Former Grand Prix drivers Olivier Grouillard (53) and Olivier Panis (45) are celebrating their respective birthdays today!
The fiery Grouillard was part of the cohort of French drivers who graduated to F1 with the support of the Elf fuel company. His passage to F1 came via Formula Renault, French Formula 3 and finally Formula 3000, where he was finally winning races by 1988 en route to finishing runner-up to Robert Moreno.
Elf sponsorship helped him earn a drive with Ligier in 1989, and paired with Rene Arnoux their combined age was over 70 (Olivier, at 30, was rather old for an F1 debutant). A single point earned at the French Grand Prix was not enough to see him retained at season’s end and he joined the Osella/Fondmetal concern, where he stayed for two seasons. He was occasionally impressive in the underfinanced car, but garnered a shocking reputation with his on-track manners while being lapped, and earned a plan as one of F1’s ‘Top Ten Mobile Chicanes’ as profiled on this site.
Fired by Fondmetal boss Gabriele Rumi towards the end of 1991, he sought solace at AGS but failed to qualify in the team’s last outing before it collapsed. Somehow he was hired by Ken Tyrrell, with many viewing this as a golden opportunity to cement his position in F1. But more of the same antics followed him, and he was widely regarded as the team’s most difficult driver to work with in its history.
Another of Elf’s protégés, Panis rose through the French national ranks en route to winning the 1993 Formula 3000 title with the DAMS Equipe outfit, which proved a springboard for a drive with Ligier in the 1994 F1 season.
Incredibly for a rookie, he finished 15 of the 16 races that season and peaked with a lucky podium at the attrition-hit German Grand Prix, finishing second to Gerhard Berger and on the podium alongside his team-mate Eric Bernard.
The 1995 season proved lean, but fortune smiled on the popular Frenchman who took an incredible victory in the rain-hit 1996 Monaco Grand Prix, starting from 14th on the grid and keeping his nose clean while everyone else lost their heads.
That Panis never graced the winner’s circle again was a tragedy. The 1997 season looked extremely promising, and he was on course for a probably win at Argentina until his Prost Mugen gave up the ghost. He backed this up podiums at Brazil and Spain to lie third in the championship, but tragedy struck when he crashed heavily at Canada and broke both legs.
After a lengthy recovery, he returned before the season was out, but was then saddled with the awful Peugeot-powered AP01 for 1998 and failed to earn a single point all year.
With the steel pins removed from his legs during the off-season, he had hoped that the 1999 season would prove better, but he picked up a couple of sixth places while his team-mate Jarno Trulli managed a greater haul and showed the better pace.
Turning down a drive with Williams BMW for the 2000 season in favour of a lucrative test driver contract with McLaren, his efforts were rewarded with a drive with BAR in 2001, where he was generally the quicker alongside Jacques Villeneuve but unable to reap the points when it counted.
He moved to Toyota in 2003 – the beginning its customary tradition of blaming the drivers for its shortcomings – but results remained difficult to achieve over two seasons spent with the team and he retired from F1 competition at the end of 2004.