Panis started racing in karts and worked his way up through F3 and F3000, taking the title in 1993. Driving for Ligier from 1994, he took a great win at Monaco in 1996 in the wet.
Olivier Panis, born in Oullins, Lyon, is a retired French Formula One racing driver.
Panis, like most drivers, raced karts early in his career. After graduating from karts, Olivier raced several years in a number of "junior" series before racing in French Formula 3. In 1990 he finished 4th in Championship and the following year was runner up.
Two seasons of F3000 followed, the first a battle with the Apamotox team's recalcitrant Lola, the second in the much-vaunted DAMS Equipe. After a tough year, Panis was crowned champion, and the success provided the springboard for F1 with Ligier.
The 27-year old Panis earned an F1 drive in 1994 for the French-based Ligier team. He earned a surprise second place that season at Hockenheim, and finished 11th in the standings for the marque. The following year, he earned another surprise second place at the Australian Grand Prix, in spite of being two laps behind the leader, and added a handful of fourths to his resume, giving him an 8th place finish in the championship.
Undoubtedly, though, his biggest surprise came in 1996 in Monaco. Under a virtual monsoon, Panis expertly managed to drive through the conditions and drove his way to victory. He was one of only 4 cars to finish the race. Panis' victory was Ligier's first in 15 years (and their last one ever), and it was the first French victory in a French car at Monaco in 66 years. However, it was the only highlight to his 1996 season, and he otherwise failed to do any better than 5th place.
Panis had the potential for a big season in 1997 while driving for Alain Prost, who had purchased Ligier. After 6 races, he stood third in the championship thanks to a second place in Spain and a third place in Brazil. But in Canada, he had his leg broken in an accident, causing him to miss 8 races. He returned for the final three races of the season, and appeared to show that he had fully recovered, as he drove as well as he had done before the crash. Despite missing half of the year, he still managed 9th in the championship.
In 1998, though, it all fell apart for Olivier. After managing to be in the top 10 in points, Olivier failed to score a single point for Prost, partially due to an unreliable car. A single point was all he could manage for his team the following season, and afterwards he ended his relationship with Alain.
Despite his struggles, Panis was a consideration to drive for Williams, a team that was in a state of flux at the time, but turned it down to test for McLaren. The gig helped showcase Panis to other top teams in F1, and he landed a drive with BAR for 2001. But BAR wasn't the top team he had hoped they'd be, and he finished in 14th place during both of the years he was there.
Panis left for Toyota's racing team in 2003. He was signed to drive and provide the second-year team his knowledge, as well as help his teammate, Cristiano da Matta, learn the ropes of F1. Early results were an improvement, in part because he handled the new one-lap qualifying well, but the end result wasn't any different from previous seasons, as he was 14th again.
Panis remained with Toyota for 2004, his tenth season in Formula One. In early October 2004 he announced his intention to retire from racing following the 2004 Japanese Grand Prix; he planned to continue at Toyota as a test driver in 2005 and 2006. Before his retirement, he was the oldest active driver in F1 at the age of 37.