Olivier Panis has admitted that were he to win the Le Mans 24 Hours – to add to his Monaco Grand Prix success and a result that would represent two-thirds of motorsport's illustrious holy trinity – he could hang up his helmet a happy man and concentrate on nurturing the next generation of his family's racing dynasty.
Panis was a late re-addition to the Team Oreca Matmut line-up just ahead of this year's Sebring 12 Hours back in March – a race in which, aided to some degree by problems for pace-setters Peugeot and Audi, he and team-mates Nicolas Lapierre and Loïc Duval triumphed – and he admits that the victory must rate right up there amongst his very finest.
“I asked myself some questions at the end of last year,” he told Crash.net
. “I had some discussions with Hugues [de Chaunac – Oreca founder] to be sure about what we could do this year. What he said to me was very clear, which is why I decided to continue with Oreca, and I think I chose right because we won at Sebring!
“That was a fantastic race for me and for the team, more-or-less [as satisfying as winning in Monaco]. I was very pleased to win it, but it was a different philosophy. Sebring was very much a team victory with my two team-mates – that was a bit different to Monaco – but it was a victory nonetheless, and now I'm very much looking forward to the Le Mans 24 Hours.”
Ah yes, Le Mans – the Holy Grail for every sportscar driver, and even more special still for a Frenchman. Panis, Lapierre and Duval may be in an older-spec Peugeot 908 than the factory cars – as was underlined by a comparatively distant seventh place in qualifying, lowest-placed of the diesel entries – but he remains confident that in a race as famously unpredictable as is the round-the-clock La Sarthe classic, he and his two countrymen still stand a chance this weekend.
“The car we have is pretty good, but the equalisation of performance is not, I suppose, perfect,” he mused. “We need to respect that Audi and Peugeot have brought out new cars, and the aerodynamics are more efficient, particularly in a straight line – that's where we're losing the most – but the Le Mans 24 Hours is a long race, we're very happy with what we're doing and let's wait and see.
“In qualifying, we know we were a bit behind them from a performance point-of-view, but in the race I think we'll be able to close the gap because we don't have a lot of tyre degradation and we have more downforce than them. If it rains during the race or something else happens, I think we can start to fight with them. I'm really enjoying being here again with the Oreca team and the Peugeot 908; even if it's last year's car, I think we have a good car to fight with the two constructors.
“Nicolas and Loïc are two very quick drivers, too. If I was a team manager, I would employ them for sure, because for me, they're the future of endurance racing, along with others. They impress me every time – they're doing really well – and I'm very pleased to be with them. Of course, they are pushing me to my limit, but I enjoy that as well.”
At 44 years of age now, his two young team-mates may be keeping him well on his toes, but judging by his lap times, Panis is still more than capable of matching their pace – and as he evaluates a prolonged 'second career' of sorts in the newly-launched FIA World Endurance Championship, it is clear that a Le Mans 24 Hours victory would just be the icing on the cake for one of the most popular drivers in the paddock.