Today marks sixteen years since one of the strangest races in Formula 1’s history, where just three cars were circulating on the final lap of the race while the winner would enjoy his one and only Grand Prix victory…
We’re of course talking about the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix!
Formula 1 has a habit of throwing up a few surprise races from time to time, and the 1996 street race will be remembered as one of the most surprising.
Having not graced the top step of the podium since the 1981 season, no one would have predicted a Ligier would return to the winner’s circle after such a long drought, particularly with its midfield qualifying result.
But Monaco is not a circuit that rewards a car with a power advantage; it’s a track where good handling and the ability to remain out of trouble will net you a good result.
Michael Schumacher claimed a mega pole position in his Ferrari with what many believed was one of the best one-lap performances ever witnessed at Monaco, but by some miracle he was allowed to keep his position after completely getting in the way of a still-speedy Gerhard Berger as he celebrated his pole position on his slowing-down lap.
Berger was still racing around the circuit trying to complete his last flying lap, and the unsighted Austrian had to spin his Benetton at he exited the tunnel to avoid a huge collision with the German.
Damon Hill would qualify second-fastest, while the Benetton pairing of Jean Alesi and Berger would start from the second row. In a closely-fought session, fifteen drivers were covered by 1.6 seconds.
Qualifying has its usual mix of surprise results and disasters, and Panis would line up a frustrated fourteenth in his Mugen-Honda powered Ligier, having been able to complete only one flying lap before an engine problem knocked him out of the remainder of the session.
Come race day, the skies turned threatening. The rain held off for the warm-up – where Olivier Panis was surprisingly (and as it turned out later, ominously) fastest in the morning warm-up.
But the weather turned and the heavens opened with a torrential downpour. The rules dictated that a second warm-up session was needed before the race, and the session saw Mika Häkkinen demolish his McLaren at Tabac in what we would generously describe as one of the silliest crashes you’ve seen.
Forti driver Andrea Montermini ruled himself out of the race with his own accident; the underfinanced Italian team had insufficient available spare parts to repair his car.
Before the race, the rain stopped once again and presented teams with a terrible tactical decision: which tyres do we start the race on?
All bar Jos Verstappen opted to start on wet tyres: Verstappen’s decision would either be heroic or foolish.
As was rather typically the case with the Dutchman, the latter would prove to be the outcome. The race was barely seconds old before he was tipped into the barriers after making contact with Häkkinen.
Further behind, the two Minardis of Pedro Lamy and Giancarlo Fisichella would collide and retire on the spot, much to team boss Giancarlo Minardi’s fury.
The first-lap drama wasn’t yet over. Approaching Portier, Michael Schumacher – who had lost the lead to Hill at the first corner – would take too much kerb and slide straight into the outside barrier, ripping off his front-left wheel.
At Rascasse, Rubens Barrichello spun backwards into the barriers and retired his Jordan, meaning no less than five drivers had failed to see the end of the first lap!
The survivors got through the opening lap with Hill leading by 4.3 seconds! The Englishman quickly set about building his lead with a string of fastest laps, and by the time he made his first pit stop, he enjoyed a lead of some 25 seconds. Any hopes he had of following in his father Graham’s footsteps with his own Monaco win went up in smoke along with his Renault engine, which blew on Lap 41 as he exited the tunnel.
By now, the list of retirements had continued to grow, with the likes of Ukyo Katayama, Ricardo Rosset and Martin Brundle all coming to grief against the barriers, while Gerhard Berger had retired his Benetton with a gearbox problem after just nine laps.
Hill’s retirement left Jean Alesi in the lead, and the Frenchman looked on course for his second career win when he felt the Benetton starting to feel strange at the rear.
Behind all of this in the early laps, Eddie Irvine acted like a massive roadblock in his slow Ferrari, defending his position against a queue of quicker cars behind him lap after lap.
Heinz-Harald Frentzen unsuccessfully tried to pass the Ulsterman early on, but only succeeded in damaging the nose of his Sauber and having to pit for repairs. As fate would have it, were he a little more circumspect, he’d actually have won the race…
Panis was another of the cars in the Irvine train, but he was actually steadily working his way forward, courtesy of neat passing moves on Brundle, Häkkinen, and Herbert. In no modd to sit behind Irvine all day, he barged his way by at Loews Hairpin on Lap 35, leaving a bemused Eddie needing a push-start from the marshals to get him back to the pits for a lengthy pit stop while Ferrari checked with the FIA if Irvine was actually allowed to continue in the race.
Panis’ pit stops were timed to perfection, and he eventually inherited the lead when Alesi retired – despite having spun earlier on Hill’s oil left at the exit of the Tunnel – and took an assured win from Coulthard and Herbert, who kept out of trouble all race long.
The final laps saw an underwhelming Jacques Villeneuve retire after he was taken out by some shocking backmarker driving by Luca Badoer, while Irvine again got in the way when he took out Häkkinen and Salo in a comical nose-to-tail collision as he tried to spin-turn his way back on track, following another off-track moment.
This left Panism Coulthard and Herbert as the only runners on track when the chequered flag was finally unfurled, with Frentzen peeling off into the pits with one lap to go, his fourth-placed finish assured as he was last of the runners.
It was a great – and ultimately lucky – victory for Panis, who would go on to show flashes of form in 1997 before he broke both legs at the Canadian Grand Prix. He would return to F1 later that year, but his form never matched that which was witnessed before.
The win also marked the first for the Mugen-Honda engine concern (it would win three times more over the next two years with the Jordan team) and the last for Ligier, which was bought out by Alain Prost at the end of the season, and renamed ahead of the 1998 season. It was also the last time that a French driver won a Grand Prix.
With Romain Grosjean seemingly looking like a frontrunner in 2012, could we finally see that duck broken next weekend at the Principality?
1996 Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix – Final Classification (75 laps):
|1.||Olivier Panis||Ligier Mugen-Honda JS43||75||2:00:45.629||14|
|2.||David Coulthard||McLaren Mercedes MP4/11||75||+ 4.828||5|
|3.||Johnny Herbert||Sauber Petronas C15||75||+ 37.503||13|
|4.||Heinz-Harald Frentzen||Sauber Petronas C15||74||Withdrew||9|
|5.||Mika Salo||Tyrrell Yamaha 024||70||Collision||11|
|6.||Mika Häkkinen||McLaren Mercedes MP4/11||70||Collision||8|
|7.||Eddie Irvine||Scuderia Ferrari F310||68||Collision||7|
|DNF.||Jacques Villeneuve||Williams Renault FW18||66||Collision||10|
|DNF.||Jean Alesi||Benetton Renault B196||60||Suspension||3|
|DNF.||Luca Badoer||Forti Ford FG03||60||Collision||21|
|DNF.||Damon Hill||Williams Renault FW18||40||Engine||2|
|DNF.||Martin Brundle||Jordan Peugeot 196||30||Accident||16|
|DNF.||Gerhard Berger||Benetton Renault B196||9||Gearbox||4|
|DNF.||Pedro Diniz||Ligier Mugen-Honda JS43||5||Transmission||17|
|DNF.||Ricardo Rosset||Footwork Hart FA17||3||Accident||20|
|DNF.||Ukyo Katayama||Tyrrell Yamaha 024||2||Accident||15|
|DNF.||Rubens Barrichello||Jordan Peugeot 196||0||Accident||6|
|DNF.||Michael Schumacher||Scuderia Ferrari F310||0||Accident||1|
|DNF.||Pedro Lamy||Minardi Ford M195B||0||Collision||19|
|DNF.||Giancarlo Fisichello||Minardi Ford M195B||0||Collision||18|
|DNF.||Jos Verstappen||Footwork Hart FA17||0||Accident||12|
|DNS.||Andrea Montermini||Forti Ford FG03||Did Not Start||22|
|Jean Alesi||Benetton Renault B196||59||1:25.205|