Magic Monaco Moments – Panis 1996

In the 1996 season this race will long live in the memory of any Formula 1 or Motorsport enthusiast. Williams prior to the event had dominated, taking 5 wins from 5 with eventual 1996 world champion Damon Hill taking four of them. Michael Schumacher & Ferrari were hot on the heels of the British based team though, he took pole for the Grand Prix. Various teams were struggling over the weekend in particular Ligier, the team were suffering with misfiring issues with the Mugen Honda engine they ran, a resulting in a poor qualifying session for Olivier Panis & team mate Pedro Diniz.

In the 90’s prior to the race like MotoGP still has, Formula 1 had a warm-up session, Olivier Panis in the session looked very strong, in fact the Ligier was quickest with teams making adjustments throughout the session as they know the bad weather was on its way. Drivers had issues though in the weather, the likes of Mika Hakkinen crashing, Forti-Ford driver Andrea Montermini did serious damage which actually prevented him from taking part in the race.

The track was wet, and drivers managed to get an understanding of the track, so on the grid they lined up. Jos Verstappen in the Footwork took a major risk starting on slicks, even though track was far from it. It was a clean get away at the front with Damon Hill jumping pole sitter Schumacher, but looking further down the field with Verstappen being on the slicks a first corner incident was inevitable. We lost him and the Minardi’s at Ste Devote, the first corner of the Monaco track. To look at what an idiotic choice that was, no other driver chose to run the slicks until lap 26.

The next driver to hit the wall was a surprise, renowned as the ‘rain miester’ Michael Schumacher was pushing hard to make amends for a poor start but he hit the wall coming out of the hairpin. This was a very uncharacteristic mistake of the German, this error then gave Hill control of the race. Further incidents and mechanical issues ensued, such as Rubens Barrichello also crashing on lap 1 and Pedro Diniz retiring with transmission problems, only 13 of the 21 starters running after 5 laps of the 78 lap race.

A gap was forming across the field, due to the horrible conditions, bigger gaps than normal. Eddie Irvine was holding a few cars up struggling in the overcast weather. Hill was in total control, the race settled down for 20 minutes with rhythms beginning to form. The track then dried, and Hill only briefly lost the lead on lap 30 to Jean Alesi after switching to slicks as Alesi decided to go later before making the switch. Another notable development was that Olivier Panis and other drivers managed to overtake the slow Irvine on track, something of rarity at Monaco.

Hill on lap 40 had a whopping 30 second gap to second placed Alesi in the Benneton, who was having a quiet race amongst the drama that had been taking place around him. Hill looked like he was going to make it 6 from 6 for Williams and continue their dominance but then…. Out of the tunnel a cloud of smoke followed the Williams driver’s car, an oil pump failure had happened. This then promoted Jean Alesi into the lead in the Benetton, well known for his win in 1995 at Canada in a Ferrari. He continued to lead for the next 20 laps seeking a second win, but then even further mechanical issues and it was the Frenchman’s suspension. This ruined Alesi’s hopes and no chances followed, therefore his only win being in 1995 at Canada.

Although! Great news for France, fellow countryman Panis took the lead after this retirement, who started 14th. He led David Coulthard in his first season for Mclaren by around 5 seconds and it looked like a battle could ensue. Eddie Irvine capped an awful race for himself and an eventful race by spinning and coming back on track was hit by Finn Mika Salo, in turn hit by fellow Finn Mika Hakkinen.

We were down to four running! The race wasn’t going to be completed as the two hour time limit was going to come into play. Heinz Harald Frentzen decided to enter the pits as he was a lap down but was officially classified along with Salo and Hakkinen. This left only three drivers to see the chequered flag. Olivier Panis winning his one and only race, with Ligier’s first in fifteen seasons. British duo David Coulthard and Johnny Herbert completed the podium in their Mclaren and Benetton cars. Coulthard had pre-race drama of his own, his iconic Scottish helmet was steaming up making it impossible to drive, he ended up borrowing Michael Schumacher’s spare!

Monaco 1996 holds the record for the least amount of cars to see the chequered flag of three, and most retirements in terms of percentage of the field at 85%. Truly a race to remember, which can be noted as one the best races ever. Raw pace wasn’t the factor this time like it normally is, Monaco 1996 was more about pinch of luck with reliability, and keeping your car in control amongst the barriers of Monaco.

Chris Lord
16 May 2017

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