How it Started: Gilles Panizzi

From karting with Schumacher to dominating asphalt in the WRC, the mercurial Frenchman had quite the career

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The open mouth, the bulging eyes and the frighteningly electric speed on the sealed surfaces of the World Rally Championship can only really be attributed to one driver, can’t it? Perhaps one of the most charismatic drivers of the 1990s and early 2000s, Gilles Panizzi made his name with an array of sensational performances on asphalt events.

He’s probably best known for his acrobatic donut near the end of Rally Spain in 2002, but as always, there is more to Panizzi than meets the eye. He is passionate, outspoken and still firmly in love with motorsport and cars.

Hailing from the quiet, picturesque French town of Menton near the Italian border, Panizzi grew up without motorsport heritage in his family. Along with brother Hervé, Gilles did what most people from the French Riviera do when motorsport is in town, head up into the mountains and brave the cold to catch a glimpse of cars at full tilt.

It’s where the passion was implanted, naturally.

“Of course, definitely,” Panizzi tells DirtFish. “It couldn’t not be.

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Hervé decided to become a co-driver for me instead, for the first rally anyway, to see what it was like. Gilles Panizzi

“I was at the heart of the Monte Carlo Rally, my father used to take me to the Col de Turini to watch the cars coming through in the snow, and very quickly after that, I was hooked by the sport, and it was fantastic. And straight from that early age, I said to myself that I would one day become a rally driver, one way or another.”

The Panizzis were certainly not short of rallies to follow, given their advantageous location on the Mediterranean coast. As well as the Monte Carlo every January, there were two more WRC events within a short travel distance: Sanremo was just over the border in Italy, while the Tour de Corse was a four-hour ferry trip from Nice.

And if that wasn’t enough for le petit Gilles, several French national championship events such as Antibes, Tour Auto de Nice and the Rallye Alpin Behra were in close proximity.

“I practically bathed in these environments since a very young age,” Panizzi explains.

“The problem was that, with the two passions between us – me with cars and Hervé, who was a very good biker – are very expensive, and it was difficult to find money for cars and bikes at the same time. So, Hervé decided to become a co-driver for me instead, for the first rally anyway, to see what it was like. He told me: ‘Hey, I’ll be your co-driver for your first rally’ and in fact, he ended up with a career next to me!”

1995 Tour de Corseworld wide copyright: McKlein

Getting up to speed as a budding rally driver can present various hurdles along the way, especially for someone like Panizzi, who didn’t have the benefit of hectares of private forest roads to hone his skills.

Some of today’s WRC drivers, such as Teemu Suninen, started out in karting initially before switching to the loose stuff in rallying. Panizzi also followed a karting path – albeit not competitively – using it as a preparatory school for the asphalt rallies he’d later go on to dominate in the WRC.

“For me, growing up, it was 100% rallying,” says Panizzi.

“How can you use a rally car to train and improve on the normal roads? You can’t, so you have to find other ways.

“In the south of France, sometimes it was possible to go up into the mountains at night and in the snow and have a bit of fun, but to do that these days, it’s practically impossible. Even in my day it was hard. A Scandinavian driver can quite easily drive around in the forests during the summer, during the winter. I know they all do it, especially Kalle [Rovanperä], he was doing that since he was 11 years old. Harri used to tinker with a car and let Kalle have fun with it all day etc.

“For us, the easiest way to practice was the cheapest as well. And that was to buy a little kart and go to the tracks, and to learn how to control a car on a track was the best way for us to understand and improve. Economically, it was the only way for us!

“At that time, Michael Schumacher lived in Monaco, and we used to drive together a few times at a small karting track just over the border in Italy.

“And, I used to practice quite often, on my technique, because I liked it and it made a much more precise driver; I was able to learn how to make my lines tighter, my braking more optimized and generally improve my driving. And for me, it made perfect sense to use karting as a good practice method.”

Panizzi soon felt the urge to go rallying seriously and made his debut in the French championship driving an Opel Manta which he describes as “an incredible car”. It was the Alpin Behra Rally in 1988, an event which also hosted the European Rally Championship. Panizzi finished 13th overall and 12th in the French championship.

“My first rally, I drove an Opel Manta and it was an incredible feeling for me, an amazing moment.

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I trained in a Fiat Panda because I didn’t have anything else Gilles Panizzi

“I prepared for the rally, I trained in a Fiat Panda because I didn’t have anything else. So, after I had done the initial reconnaissance in my Fiat Panda diesel and switched to the Manta in the stages, I suddenly felt like I wasn’t in the corners.

“The Opel had a long bonnet that restricted my sight of the corners ahead of me, the apices. But off the line, it was a magical propulsion, the acceleration was amazing.”

Bernard Béguin won the event in his BMW M3 E30 while Panizzi’s future rival Philippe Bugalski was seventh, driving a Renault 21 Turbo.

The Panizzi brothers had their first rally under their belt, albeit at a price.

“Wow! It was incredible. It was a car that I had prepared myself with some friends, it was fun, it wasn’t expensive…well, it was very expensive for us at the time, but nothing compared to what you would pay today. The car was very, very solid so I did two seasons with it.”

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When asked out of curiosity by DirtFish how much his Manta cost in comparison with today’s entry-level rally cars, Panizzi revealed: “Oh f***, I don’t know how much it would have cost! You know why? Because it was in Francs, and I don’t even know how much that is worth in Euros.

“My God, it must have cost, let’s say, less than the equivalent of €10,000 in today’s money. Maximum. It was ridiculous. And we drove very fast on that [budget], I swear to you, it was a very fast car…it was unbelievable.”

Throughout the rest of 1988, Panizzi notched up three more finishes out of the four events he entered in the Manta, including a superb seventh on the Rallye de Brignoles-Côteaux Varois; an accident on the Antibes Rally prevented a full complement of finishes.

It’s clear that Panizzi’s first rallying experience had a profound effect on the mercurial Frenchman who, after sticking with the Manta for the next season, would go on to make his maiden start in the WRC on equally familiar roads in 1990. Roads he’d been perched precariously during his formative years with his father on the Monte Carlo.

That came in slightly more powerful machinery, a Lancia Delta Integrale to be precise, finishing 17th overall as Didier Auriol stormed to victory in the new 16 valve Integrale by just under a minute from Carlos Sainz’s Toyota Celica GT-4.

Panizzi was, however, still an amateur at this point and both he and Hervé appreciated that their adventures would have to pay soon enough for them to make a career out of rallying. And so began the long slog to factory driver status which, Panizzi explains, was well in his sights from early on.

“I knew that I had to quickly become an official factory driver, if I was to make a living out of rallying,” he says.

“It was too expensive already at that point to continue rallying like I was doing. So, I already knew that it was important that I find some kind of factory support for me to progress properly. I didn’t have that much money and I certainly didn’t have the money from my parents to just go rallying with my friends. Doing it that way, rallying with friends is fun but it doesn’t pay.

“I worked so much to get into the Peugeot Cup, and we gave it everything we had to convince people to help us, to find sponsors…and we won the championship. After that, I basically started from zero. I won the title, Peugeot gave me a car to drive for one season initially, which then became two seasons and then three seasons.”

Few would be forgiven for thinking that this was job done for the siblings. Indeed, it was just the start. Panizzi immediately struck up an effective working relationship with the engineers at Peugeot and found himself right at the center of development work for the brand’s rally program.

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The biggest leg-up, Panizzi explains, was his passion for testing and it was this area which not only embedded him firmly within Peugeot’s development corp, but equally helped kick-start his quality on asphalt, which he would turn heads in no time at all.

“I had begun working with the Peugeot engineers on the development of all the models which Peugeot gave me, starting with the little 106, then getting more and more evolved over the years.

“I took part in all the test sessions with the engineers. Very quickly, I realized that I loved testing, I love working a lot because I understood that, to win rallies, you need to progress the car during the testing to make sure it is perfect.

“Peugeot noticed that I was quite gifted at testing cars and developing them, so all the cars went through my hands practically. The 306 Group A, the 306 Maxi, which was an incredible car, and finally the 206 WRC car.

“I loved those cars and I loved Peugeot; all the engineers wanted me to test the cars and be part of the development process. I worked a lot, a lot, a lot!”

The hard work paid off handsomely as Panizzi was handed a full factory drive in the French Rally Championship for 1993, having won successive Volant Peugeot titles the previous two years in the 309 GTI 16.

Come 1996, Panizzi found himself in the famed Peugeot 306 Maxi, a car he knew well and loved just as much. Back-to-back French titles, nine victories and a famous WRC podium finish on the ‘97 Tour de Corse had put Gilles and Hervé on the map. Here was a star in the making.

Panizzi quickly emerged as an asphalt specialist, a title he largely kept for the duration of his career, despite disputing a number of gravel events, twice finishing in the top 10 on Rally GB and bagging a sixth-place finish on the Safari.

But it was on his beloved sealed surface that Panizzi thrived, and no more so than in 2002 where he was almost invincible.

“There were two years during my career, where we were pretty much unbeatable: 1997 and 2002,” Panizzi explains.

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In 2002, as soon as you put me on asphalt, nobody could beat me, nobody Gilles Panizzi

“In 2002, as soon as you put me on asphalt, nobody could beat me, nobody. It’s true. Not even Loeb! These were the two most beautiful years of my career; I can’t put one above the other, both are at the same level.

“But one, obviously, was in the world championship so clearly in terms of the glory, the world championship in 2002 has more, but the two seasons for me are the same.”

The Peugeot 206 was something of a turning point for the WRC. Having made its debut in 1999 and claiming its first win a year later in Sweden with Marcus Grönholm, it bucked the trend of small hatchbacks being quick but not winning titles with the first of Grönholm’s two titles.

Unsurprisingly, the 206 suited Panizzi to a tee, having again been a central figure in the development of the car.

Come 2002, Panizzi was so dominant on asphalt that he even allowed himself a moment of controlled madness en route to a comfortable victory on Rally Catalunya, doing donuts in front of a packed crowd at a hairpin, much to the surprise and dismay of brother Hervé alongside him.

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“In the 206, particularly during the 2002 season, I worked so much on the car, with the engineers, and when you work that hard, getting to know the car so well, I almost felt unbeatable on asphalt,” Panizzi added.

“The car was perfectly adapted to each rally, and I felt, at this moment, that nobody could beat me. It’s important to have that feeling for a driver, that confidence in your ability and in the car. Because when you drive a car that fast and you know that you can win anywhere, that is good. It means you can drive at your limit.”

Of the four fully asphalt rallies that year, Panizzi won three of them, having not entered Rally Germany which was won by Citroën’s Sébastien Loeb. Such was the 206’s dominance on this surface, that it swept the podium in Corsica with Bugalski’s Citroën over two minutes behind in fourth and occupied the top two places in Catalunya and Sanremo, again with the nearest rival more than a minute adrift.

Surely nothing would stop them heading into 2003, particularly with Panizzi in the form he was on asphalt?

“Our team principal at the time was Corrado Provera, and here was a guy who thought he knew everything all of the time,” starts Panizzi.

“He took the decision to stop the development of the 206 WRC in 2003 to put all of our energy behind the 307 which was arriving the next season.

“With Marcus, we were the only ones to say, ‘Hang on, you’ve developed things for the 206, which don’t work’, they had changed the dampers, they had changed the mechanisms for them, and the car didn’t work the same as it used to. It wasn’t the same car anymore.

“Marcus had a lot of difficulty winning on gravel and I had a lot of difficulty winning on asphalt, and in the space of half a year, we basically threw away all of our advantage that we had.”

Peugeot’s start to the 2003 campaign had been up-and-down, following Citroën’s one-two-three on the opening event in Monte Carlo. Grönholm had won three rallies though by the time Provera made the call to focus on the ’04 car, and Panizzi had even finished fifth on the inaugural Rally Turkey.

Things had been looking up, especially since the asphalt events were still to come. But as Panizzi says, the car became hard to drive and he found he was putting in more effort for less reward.

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“Corrado took [my concerns] like an insult. ‘How can you say that about Peugeot?’ No, it was the contrary, I was saying it as an alarm bell, that we needed a different strategy if we were to win the world championship.

“We should have won the world championship that year, had we had the same car as the previous season, but we made bulls*** changes, we screwed up. And he never listened to me.

“So, at the end of 2003, I quit Peugeot because he didn’t want to listen to me. Citroën won the manufacturers’ title that year, but I tell you, if we had not focused the energy on the 307, we would have won it instead. We made the errors, and we lost the championship.

“Even with Citroën and Loeb, I think we could have beaten them, I just managed to in Catalunya, I finished second unfortunately in Sanremo because I made a mistake with tire choice. But I was putting in almost double the effort than the year before where I was winning easily. In 2003, I was either second or first, but I was forcing the car, and it was the same car.”

After leaving Peugeot, Panizzi joined Mitsubishi for 2004 but did not achieve the same level of integration as he had enjoyed with Peugeot. A solitary podium on the Monte in 2005 was the highlight before moving to Škoda for 2006 and ultimately ending his career with a 10th place finish in Catalunya.