Panis, Lapierre among ORECA drivers for 2008

Team ORECA revealed Sunday its driver line-up for the 2008 Le Mans Series season. Former Formula One veteran Olivier Panis will join GP2 racer Nicolas Lapierre with team regulars Stephane Ortelli and Soheil Ayari behind the wheel of two Courage-Oreca Judds in the LMP1 category. The quartet of drivers will also spearhead the French team's efforts at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.

Olivier Panis, Nicolas Lapierre, St?phane Ortelli and Soheil Ayari pose with the Courage-ORECA LC70 Judd.
Photo by Mathilde Magne - Groupe ORECA.

The Hugues de Chaunac-led organization recently purchased Courage Competition, utilizing the Le Mans-based manufacturer as a base for its own prototype program. On Sunday, the team was at Circuit Paul Ricard in the south of France, primarily shaking down the new 5.5 liter Judd V10 engine and testing other developments. All four drivers were present to sample the Courage LC70 test car. De Chaunac said that the 2008 Courage-Oreca car will be officially revealed during the team's presentation in mid-March. It's expected to be an evolution of last year's Courage LC70 chassis.

Panis, who signed with the team in December, got his first laps in a prototype and is relishing the opportunity to tackle Le Mans. The 1996 Monaco Grand Prix winner retired from F1 at the end of 2006 and has since been working in the A1GP as Team France's Sporting Director. But the 41-year-old is anxious to get back behind the wheel himself.

"After F1, I wished to involve myself in a project of a high technical level, with a very motivated team but still having a human dimension, and capable to take on a real challenge," Panis said in December of his signing. "The ORECA project perfectly fits that goal, even more so due to the fact that it is based on a mythical race: every driver is sensible to the magnetic attraction of the Le Mans 24 Hours. I have been totally seduced by the enthusiasm of Hugues and his team around this superb project."

Panis is joined in the car by Lapierre, who helped secure Team France the inaugural A1GP title. The 23-year-old spent the last three seasons mainly competing in GP2, scoring two wins in 2007 with the DAMS squad. He also took part in last year's 24 Hours of Le Mans with ORECA, piloting a Saleen S7R in the GT1 class.

The second Oreca-Courage Judd will be driven by Ortelli and Ayari. The duo dominated the GT1 category in ORECA's Saleen in 2007, scoring four wins out of five starts en route to the Driver's and Team's Championship in the LMS. Ayari and Raymond Narac claimed the French FFSA GT Championship last season as well. The 1996 French F3 Champion drove for Pescarolo Sport in 2004 before moving to the ORECA squad in 2006.

Ortelli was part of ORECA's last prototype program in 2005 when he teamed with Jean-Marc Gounon and Frank Montagny in an Audi R8 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, finishing fourth overall. Later that year, he and Allan McNish scored the overall win in the 1000km of Silverstone driving the French-backed R8. Ortelli will be starting his 2008 season at the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, driving a Daytona Prototype for Cheever Racing.

Team ORECA's full Le Mans driver line-up will be revealed at a later date, possibly coming at the team's official launch in March.