As we near the end of the top ten, and thus the start of the new season, we look back on one crazy race. Monaco 1996 will always stay in the record books for two reasons, the least amount of finishers and the only Grand Prix win for Olivier Panis and the last for the famous Ligier team.
Arriving at Monaco for the sixth race of the season it was already apparent that Williams was the team to beat. In fact the Grove based team had won all the Grand Prix’s so far with it pairing of Damon Hill and F1 rookie and IndyCar champion Jacques Villeneuve.
The 1996 field was split across four divisions. Williams was a class of its own with Ferrari trying to keep pace with Schumacher and Jean Todt revolution only just beginning. Behind them last seasons champions Benetton where starting what was to be a decline in fortunes that would last till the mid 2000s. McLaren where in their first season with Mercedes power after the awful partnership with Peugeot while Jordan, Sauber, Ligier and occasionally Tyrrell where in the midfield, a competitive one at that. Behind them was Footwork, Minardi and Forti with uncompetitive cars and a mis match of pay drivers with some that had no business being on the grid.
Despite reliability issues, especially for team mate Eddie Irvine, Schumacher and the F310 took pole position. On the cooling down lap the German was waving to crowd unaware that the Gerhard Berger in the Benetton, one of the drivers at Ferrari the pervious season, was on a hot lap. The Austrian spun coming out of the tunnel avoiding the German driver and arrived into the chicane backwards. There was no repercussions for the then two time champion and he maintained his pole position.
Race day brought heavy rain between the morning warm up, which seen Olivier Panis in the Ligier top the session, and the race itself. Since it was the first time that rain had fell over the weekend a quick 15 minute session was allowed before the race to allow drivers to adapt. Several drivers went off during the session with only Mika Hakkinen in the McLaren and Andrea Montermini in the Forti suffering damage with only Hakkinen able to take the start. The Footwork team didn’t take part due to lack of spares and any crash that would have ended their weekend and this was the fate of Montermini.
At the start Hill, starting from second, got the jump on Schumacher and took the lead into Saint Devote. Behind the Englishman there was already trouble as Jos Verstappen in the Footwork slid into the wall. The Dutchman had started on slicks in a move that was far too risky and thus paid the price. The two Minardi’s of Pedro Lamy and Giancarlo Fisichella also tangled with each other and thus only 18 cars made it up the hill to Casino Square.
Coming out of the hairpin Schumacher lost control and crashed out before the tunnel, already six cars were out the race. There was to be one more retirement before the end of the lap as Rubens Barrichello in the Jordan spun at Rascasse. It was to get worse as by the end of lap five there was only 13 cars remaining as Ukyo Katayama in the Tyrell (crash) Ricardo Rosset in the second Footwork (crash) and Pedro Diniz in the Forti (transmission) all joined the retirement list. Gerhard Berger joined it on lap 10 with transmission issues of his own.
The top three led by Hill where pulling away from the remaining cars that were being held up by Eddie Irvine’s slow Ferrari. Heinz Harald Frentzen in the Jordan would attempt a pass on the Ferrari driver but would only succeed in knocking his front wing off and the resultant pit stop would put him second last, just ahead of Luca Badoer in the remaining Forti car. Hill was on a mission, looking to finally emulate his father by winning on the streets of the principality. Having pulled out a lead of over 20 seconds by lap 20 it all seemed to be going well. The Williams driver only lost the lead when he pitted for slicks on lap 30 but he would overtake Jean Alesi’s Benetton on the track with the Frenchman still on wets. By the time Alesi pitted the Williams was over 30 seconds clear of the field.
By this point Martin Brundle had spun out in his Jordan and Panis had got past the Ferrari of Irvine in a great move at the Lowes hairpin. But I was on lap 39 that the race turned on its head. Coming through the tunnel the Renault engine in the back of Hill’s front running Williams expired, smoke could be seen easily and he took the car down the escape road at the chicane, his chance to emulate his father Graham gone. It was the first Renault race ending failure since the British Grand Prix on 1993, a race that Hill was on course to win as well till the engine let go then as well. Hill would at least win the British Grand Prix but he never got another chance at Monaco.
Alesi took the lead but he too would retire on lap 60 with suspension failure which would give the lead to Panis. The Frenchman had started in 14th and no driver had ever won Monaco from lower than ninth, and even that was in 1955. He would manage to keep the second place David Coulthard at bay and take the win by around 5 seconds. An unlikely third place was taken by the Sauber of Johnny Herbert who had not overtaken a single car on track all race. It was to be one of the most unlikely top three’s in recent history and certainly not one anyone would have thought of at the start of the race. And a fun bit of trivia is the fact Coulthard was wearing one of Schumacher’s helmets for the race after his own steamed up in the wet conditions. It’s the only time a Schumacher helmet has been seen in a McLaren at an F1 weekend.
It would be the only win of his career for Panis as well as the last win by a French driver even to this day. It was Ligier’s first win since the Canadian Gp of 1981 with Jacques Lafitte. It was also to be the French team’s last as well. For Panis he continued with the team into 1997 as they became Prost when Alain Prost took over ownership and there was potential in the car and points were coming early on. Then at Canada the Frenchman crashed, breaking both his legs. He would recover and return but could never fully hit the same heights again due to a number of reasons and he would continue until 2004 with a testing spell at McLaren and race stints and BAR and Toyota. He was highly acclaimed for his race craft and is one of the drivers that many fans would have loved to have seen in a top car.
With mass reliability and track changes the likelihood of this result ever happening again is a long shot. But on that day the F1 field was turned upside down, even for just one day, as the loveable Frenchman took a highly unlikely and highly enjoyable win around the streets of the principality.
Photo Credits: Main and first corner: Jones on F1 via wordpress.com
Podium: Badger GP