Monaco GP 1996

Monaco GP, 1996

Once in a Blue moon

EVERY so often, Formula 1 throws up a big surprise. The 1996 Monaco Grand Prix will be remembered as just such a race. Olivier Panis drove like a rat up a drainpipe and took his Ligier-Mugen Honda to a well-deserved victory. The French were dancing in the soggy streets of Monaco for it came - literally - out of the blue. You might say that if Olivier was going to win an F1 race that Monaco would be a good bet. Why? Because Monaco has a very hilly track and both Olivier's parents competed in hillclimb events...

If you are a race fan and you haven't been to Monaco, or do not have an ambition to go to the fairytale Principality - a tiny independent dot on the international map, close to the Franco-Italian border - you should be ashamed of yourself. Of course it is expensive to go there and more expensive when you get there, but it is what everyone in Grand Prix racing refers to as "the jewel in the crown" of the Formula 1 World Championship. Jewels do not come in the singular in Monaco. This is a town for seriously wealthy people only. They come for the tax breaks and to be able to say that they live in Monte Carlo.

It is a bit like a schoolyard for billionaires, where one can hear silent taunts: "My boat is bigger than your boat"; "my car is faster than your car"; "my girlfriend is prettier than your girlfriend" and so on.

Having obscene amounts of money and spending it is what Monaco is all about. In kindergarden the first words children are probably taught - in three languages - are: "Charge it to Daddy".

And why not? Being rich must be quite fun and Monaco was once a really beautiful spot. You can still get some idea of what it was like in its heyday by looking at some of the villas and grand houses in the bays between Nice and Monaco. Set beneath a vast towering corniche of rock, Monaco is still very pleasant but too many apartment buildings have sprouted up. In order to cram in the world's filthy rich, a sizable chunk of land - although sizable in Monaco is a relative term, as the Principality is less than a square mile in size - has been reclaimed from the sea and has been turned into a weird new town of pre-fabricated modern apartment buildings, dotted with palm trees and vague attempts to create a village atmosphere: Peoria-sur-Mer. One can go on about it - there is a supermarket and a McDonalds in the rock underneath the palace - but the fact is that we visitors are simply jealous that we are not sitting on the yachts and spending our days with dizzy blondes who walk like race horses.

There is no denying that Monaco has romance and glamour. This is partly due to the famous Casino which first drew the international smart set to winter in Monaco, but mainly to the fairytale story of Grace Kelly, the Hollywood star who married Prince Rainier.

F1 with its dizzy hangers-on, overt wealth and rampant ambition, perfectly fits the image of Monaco. If you are a sponsorship hunter and you cannot sell a deal at this race you should go back to selling secondhand cars because you will never make it in F1.

This is where teams fight for the best place in the paddock, for the best hotel rooms and for the most glamorous tables in the flashiest restaurants overlooking the track. The Grand Prix is Monaco's Christmas bonus - and Christmas always comes early for those with the power to dictate positioning. The bribe industry flourishes... Position is everything.

And when the off-track fighting is done and the billionaire arms dealers have better tables than the Saudi princes, minor Euro-royals and Chinese shipping magnates, everyone sits down - with a film star or two to decorate the table - to watch F1 cars doing what F1 cars should not have to do, scuttling through streets which were intended to take racing cars in 1929.

But forget all the cynicism, because this is the race which matters, and anyone who visits and does not get excited should really be put out of their misery.

"Monaco represents all the things that F1 is famous for," says Damon Hill. "It is a bit of an anachronism from what we might require for safety. There is nowhere to go if you have a problem. But we accept that. I don't think you will find a driver out there who is not looking forward to facing the challenges."

For a driver Monaco is the ultimate challenge, different from all the other events and special because of the cudos that a victory here carries. A win at Monaco on your resume says: "This guy is big league". And because the track is such an anachronism, the emphasis has been shifted away from the cars. Performance is largely dictated by the ability and courage of the man behind the wheel - and therein lies the magic of Monaco. This is where the men and the boys get sorted. It is always close.

As in all things, however, there are ways to make things happen if you are wealthy enough and so some F1 engine manufacturers, aware that Monaco gets more coverage than all the other races, resort to building Monaco Specials, engines and chassis which have all the right characteristics for this particular track. It is the only F1 race which is worth such madness.

Sheer power is no good at all. What you need at Monaco is low-speed punch and good swervability. No-one admits openly to having all the special gear - some actually deny it - but the big teams certainly make a big effort.

Thursday's practice - Monaco always begins a day early so that the shopkeepers and hotel-owners can make more money - was as pointless as a Friday at the normal races, with McLaren being the only team to run Goodyear's new construction D compound tires, and so we had Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard first and third and - as usual - a lot of headlines in the newspapers about how the team could win the race and how Williams's reign was about to end. It was also the 30th anniversary of McLaren being in F1. A special spec engine came down from Mercedes-Benz; the cars had a shorter wheelbase...

The real business began on Saturday qualifying, and in the afternoon Michael Schumacher took pole position with a masterpiece of a lap. I am sure Ferrari gave him all the Monaco tweaks they could think of, but this was special: this was down to the driver. He may not be hugely popular in the F1 paddock but Schumacher is universally respected. He delivers. His lap was half a second faster than Damon Hill's best and there was only one place that you can gain time like that at Monaco - from the driver. It was reminiscent of Ayrton Senna's great qualifying laps in the late 1980s - and there is no compliment better than that.

It came in the dying moments of the session with Hill ahead by 0.048s in the Williams and Jean Alesi 0.004s behind him in the Benetton. It had been that kind of a session. This, of course, is the most important qualifying session of the year because with so little overtaking in the race the grid position becomes extraordinarily important.

It was overcast, cool and windy, and so we had a lot of action early on as drivers put a lap "in the bank". That competition saw Schumacher break the 1m21s barrier. There was then a lull before Hill came out with an almost clear track and went for it. It goes without saying that the TV crews were watching someone else - and so when Damon took pole with a lap of 1m20.866s everyone was slightly stunned. Hill had gambled on getting a clear lap and now had to wait and hope that Schumacher and the rest would hit traffic in the crowded final few moments of the session. If that was the hope it was a vain one because Michael's first flyer was a 1m20.356s lap and he followed it up with a 1m20.372s.

Hill, ever the sportsman, was generous in defeat. Schumacher, he said, was "an astonishing driver".

Schumacher certainly astonished Benetton's Gerhard Berger in those final moments of the session. Michael had taken pole and was trolling around the track on the racing line, waving to his fans, when Berger arrived at high speed behind him on a last-minute dash-or-crash run. The Austrian had to spin the car to avoid Schumacher and it was only good fortune that they did not collide - the consequences of a collision with such closing speeds is not to be thought about too much.

Berger - who is the drivers' representative on the FIA Advisory Expert Group on safety - was furious and marched up the pitlane to see the Race Director. Schumacher - who is the drivers' representative on the FIA safety commission - admitted that he thought the session was over and was not really paying attention. The stewards chose to ignore it probably because Monaco would have been demolished by Schumacher fans if they had done anything more than fine him. It seems absurd that drivers at the back of the grid are fined vast sums for missing chequered flags and other such minor crimes while the World Champion is allowed to go unpunished for what might have been a major disaster.

Schumacher said he would go to apologize to Berger. Michael is lucky he didn't have to go to the hospital to do it...

But before all this unfurled, there was much joy in an around the Ferrari pits. Everyone likes to see Ferrari do well - not least the F1 bean-counters who know exactly how important the Ferrari brand name is to the sport.

"Michael was fantastic," said Ferrari team manager Jean Todt, "and confirmed that he is the master of this track."

Hill had to settle for second, and behind him were a string of drivers, tightly-bunched. There were 15 covered by 1.6s - a tenth could make a huge difference.

Damon would have liked pole but felt that being on the front row was acceptable. "I was feeling good all weekend and I really thought pole was on. Michael did a good job so I shall have to make do with second place."

His Williams team mate Jacques Villeneuve was not in the same league, the French-Canadian being 1.1s down on Hill and 10th on the grid. He put this down to the fact he had not had time to come to grips with the track. "I am not looking for any excuses," he said.

Alesi and Berger were third and fourth, which was the Benetton team's best result so far this year. Berger was a little disappointed because he was sure his last lap would have put him on the front row of the grid. All the pair now had to do was get through the first corner without hitting anyone else - or each other.

David Coulthard was again the faster of the two McLaren men in fifth place, with Mika Hakkinen eighth. Both drivers complained about traffic, Hakkinen losing his best lap because of the Berger/Schumacher incident and the team was pretty disappointed although there is no doubt that McLaren is gradually clawing back towards the front. The MP4/11 seems finally to have found some mechanical grip and the Mercedes engine is certainly powerful, but the aerodynamic downforce still appears to be a problem - although that does not show up so badly at Monaco.

Rubens Barrichello put his Jordan sixth on the grid which was a good effort, but Martin Brundle's 16th position was a disaster. This was odd because Martin was fastest through each of the three speed traps around the circuit.

"I had good clear laps and the car has run fine all weekend," he said. "It is very difficult to understand where I am going wrong: with the set-up or the way I drive the car."

Seventh on the grid was Eddie Irvine in the second Ferrari. He reckoned he might have been two places higher up - less than a tenth of a second - but was otherwise quite pleased.

Ninth was Heinz-Harald Frentzen in his Sauber-Ford which was a good effort and evidence that at tracks where horsepower is not such an important factor the Sauber can be a quite useful car. An extra three-tenths would have put him in the top six.

Johnny Herbert was not as fortunate, languishing in 13th position having had two suspension failures: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Such things are not designed to inspire confidence in a driver...

Eleventh on the grid, behind Villeneuve, was Mika Salo in his Tyrrell and if this seemed a rather disappointing performance it was nonetheless a very good effort in the circumstances. Mika had an engine failure in the morning, and then gearbox problems in qualifying meant he had to jump into the spare which was set up for Ukyo Katayama. He then jumped back into his repaired race car and went for it. A mighty performance.

Katayama was also in trouble with an electronics problem and then there was a problem with a tire. He ended up 15th on the grid.

Next up was Jos Verstappen in his Arrows and the Dutchman reckoned that was about as good as the team could hope for given the fact that spares are desperately short and there were a string of incidents during practice and qualifying as the drivers pushed as hard as they could. Ricardo Rosset, who still needs to test more, was 20th after a series of adventures.

Behind Verstappen and Herbert was a deeply depressed Olivier Panis who was only able to do one run in qualifying because of an engine problem before making his second. Before that he had been right up at the sharp end and reckoned that his car was really quick and capable of being in the top six. It wasn't, and the chance of being able to drive from 14th on the grid to a decent result was not good. Olivier's Ligier team mate Pedro Diniz was 17th.

This left the Minardis and the Fortis as usual down at the back, although both teams looked a little better than they have been so far this year.

AFTER moderate weather on Saturday, the skies turned nasty on Sunday morning. The rain held off for the warm-up, during which Olivier Panis was unexpectedly fastest. Then there was a tremendous downpour which forced the Monaco organizers to stop the Porsche Supercup race. The town was drenched and while the rain eased a little, the F1 rules state that if there is rain after a totally dry warm-up there should be an extra 15 minute session so that teams would have the chance to run their cars in the wet. This resulted in Mika Hakkinen setting the fastest time before crashing heavily at Tabac. With an hour to go before the start of the race, to risk such an accident can at best be described as dim - at worst one might call it stupid - and that is being generous.

Jean Alesi also showed a lack of foresight by clipping a wall at Mirabeau and Andrea Montermini demolished his Forti coming out of the tunnel. He would not start. Hakkinen would be in the spare.

The rain stopped again and the track began to dry as the starting time approached, posing interesting tactical problems for the teams. Should they run with wet or dry tires? Should they have wet or dry set-ups? And would the fuel consumption of a wet race enable some of them to go without a fuel stop?

In the end everyone went to the grid with wet tires, except for Arrows' Verstappen who decided to risk everything because of his lowly grid position. He would either be a hero or the move would be a disaster.

The grid proved to be confusing for another reason as well: there were two Michael Schumachers: one driving a Ferrari, the other at the wheel of a McLaren. Later it emerged that David Coulthard had borrowed one of Michael's helmets because of misting problems with his own.

When the lights went out both Michael and Ralf Schumacher made bad starts and Damon Hill was able to get into Ste Devote ahead of the Ferrari. As is usual further back down the field there was a hint of chaos.

Verstappen's slick gamble looked good as he powered up the outside and tried to go around Ste Devote outside Mika Hakkinen's McLaren. This is not an advised route to take and Mika duly tapped the Arrows and Jos went clunk into the barrier. Game over.

Further back still, the two Minardis arrived at the same place at the same time. Cru-u-nch! Two sheepish drivers returned to the pits. "In 12 years of F1 I have never seen anything like this," growled the usually cheerful Giancarlo Minardi. "We planned this race in every single detail and it is annoying to see everything wasted by the unbelievable mistake of our two drivers. We have to see the telemetry before telling which one is responsible."

On the run up the Avenue Ostend, Hill drove away from Schumacher, the Ferrari looking a real handful in the tricky conditions. By the time they had dashed through Casino Square and were diving down through Mirabeau and the Loews Hairpin, Damon was a long way ahead. At the corner with no name - the curling right-hander after Loews - Schumacher dropped the ball in a most unusual fashion: the Ferrari hit the curb on the inside. That flicked him across the road and although he tried to turn the car to the right it was too late. He slid across the road and crunched the left front wheel heavily into the wall. The Ferrari dribbled down the hill and stopped under the fly-over before Portier. "I made a mistake," he admitted. "I am very angry with myself."

The crazy first lap was not over yet because down at Rascasse it was Barrichello's turn to go off. Rubens reported that he had been hit from behind on the run up to Casino Square and that the car felt a bit strange after that. When he braked for Rascasse the back got away and he went backwards into the wall. Clunk.

And so the survivors came trolling around to the start/finish line with Hill ahead by the not inconsiderable margin of 4.3secs. That would grow at a remarkable rate in the next few laps with a string of fastest laps. By lap 21 he was nearly 25secs ahead. He pitted on lap 28 and was soon back in the lead again by the same margin - and then the warning light came on in his cockpit and a lap later the engine blew up as he exited the tunnel. It was not going to be Damon's day.

Behind him in the early laps came the two Benettons, running close together, unable to match the pace of Hill as one would expect. Berger looked a little stronger than Alesi once things had settled down but he was to retire after just 10 laps with a gearbox problem. "I was keeping behind Jean although I could have gone a little quicker," he reported. "I did not want to create unnecessary pressure within the team."

This left Alesi all by himself but he never looked like getting anywhere close to Hill. He pitted two laps later than Damon - which was a strange strategy when one considers that when Damon pitted slick tires were worth about six seconds a lap - and so Jean dropped to over half a minute behind the Briton. When Damon retired Jean was left all alone at the front and set a couple of fastest laps before feeling that the car was behaving strangely at the rear. He came in on lap 54 to have the rear suspension checked. He went out again, set a couple more fastest laps, and then came into the pits. The rear suspension was broken. The problem, so they say, was one which has caused a number of similar failures this year in testing. The only way to cure it is in the drawing office - and that takes time.

The reason that there was no-one behind the Benettons was because in the early laps everyone had been held up enormously by Eddie Irvine, who made a good start from seventh on the grid. He profited from the disappearance of Schumacher and then Barrichello and so finished the first lap in fourth place.

For the next 35 laps the Ferrari was driven like a Dutch caravan - slowly and in the middle of the road. Eddie really had no choice but to drive defensively but it must have been hugely frustrating for those behind him. It was all too much for Frentzen and on lap 18 he ran into the back of the Ferrari at Ste Devote. "It is always easy to be wise after the event," admitted Heinz-Harald later, "but when I tried to overtake Eddie it was the right thing to do. I had tried a couple of times and it was the correct opportunity. He closed the door and I damaged my front wing."

Being wise after the event is what a lot of people - notably journalists and team managers - do for a living. The bottom line is very simple: if Frentzen had waited he would probably have won the race. He did not. He pitted for a new nose and then drove some stunningly fast laps, but once behind other cars was again stuck. He finished fourth - but only because there were only four cars running...

Next in line behind Frentzen in the Dutch caravan queue was David Coulthard's McLaren (being driven by Michael Schumacher's helmet). After Frentzen disappeared, David ran fourth until the pit stops but for reasons which are entirely unclear the McLaren strategists decided to keep David out on the track for two laps longer than Hill and called in Hakkinen instead. Mika may be the team leader but on this occasion he was running ninth in the spare car. It was totally illogical - foolhardy one might say - to favor him over David and it cost the Scotsman dearly. When Hill pitted Coulthard was running third, when he re-emerged from the pits he was fifth - and his pit stop had been quick because he did not take on any fuel - McLaren having decided to run the distance on a single tank. Fifth became second as others ran into trouble. He was able to get close to Panis in the exciting last laps with the weather uncertain and excitement at fever pitch, but he knew there was no way he was ever going to pass the Ligier. "It was just a case of getting the car home and getting points," he admitted.

Hakkinen was nowhere - stuck in the peloton behind Irvine in the early laps - he ran seventh after Hill retired, moved up to fifth when Alesi retired and then Villeneuve (another in Irvine's queue all afternoon) was taken out by some appalling poor driving from Luca Badoer - for which he later received a suspended two race suspension from the stewards. Mika Hakkinen was dicing hard with Mika Salo (another of Irvine's early prisoners) when the pair came round the corner with no name late in the race to find that Eddie had spun in front of them and was in the process of spinning his car back onto the racing line. They piled into the back of the Ferrari like trucks crashing into each other trying to stop for a traffic jam. All three were out.

So what was left? There were just four cars running in those final laps: two Saubers, Coulthard's McLaren and Olivier Panis's Ligier. Panis had driven a quite brilliant race. He started 14th on the grid and was 12th in the early laps as he took care with a very heavy fuel-load. Then he began to put the hammer down. As everyone else sat in line, Olivier went past Martin Brundle on lap seven going up the hill from Rascasse Corner to Anthony Noghes; on lap 17 he got Hakkinen going downhill from Casino Square and on lap 25 he passed Herbert at the Loews Hairpin. He pitted at exactly the right moment, taking just a hint of fuel - after the race he didn't even know the car had been refueled - and the stop was so slick that he went from seventh to fourth place as other teams messed up strategies. He then set a string of fastest laps to draft up behind Irvine and being in no mood to sit in another traffic jam behind the Dutch caravan he dived down the inside at Loews on lap 35. The two touched and Eddie was left beside the road, his engine stalled.

Olivier then set another couple of fastest laps as he set off in pursuit of Alesi. When Hill blew up, Olivier inherited second place but the good fortune nearly ended his race as well because he spun on Hill's oil. This dropped him back 10 seconds and made the chase of Alesi a much more difficult task. The gap stabilized at 30secs and then Alesi disappeared into the pits. It was a dream come true for Olivier and for the Ligier team.

Johnny Herbert would come home third behind Panis and Coulthard but he overtook no-one. The Sauber was not very competitive and Johnny knew it - but he did what he could with it - which was a good solid job.

Salo might not have had to worry about Hakkinen had his pit stop not been a disaster. He pitted at the right time - a lap before Alesi and Coulthard - but a pre-race oil spillage made the pitlane surface very slippery outside the Tyrrell pit and Mika slid past his stopping point, despite the fact that the team had thrown down sawdust to try and soak up the gunk. The stop cost him eight seconds and meant that when Irvine spun he was there to hit the Ferrari... He was classified fifth and Hakkinen sixth.

In fact Irvine should not have been there at all. After being hit by Panis, Eddie stalled. Marshals ran onto the track and the car was pushed. Eddie bump-started it going down the hill and then came into the pits, expecting to have to retire, but found the team had checked with the stewards and they said he could race on. The Ferrari mechanics changed the nose of the car which was not damaged, but Eddie had undone his belts in expectation of retiring and by the time they were re-fastened he had lost a lot of ground. He charged hard, setting the fourth fastest lap of the race before his fateful spin.

Of the rest most crashed of their own accord, notably Brundle, Rosset and Katayama. Villeneuve's uninspiring weekend was ended by Badoer. And that was about it...

It was a great victory - a lucky one maybe - but Olivier had driven superbly. More importantly it was a French victory in a French car - and that hasn't happened at Monaco since Rene Dreyfus did it in a Bugatti in 1930.

Olivier Panis Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 75 2h00m45.629s  14 
David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 75 2h00m50.457s  
14 Johnny Herbert Sauber-Cosworth C15 75 2h01m23.132s  13 
15 Heinz-Harald Frentzen Sauber-Cosworth C15 74 In Pits At Checkered Flag 
5r 19 Mika Salo Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 70 Accident 11 
6r Mika Hakkinen McLaren-Mercedes MP4/11 70 Accident 
7r Eddie Irvine Ferrari F310 68 Accident 
Jacques Villeneuve Williams-Renault FW18 66 Accident 10 
Jean Alesi Benetton-Renault B196 60 Rear Suspension 
22 Luca Badoer Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B 60 Accident 21 
Damon Hill Williams-Renault FW18 40 Oil Pump/engine 
12 Martin Brundle Jordan-Peugeot 196 30 Accident 16 
Gerhard Berger Benetton-Renault B196 Gearbox Sensor 
10 Pedro Diniz Ligier-Mugen-Honda JS43 Transmission/spin 17 
16 Riccardo Rosset Footwork-Hart FA17 Accident 20 
18 Ukyo Katayama Tyrrell-Yamaha 024 Throttle Jammed/accident 15 
Michael Schumacher Ferrari F310 Accident 
11 Rubens Barrichello Jordan-Peugeot 196 Accident 
17 Jos Verstappen Footwork-Hart FA17 Spin 12 
20 Pedro Lamy Minardi-Cosworth M195B Accident 19 
21 Giancarlo Fisichella Minardi-Cosworth M195B Accident 18 
ns 23 Andrea Montermini Forti-Cosworth FG01-95B  Accident 22