20 years ago today: Three cars stagger to the flag in Monaco

1996 Monaco Grand Prix flashback

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The chequered flag came out three laps earlier than planned at the end of the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix, held on this day 20 years ago.

And it was a good thing the race finished when it did, for with only three cars still lapping it was in danger of running out of competitors.

It was the craziest race the Principality had seen since Riccardo Patrese won in 1982 despite having arrived at Loews’ hairpin going backwards at one point. And the shocked winner was the man who had started 14th on the grid: Olivier Panis.

Schumacher snatches pole

The Ligier driver did not figure highly among the potential winners when the 22-car field assembled for the sixth round of the championship. The dominant Williams-Renaults had won all five of the opening rounds, with four wins going to points leader Damon Hill and one to rookie Jacques Villeneuve.

The pre-race build-up therefore focussed on which of these two sons of Monaco Grand Prix winners would be the first to emulate their fathers by winning the race for themselves. The biggest threat was likely to come from reigning champion Michael Schumacher, who was looking for his first Ferrari victory in his sixth start for the team.

Monte-Carlo’s streets had been extensively resurfaced for the 54th running of the Monaco Grand Prix. The 1996 race was the last before a series of changes which relocated barriers and lessened the challenge of F1’s most cramped circuit.

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Lap times fell by over a second and a half in qualifying. Hill, who had taken pole the year before, traded top times in the hour-long session with Schumacher. But with ten minutes to go, and feeling a pressing need to take advantage of a lull in the traffic to improve his position, the Williams driver posted his final time of 1’20.866.

That left Schumacher free to respond as he pleased in the final minutes. He did: a 1’20.356 gave Ferrari their second pole position of the season.

Schumacher’s former team Benetton filled row two, Jean Alesi ahead of Gerhard Berger. The latter was incensed after being delayed by Schumacher as the Ferrari driver waved to the chicane during qualifying.

The stewards investigated the incident, which led to Berger spinning at the corner, but took no action. McLaren team boss Ron Dennis accused Schumacher of holding up Mika Hakkinen, leaving his driver eighth on the grid.

That left David Coulthard to claim the highest qualifying position for McLaren’s specially-prepared short-wheelbase cars. He took fifth ahead of Rubens Barrichello’s Jordan and Schumacher’s team mate Eddie Irvine. The second Ferrari was using a new-specification rear end but Schumacher chose to continue with the tried-and-tested 1995 example.

Villeneuve, who had appeared in the Formula Three support event at Monaco three times before, could only manage tenth on the grid behind Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s Sauber. His prospects for victory seemed about as realistic as those of the man who started four places behind him.

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1996 Monaco Grand Prix grid

Row 11. Michael Schumacher 1’20.356
2. Damon Hill 1’20.866
Row 23. Jean Alesi 1’20.918
4. Gerhard Berger 1’21.067
Row 35. David Coulthard 1’21.460
6. Rubens Barrichello 1’21.504
Row 47. Eddie Irvine 1’21.542
8. Mika Häkkinen 1’21.688
Row 59. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’21.929
10. Jacques Villeneuve 1’21.963
Row 611. Mika Salo 1’22.235
12. Jos Verstappen 1’22.327
Row 713. Johnny Herbert 1’22.346
14. Olivier Panis 1’22.358
Row 815. Ukyo Katayama 1’22.460
16. Martin Brundle 1’22.519
Row 917. Pedro Diniz 1’22.682
18. Giancarlo Fisichella 1’22.684
Row 1019. Pedro Lamy 1’23.350
20. Ricardo Rosset 1’24.976
Row 1121. Luca Badoer 1’25.059
22. Andrea Montermini 1’25.393

As with practice and qualifying, the Sunday morning warm-up session was held in dry conditions. Panis, feeling comfortable with his JS43’s race set-up, headed the times.

Then the heavens opened. Under the rules at the time this meant an extra 15 minutes’ practice was hurriedly arrange to give drivers a chance to acclimatise.

Hakkinen crashed heavily at Tabac on the soaked surface, and with the race start just half an hour away he had no option but to switch to the spare car. This was not an option for Forti driver Andrea Montermini, who had to sit out the race after crashing his FG03 during the warm-up.

A comedy of errors

That left 21 cars to assemble on a very wet but drying track. And once the race began the field thinned out in a hurry.

From second on the grid Hill’s start was a beauty, leaving Schumacher no opportunity to move across to defend his lead. The Williams led a portion of the field up Massenet.

Villeneuve clung to the inside line at Sainte Devote, edging Hakkinen wide and leaving Jos Verstappen nowhere to go but the barrier. The Arrows driver perhaps rued his brave decision to start the race on slicks – no one would be in for those for 30 laps.

He was joined by Giancarlo Fisichella, who was given a helping hand by team mate Pedro Lamy. A furious Giancarlo Minardi therefore saw both his cars retire at the start of a race which could have proved highly lucrative for his team, which would end the season point-less.

The next visitor to the barrier was a shock: Schumacher clambered over the kerb on the right-hander after Loews and was spat into the barrier on the opposite side of the track. And he wasn’t the final victim of lap one: Barrichello, who’d already been hit from behind at Casino, spun into the barriers at Rascasse.

That left just 16 cars as lap two began. Hill already had a huge 4.3 seconds lead over Alesi who was followed by Berger, Irvine and Frentzen – the latter having made great gains from ninth on the grid. Ukyo Katayama was the next driver into the barriers on lap three due to a throttle problem on his Tyrrell. Ricardo Rosset brought Arrows’ participation to an end when he crashed on lap four.

And Pedro Diniz retired his Ligier with a gearbox fault after five laps. That left his team mate Panis with ten cars in front of him and just two behind as the field continued to tiptoe around the slowly-drying circuit.

Benetton’s hopes of a double podium finish ended when Berger appeared in the pits with faulty gearbox electrics. Ten laps into the race and just a dozen cars were still running, but from now on the rate of retirements returned to normal levels and some actual racing broke out.

Frentzen blew his victory chance by hitting Irvine
Frentzen was almost falling over Irvine in his bid to take fourth place off the Ferrari, the pair fishtailing wildly from corner to corner. But on lap 17 impatience got the better of the Sauber driver, who wiped his front wing off against Irvine’s car at Sainte Devote. That send Frentzen into the pits for a new front wing and, with the track still too wet for slicks, another set of wet weather tyres. He immediately began setting fastest laps.

Hill put Frentzen a lap down on the 26th tour and the Sauber driver responded by pitting for a set of slicks. Hill did likewise the next time by and it proved a superbly-judged pit stop for the race leader. One Alesi came in two laps later Hill was comfortably back into the lead and any obstacles to his first Monaco Grand Prix victory appeared to have been removed.

But as Hill came past the pits on lap 40 he jabbed the radio button and told his team a red warning light had illuminated on his dashboard. The Renault engineers reported back that there didn’t seem to be a problem – but there was. A bolt in the oil pump had come loose allowing fluid to drain away and Hill, who had been almost half a minute ahead of Alesi, helplessly coasted to a stop at the harbour front chicane.

Alesi took over the lead ahead of Panis. The Ligier driver had made key gains by passing Hakkinen and Herbert then switching to slicks before Coulthard, jumping ahead of the McLaren driver in the process. His next target was Irvine who he barged past at Loews, leaving the Ferrari temporarily stuck against the barrier.

So when a rear spring broke on Alesi’s suspension, sending him into the pits to retire on lap 60, Panis didn’t simply inherit the lead, he had earned it. And most of his rivals were busy demonstrating just how many ways there are to lose a grand prix.

Martin Brundle’s final Monaco Grand Prix ended when he spun his Jordan three laps after switching to slick tyres. Luca Badoer let Johnny Herbert lap him at Mirabeau but didn’t notice Villeneuve creeping up the inside – the Forti was eliminated on the spot and Villeneuve retired a few laps later.

By now it was clear the two-hour time limit would be reached before the drivers had completed all 78 laps. Just seven cars were left running and with spots of rain falling three of them managed to eliminate themselves in a single crash.

Irvine, running last and out of the points, set things in motion when he spun at the same place Schumacher had. He kept out of the barriers, but with yellow flags waving he spun his Ferrari around at the exact moment Mika Salo rounded the corner with Hakkinen filling his mirrors. The result was a fender-bender which eliminated all three.

With Frentzen heading to the pits on the penultimate lap, that left Panis leading a fast-closing Coulthard and Herbert as the final lap began. The chequered flag came out after 75 laps of the planned 78, but only three cars went the distance in an exceptionally gruelling race.

It had, however, produced a thoroughly deserving victor.

1996 Monaco Grand Prix result

Pos#DriverTeam LapsTeam/gap/reason
19Olivier PanisLigier-Mugen-Honda752hr 00’45.629
28David CoulthardMcLaren-Mercedes75+4.828s
314Johnny HerbertSauber-Ford75+37.503s
415Heinz-Harald FrentzenSauber-Ford741 lap
519Mika SaloTyrrell-Yamaha70Accident
67Mika HäkkinenMcLaren-Mercedes70Accident
72Eddie IrvineFerrari68Accident
6Jacques VilleneuveWilliams-Renault66Accident
3Jean AlesiBenetton-Renault60Suspension
22Luca BadoerForti-Ford60Accident
5Damon HillWilliams-Renault40Engine
12Martin BrundleJordan-Peugeot30Accident
4Gerhard BergerBenetton-Renault9Gearbox
10Pedro DinizLigier-Mugen-Honda5Transmission
16Ricardo RossetFootwork-Hart3Accident
18Ukyo KatayamaTyrrell-Yamaha2Accident
1Michael SchumacherFerrari0Accident
11Rubens BarrichelloJordan-Peugeot0Accident
17Jos VerstappenFootwork-Hart0Accident
21Giancarlo FisichellaMinardi-Ford0Accident
20Pedro LamyMinardi-Ford0Accident
23Andrea MonterminiForti-Ford0Did not start

After holing up in the Ferrari motorhome for a while, Schumacher emerged to faced the media. “I am extremely upset,” he told them.

“Upset and angry with myself, because I alone am responsible for this mistake. It’s an incredible mistake. I hit the kerb, couldn’t control the car, it’s all my fault.”

His first win for Ferrari would have to wait. But while it hadn’t been a successful day for Schumacher, one of his helmets had returned to the podium.

Prior to the race Coulthard had discovered his helmet would not de-mist properly. As he and Schumacher shared similar sponsors his rival generously leant him the model he had worn to third place at that year’s Brazilian Grand Prix. Coulthard went one better, creating a surely unique instance of the same helmet appearing on the podium twice courtesy of two different drivers.

Coulthard later revealed in his autobiography that he pulled some strings to ensure that helmet went into his collection instead of that of Ron Dennis. After Schumacher agreed to let him keep it, Coulthard had a replica made up for his boss. “He’ll find out when he reads this book,” Coulthard noted. “He shouldn’t have pissed Michael off.”

While Panis would no doubt have wished his first grand prix victory to have been followed by more, he claimed one of Formula One’s most unlikely victories and greatest underdog triumphs. It was the final win for Ligier, 15 years since their previous triumph at Canada, and it remains the most recent success for a French driver and team.

Panis collected the tricolour on his in-lap. “When I was handed the French flag I couldn’t resist taking it,” he said. “Ever since seeing Alain Prost do it, I’ve always wanted to see it happen again.”

“But who could imagine it would be my turn next?”

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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28 comments on “20 years ago today: Three cars stagger to the flag in Monaco”

  1. What a crazy race that was, and the Irvine/Salo/Hakkinen crash was almost comedic! Probably not a lot of people know that Panis was third in the championship in 1997 when he had his accident in Canada. I was gutted that we didn’t get to see what Panis, Prost and Bridgestone could have achieved that year.

    1. I remember that pile-up as if it had happened yesterday. In fact, this is the first race I remember watching, so I have plenty of undying impressions from that very special day. :)
      It was indeed a hilarious moment, with Irvine making a somewhat clumsy U-turn, and the two Mikas bumping into him as if they were performing a slapstick sketch. :D
      It became even more funny when a fuming Häkkinen threw away his steering wheel, jumped out of the car and charged towards the still-seated Irvine. The camera cut away from the scene a fraction of a second before we actually saw what happened (which added to the comedy, as the cut seemed rather awkward: with just 4 cars left to circle around, there wasn’t much left to show). But my impression to this day is that Coulthard wasn’t the only one who had a helmet-related incident that day …

      Good memories. :D

    2. knoxploration
      20th May 2016, 1:27

      This was a hell of a race, and one of a handful that really, REALLY sticks in my memory. This, ladies and gentlemen, is one example of what a true 10/10 race looks like — unpredictable and exciting from start to finish.

      It just about makes me weep how quick folks are to proclaim a race a 10/10 these days because a Merc dropped out, or there was a middling-to-good battle in the midfield, yet 90% of the race was predictable and dull as dishwater.

      Really, we haven’t seen a race in years which merited anything above about a six or seven out of ten compared to true classics like this one.

  2. It was utterly brilliant to see imho! And if it rains we might just get this again :) I just hope Verstappen jr fairs better than sr did

    1. I remeber Jos being on slicks and me thinking nooooooooo.
      One little push was enough.

      1. I also remember the Williamses repeating this gaffe in the 1997 Monaco GP. If there was one aspect that stood out in retrospect, it was the track conditions that can be best described as ‘soaked’. That didn’t stop them from fitting slicks, which, of course, went just as well as expected …

        1. Great write up though. Amazing race, a definite 10/10 & utterly unpredictable to the end.
          My abiding memory of the 97 race is of a Williams being hoisted high above the track by a crane & Murray Walker making some comment about Frank Williams wishing it could just be dropped in the harbour (although I very well may have made the memory up!).
          @unicron2002 I agree that we were robbed of something special when Panis had his accident in 97. Neither he nor Prost GP were ever the same again.

  3. Very nice writeup, I remember watching that and it was fascinating to watch with all that chaos! I was delighted when Panis won though, he really did keep his head when all around were losing theirs, and it paid off.
    Thanks for the memories of that one. I know some people really don’t like the Monaco race, but I absolutely love it. The incredible sight of F1 cars being driven, mostly, within a hairs breadth of the barriers, lap after lap with great skill, with Monaco always looking magical, there is definitely something fascinating.

  4. OmarRoncal - Go Seb!!! (@)
    19th May 2016, 13:00

    Interesting story I didn’t know. Thanks for the good narration!

  5. I remember working in the lab on an assignment for my degree, watching a live text commentary online and not really getting a lot of work done. Plus ça change…

  6. As I said in the round-up, I can’t believe this was 20 years ago! This was truly one of the most memorable races I have ever watched.

  7. I actually managed to watch the entire race on YouTube a couple of years ago. It might still be up if anyone else wants to watch.

  8. Wasn’t this the one where Schumacher did that ridiculous final sector in qualifying? He was slower than Hill in the first two sectors but gained something like 0.8s in the final part of the lap to blitz pole position.

  9. Jonathan Parkin
    19th May 2016, 15:55

    I’ve just finished watching my video copy of this race to celebrate it’s birthday. It doesn’t look too shabby for a twenty year old recording.

    Andrea Montermini actually crashed in acclimatison just after Hakkinen at the chicane. Not a lot of damage to his car by the look of it, but obviously they couldn’t repair it in time. Also can anyone solve a mystery for me. What happened to Luca Badoer? According to the captions during the race, he clearly retired but suddenly reappeared again six laps down

    1. I think Forti didn’t have a spare car at all and as the poorest team of the field, probably not much spares either. Monaco was actually their last race where they had yellow livery – for Spain they changed to green and white by their new ownership which was actually bluff.

      I recall that Badoer had a pit stop which took minutes. No idea why was that, but it happened around time where everyone changed to slicks.

  10. here’s hoping that this year we have just as crazy race as they did back then 20 years ago, I know its far fetched but technically it is possible right!

  11. Formula one car racing was so much more intense back in the days, when it used to be dangerous. Nowaday, car drivers drive “automatic” cars, so much easier to drive and get a lot more money, claiming their sport is dangerous. It used to be pal, now it’s not!

    1. Tell that to Julien Bianchi…

    2. I think no one got hurt in that race. As @npf1 noticed, it’s better than at Suzuka in 2014…

  12. Remember this race very well. I was rooting for Damon and was upset when his car coasted to a standstill.

  13. I did not watch the 1996 Monaco GP as I became an F1 fan only at the end of that season. However, I carefully studied the results table in October. For sure, the Monaco GP results drew my attention. They told me that crazy things could happen in this sport and I liked it. So perhaps this race had some impact on making me a Formula 1 fanatic.

    The ability to surprise is still one of the things that I love most about F1. When everything starts to seem predictable and dull, you suddenly get to see both leading cars take each other out and a youngster celebrate his maiden win.

  14. Olivier Panis and Johnny Herbert seemed to be masters of ‘keeping their heads when all around were losing theirs’ c.f. Italy 1995 (Herbert winning a race no-one else seemed to want to win), Australia 1995 (Panis finishing 2nd despite an oil leak), Europe 1999 (Herbert winning from 14th on the grid, another race no-one else seemed to want to win).

  15. “Ford/Ford” but no “Ferrari/Ferrari”?

  16. I remember this race, everytime someone crashed I was like “what the ****?!” Another one?!?! Then the three car crash near the end! I went crazy! Would they get points or not?!? I started watching F1 in 1994, and after 22 years this race stands out as one of the most memorable in my mind even after allll these years

  17. I remember a dumb Dutch sports presenter claiming that he could have been right up there by driving a Citroen 2CV, because only 3 cars finished.

  18. “…as the Ferrari driver waved to the chicane during qualifying.”. Should this be crowd not chicane?

  19. So called rainmaster crashing miserably not just that but Williams and Mclaren having a terrible day at this track and a driver starting from 7th row winning. That was one hell of a race.

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