide books and bad novels. It is the kind of place where one is not surprised to see men in berets on bicycles with strings of onions around their necks.

But for most people finding accommodation is a nightmare. The teams sweep up all the good rooms and everyone else has to travel for miles to get there. Finding somewhere to eat dinner is a real problem because restaurants are booked for miles and miles in all directions. Just turning up is not much of an option... And one does not visit Nevers with the aim of eating at McDonald's.

Some years ago an economic study comparing the various Grands Prix in Europe revealed that the "catchment area" for the French Grand Prix is 10,000 square miles, a figure which is five times larger than that of the British Grand Prix and 20 times bigger than the catchment area of Monaco or Belgium. Or let us put it another way, there are people travelling more than 50 miles to their hotels, morning and night. Small wonder that there are so many helicopters in action at Magny-Cours each year.

It will be interesting to see how big the crowd is this year because France has little to cheer about in Formula 1. There is a Renault team but the French race fans know that the crew at Enstone is about as French as the steak and kidney pie and so the team will only become popular (and French) when it starts to win races - and that does not look very likely at the moment.

Chauvinism was, of course, invented in France, but it is actually rather a sad story as Nicolas Chauvin was not some frightful bragging Frenchman but rather a soldier who was wounded 17 times fighting in the armies of the Emperor Napoleon. In post-Napoleonic France Chauvin was treated with contempt and mocked for his passionate nationalism and his name passed into the language.

There was a time when France had reason to be proud and dominated motor sport. French drivers came one after another and eventually France had its own World Champion in Alain Prost. But then the French politicians did something incredibly and indelibly stupid. A health minister called Claude Evin decided that the health of the French nation needed to be improved and banned tobacco and alcohol advertising. It made almost no difference on French habits in everyday life, indeed I read today that alcohol-related illnesses in France are increasing all the time. Go into a French bar and you will see that Evin's Law was a load of political bunkum. In fact the only thing it really did was kill French motor racing.

The law came into force in January 1993 and as there were no companies willing to support young racing drivers (other than Elf, and that money dried up when Elf went public) the youngsters were left to rot, a lost generation. Olivier Panis was the last of those to escape the effects of the Loi Evin and Olive is now the only Frenchman left in F1. In a couple of years he will be gone and there is no-one likely to replace him. Renault has named Franck Montagny as the token Frenchman in its driver line-up but he is supposed to get 10 days of testing this year. To date he has not had much.

Perhaps Montagny will prove to be a survivor but he is getting a little old now and all the other young Frenchmen are on the scrapheap. Sebastien Bourdais is doing well in CART this year but even he accepts that is unlikely that this will get him into F1.

Panis is a great survivor and a great competitor. Everyone thinks he's a nice guy and there are some who write him off because he is so pleasant. But I have seen Panis with murder in his eyes and I know that behind the facade is a heart of steel - which is probably why he is still in F1.

We were down as Nogaro, 10 years ago, and Olivier was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, one of a gang of French F1 hopefuls all of whom had the speed to make it in F: Emmanuel Collard, Jean-Christophe Boullion and Franck Lagorce. When they were young I must admit that I always thought that Panis had the least chance of success: Collard and Boullion were super-quick and Lagorce had the eyes of a wolf. Panis was just Mr. Nice Guy. But in 1993 I learned he was nothing of the sort.

That year he was fighting for the Formula 3000 title with David Coulthard and Pedro Lamy. The finale was at Nogaro and Coulthard's hopes of success ended at the start his car broke down. On the second lap the leading group - including Panis - came screaming down the long back straight and fanned out for the hairpin. There was going to be an accident. They all left their braking late but Vincenzo Sospiri gave optimism a new meaning and as a result he spun and bounced straight into Panis. It was an impossible move and Panis was not happy. He drove to the pits, his suspension awry and climbed from the car. His mechanics recognized that Olivier needed to be stopped and three of them were dragged down pitlane as Panis went in search of Sospiri. It was an impressive sight. Sospiri might be dead were it not for the fact that as this was happening Panis's team manager Jean-Paul Driot noticed that Lamy was coming down the pitlane, with bits of his suspension trailing. Two other cars had collided and taken out Pedro. Panis was the champion.

Driot had to stand in front of the new champ, screaming at him before Olivier realized what had happened.

"Lots of people think I'm a nice guy," Panis said. "But it's not true. When people are good and straight with me I respect them. When they are not good with me I am not a nice guy at all."

As far as I am concerned Olivier is brilliant and brave. He won at Monaco in a Ligier and that alone deserved the award of a Legion d'Honneur. He came back from having two broken legs and survived a miserable time with Prost. He turned down a Williams drive in 2000 because he had given his word to McLaren that he would be the team's test driver. And he did such a good job that he was able to resurrect him career.

Now Panis is the oldest in F1 and his career cannot last forever but when the car is right he can still turn in the times. I do not believe in bad luck in F1 but I know Olivier has it.

When Olivier does retire France will be without an F1 star and one can only wonder, as we head down to Magny-Cours, whether this race can survive much longer. France may have been the cradle of motorsport but thanks to Claude Evin the baby was thrown out with the bath water...

Print Feature