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 Prémat 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.