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Toyota begin new French era with Montagny 30 Jan 2007

Frank Montagny (FRA) Toyota Formula One Testing, Day 1, Jerez, Spain. 6 December 2006. World © Bumstead/Sutton. Olivier Panis (FRA) Toyota TF106 F1 Testing, Day 2, Silverstone, England. 21st September 2006. World ©  Bumstead/Sutton. Franck Montagny (FRA) Super Aguri F1 Third Driver.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 18, Brazilian Grand Prix, Practice Day, Interlagos, Brazil, 20 October 2006 Olivier Panis (FRA) Toyota Test Driver.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, French Grand Prix, Practice Day, Magny-Cours, France, 14 July 2006 Olivier Panis (FRA) Toyota TF103 takes the congratulations of the marshals on the slow down lap.
Formula One World Championship, Rd7, Monaco Grand Prix, Race Day, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, 1 June 2003

Toyota waved au revoir to Olivier Panis last year but the French Tricolor will still be flying on the car thanks to the arrival of Franck Montagny, who is on track on Tuesday in the new TF107 for the first time during testing in Valencia, Spain.

Panis, the last Frenchman to win a Grand Prix, handed over the baton to the next generation of French driver at Toyota when former Super Aguri tester Montagny officially began his new role as the team’s third driver on January 1. Toyota test driver Panis retired from Formula One racing to concentrate on fresh challenges and his departure gave Montagny the chance to continue the team’s long-running French connection.

In 2001, the team’s first Formula One car was unveiled to the world in France at the Paul Ricard circuit - a direct result of the successful GT-One project to take on the legendary Le Mans 24 Hours. The team’s first season of Grand Prix racing in 2002 saw Frenchman Stephane Sarrazin help with testing duties while in the very next year Panis was in the race seat of the TF103 to begin his long spell with Toyota.

With his extensive Formula One testing experience, Montagny has been chosen as the man to take over and join race drivers Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli, extending Toyota’s run of French drivers.

Flying Frenchmen of different generations met up at Jerez on the afternoon of December 13, for Toyota’s final test of 2006 and Panis’ last in Formula One racing. Even though he was yet to officially begin life as a Toyota driver, Montagny was also in action at Jerez, taking the opportunity of post-season testing to become familiar with the team before his contract began.

The 29 year-old Montagny is following in the footsteps of one of the most successful French drivers of his generation, a man he looked up to on his own path to the top and a man who kept the French flag flying in Formula One racing. The careers of both men have followed similar lines from the start, albeit several years apart. Both graduated from French Formula Renault before recording identical championship results in their two years of French Formula Three - fourth and then second places - but their fortunes in International Formula 3000 differed radically.

For Montagny, two difficult years convinced him to make a successful switch to the World Series by Nissan while Panis was crowned 1993 F3000 champion as he blazed a trail to Formula One racing, and eventually to that meeting with his fellow Frenchman on a winter’s day in Spain.

“It is quite strange for me to be coming into Toyota as Olivier is leaving because I remember watching Olivier race in Formula One when I was still in junior categories a long time ago,” Montagny reflected, speaking to Toyota’s press office. “When I think about that it seems a bit weird to be, in a sense, taking over from him at Toyota but I am pleased to take this job for sure. I always enjoyed watching him race in Formula One and I know he did a great job for Toyota.”

Panis has delivered many memorable moments but for Montagny, one memory really stands out from his countryman’s 12 years and 158 races in Formula One racing. “I remember watching Olivier racing and following the good times and the bad times. His crash in Canada when he broke his legs was obviously a very bad moment but I prefer to think of his win at Monaco which was very special,” he added, referring to Panis’ stunning drive to win a wet Monaco Grand Prix for Ligier in 1996. “To see him driving around the slowing down lap at Monaco waving the French flag was really a great moment.”

The two share not only a common language and nationality, but also a common bond as Montagny reveals: “I have always got on well with Olivier. You could say we are friends without seeing a lot of each other. I like him and whenever we see each other it is very friendly. That’s not just because we are both French drivers, somehow we seem to get on very well whenever we speak together.”

Panis arrived at Jerez in time to watch Montagny’s progress behind the wheel of the TF106B before getting behind the wheel himself a day later with a brief testing stint to bring the curtain down on his Formula One career. After four years with Toyota, 40 year-old Panis remains in the Toyota family as a result of his Trophee Andros ice racing career and he is sure Montagny will also thrive as a Toyota driver. Not only that, he has tipped Montagny to follow in his own footsteps and make a valuable contribution to the team’s development.

“I have watched Franck racing and he is a very fast driver and I also saw him test for Toyota at Silverstone and Jerez last year and I was impressed,” Panis recalled. “I think it is a good move for him to join Toyota because it is a big team and has a lot of potential.

“I think he will work well with the team. They are all very professional and hard working and from what I have seen Franck is the same. He is a nice guy and we always get on well together whenever we see each other.

“It is good that a Frenchman is coming into the team, I am pleased about that. It has been hard for French drivers in Formula One in recent years but Franck has a lot of experience now of testing in Formula One and I am sure he will do a very good job for Toyota.”

Montagny’s first test as the official Toyota third driver begins on Tuesday in Valencia, where he will be joined by Trulli for the start of the team’s pre-season testing programme.