Panasonic Toyota Racing 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 in the new TF107 for the first time at Valencia tomorrow.
Panis, the last Frenchman to win a Grand Prix, handed over the baton to the next generation of French driver at Panasonic Toyota Racing when Montagny officially began his new role as the team’s third driver on 1 January.
Panasonic Toyota Racing test driver Panis has retired from Formula 1 to concentrate on fresh challenges and his departure gave Montagny the chance to join as third driver, continuing the team’s long-running French connection.
In 2001, the team’s first Formula 1 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 1 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 and continuing its reputation as a United Nations of Formula 1.
Flying Frenchmen of different generations met up at Jerez on the afternoon of 13 December, for Toyota’s final test of the year and Panis’ last in Formula 1. 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 1.
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 1, 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 1 when I was still in junior categories a long time ago," Montagny says. "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 1 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 1.
"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 adds, 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 1 career.
After four years with Panasonic Toyota Racing, 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 recalls. "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 1 in recent years but Franck has a lot of experience now of testing in Formula 1 and I am sure he will do a very good job for Toyota."
Montagny’s first test as the official Panasonic Toyota Racing third driver begins tomorrow in Valencia, Spain where he will be joined by Trulli for the start of the team’s pre-season testing programme.