F1 Classic Races – 1996 Monaco Grand Prix

Above Image: Olivier Panis celebrates victory at Monaco, a race which presented itself with a twist at very turn of the circuit.

Image Source: BBC Sport

The Monaco Grand Prix is one of Formula One’s Jewels in the Crown and is also part of Motorsport’s Triple Crown, alongside the Indianapolis 500 and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. One which challenges the bravest and most determined drivers, on a street circuit with minimal spots to overtake, with the possiblity of weather conditions changing in a heartbeat to turn the course of the race on its head. Those who succeed will receive the winners trophy from the Prince of Monaco; those who fail are left to wonder about what could have been. 

1996 was a year which had it all. Michael Schumacher produced a specatular lap, sliding his Ferrari around the tight street circuit to take pole position with a 1:20.356; 0.510 seconds ahead of his title rival Damon Hill in the Williams-Renault, marking the Scuderia’s first pole position at the principality since 1979. The German was favoured by many for the win, having won the previous two races for Benetton.

The Benetton-Renault duo made up row two, with Jean Alesi third and Gerhard Berger fourth, whilst David Coulthard managed a respectable fifth for McLaren-Mercedes, who were celebrating the team’s 30th anniversary of its Formula One debut. Rubens Barrichello rounds up the top six in the Jordan-Peugeot. In contrasting fortunes, Schumacher’s teammate Eddie Irvine was 1.186 seconds slower in seventh and the same time, Hill’s teammate Jacques Villeneuve could only manage tenth.

Michael Schumacher was unstoppable in qualifying, giving Ferrari’s first pole position at Monaco in 17 years.

Image Source: Eurosport

Damon Hill was looking to win at Monaco for the first time and emulate his father Graham Hill, who was famously dubbed ‘Mr Monaco’ for his five wins at the famed street circuit during the 1960’s. Speaking of his chances after qualifying, Damon stated: “It’s always a very difficult race to predict this one, and I know I am in with a shout and I’m on the front row”.

He added: “It’s always interesting to race with Michael, I mean I’ve got some pretty good guys behind me too, its a pretty packed grid there and it was incredibly close all (through) qualifying”.

After the warm up session, in which Olivier Panis (Ligier-Mugen-Honda) was quickest, a heavy downpour of rain hit the track, resulting in an additional 15 minute acclimatisation session as per the FIA regulations. 

The rainfall caused chaos due to the lack of grip, as demonstrated by Mika Häkkinen’s heavy crash at the exit of Tabac during the acclimatisation session.

Image Source: Eurosport

Unsurprisingly, the lap times were significantly slower and caused mayhem on track. Mika Häkkinen (McLaren-Mercedes) had set the fastest time of 1:54.332 but crashed heavily on the exit of the Tabac corner, while Alesi was second yet suffered a right rear puncture. Pedro Lamy (Minardi-Ford) locked up under braking for Mirabeau and went up the escape road. In addition to this, both Pedro Diniz (Ligier-Mugen-Honda) and Giancarlo Fisichella (Minardi-Ford) spun at the exit of the Anthony Noughes corner, whilst Panis and Andrea Montermini (Forti-Ford) did the same at the Nouvelle Chicane. Whilst Panis was able to continue, Montermini lost his front wing when making contact with the armco barriers and was unable to start from 22nd, as the Forti team didn’t have a spare car.

Interestingly, Irvine and Villeneuve opted to stay in the pits, believing it wasn’t worth the risk of damaging the car a hour before the race start. The Footwork-Hart’s of Jos Verstappen and Riccardo Rosset did the same, the reason being the team didn’t have enough spare parts for their cars available. 

At the start of the race, the track was beginning to dry out but still considerably wet, leading to all the team to put wet tyres on their cars. Hill manages to overtake Schumacher and lead into the Sainte Devote. Behind them, Fisichella and Verstappen crash out, whilst Schumacher does the same at the Portier, having run onto the kerbing, losing grip and sliding into the barrier. Lamy retires off camera, as does Barrichello spinning at La Rascasse. 

After two laps, Hill leads the Benetton’s of Alesi and Berger by six seconds, followed by Irvine, Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s Sauber-Ford and Coulthard, who is wearing Schumacher’s spare helmet due to issues with his own visor. Uyko Katayama (Tyrrell-Yamaha) is the next to fall victim to the slippery track surface, stopping at the exit of Tabac. Hill then sets the fastest lap of 1:49.608 has he effortlessly extends his advantage. Rosset then mirrors Barrichello’s spin at La Rascasse from 14th, rear ending the barrier and losing his Footwork’s rear wing and ends his day early.

Eight drivers retired within the first five laps of the race.

Image Source: BBC Sport

The next driver to retire is Diniz, who is halted at the Nouvelle Chicane with transmission failure on lap five. Fourth placed Irvine has a train of cars behind him, with Frentzen, Coulthard, Villeneuve, Mika Salo (Tyrrell-Yamaha), Johnny Herbert (Sauber-Ford), Häkkinen, Panis and Martin Brundle (Jordan-Peugeot) give chase. Back at the front, Hill continues to lay the rubber down and goes even faster with a 1:48.377 on lap nine.

At the end that lap, Berger pits from third for fuel, having begun to lose time on track to teammate Alesi. However, the Austrian cannot restart the car due to a gearbox problem and becomes the ninth retirement of the race. Speaking to Tony Jardine during a mid race interview, Berger discussed the conditions of the track: “It was a bit slippery but it was good. I could of gone a little bit quicker but Jean was approached and I didn’t want to take any risk. It was fine, everything was under control”.

Now in a tussle for third, Irvine, Frenzten and Coulthard begin to pull away from the chasing pack, all within two seconds of each other. Villeneuve was still in sight in sixh, closely followed by Salo and Herbert. Häkkinen and Panis were fighting for ninth, with Brundle close behind them and Luca Badoer (Forti-Ford) a long way behind in 12th and last. 

The train of cars trailing the Ferrari of Eddie Irvine at the Loews hairpin.

Image Source: BBC Sport

Hill, now leading Alesi by 19 seconds, sets a new fastest lap of 1:48.007 on lap 16 as he comes up to lap Badoer, who commentator Murray Walker aptly refers to as a “mobile chicane”. A lap later, Frentzen avoids hitting Irvine at the Swimming Pool chicane. Frenzten attempts an overtake around the outside of Sainte Devote but the Sauber’s front wing makes contact with the Ferrari’s rear wheel, causing the nose cone to collapse. Sauber are forced to pit their German driver for fresh wet tyres and a new nose cone, rejoining in 11th. 

After 20 laps Hill led Alesi, followed by Irvine, Coulthard, Villeneuve and Salo in the last points position in sixth, with Herbert and Panis within striking distance. Frentzen then sets the fastest lap of the race of 1:44.862, leading to him briefly trade fastest laps with Hill before Alesi sets a 1:43.144 on lap 23 and tries to close the gap.

Frentzen then pits for slick tyres, having been lapped by Hill, who pits for slick tyres himself and takes on fuel at the end of lap 28. Alesi inherites the lead and Hill drops to second. Irvine, Salo and Panis also pits for slick tyres, with teams realising how quickly the track is drying. Frentzen sets a 1:31.698, as Hill overtakes Alesi on the run up to Massenet for the lead. After all the cars have pitted, the top six is as follows: Hill, Alesi, Irvine, Panis, Coulthard, Herbert. Brundle, who was in seventh, rear ends his car into the armco barrier at Massenet, damaging one of his rear tyres and is the next driver to call it a day. 

Panis sets the fastest lap of 1:28.540 on lap 33, as he catches up to Irvine and they battle over third place. On lap 36, he lunges down the inside of the Lowes hairpin, and the two cars touch, causing Irvine to stop and touch the barrier. After restarting, the Ulsterman eventually continues and pits for a new nose cone. After initally stalling the car, the Ferrari mechanics restart the engine and Irvine rejoins a lap down in front of Panis, who is beginning to gain on Alesi. 

On lap 40, Hill suffers a cruel turn in luck, as his engine blows up in the tunnel having lead comfortably for most of the race. The Williams-Renault pulls into the escape road at the Nouvelle Chicane and joins the long list of retirements, the team’s first mechanical failure of the season.

Speaking about the failure, Hill said the following: “What had actually happened was the engine blew in the tunnel, and I came out of the tunnel with oil coming out of the back of the engine. I don’t know what caused the engine to fail, but I had a warning light come on about a lap before that, so I knew there was a problem anyway”

Adding about the lost victory, he said: “Well, I thought I had it. I thought I had a grip on the race and we had enough fuel to go to the end of the race so I didn’t have to do another stop. So I thought I could hold Alesi at that gap and the only thing remaining was to keep concentration and to also have reliability but we didn’t have that last bit so we’re all very disapointed. We’ll just have to wait another year”.

Damon Hill has a famous victory snatched away from him in the cruelest of ways.

Image Source: BBC Sport

This gifts the lead back to Alesi on lap 41, with fellow Frenchman Panis 32 seconds down the road in second, who himself is three tenths ahead of Coulthard in third. Herbert is in fourh, trying to hold off the challenge faced from Villeneuve, Salo, Häkkinen and Frentzen behind him, all seperated by three seconds. 

Panis begins to create a gap between himself and Coulthard, set six seconds on lap 52, whilst Alesi continues to push on, setting the fastest lap of 1:25.366. Not long after, he pits to refuel and changes tyres, but maintains the lead. Frentzen pits for third time shortly after, remaining eighth but loses ground to his closest competition. 

On lap 57, light rain hits parts of the track which adds another element for the drivers to deal with. Then Alesi returns to the pit and pandemonium ensues in the Benetton garage as they try to resolve the issue before rejoining. However, he returns not long after to retire the caron lap 60, which had suffer a suspension failure. 

Panis now leads, with Coulthard three seconds behind in second as they negotiate their way passed the traffic of Irvine’s Ferrari and Badoer’s Forti. Villeneuve subsequently collides with Badoer – who is six laps down – at the exit of Mirabeau both retire. Seven cars are left on track, with Herbert now third, with Finnish drivers Salo and Häkkinen scrapping over fourth place, Frentzen in sixth and Irvine lapped in seventh. 

As the rain begins to fall once more, it becomes clear that the race won’t reach the full distance because of the rule regarding a race excedding no more than two hours. Irvine spins at the Portier corner, who subsequently stalls. As Irvine attempts to restart his engine, Häkkinen and Salo crash into each other and all retire on the spot. 

Collisions involving backmarkers near the end of the race added more drama to what was an action packed Monaco Grand Prix.

Image Source: BBC Sport

Despite this, Olivier Panis managed to keep his cool and win the Monaco Grand Prix for Ligier, having started 14th; to date, this is the lowest grid slot in which a driver has gone on to win at the principality.

It was also Ligier’s first win for 15 years, and indeed their final victory before being rebranded as Prost Grand Prix at the the season’s end by former world champion Alain Prost, who had watched on from the McLaren pitwall. David Coulthard finished five seconds behind in second for McLaren, with Johnny Herbert claiming third for Sauber, the team’s first points finish of the season alongside Frentzen’s fourth place albeit a lap down. Salo and Häkkinen were both classified in fifth and sixth respectively, despite their crash, as was Irvine in seventh six laps down. 

Speaking in the post race conference, Panis spoke of the difficultly the team were facing after Tom Walkinshaw’s departure, who had bought a share in the Footwork team: “Yeah, the race was very difficult, I’m very happy for the team and for every sponsor. At the moment, the Ligier team is very difficult becaue there are many changes, the mechanics, everyone behind me are pushing very hard to improve the car and every way”.

He also gave his view on his incident with Eddie Irvine: “The track is really difficult. For three laps, I try overtake Eddie. Eddie is not happy. I push in, as its very important to overtake here. There is a little crash, for me there is no problem, its alright”.

Speaking about the race in 2001, then a driver for BAR-Honda, Olivier had good things to say about his crowning moment: “Sure, it’s a really good memory. For me, it’s a little lucky to be honest, but I make very strong race here and I feel I have a good car to finish, but when I start, I don’t feel (as if) I could win. But for me, it’s a fantasic moment”.

To date, Olivier Panis remains the last Frenchman to have won a Formula One Grand Prix.

Image Source: BBC Sport

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