Olivier Panis: how fate derailed French F1 hero's blossoming career


The talented Olivier Panis's F1 career was a case of 'what if?' after one fateful day at Montreal in 1997

Olivier Panis Prost 1997 Canadian GP

Panis with team boss Alain Prost at Montreal in 1997, the race that would change his life – not for the better

Paul-Henri Cahier.Getty Images

Max Verstappen has now led every Formula 1 lap since, in the closing stages of the Miami Grand Prix on 7 May, he took the lead from his Red Bull team-mate Checo Perez. Yes, you read that correctly: Verstappen went on to win in Miami and since then he has won in Monaco, Barcelona and Montreal without once being headed. His victory in Sunday’s Canadian Grand Prix was particularly effortless. But F1 races in Montreal have not always been so predictable – and uneventful – and whenever I think of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve my mind turns to Villeneuve, obviously, but also to Olivier Panis.

The 1997 Canadian Grand Prix was stopped on lap 54 after Panis’s Prost-Mugen had slammed into the Turn 4 exit wall at high speed. Michael Schumacher, Jean Alesi and Giancarlo Fisichella sprayed no Moet on the podium, and afterwards Alesi spoke for all of them in the press conference: “Please understand that we’re all very sad about what happened today. We know that Olivier’s condition isn’t too bad, in the serious sense, but we hear that he may be badly injured, and that touches us all.” Later we learned that both Panis’s legs had been broken.

Olivier Panis drives the #9 Equipe Ligier Gauloises Blondes Ligier JS43 Mugen-Honda 3.0 V10 to victory at the Grand Prix of Monaco on 19th May 1996 on the streets of the Principality of Monaco in Monte Carlo, Monaco.(Photo by Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images)

Panis’s only ever F1 win came in a brilliant wet-weather drive at Monaco ’96

Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

What might have happened had he not had that shunt will never be known, but it is certain that he missed out on capitalising on what would have been his best year in F1. The grand prix prior to Montreal had been Barcelona, and he had finished a fine second there, but, had the marshals not been too timid to wave blue flags at Ferrari driver Eddie Irvine while Panis had been trying to lap him, he might have won, for he was catching Jacques Villeneuve’s leading Williams at a rate of 1.5 seconds per lap, with 15 laps to go, and Villeneuve’s lead over him had been only 10 seconds at the time. It took Panis seven long laps to get past Irvine, who was given a stop-go penalty for his truculence, and by that time Villeneuve was 16 seconds ahead. Panis put the hammer down nonetheless, again shrinking the gap by 1.5 seconds per lap, but his winning chance had gone and by flag-fall he was still 5.8 seconds behind.

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Barcelona had not been a flash in the pan. At that point in 1997 Panis had failed to complete only one race, Buenos Aires, the victim of an electrical problem on lap 19, and he had been running in second place at the time. He had finished fifth in Melbourne, third in Sao Paulo and fourth in Monaco. As he was taken to hospital in Montreal on the afternoon of 15 June, he lay third in the drivers’ championship standings.

He missed the next six grands prix, returning for Nürburgring 15 weeks later, where he drove a plucky race to sixth, despite pain in both legs. And that was his 1997, the season that had promised so much but delivered so little. Then, to add insult to injury – literally – the 1998 Prost-Peugeot turned out to be a dreadful car, and Panis would next score a world championship point 18 long months later, at Interlagos, in 1999.

The Prost team limped on until 2001, but by 1999 it was already clear that Alain Prost was distinctly less capable outside the cockpit than he had been inside it. Panis’s point-scoring performance at Interlagos in 1999 had been attrition-assisted, and in the next race, Imola, a broken throttle ended what had anyway been shaping up to be a lacklustre run for him. He was unhappy, visibly so if you knew him reasonably well, as I did in those days. Then came Monaco, the scene of his wonderful victory three years before, in 1996, in the days when Prost had been called Ligier; but, by contrast, Monaco 1999 unravelled into a truly terrible weekend for him.

Olivier Panis Toyota 2003 Japanese GP

Career ended at Toyota after stints with McLaren and BAR

Grand Prix Photo

He kept quiet about it at the time, but he told me about it two years later, over dinner at Whittlebury Hall Hotel in April 2001, one wet and chilly evening during a Silverstone test, by which time he was racing for BAR-Honda. It bears repeating: “I arrived in Monaco for the 1999 race on Wednesday morning, driving from my home in Grenoble, and I had lunch with my manager, Peter Poelijoe-Vewald. We chatted — usual stuff — then he left, saying he had a business meeting that evening. I didn’t see him at the circuit on Thursday, which was strange. My wife Anne said she thought maybe he might be in Cannes, because he also worked with some movie people, and the film festival was going on at the same time. But when he didn’t appear on Friday, or Saturday, and when he wouldn’t answer his mobile either, I began to get worried. So Anne called Peter’s wife – I remember it so clearly – and asked her, on loudspeaker so that I could also hear, where Peter was. ‘Peter’s dead,’ she replied, ‘he had a heart attack on Wednesday night.’”

Olivier’s depression deepened. That afternoon, on the famously tortuous streets of the circuit he loved more than any other, he qualified 17th, well behind his team-mate Jarno Trulli, and the next day his engine gave up after 40 laps. Trulli finished seventh. Next came Barcelona: Panis qualified 15th, well behind Trulli again, and the next day his gearbox broke on lap 25. Trulli finished sixth. “Then I said to myself: ‘Come on, Olivier, you must do something.’” He did. He contacted Keke Rosberg, who was managing Mika Häkkinen so shrewdly, and a deal was done.

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For 2000, Rosberg brokered a contract with Ron Dennis whereby Panis would test for McLaren and race for no-one — a then-radical strategy for a proven grand prix winner – and it worked. In those days testing was a weekly affair — and Panis’s lap times were consistently fast for all to see. Moreover, it soon became known that the McLaren engineers loved the precise and diligent quality of his technical feedback. So it was that he was able to rebuild his reputation, kickstart his racing career again, and bag a race drive for BAR-Honda in 2001.

He never again had a car of sufficient competitiveness to trouble the scorers in any significant way, but he had two seasons at BAR-Honda and two more at Toyota, and he drove some good races and scored a few points. At Magny-Cours in 2004, his final year in Formula 1, he made his 150th grand prix start, and he threw a little party in the paddock. He knew he might have achieved more had his luck been better, but, as he said with a smile, “I think 150 grands prix is something. Also one grand prix win. At Monaco. So, yes, I’m happy.”

He raced at Le Mans four times. He tried his hand at ice racing. Now 56, he is still involved in motor sport – via Panis Racing, a WEC and ELMS team of which he is team principal, and via his son Aurelien, who races GTs and touring cars and won two Formula V8 3.5 Series races for Arden in 2016.

Olivier’s mates call him Olive. He insisted on paying for my dinner at Whittlebury Hall Hotel in April 2001, which is not usual F1 driver behaviour. He is a lovely man.