Olivier Panis has spoken of his enjoyment at having found a second career post-Formula 1 in sportscars, but has warned Le Mans Series organisers that if the regulations are not equalised somewhat in 2009, he is not likely to be hanging around.

The Frenchman - who began 158 races in the top flight from 1994 to 2004, famously and popularly triumphing in the Monaco Grand Prix in 1996, Ligier's final F1 victory - has returned from a three-year sabbatical from active competition in 2008 by racing for Oreca-Courage alongside former GP2 Series front-runner Nicolas Lapierre in the Le Mans Series. It has, he reflects, had a number of highlights.

"For sure the first race in Barcelona was a really good start," he told Crash.net Radio, "because we saw the car was quite competitive compared to other cars using the same engine as us, like Pescarolo. I think that was good news at the beginning, and we did quite well.

"We had some reliability problems - which was normal because we started the programme quite late - but I was impressed by the team's work over the winter time to get the car ready in just three months.

"Our pace was very encouraging, because I followed Alex Pr?mat quite closely for the first stint; it was a bit of a surprise to follow an Audi in the first race, but overall we were really happy about the performance of the car in the first race.

"After that, the third round at Spa was fantastic. First of all, Spa for me is one of the best circuits in the world and really fun to drive. Both Nico and I enjoy the circuit, and Nico won there the year before in GP2, so I knew he was pretty quick and competitive there. He qualified the car and was on a really good lap, but then at the end of it we had a problem with the front suspension, which meant we didn't get to qualify and had to start last, from the pits.

"We had a fantastic race, though, the team had a very good strategy to manage the safety car - everything was timed perfectly - and we finished on the podium, behind only a Peugeot and an Audi. It was the best result for the team, and it was really fun for everyone.

"I really enjoyed it because it was a tough race which is what I like - fighting with the car and fighting with someone to try and overtake them. It was really, really promising. We never really expected to be able to finish third, but we knew we had a very competitive car at Spa and to be up on the podium was really nice for us."

The French pair's subsequent outing may not have yielded a podium, but Panis confesses to having very much appreciated his maiden outing in the race frequently dubbed 'the toughest in the world' - the iconic, round-the-clock Le Mans 24 Hours - especially when it came to racing at night.

"The Le Mans 24 Hours was a fantastic experience for me," he enthused. "I loved it. First of all there was the ambience - to stay for a whole week at the circuit and see all the people there, all the passion - which was really nice, and when I was out on the track for sure it was a bit different to what I had been used to before in F1. The circuit is 13km-long, with the Mulsanne Straight where you're always going at over 300km/h.

"It wasn't that so much that impressed me, though; what impressed me was the length of the stints. When you are in the car for two hours - or sometimes three hours with a double stint - that's pretty tough.

"The most difficult thing to manage was the traffic, but that's just part of the 24 Hours; you have to be very careful, because it's easy to lose a lot of time in the traffic and also to gain a lot of time, so you need to manage that well. That's one of the most difficult things I've found this year both in the Le Mans Series and the Le Mans 24 Hours.

"Driving at night was fantastic, though. I did a stint at the end of the day when it was just starting to get dark, and I enjoyed it a lot. You feel you're alone in the world in the middle of the circuit, and when you're going round at 320km/h at night it's a great atmosphere."

The race unfortunately would ultimately end in a heavy accident for Fassler not long before midnight, causing the car to be retired from proceedings and bringing a premature conclusion to a generally positive experience. Much the same could be said for Panis and Lapierre's efforts at Monza and the N?rburgring - with gearbox woes curtailing the #6 Judd-powered machine's progress in both outings - but the former BAR-Honda and Toyota ace is hopeful of ending his season on a high on British soil this weekend.

"I love Silverstone," the man from Grenoble underlined. "It's one of the quickest circuits we still have in F1 and prototypes, and I think it's one of the most challenging tracks we race at during the season. I'm really looking forward to it.

"Maybe we'll have some rain too which could help us to have a good result, and why shouldn't we finish on the podium in the last race? That would be a good way for us to begin to prepare for next season."

As to what the future holds for Olivier Panis beyond that, the recently-turned 42-year-old is uncertain, but he makes it clear that he will not be satisfied with being merely the best of the petrol-powered brigade for long - he wants to win.

"The Le Mans Series is a really good series," he acknowledged. "The ambience is good and the performance of the cars is pretty competitive. There are a lot of quick drivers out there too, and I'm enjoying it a lot. That's why I think I'll keep doing this next year, but I do have one reservation.

"When we started the season, the regulations were much better for the diesel-engined cars, but you know, I'm a racer, and it's really painful for me to be sixth on the grid and ten seconds slower than pole position. That's not acceptable for me personally, but they were the rules this year and if we started the season and accepted them, we can't then complain.

"For sure for next year I'm waiting to see what the new rules will be before re-signing, because if it stays like this I'm not really interested. Like I say, I'm a racer and I want to win races, but with the rules like they are at the moment that's just not possible..."

by Russell Atkins


To read Panis' latest exclusive Crash.net column, click here


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