When Franck Lagorce was chosen to replace Johnny Herbert at Ligier for the final two rounds of the 1994 Formula 1 season, his debut couldn’t have come under more challenging circumstances.
Suzuka is about as difficult a circuit as they come, and that’s when drivers can see where they’re going. The Japanese Grand Prix that year was held in utterly appalling conditions that would almost certainly not have been started today. To then follow that up with the tricky Adelaide street track, another circuit new to the 1992 French Formula 3 champion, meant Lagorce was on something of a hiding to nothing.
But one consolation, aside from the fact that he could at least call himself a grand prix racer, was the identity of the driver on the other side of the garage also tasked with hustling the reliable if none-too-quick Ligier-Renault JS39B. The driver Lagorce today picks out as his favourite team-mate was well known to him from their time together in the junior categories.
Two years his senior, Olivier Panis had been a French F3 rival in 1991 with a La Filliere Ralt-Alfa Romeo while Lagorce campaigned a Promatecme Dallara-Opel. In a strong year for the championship, won by future Le Mans winner Christophe Bouchut’s Graff Ralt-VW, Panis finished second with Lagorce the best rookie in fourth before the former stepped up to Formula 3000 for 1992. Lagorce meanwhile remained with Promatecme to win the crown, seeing off team-mate Emmanuel Clerico, Olivier Thevenin’s KTR Ralt and Jean-Christophe Boullion’s Graff-run Bowman-VW.
For 1993, when Lagorce arrived in the F1 feeder category with DAMS, he was teamed up with Panis and the pair quickly formed a productive working relationship to aid the squad in its transition from Lola to Reynard chassis.
While Lagorce cites his Panoz sportscar team-mates David Brabham and Jan Magnussen as “fantastic guys” and enjoyed his brief stint with Mark Webber and Pedro Lamy on the ill-starred 1999 Mercedes CLR Le Mans programme, Panis is his clear choice when it comes to choosing a favourite team-mate and remains a good friend today.
“Definitely it was Olivier,” says Lagorce. “All the time we go in the same way. Never we do something wrong about him or me. And it was very clear all the time about the adjustment of the car, about the session [plan]. He push, I push; I push, he push. With Olivier it was fantastic.”
DAMS owner Jean Paul Driot talks to Panis and Lagorce during their 1993 F3000 campaign together
Photo by: Sutton Images
Lagorce says he and Panis “are very different, we drive different” and this made their collaboration at DAMS “very interesting”.
“Because we drive different, it’s possible to try something for the other,” he says. “I can try something on my car and he can try something on his car, and after we can guess something for the other one.”
Aside from a strong drive to fourth at Silverstone, results took a while to flow for Lagorce in 1993 – the DAMS pair making contact on a fraught afternoon at Pau – but, by mid-season, Panis found himself on a winning run that thrust him into the thick of the title fight. Hockenheim, where Lagorce broke his thumb after crashing into the pitwall, Nurburgring and Spa yielded a hat-trick for Panis before Lagorce made it five wins on the bounce for DAMS by sweeping the final two races at Magny-Cours and Nogaro.
“You never saw a wet [race] like this. For me, it killed the [F1] career of Franck because I think he’s a very, very good driver” Olivier Panis
The former he won by an enormous 65 seconds over Apomatox driver Boullion after a perfectly-timed switch to wets, as Panis spun off three laps from home, while Nogaro he dominated from pole over Boullion and Emmanuel Collard.
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Although Panis retired in an early tangle with Vincenzo Sospiri, it was a day of double celebrations for DAMS as Panis’s main title challenger Lamy was unable to capitalise after being eliminated in somebody else’s accident.
Panis, who picked Jacques Villeneuve as his favourite team-mate last year, acknowledges that he also enjoyed racing with Lagorce and describes him as “a very strong worker”.
“I know him for a long, long time before,” he says, “and also it helped a lot to have a good relationship with the team-mate to working together. He was a rookie, I was in my second year, and everything was going well, perfectly.
“He had this image of a clown, because he joked everywhere all the time, but he’s not like this – he worked very hard. A lot of people don’t take him seriously, but I think this is a mistake. In the team, he’s a very serious person. This, for me, is a big respect. I like the people who work hard to have a success.”
Panis clinched the 1993 crown at Nogaro despite a crash with Sospiri as Lagorce claimed a second win on the bounce
Photo by: Sutton Images
Panis was signed by Ligier for 1994, initially on a race-by-race deal, as Lagorce continued in F3000 with Apomatox. He was the man to beat as the season began at Silverstone and appeared set for the crown after another crushing win at Hockenheim, but a late surge from Boullion (who had taken his seat at DAMS) aided by a questionable tyre call at Spa and spongy brakes at Estoril set up a winner-takes-all decider at Magny-Cours. After Lagorce had nabbed a fourth pole from eight attempts, Boullion just shaded him in the race.
Panis, who had been joined on the podium by team-mate Eric Bernard in a Ligier 2-3 in a German Grand Prix of heavy attrition at Hockenheim, was a reassuring presence when Lagorce arrived in Suzuka. Herbert had only been brought into the Ligier fold for one race at Jerez, forcing Bernard into a move to his ailing old team Lotus, before the Briton’s dream move to Benetton.
Lagorce recalls that Panis “tried to help everybody” with the benefit of a season’s experience under his belt. Although he qualified only one spot behind Panis in 20th, it’s with a hint of understatement that Lagorce describes his experience at Suzuka as “very difficult”.
“Olivier ran 14 grands prix before I arrived, I was there to learn and to push,” he says. “It was different positions.”
In the nightmarish conditions, which had caused a powerless Herbert to aquaplane into the pitwall on his Benetton debut, Lagorce had made a sensible start but wasn’t to be rewarded as he was punted into a spin by Pierluigi Martini’s Minardi, from which he couldn’t recover.
Then on the Adelaide streets he ended up eight places behind Panis on the grid, once again in 20th, and drove a steady race to finish a twice-lapped 11th – one lap behind Panis in fifth. Lagorce would never get another opportunity to race in F1, and Panis acknowledges that throwing him in for the final two races of 1994 left him in a difficult position.
“I think it was a mistake,” the 1996 Monaco GP winner says. “He didn’t do a lot of tests before going to Japan, the race was in the wet – you never saw a wet [race] like this. For me, it killed the [F1] career of Franck because I think he’s a very, very good driver and very hard worker. It’s why I feel a bit bad for him, because I think he had the talent to be in Formula 1.”
Lagorce had the dubious honour of being a Forti tester before focusing attentions to sportscars, winning the 1996 Renault Spider Trophy and taking a best result of fifth at Le Mans with Nissan in 1998. He also became a regular winner in the Andros Trophy, but says no car ever brought him the same joy as his 1994 Reynard 94D.
“For me, the F3000 was exactly what I preferred,” he says, “because the more you push, the more you have grip and the feeling with the car. Because it’s an old car also with the V8, a lot of noise!”
Panis believes Lagorce was dealt a rough hand getting his only F1 outings on two unknown tracks where he couldn’t test
Photo by: Ercole Colombo