Panis looms as driving force

David Tremayne unveils one of the French mysteries of Formula One racing
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When only Olivier Panis and his blue Ligier stood between David Coulthard and McLaren's first grand prix victory for three seasons, the McLaren chief, Ron Dennis, might have smiled in anticipation. Coulthard, one might reasonably have expected, would deal with the upstart Frenchman around the streets of Monaco, and after years in the doldrums there could be no better platform from which to launch the great McLaren comeback.

But Coulthard did not overtake Panis. A Gallic screenplay writer hijacked the script. It was not "God Save the Queen" that played to the astonished crowd in Prince Rainier's backyard, but the "Marseillaise". Pour la gloire de la France, a Frenchman in a French car - albeit one propelled by Japanese horses - had scooped the most famous of all grands prix. In great style.

But who is Olivier Panis? The question, variously adorned according to the temperament of the enquirer, was upon the lips of thousands in the aftermath. Grand prix followers know the 29-year-old Frenchman from Grenoble as Mr Lucky, the man who inherited second place at the German Grand Prix in 1994 in his first season in the major lea- gue, and did it again in Australia at the end of 1995. But the rest of the world had barely heard of him.

When he had been quickest in the morning's warm-up session in Monaco there were thinly veil- ed sneers that his performance was a financially embarrassed team's attempt to seek publicity with the car in qualifying trim. But Monsieur Panis soon showed the error of such thinking with a remarkable drive in the race that pushed him from 12th place on the opening lap to third place on the 36th lap as he gently nudged the troublesome Eddie Irvine and his baulky Ferrari aside in the slow Loews hairpin.

To the astonishment of onlookers, Panis had at times been circulating four seconds a lap fas- ter than anybody else, and even when he spun on the oil from Damon Hill's damaged engine, he retained second place and maintained the deficit to Jean Alesi as the latter inherited the lead. When Alesi's Benetton suffered broken suspension, Panis swept ahead on the 61st lap and never looked back. "It was a very difficult race, but I am very pleased with my performance," he said after the race. "I've felt good all weekend and I'm delighted to have won for Ligier. That's what I'm here for."

Not exactly scintillating stuff, to be sure, but he is a shy, modest fellow, one of the few drivers who prefers to converse in public in his native tongue rather than in English, the staple language of F1. In his rookie year his tireless efforts to anticipate green lights at the start of races eventually led to the universal adoption of electronic means of detecting jump starts, but for the most part he has kept a low profile and played an undramatic role.

In Monaco he raised a laugh by agreeing that his English had indeed improved before deliberately lapsing into French at the post-race press conference, but he played down the upset of the season. In fact, Panis' pedigree underlines how important it is to be in the right car in F1, for his CV includes championships in the prestigious Volant Elf Winfield starter series and in Formula Renault, and wins in the nursery F3 category. His Grand Prix career was launched on the back of a stunning late charge to win the F3000 championship title in 1993.

Improbable though his start- ling triumph in Monaco was, he found it easier to believe than he did a story about the rat named in his honour that used to live in the Ligier team's motorhome. The tailless rodent masqueraded as a hamster (in deference to the sensibilities of others) before it was described as a gerbil by its owner in order to qualify for trans-Atlantic flights, and its saga was recently explained to the incredulous Frenchman. At next week's French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours, his countrymen will be willing him to further success, and on his team's home track he can be expected to shine. While he remains with Ligier the solution to a second Grand Prix triumph is highly likely to remain a mystery, but at least one great enigma in Olivier Panis' life has been permanently cleared up.