The cramped street circuit of Monaco has produced some of the most eventful races. On the other end of the spectrum some of the dullest races of the season. Races like the 1992 Senna-Mansell battle, or the 1982 finish have proved why F1 and Monaco are a perfect story. But there are races like the 2003 Grand Prix, which holds the record for no overtakes at all during the race. Those races make everyone question the track’s inclusion in the sport. Dull or eventful, the circuit is amongst the most challenging for the drivers with the cramped straights and the tight corners. And things are bound to get chaotic if rain comes into play. But nobody knew it would get as chaotic as the 1996 Monaco GP. It was the race with the least finishers, barring the infamous 2005 US Grand Prix.
The race started with 22 drivers, after Michael Schumacher taking the pole position in his Ferrari more than half a second clear of Damon hill in his Williams. The Benettons locked the second row.
It rained heavily during the pre-race warm up sessions. The last warm up which took place in wet conditions took out the Forti of Montermini and considering their lack of spare parts, they couldn’t get the car running.
At the start, Damon Hill found the jump on Michael Schumacher and Benettons had a good start as well. At the back there was trouble already as the sole slick starter, Jos Verstappen straight away hit the wall and the Minardis collided with each other, which meant that only 18 cars crossed the first few corners itself.
Next victim of the torrential conditions was Schumacher who crashed at Lower Mirabeau on the first lap itself, while at the Rascasse later, Rubens Barrichello lost control. By the end of just five laps, there were a mere 13 cars running.
Damon Hill upfront had no trouble running with sheer pace making everything look too easy. He was 4.3s ahead of anyone else by the end of first lap and 25s after 20 laps. His father, Graham Hill was immensely popular in Monte Carlo having won here five times, and came to be known as “Mr. Monaco”
Behind the top three, Eddie Irvin was stalling the rest of the pack with his slow moving Ferrari. Gerhard Berger retired from third place on lap 10th, leaving only 12 cars running.
The race after the first 10 laps started to calm down, with track conditions improving though still extremely tricky. Damon Hill was still in control followed closely by Jean Alesi. On lap 31 of the 1996 Monaco GP, Martin Brundle spun off, leaving only 11 cars running.
Oliver Panis in his Ligier overtook Irvine in a brilliant move across the Loews hairpin on lap 35. He had charged through the back, overtaking Hakkinen amongst others making best use of his perfectly timed pit stop for slick tires. Thanks to the clean air he got due to his pit stop, he was able to get his tires to the optimum temperature, and by the end of the lap 35, was running 5s faster than anyone else.
Panis was running with immense pace, thanks to his tires, and the overtake on the slow Ferrari of Irvine was as incredible as it was risky. Irvine’s car stopped after that overtake but he was able to jump start it again. Panis was running in the podium positions, having started 14th.
Up front, Hill was having a comfortable race and while he was making it look all so easy, his Renault engine blew up by lap 39, leading to an unfortunate retirement. It was Williams’ first mechanical retirement of any sort in almost an year and the first Renault engine blowout since 1993.
The lead of the 1996 Monaco GP was now passed on to Jean Alesi running in the Benetton. He was 30s clear off the field. His lead lasted a mere 20 laps when he too suffered a mechanical blow: a suspension failure, handling the race lead to Olivier Panis!
Luca Badoer in the Forti was running a massive 6 laps down when he foolishly collided with Villeneuve on lap 66 at Mirabeau, as a result of which both of them retired immediately.
By the end of the two hour limit, Panis was leading Coulthard by a small margin. Eddie Irvin unfortunately spun off in the same place as Schumacher. And if this was not enough to cap off the horrendous race he had, when he tried to rejoin the track, he hit Mika Solo who in turn hit Mika Hakkinen which retired all three of them leaving mere four cars on the track: Olivier Panis, David Coulthard, Johnny Herbert and Heinz-Harald Frentzen. The last place German decided to pull into the pits on the penultimate lap seeing that he was running last and all others ahead of him had already seen the chequered flag.
Hence, the record settling 1996 Monaco GP came to an end with only three racers seeing the chequered flag, having won by Oliver Panis in what his first and the only race win of his career! He ran a near perfect race with the timing of the pitstop and the gutsy overtakes across the cramped circuit. Panis still remains the last French race winner in Formula One and also the last starting car (having started 14th) to win the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix. It was the Ligier’s first win since 1981 and certainly the most unexpected. The third place Sauber driver Johnny Herbert didn’t overtake a single car that race and merely kept himself out of trouble to gain that prestigious podium place at the 1996 Monaco GP.
The race was chaotic and dramatic and showed every bit why Monaco is F1’s jewel. A track so tricky and challenging not only for the driver, but for the car and for the teams as well.