Olivier Panis_1

Olivier Panis, posing with my brother Luc.

Olivier Panis was probably the only man in Monte Carlo in 1996 who really thought that he had a chance of winning the Grand Prix, but then he knew better than anybody else just how good his Ligier had felt when he set very fast times during the pre-race morning warm-up.
Even so, getting to the front on a circuit renowned for its meager overtaking opportunities was going to be a tall order, especially as he would only start in 14th place.
Yet Panis did get to the front, to score a sensational victory. It was true that both Damon Hill and Jean Alesi had departed with mechanical problems, in Williams and Benetton respectively, while Michael Schumacher had made an early exit after making an elementary mistake on the first lap. But nothing could detract from the Frenchman's splendid drive. He extracted everything that the Ligier had to offer, in conditions that had caught out the best. On that famous day of days he managed to avoid all of Monaco's myriad pitfalls, and his victory over David Coulthard and Johnny Herbert was one of those fairy tale paybacks for the commitment that had gone into a career that seemed in danger of stalling at F1 level.
Panis had started racing in karts before progressing through Elf's numerous junior categories. Two seasons in French F3 brought fourth and second places in the title chase, the latter by the narrowest of margins after he had won five races. Two seasons of F3000 followed, the first a battle with the Apamotox team's recalcitrant Lola, the second in the much-vaunted DAMS Equipe. After a tough year, Panis was crowned champion, and the success provided the springboard for F1 with Ligier.
Fortune smiled on him initially, as he lucked into second place at Hockenheim in 1994, but Monaco was no fluke. Nor was the apparent victory he seemed headed for in the Bridgestone-shod Prost in Argentina in 1997, before the French car broke down. He backed that with fourth at Monaco and a second in Spain to add to third earlier in the year in Brazil, but then the luck ran put as he crashed heavily in Canada and broke both legs.
He came back later that year with Prost, but the team had lost momentum. The following two seasons were a struggle with a bad car and a quick teammate, Jarno Trulli, who had stood in for him after his accident.
With only two sixth places from 1999, he was offered a BMW Williams seat for 2000 but turned it down in favor of a leading test role for McLaren. Immediately he was able to show his speed, and focused on doing a sufficiently good job to attract a top line F1 drive for 2001. This led to two years with BAR in 2001 and 2002 and in 2003 he moved to Toyota but results remained difficult to achieve and at the end of 2004 Panis stood down to become the Toyota F1 test driver.