NOVEMBER 29, 1999
Panis - a decision this week
A decision over the future of Olivier Panis is expected this week as the Frenchman is scheduled to begin testing for McLaren and if Williams wants to sign him up as a replacement for Alex Zanardi the team now needs to move quickly.
Zanardi's Williams team-mate Ralf Schumacher is due to begin testing with a Williams-BMW chassis at Jerez on Wednesday and Panis is scheduled to begin work for McLaren on the same day. Much will depend on what Panis decides to do. A drive with Williams has mixed blessings. The BMW engine is unlikely to reliable next year and that means that it could be a frustrating period. There is also no doubt that Williams is still looking at Juan-Pablo Montoya in the longer-term so Panis might find himself out of a job in 2001, although Montoya could still chose to stay on in America for another year. By the end of 2001 Ralf Schumacher's contract with the team will be finished and he may move elsewhere, which would offer Panis the chance to stay at Williams with Montoya.
Panis's alternative is to go with McLaren as third driver. This means he will not be racing in 2000, but he will be only one accident away from the best car in the F1 field and with the possibility that David Coulthard may move on at the end of next year he would be well-placed to take over. At 33 years of age Panis has a couple more seasons before the F1 world will start to look on him as too old and he may prefer to take an offer from Williams because it will at least mean that he is racing. If he matches or beats Ralf Schumacher in 2000 his value will rise on the driver market and that could mean he would get the chance of another top level drive in 2001.
Panis says that he is now fully recovered from his accident in 1997 and that he does not want to be in F1 just to compete. He wants to be in a competitive situation. This is why he quickly terminated talks with Arrows. The question is whether or not he believes that the Williams-BMW is a competitive option.
If Olivier decides against going to Williams, the team may take a risk on a young British driver. It would not be the first time - although the team normally prefers to get youngsters in as test drivers. This would be a cheap option although it might not meet with the approval of BMW which would probably prefer to have Jorg Muller in the car if the team was going to take a risk.