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JUNE 23, 1997

Who replaces Panis?

AS we were closing for press the replacement for Olivier Panis with Prost Grand Prix was still to be announced with Minardi's Jarno Trulli and Emmanuel Collard both in line for the drive - with Damon Hill as an unlikely outsider. Trulli and Collard were called in to test for Prost last week at Magny-Cours and worked to develop a new version of the MugenÊHondaÊV10 - due to be debuted at the French GP - and new Bridgestone tires. Collard ran on all three days of the test, completing 140 laps of the track with a best time of 1m16.39s while Trulli did the second two days, completing the same number of laps with a best of 1m16.28s. Shinji Nakano was also present and did 76 laps with a best of 1m17.59s.

The question now facing Alain Prost is whether he is sufficiently confident in "Manu" Collard to give him his F1 debut or whether he prefers to put Trulli in the car. Jarno has competed in seven Grands Prix for Minardi in the last 18 months while Collard has never raced an F1 car. Collard has, however, completed thousands of miles as a test driver for Williams (for which he ran 2500 miles in 1994), Benetton, Ligier (which he drove for as long ago as 1990), Tyrrell and Jordan. He is also French - which is important for the team's biggest sponsor Gauloises Blondes, particularly as he will debut at the French GP.

Gauloises Blondes will probably be arguing that Prost should give the drive to Collard because it is likely that he will quickly establish himself as a new star in F1 as the Prost-Mugen Honda is a competitive car. This will mean that when Olivier Panis returns France will have a third established F1 driver.

Trulli is under contract to Minardi - and thus to Flavio Briatore as he controls the Minardi team. Briatore may have long term plans for Jarno at Benetton and will thus want to avoid him becoming entangled with Prost Grand Prix. There is, however, a spare Minardi driver ready to race at a moment's notice, reserve driver Tarso Marques having already driven the M197 in testing.

It is highly unlikely that Prost will nominate anyone other than Trulli or Collard, although there were rumors last week that Prost was trying to get Tom Walkinshaw to allow Damon Hill to take the drive.

This makes sense for Prost and for Hill - who is negotiating with Alain for next year. It would also probably be the preferred option for Bridgestone and for Mugen Honda. The stumbling block would, of course, be Walkinshaw. Tom might, however, be willing to release Damon in exchange for the supply of Mugen Honda V10 engines in 1998-99 - for which he has been negotiating in recent months. A John Barnard design with a Honda engine and Bridgestone tires might attract a star to replace Hill. Such a deal will depend on how important Walkinshaw believes Damon is to his operation - and whether Hirotoshi Honda of Mugen would be willing to do a deal with Tom.

Panis meanwhile continues his recovery in the Sacre-Coeur Hospital in Montreal where early last week he underwent a second operation to relieve pressure in the leg to avoid damage to the muscles.

The initial operation - on Sunday evening - lasted four hours and involved the use of "interlocking nail" techniques to secure the broken bones in Panis's legs. The system means that Panis will not be stuck with plaster casts on his legs which should mean that he will be back in action much faster than would normally be the case. Panis's fitness trainer osteopath Francois Gressot hopes to get Olivier back to France as soon as possible so that he can maintain his levels of cardio-vascular fitness - which takes a long time to build up - by activities such as swimming.