French rally star Gilles Panizzi will return to the sport with Proton for next week's Sanremo Rally. The move came after Proton agreed to a deal with the seven-time world rally winner at its British base earlier this week. Both Panizzi and Proton are aiming for a long-term partnership, with Panizzi eager to work on the development of the Satria Neo S2000 through next year.
The Sanremo drive will be a one-off, with Panizzi treating the event as an early test session to form an opinion on the performance of the Proton. Ahead of the Intercontinental Rally Challenge qualifier, Panizzi will test for two days in the Alps.
"It's very exciting to be starting something new with Proton," Panizzi said. "I haven't been competing for a while, but I have always said I would be interested in this kind of development opportunity if it came along.
"When I met with Chris [Mellors, Proton team principal] and the rest of the team on Tuesday, I could see the passion and the ability. The car is very good already, but I am looking forward to helping to drive it forward next season. I have numbers on the doors but the idea is for me to test. Of course, I want to be competitive and I will be looking to see where we are, but at the same time I want to have a picture of where the car is. I need to know where we are with transmission, with engine and suspension, so we know what work we have to do in the future. It's nice to be back with a team again."
Panizzi collected all seven of his victories – three of which were in Sanremo – with Peugeot. For five years, between 1999 and 2003, Panizzi did not finish lower than second on the Italian asphalt classic.
Mellors said: "It's fantastic for the team – a real coup to have an iconic driver like Gilles behind the wheel in Sanremo. Like he said, this isn't so much about the competition, it's about the start of a new relationship. But it's going to be pretty special to see him start the stage in a Satria."
Panizzi will join former Production Car World Rally champion Niall McShea in the team. McShea contested the last round of the IRC with Proton – as well as last year's Rally Ireland.