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FEBRUARY 10, 1997

Panis sensational before crashing new Ligier

ON Friday Olivier Panis set the Formula 1 world talking when he took his new Ligier-Mugen Honda JS45 around the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona in a lap of 1m18.38s - half a second inside the fastest lap recorded at the track six days previously by World Championship favorite Jacques Villeneuve in the new Williams-Renault FW19. Panis's time was 2.3secs quicker than Damon Hill's pole position lap at the Spanish GP in June last year and an astounding 4.3secs faster than Panis's own qualifying lap in his Ligier-Mugen Honda JS43.

There is no doubt that doubt that the dramatic drop in lap times is largely due to the performance of the team's Bridgestone tires, although Panis himself reckons that the new JS45 is an improvement on last year's model, particularly in terms of suspension, the Ligier team having a new arrangement with the Showa shock absorber company. There is also more horsepower being produced by the new Mugen-Honda V10 engine. In recent tests there have been a lot more Honda engineers in evidence than is usually the case although it remains to be seen whether this is significant as Honda men tend to drop into F1 once or twice a year to see how Mugen is doing and then disappear again.

Whatever the case, Panis's time is particularly impressive given the fact that the team is only just beginning to work on the set-up of the car. The JS45 has completed less than 500 miles of testing to date, despite the fact that the team has been flat-out since the launch in Monaco on January 22. The first three days of testing at Magny-Cours (January 23-25) were hampered by bad weather and reliability problems with Panis completing just 46 laps (120 miles). The problems seemed to have been solved by the time Ligier arrived in Barcelona on January 30. In the course of three days of testing Panis completed 275 miles of running, getting down to a remarkable 1m18.98s.

The new car then went back to Magny-Cours to be rebuilt before returning to Barcelona on Friday when Panis set his remarkable time. On Saturday the Frenchman tried to go even quicker but ended up going into the barriers very hard and may have destroyed the monocoque as some reports indicate that the wishbones came through the side of the tub. If this is the case it will be a setback for the team, although a second chassis is nearing completion at Magny-Cours.

It is probably too early yet for much to be read into the times. It is difficult to be sure that the lap times were achieved with the car at full weight. The team may be chasing a sponsorship deal and quick times can only help negotiations. This time last year, it should be noted, we reported on Tyrrell producing some remarkably quick laps at Estoril...

If, however, this is a true representation of the advantage which Bridgestone tires will bring this season there are likely to be repercussions. Goodyear-contracted teams may feel that - despite having contracts - they cannot afford not to be on the Bridgestone tires.

Rather more worrying, the reduction in lap times will inevitably mean that some of the safety work done in the last couple of seasons will be negated by tire development. Goodyear is certain to react strongly and so lap times will probably continue to come down throughout the season.