1996 – Monte Carlo madness
Frenchman Olivier Panis won the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix following a stunning drive from 14th on the grid in treacherous conditions.
The Ligier driver’s only F1 victory came in a remarkable race in which only four of the 21 starters finished.
Befitting one of the most entreatingly bizarre Grand Prix ever, pole sitter Michael Schumacher crashed into the barriers at Portier on the first lap having been passed by Williams’ Damon Hill at St Devote.
After five laps just 13 cars were still in the race led by Hill – who was lapping over 1.5 seconds/lap faster than Benetton pair Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger in second and third.
The Austrian retired on lap 10 promoting Eddie Irvine to the third, who was under constant pressure from Heinz-Harald Frentzen, David Coulthard and the charging Panis.
On lap 36 the Frenchman barged the Ferrari into the barriers at the hairpin and took third position.
Hill’s serene progress was abruptly halted on lap 40 when his Renault engine expired. The Englishman was looking to emulate his father, Graham, who had won the race five times in the 1960s – 1996 was the closest he ever came to winning in Monaco.
With the Englishman out Alesi took the lead ahead of Panis. The Frenchman – who had secured his first (and ultimately only) F1 win in Canada the previous year had a comfortable lead over the Ligier driver.
But, as with so many great drives during Alesi’s career, his efforts came to nothing when he was forced to retire on lap 60 with a mechanical problem.
Panis therefore inherited the lead ahead of McLaren’s David Coulthard and Sauber’s Johnny Herbert and that was the way it stayed until the finish.
On the last lap Irvine in seventh crashed at the same spot as his team-mate had on lap one. As the Irishman tried to recover the unsighted Finnish pair of Mika Salo and Mika Hakkinen ploughed into the back of him – but were credited with fifth and sixth respectively.
Panis’ great drive heralded a purple patch in the Frenchman’s career. With Ligier and then Prost the following season, he secured a string of fine results until he broke both his legs in a crash at the Canadian GP in 1997.
Sadly Panis never fully recovered and despite occasional glimpses of his quality with Prost, BAR-Honda and Toyota, the Frenchman will go down as one the sport’s unfulfilled talents.