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Panis: I'd retire happy if I won Le Mans

Having already triumphed in one third of motor racing's celebrated triple crown with his Monaco Grand Prix success back in 1996, Olivier Panis has confessed that victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours would just be the icing on the cake
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.

by Russell Atkins

Related Pictures

Click on relevant pic to enlarge
Duval/Lapierre/Panis - ORECA Peugeot 908 HDi FAP
10 TEAM ORECA MATMUT Olivier Panis (FRA)
Former grand prix winner Olivier Panis making his sportscar bow with the ORECA-MATMUT team at Paul Ricard in early 2008 [pic credit: DPPI]
ORECA-MATMUT`s Olivier Panis in discussion with team chief Hugues de Chaunac at Monza in 2008 [pic credit: Oreca]
N. Lapierre / L. Duval / O. Panis Peugeot 908 Hdi-FAP
Nicolas Lapierre/Loic Duval/Olivier Panis - Team Oreca Matmut Peugeot 908 HDi FAP
Nicolas Lapierre/Loic Duval/Olivier Panis - Team Oreca Matmut Peugeot 908 HDi FAP
N. Lapierre / L. Duval / O. Panis Peugeot 908 Hdi-FAP
Olivier Panis
Union Jack Flag
Start of the race

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June 10, 2011 8:40 PM

Yes, it will be tough. Oreca had their best shot last year, only to be let down by the mechanics... This year, though, they will struggle badly. The most I see them getting is a podium, and even that will require a substantial amount of luck.

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