The Monaco Grand Prix: Round 6 of 16 in the 1996 Formula One World Championship. Heading into the race, Williams driver Damon Hill lead the Drivers’ Championship with 43 points, ahead of his team mate Jacques Villeneuve on 22 points, with Ferrari driver Michael Schumacher in third on 16 points, Benetton driver Jean Alesi in fourth on 11 points and Eddie Irvine was fifth on 9 points.
In Qualifying, Michael Schumacher had taken Pole Position but had caused minor controversy on his slowing down lap when he impeded Gerhard Berger right at the end of the session. Coming out of the tunnel Schumacher was cruising slowly, acknowledging the crowd, while Berger was on a hot lap. Schumacher tried to get out of Berger’s way but the Austrian was going too fast and had to spin at high speed to avoid the Ferrari, entering the chicane backwards.
Hill qualified in second place ahead of Alesi in third place and his team mate Berger in fifth. McLaren driver David Coulthard qualified in fifth ahead of Jordan driver Rubens Barrichello in sixth. Ferrari driver Eddie Irvine, McLaren driver Mika Hakkinen, Sauber driver Heinz-Harald Frenzten and Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve qualified in seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth places. The Ligiers were 14th and 17th in qualifying; both below their expectations after the team had mis-firing issues which prevented them achieving a top six position.
As we headed into Race Day on the Sunday, Ligier driver Olivier Panis topped the timesheets in the warm up and Villeneuve was 18th after running a wet-setup in preparation for the expected rain. Between the warm-up session and the race, heavy rain fell at the circuit. An additional 15-minute session was added to allow the drivers to get use to the changed conditions as it was the first time rain had fallen over the race weekend.
The session took place at 1.15pm. Several drivers went off during the session, including Pedro Lamy, Pedro Diniz and Giancarlo Fisichella but all continued. The only two drivers to escape with damage were McLaren driver Mika Hakkinen and Andrea Montermini who suffered damage to their cars.
Alesi suffered a puncture at the end of the session, but was able to return to the pitlane. Several drivers opted to skip the session. The Footwork team chose not to participate as they did not have any spare parts, and any crash would have marked the end of their weekend. Häkkinen was fastest, setting his time before his crash, with Alesi, Barrichello and Sauber driver Johnny Herbert behind. The two Williams cars were 7th and 8th, Villeneuve ahead of Hill with Schumacher behind them in 9th.
The race started at 2.30pm. In the warm-up, Montermini crashed his Forti coming out of the tunnel and the team’s lack of a spare car meant he was unable to start the wet race and therefore 21 cars would take the start. Hill got the jump on Schumacher into Ste Devote while further back there was trouble already.
Footwork driver Jos Verstappen opted to start the race on slicks and slid straight into the wall. The two Minardis were then eliminated when they tangled coming out of the first corner and so 18 cars climbed the hill on the first lap. Hill began to pull away while polesitter Schumacher lost control coming out of Lower Mirabeau and hit the wall, leaving 17 cars running.
Coming into the Rascasse, Barrichello’s race was over as he spun. After five laps, there were only 13 cars remaining as Tyrell driver Ukyo Katayama (accident), Footwork driver Ricardo Rosset (accident) and Diniz (transmission) joined the list of retirements. A significant gap began to open between the leaders and Irvine in fourth.
Indeed there was a queue of eight cars behind the slow Ferrari. Berger retired from third place on the 10th lap with gearbox trouble leaving 12 cars while Frentzen damaged his front wing trying to pass Irvine and dropped to second last ahead of Forti driver Luca Badoer.
On Lap 31 of the race, Jordan driver Martin Brundle spun off, which left only 11 cars in the race. Three laps later, Irvine was eventually passed when Panis forced his way through at the Loews hairpin in an electrifying move. Irvine lost control, became stuck and had even undone his seatbelts before he restarted his car with the assistance of the marshals.
Meanwhile Hill had briefly lost the lead to Alesi when he made a pit stop on Lap 30 to change to slicks as the track began to dry, but regained the lead a lap later when he overtook the Frenchman (who was still on wet tyres) on the track. Alesi made his pit stop shortly afterwards which allowed Hill to extend his lead to nearly 30 seconds and continue untroubled at the front until the 40th lap, when a gearbox mistake led to engine failure coming out of the tunnel and his first retirement of the season.
Alesi took over the lead after otherwise having a quiet race in second. He lasted 20 laps in the lead when his suspension failed, handing the lead to Panis. Badoer was running six laps down in the Forti when he collided with Villeneuve at Mirabeau and both drivers had to retire from the race.
The race did not run its full distance as the 2 hour time limit came into effect. Panis was leading Coulthard by a small margin with only five other cars behind them. Irvine capped an eventful afternoon by spinning at the same point that teammate Schumacher crashed.
As he tried to rejoin, he was hit by Tyrell driver Mika Salo who was in turn hit by Häkkinen. All three cars retired and the marshals had their work cut out to clear the track. Fortunately there were only four cars circulating, with Frentzen running last. Frentzen who so easily could have been leading the race decided to pull into the pits on the penultimate lap as he was running last anyway and everyone else had already seen the checkered flag.
Therefore only Panis, Coulthard and Herbert were counted as finishing the race (even though Frentzen was the last car still racing), with the Frenchman winning his one and only Grand Prix and Ligier’s first win in 15 seasons. Frentzen, Salo and Häkkinen were classified in the final points positions with Irvine credited with seventh place.
The 1996 Monaco Grand Prix has to be one of the most exciting and yet heartbreaking races that I have seen. I have never seen a Grand Prix that has had so many drivers retire from the Grand Prix. This Grand Prix to this day currently still holds the record for the fewest number of cars to be running at the end of a Grand Prix race.
It will also be remembered as the only race ever won by the Ligier team, as well as being the first victory for Mugen Motorsports and also for Panis himself. Panis showed throughout the race with some determination and great driving to gain the lead of the race when the opportunity arose and he was rewarded with a cracking race win for his hard work. And what a Grand Prix victory to have won and it’s a Grand Prix that many fans still enjoy watching and reliving today.
And as the 1996 World Championship leaded towards the next round in Spain at the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, Hill was still leading the Driver’s Championship by 42 points ahead of Villeneuve twenty points behind with 22 points and Schumacher in third with 16 points.