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 Lo?c 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 Lo?c 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.

"I think it would be the end of my career!" he quips, when asked what it would mean to him to triumph at La Sarthe. "Winning Monaco, winning Le Mans, winning Sebring, I think I would stop and maybe follow my young team-mates and just enjoy it. It would be a dream for us to win Le Mans.

"I need to wait until the end of this year to see what I decide to do next year, but for sure it's a pretty good idea to have a world championship for endurance. I really love the prototypes, I'm enjoying myself very much - and we'll see for next year..."

Although conceding that a tilt at the celebrated triple crown of Monaco, Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500 - a unique feat achieved solely by the late Graham Hill - would be out-of-the-question in any case since Indy is 'too dangerous and I think I'm too old for that', Panis will undoubtedly be passing on the benefit of his experience to his son Aur?lien, currently competing in the Auto Sport Academy single-seater series in France.

"It's very bad for my heart," he jokes, "but he likes it and he's very motivated by it, and for sure I'll try to do my best to help him. I'm his father, of course, but I do feel he has good potential. After three races, he got a podium at Pau and he's doing pretty well at the moment, but let's wait and see. We'll see at the end of the season what we're doing next year - Formula Renault or maybe a second year in the Auto Sport Academy. We don't know yet."

Panis is also continuing to keep a close eye on the current goings-on in the world of F1, and the former Ligier, BAR-Honda and Toyota star offered his take on proceedings 2011-style, from Sebastian Vettel's early-season dominance to overtaking-aiding devices and the palaver over Bahrain.

"It's a very good battle, and I'm enjoying watching the races on TV," he reflected. "I think the [Pirelli] tyres are doing a good job, because we have a lot of pit-stops and a lot of change. I think it's going pretty well really. The new artifices like the rear wing I don't think are a great idea, but if we have a good show, I guess it's what we need.

"It looks like McLaren is not too far away [from Red Bull Racing] - they're doing a pretty good job - and I was very impressed by [Fernando] Alonso in Monaco. It's been really tough for him, but he did a fantastic job because the Ferrari is not as quick as the Red Bull. McLaren is quite close sometimes, but for the moment, the two Red Bulls are at the front, for sure.

"[What happened in Bahrain] was a shame for them and a shame for the championship, but I think it needs to wait until next year. There are already so many races per year, and having one in December leaves just one month to work to put the new car on the track. I think it would be too much."



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