The Monaco Grand Prix held in the principality in 1996 is one of the classic Formula 1 races of all-time. The Grand Prix still holds the record for the fewest actual finishers (three) and the most retirements(85.7%) in an Formula 1 race. Olivier Panis scored the only victory of his career at this race in the Mugen-Honda powered Ligier.
The Monaco Grand Prix is considered the “Jewel in the Crown” on the Formula 1 calendar. The threat of quick showers is never far away from the track situated on the French Riviera. Even a light shower can cause havoc on this bumpy, narrow and twisty circuit.
The 1996 Monaco Grand Prix unfolded after heavy rains had fallen between the warm-up session and the race start. The wet conditions led to one of the most memorable races in Formula 1 history. Only three drivers out of twenty-one starters actually crossed the finish line and took the chequered flag.
Olivier Panis was fastest in the warm-up sessions, even as heavy clouds hovered over the harbour. Heavy rain then fell over the circuit and the officials extended the session by fifteen minutes. Some of the cars were already running on wet setups in anticipation of the rain.
In the wet conditions, the cars slipped and slid off the track and it was a sign of things to come during the race. Some of the backmarker teams with few spare parts had decided that caution was the better part of valour and did not run during the wet session.
The Starting Grid
The qualifying session took place under dry conditions on Saturday. Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) took pole in front of arch-rival Damon Hill (Williams). The Benetton teammates Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger were in the second row. David Coulthard (McLaren) and Rubens Barrichello (Jordan) were behind them. Eddie Irvine (Ferrari) and Mika Hakkinen (McLaren) completed the first four rows of the grid.
Schumacher had clinched pole amid controversy on Saturday, when he slowed down to acknowledge the crowd and impeded Berger on a hot lap. The German had just moved that year to the iconic Ferrari team, after his double-championship win with Benetton. A similar situation would unfold ten years later on the same track, when Schumacher was punished and vilified for impeding Fernando Alonso, but in 1996 no actions was taken against the German.
The Start and Five Cars Exit
The race started one hour after the warm-up session had ended, on a decidedly wet track. Only 21 cars started the race, with Andrea Montermini (Forti) having crashed and terminally damaged his car already. Jos Verstappen (Footwork) started twelfth on the grid and was the only driver brave enough to start on slick tyres in the wet conditions. It was no surprise that the Dutchman quickly ended up in the wall soon after the start.
Hill got a great start to nose ahead of Schumacher into Turn 1, followed by Alesi and Berger. Behind them, Minardi teammates Giancarlo Fisichella and Pedro Lamy collided and retired from the race. Hill extended his lead over Schumacher, as only 18 cars made it through Sainte Devote (Turn 1) and started the uphill climb.
Schumacher then slid into the barriers at the Mirabeau corner and was followed out of the race by future Ferrari teammate Barrichello. The Brazilian spun out at the penultimate Rascasse corner.
By the end of lap 1, five cars had retired leaving only sixteen cars running and the drama had just started to unfold. Meanwhile, Hill had serenely extended his advantage over Alesi, Berger, Irvine, Frentzen and Coulthard. A train of cars followed Alesi around the track – not a strange occurrence at Monaco.
Lap 10 and only 12 Cars are in the Fray
Ukyo Katayama (Tyrrell) and Ricardo Rosett (Footwork) joined their more famous counterparts on the sidelines after they slid into the barriers. Pedro Diniz (Ligier) was out of the race with a mechanical failure that left only 13 cars in the running, after just five laps.
Frontrunner Berger became the next victim when gearbox problems caused a retirement. Frentzen, in trying to overtake Irvine for third place around the narrow circuit, suffered front-wing damage and dropped to the back of the field. At the end of lap 10, only twelve cars remained in the race.
Olivier Panis Is On The Move
By lap 12, Hill had extended his lead from Alesi to over fifteen seconds. With no further victims, the race continued with twelve cars in the mixed conditions.
Panis started fourteenth on the grid and had scythed his way to the front, even as other cars fell by the wayside. The Frenchman with an electrifying move passed Irvine into third place.
The First Pitstops
On lap 28, the leaders started making their first pit stops to change to slick tyres. Alesi briefly led the race. On lap 31, Martin Brundle (Jordan) spun off and left eleven cars on the track.
By lap 40, Hill regained the lead and opened up a gap of almost thirty seconds, when trouble ensued. The Briton suffered engine failure at the exit of the tunnel and handed the lead back to Frenchman Alesi.
With ten cars running now, Alesi held the lead for the next 20 laps, before suffering a suspension failure. At this point, fellow Frenchman Panis took over the lead.
Panis Leads The Race
With the frontrunners falling by the wayside, Panis with nine cars in the race, was now leading the race. At the back of the field two more cars retired after a collision at the Mirabeau corner between Luca Badoer (Forti) and Jacques Villeneuve (Williams). Only seven cars were still on the track before the final ten laps.
Irvine’s eventful race then came to an end as he spun at the Mirabeau corner and tried to rejoin the race. Mika Salo (Tyrrell) hit him and he in turn was hit by Hakkinen. Three cars knocked out in one corner, this left only four drivers in the race after that.
Only Four Cars Left in the Race
Panis had a small lead over Coulthard, followed by the Sauber teammates Johnny Herbert and Frentzen. The German, who had dropped to the back of the field after damage to his car in the early laps of the race was unbelievably in fourth place, as cars dropped like flies in front of him.
Panis, who had started all the way back from fourteenth on the grid, now led the race and had a chance to take his first Grand Prix win under the most dramatic circumstances. As his Ligier crew watched with disbelief, Panis had a slender 1.5-second gap ahead of Coulthard, who incidentally wore Schumacher’s helmet in the race.
Three Cars Cross The Finish Line
When the two-hour limit loomed, 75 of the 78 laps had been completed. Panis crossed the finish line, as rain threatened to fall again, for the first and only win of his career. Coulthard and Herbert followed the Frenchman in second and third place. Frentzen took fourth place, despite being in the pits when the flag fell. Salo and Hakkinen were classified fifth and sixth respectively and awarded points, even though they did not finish the race.
In today’s day and age when almost all the cars see the chequered flag in each race, it is almost unbelievable that only four out of 21 cars finished the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix.
Nobody could begrudge the very rare race win of the soft-spoken Frenchman Olivier Panis and his team Ligier. This race holds the record for the fewest actual finishers(3) and the most retirements(85.7%) in a Formula 1 race. The Monaco Grand Prix of 1996 was a true ‘battle of attrition’ and entered the annals of classic Formula 1 races.