French veteran on an emotional day in Japan
Toyotas Olivier Panis drove his final Grand Prix at Suzuka last weekend, bringing to an end a competitive Formula One career that has spanned more than a decade. Having had a few days to reflect, Panis spoke to the team about his Japanese swansong.
Q: How did it feel approaching your final Grand Prix?
Olivier Panis: The Japanese Grand Prix was my 158th and final F1 race. It was a strange feeling in one way to finish my racing career, but I am staying with Panasonic Toyota Racing in a different role, so I certainly have not written the last word of the final chapter. Once the decision to stop racing is made, there is no turning back, and making it at the right time, which I feel that I have done, is what so many people find difficult.
Q: How did you prepare for Suzuka?
OP: After the Chinese Grand Prix, I went to Singapore for a couple of days training and then headed for Tokyo where we had quite a busy schedule ahead of the grand prix weekend. In fact, it was a very special weekend in many ways because it was not only Toyota's home grand prix, but also the team's 50th race. Additionally, as I took part in my last grand prix, we were lucky to be able to bring my friend Jarno Trulli into the race team earlier than planned. Jarno racing in Japan and Brazil will prove very useful for preparing next season and gives the whole team a positive time advantage.
Q: What did you get up to in Tokyo?
OP: As a prelude to the race, we travelled to Tokyo to carry out a short demonstration of the TF104 on the streets outside MegaWeb, which is the biggest Toyota showroom in the world. The rain was pouring down but those fans who braved it really seemed to have a good time. Jarno also joined us for a public Q+A session and some autograph signing before we moved on to Toyota's headquarters, where we did some filming and a press conference for the Japanese media.
Q: Moving to the Grand Prix, how badly did the rain affect the weekend?
OP: The heavy rain in Suzuka really affected our Friday practice sessions. Jarno did quite a few laps because he had never driven our TF104B car in the wet before, but I decided that there was little point. I did a couple of installation laps to check-out the calibration of the clutch and launch systems but then I remained in the pits. Even with the extreme wet weather tyres there was quite a big danger of aquaplaning. Suzuka has quite a lot of gradients involved and you get small rivers forming at various parts of the circuit. On top of that we expected different weather for the race and so anything that we learned was going to be of limited value.
Q: What did you think of the decision to abandon Saturday because of the typhoon fears?
OP: I think the FIA took the responsible action to abandon Saturday's activities because of the approaching typhoon. The decision really had to be taken on the Friday so that spectators at the track who were due to return on Saturday could be told to stay away. And, at the time, the weather forecast indicated was that Typhoon Ma-on was directly on course for Suzuka. Judging by some of then devastation I saw in the TV pictures from Tokyo, you can't take chances with nature!
Q: So your first timed lap was actually your pre-qualifying run?
OP: In the end, my first timed lap of the weekend was when I posted the fifth fastest time in pre-qualifying. I know the car and I know my way around Suzuka, so it wasn't a problem and both Jarno and I were able to qualify in the top 10 for the race.
Q: What happened in the race?
OP: We took a gamble on tyres because we weren't sure what the degradation was going to be like. Jarno went for the hard tyres and I took the soft, but I was only able to manage one quick lap and then the tyres would drop off quite a lot. There was a lot of graining and the car's rear end became very nervous, so it was a very difficult race. Due to the conditions on Friday, we could not evaluate the Michelin tyres as we normally do. It is not a reflection on Michelin's performance, but just on the circumstances we had in Suzuka.
Q: How do you rate the team's performance in Japan?
OP: I think as a team we did our best during a difficult race weekend, but we didn't have a car good enough to fight for points, so it's up to all of us to work very hard this winter to improve the situation for next season.
Q: Did Suzuka prove that two-day races are feasible in the future?
OP: The question that everybody was asking on Sunday was whether it is possible to have a two-day race weekend. We proved in Suzuka that it is certainly feasible, as everyone managed to do the job on Sunday. I certainly didn't find the solution ridiculous, although teams lose media coverage from qualifying and it gives teams an additional pressure. Ofcourse, Suzuka was an exceptional situation because of the limited running on Friday. If two day weekends were to take place, we would need to ensure we had sufficient running prior to the qualifying session.
Q: Comparing it with a normal weekend, how did you get your work done?
OP: In Suzuka, we did a lot of work with the engineers based on the data from last year, as we hadn't done a single lap in the dry, and that was the main problem. If there's one free practice on Saturday then it's perfectly OK to do a two-day weekend.
Q: What were your impressions of your final race?
OP: All I can say about my final F1 race is that I am very happy it was in Japan, in front of so many passionate Toyota supporters. I would just like to say thank you to the Japanese fans and now the challenge will continue. As third driver, I will be able to carry on the hard work I have put in with the team over the last two years and help Panasonic Toyota Racing to improve for the future. I wish I could have gone out with a stronger race, but it was not to be and 14th was the best I could do. After working 11 years in F1 I have to say that I have been lucky to have been given the opportunity to fulfil my passion from childhood and now I have a great challenge in front of me and more time to spend with my family.
Q: Did a lot of people come to see you in Suzuka?
OP: All the team principals came to wish me well and Toyota gifted me my race car from Suzuka, which was a fantastic gesture. I think everyone is happy with the work I've done. In the GPDA meeting everyone was very nice, and even Michael Schumacher said he'd miss me. But all good things must come to an end one day