After joining his second fledgling team in three years, it would be easy to think that Toyota's Olivier Panis has resigned himself to life near the back of the Formula One grid. But, the veteran French driver isn't about to abandon the thought of...
After joining his second fledgling team in three years, it would be easy to think that Toyota's Olivier Panis has resigned himself to life near the back of the Formula One grid. But, the veteran French driver isn't about to abandon the thought of adding to his single win at the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix, he's hoping to be fighting for the top step of the podium by the end of his two-year contract with Toyota.
"I know we have a lot to do because it's a young team but when I see the facilities we have at the factory and, if we use them at 100 per cent, we will improve a lot -- we'll need to wait a bit but it's really positive to see the work at the factory," Panis said in an interview from Toyota's F1 headquarters. "At the end of 2002, I had some different offers from some teams and I had to find the one hat would be the best place for me for the next two years.
"When I started to speak to Toyota, I began to become very happy because I realized that the best solution for me was working with a constructor like Toyota."
With two test sessions in a 2002 Toyota with the 2003 V-10 engine under his belt, Panis' initial impressions of the car are positive, but he added it will be difficult to predict how the car will perform next season until he gets into the cockpit of the complete 2003 package.
"I have no idea what to expect yet because I need to wait to test the new car and when that happens, I'll let you know a little more," he said. "While it's difficult to compare the two because they are very different cars and tires, I want to say many things about the BAR were good but I think the Toyota is better for the future and it is why I feel very positive about next year."
Toyota officially unveils the 2003 car at Paul Ricard January 8.
After a respectable first season in F1 with Mika Salo and Allan McNish, Toyota dumped both drivers at the end of 2002 and decided to go with a mix of experience and youth, hiring Panis and the current CART champion, 29-year-old Brazilian Cristiano da Matta. And, with Eddie Irvine's unceremoniously exit from Formula One last month, Panis suddenly became the oldest man on the starting grid. But, he stressed, that doesn't mean he's ready to start thinking about life after racing.
"I feel really young -- I have just turned 36 -- and I want to say that if you have the motivation and you feel good physically, I don't think age is important," he insisted. "If a driver like Alain Prost stopped at 36, he would never have been a four-time champion, and Nigel Mansell would have never won the championship. This is why I feel very comfortable and motivated," he insisted. "I really want to have the opportunity to win more races if possible and after 2004 I'll think about my future, but if I have the opportunity to win, I won't want to stop."
When da Matta arrived in late-November after completing his CART obligations with the Newman/Haas team, he immediately began a rigorous testing schedule that hasn't left Panis much time to get to know his new teammate. da Matta spent three days with Panis in Barcelona at the end of November and then left for the Michelin Race off Champions in Gran Canaria. The pair spent the first week of December testing in separate sessions in Barcelona and at Paul Ricard.
"I have to wait to see what kind of relationship I'll have with my new teammate, but so far he's OK. From my point of view, I feel Cristiano is a good guy and he's doing a good job in the car, but he has a lot to do and he needs to learn a lot in Formula One," Panis said. "He's working very hard and I want to work with him closely to develop the car but right now, he needs to find a way to get the best out of the car and have a good feeling with the team. After that if he needs some help I'll definitely be there because we have to work together to push the team."
Pushing hard was extremely difficult for Panis in 2002 during a tough year for him and Jacques Villeneuve at BAR. The team took a few steps backward last season, scoring only seven points -- 10 fewer than 2001 -- and struggling all year to solve reliability problems and improve an ill-handling chassis. Panis brought home points in only two races, finishing fifth at Silverstone and sixth in Monza.
"It was really tough for me and Jacques because we had a lot to do and we definitely expected the car would get better from 2001. We had a new engine and we had big problems with DNFs, so it was really tough, but we never gave up and worked really hard," he recalled.
Despite the difficulties with the BAR and the inevitable teething problems he's sure to encounter at Toyota, motivation has never been a problem for the Frenchman, who said he simply loves racing and his passion for the sport is always enough to get him to work in the morning.
"When you like your job and you want to drive in Formula One, it is always the first motivation but also when you are a professional and you accept a challenge, you need to respect people and work really hard. I'm sure it's easier to give up, but that's not my way and I want to be pushing all the time to improve things," he explained. "I know my job and I know my speed and I have a lot of experience to help the team grow up quickly but I don't feel pressure, I'm in F1 to have a good result and I really want to perform well -- that's why I'm here and why I'll be pushing really hard."
With the new qualifying rules for 2003 and points extended to eighth place, Panis feels there will only be more reasons to get the competitive juices flowing next season. And with each driver getting only one flying lap during each day's qualifying session, he believes there will be more than a few surprises on the grid.
"I want to say I think it's positive because everybody including the spectators wanted change, and they're not bad ideas. First of all, the changes will give some young teams and the small teams a chance to score some points and the one-lap qualifying will bring some funny grids. We will have to work with the weather now and if it happens to rain during qualifying, I think sometimes we'll have some different grids and more interesting races."
With Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello being virtually unbeatable in 2002, he agreed the FIA had no choice but to find some ways to bring competition back to Grand Prix racing. But Panis doesn't think Ferrari should be blamed for the need to shake up the rules after 2002, the responsibility lies clearly with the other teams on the grid that didn't respond to their challenge, he said.
"To be honest, I'd really like to have a Ferrari car for myself -- it is difficult to criticize Ferrari because they did a fantastic job on the car and everybody worked so hard to win all the races," he said. "I know from a spectator's point of view it wasn't really good, but we shouldn't criticize them, we need to close the gap to have more fights during the races and more excitement."
Whereas he admires the hard work that won them 15 of 17 races, Panis didn't shy way from condemning Ferrari's antics in Austria and Indianapolis, which brought intense criticism to the sport and disappointed fans who spent their hard earned cash to watch racing not orchestrated finishes.
"I don't think it's a good thing and I don't like it, but if a driver signs a contract and he's OK with it inside, then you have to respect that. But, definitely I think it's would be positive if the FIA stopped it because it's not good."
While he won't miss the staged finishes of 2002, the failure to solve the tobacco issues surrounding the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa is something that doesn't sit well with Panis. One of the last true driver's circuits left in F1, he was saddened when the race was dropped from the 2003 calendar.
"From the drivers' point of view this is definitely bad news because we like the circuit and it's really fantastic to drive there. On the political side, those people need to find a solution so we can go back to Spa because it's such a great circuit."
Getting Spa back on the F1 calendar may be his short term goal, but he'd also like to see the FIA act quickly on the increased talk of a return to slick tires in 2004, something that he's been hoping for since the sport moved to grooved tires in 1998.
"I really want to go back to slick tires before I stop racing because they give unbelievable grip and it's so much fun to drive with them. The grooved tires are competitive right now but it's only F1 that uses them, so it's a bit bizarre and I would be quite happy to go back to slick tires."