by Russell Atkins

TO HEAR THE INTERVIEW IN FULL: CLICK HERE

Former Formula 1 star Olivier Panis has an altogether new challenge ahead of him in 2008, as he makes his sportscar bow with the ORECA-MATMUT team and prepares to take on the 'greatest race in the world' in the shape of the Le Mans 24 Hours, behind the wheel of one of the squad's new Courage LMP1 prototypes.

In anticipation of this, the Frenchman - who famously triumphed in the Monaco Grand Prix back in 1996 before retiring from the top flight a decade later - took to the wheel in both day and night time conditions at the Paul Ricard circuit in Southern France recently, taking time out along the way to chat exclusively to Crash.net Radio about his maiden taste of sportscar action...

Q:
Olivier, you've been testing the new ORECA Courage prototype at Paul Ricard. How is it all going so far?

Olivier Panis:
Yeah, it's going pretty well. I've done more-or-less 60 laps already on the long circuit, and we've improved the car quite a lot set-up wise. The car is looking pretty good and we are going in the right direction. We need to continue to work and make improvements because it's still a development car, but we are quite happy and the times are looking quite good. Now we need to stay focussed and we'll see how we're doing at the end of the night.

Q:
This is the first time you've driven a sportscar, isn't it? How does it feel compared to everything you've driven before?

OP:
It feels good; I think this type of car is one of the closest to Formula 1 to be honest, because you really feel the downforce, grip and power. For sure it's not F1, but I think it's the closest you can get. I'm feeling really happy and very confident inside the car, and I'm pretty pleased really. Now I really need to get the maximum experience I can of endurance driving, which is why tonight I think I'm going out at 3am to see how things feel at night in the car, because for me it will be the first time.

Q:
Drivers often say it feels very strange to be racing at night for the first time. Are you expecting to find that too?

OP:
Yes, it looks that way, and also the traffic is a little bit different compared to what I've done before - with the different classes and different speeds of the cars, you need to be very focussed and very confident, because it's very easy to touch another car. It's quite complicated, and that's why I want to get a lot of testing in over the two days.

Q:
How do you feel with ORECA? How have you settled into the team so far?

OP:
Really well; for me, what I like about the ORECA Courage team is the very human feeling; everybody is working together and working really well in the same direction. Everybody is really focussed, and for the moment the job we have done is pretty good for the small amount of time we have before the first race [at Barcelona on 6 April].

Q:
You have a young team-mate too in Nicolas Lapierre, who drove for ORECA at Le Mans last year. How are the two of you working together so far?

OP:
I'm very happy to be working with Nicolas, first of all because I know him from A1GP. I like the guy; like me, he's really quiet and really focussed, and he has a really good team spirit. I think all the drivers we have in the team have a really good relationship together. Last week we all went away to do a fitness test and there was a really good ambience, and I think everybody is pretty optimistic and happy about the year ahead.

Q:
Obviously the biggest objective for ORECA this year is the Le Mans 24 Hours, which is known as the hardest race in the world. How much of a challenge do you expect that to be?

OP:
For me it's a very new race, but also one of the best races in the world. For sure I'm going there to do the best job I can with the team, and we'll see where we are at the end of the 24 hours. For sure, though, if I like it I really want one day to have the possibility to win the Le Mans 24 Hours because it's a very, very good race.

Q:
The Le Mans 24 Hours also forms part of what is known as motor racing's 'Triple Crown', along with the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500. You've won at Monaco already - it would be quite something to win two out of the three, wouldn't it..?

OP:
Yes, you're right. I really want to win the Le Mans 24 Hours, but I think I'm a bit old for the 500 miles of Indianapolis! I don't have the spirit of American racing - I don't think I have enough time to win that race - but the 24 Hours, yes, I'd very much like to win that and I will be trying my best in the future.

Q:
You retired from racing back at the end of 2004, and left the Formula 1 paddock at the end of 2006 before taking a year off. How does it feel to be back competing again now?

OP:
I feel really good. I had a year off, and I really appreciated the opportunity to spend time with my family and just cool down and do what I wanted to do, but I missed the steering wheel and that's why I came back. I'm really happy to be here and I'm really ready for the fight.

TO HEAR THE INTERVIEW IN FULL: CLICK HERE