Motorsport: FIVE oft-forgotten facts about the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix

FIVE oft-forgotten facts about the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix

James Gent By James Gent
April 8, 2020
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As part of its new ‘Rewind’ series in lieu of Grand Prix in 2020, Formula 1 this past weekend posted the 1996 Monaco GP in full on its YouTube channel. Yes yes, we all know this is the race with the fewest finishers in Formula 1 history (three), the fewest confirmed finishers in F1 history (six), was Olivier Panis’ only Grand Prix win from the record-lowest starting position in Monaco GP history (14th), and was the last win, full-stop, for Equipe Ligier, which would morph into Prost GP at the end of the season.

However, did you also know…

1) It was the first win for both Olivier Panis AND Mugen-Honda in F1

Due credit to Olivier Panis, the Frenchman’s storming drive to victory from 14th on the grid at the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix will deservedly go down as one of F1’s great WTF moments, and will almost certainly remain an unbeaten accomplishment around the streets of Monte Carlo.

However, though Panis’ only Grand Prix win is often spoken about, what’s often forgotten is that Monaco ’96 was also the first F1 win for Ligier’s engine supplier, Mugen-Honda.

Before beginning its more lucrative run with Jordan in 1998, Mugen-Honda had only been on the Grand Prix scene since 1992. The Japanese marque spent its first two years powering perennial mid-fielder Footwork before swapping to Team Lotus in ’94 and, ultimately, Ligier for 1995 when the legendary British team went bust. Results were on the rise almost immediately with Guy Ligier’s eponymous team, the Mugen-Honda-powered JS41 scoring points at six of its first 10 races before making its podium debut, courtesy of Martin Brundle, at the 1995 Belgian Grand Prix. Nine months later, Panis took Mugen-Honda to the top step in F1 for the very first time.

It would be another two years before Mugen-Honda celebrated its second win, Damon Hill claiming Jordan Grand Prix’s first F1 win at an equally mental Belgian Grand Prix in 1998. Heinz-Harald Frentzen would add two more to Mugen-Honda’s final tally in 1999, again with Jordan, at France and Italy. Fittingly, Frentzen also secured the Japanese marque’s last podium at the 2000 United States Grand Prix before the engine supplier disappeared from F1 at the end of that season.

2) It’s the only race that neither Williams driver finished in 1996

Damon Hill had it in the bag.

Even though the future 1996 World Champion had been out-qualified by Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher – no shame in that at a wet Monaco, of all places – Hill nevertheless managed to out-drag his pole-sitting German rival into Sainte-Dévote before disappearing at a rapid rate of knots into the distance. After one lap, Hill was 4.3 seconds ahead of 2nd-placed Jean Alesi, 6.1 seconds ahead after two laps, and almost 10 seconds up the road after three. When his Renault V10 cruelly let go on lap 40, Hill had 28 seconds in his pocket.

Williams teammate Jacques Villeneuve meanwhile endured a tough weekend at Monaco in 1996. Fair’s fair, having never turned a wheel in anger around the principality before Thursday’s free practice session, the French-Canadian qualified a solid if unspectacular 10th, and had climbed to 5th by lap 20 in the difficult conditions. Inexperience though would ultimately be Villeneuve’s downfall, an overly audacious passing attempt heading into the Grand Hotel Hairpin slammed the FW18 into the side of Forti’s (lapped) Luca Badoer, ending both of their races just seven laps from home.

Interestingly, though Monaco was the only race neither Hill nor Villeneuve finished in 1996, it was also the first of two that season at which neither Williams driver scored points. Bizarrely, Ligier benefitted on both occasions.

Later that year at Monza, Villeneuve finished a frustrated 7th after an early collision with McLaren’s David Coulthard dropped him to the tail of the field. Hill meanwhile threw away a potential win by clouting the tyre barriers at Variante della Roggia on lap five. Having taking its last GP win in Monaco, Ligier also collected its final F1 points in Monza, courtesy of Pedro Diniz’ 6th place.

3) Sauber’s 3rd and 4th place finishes was the team’s best Grand Prix weekend since its debut, and remained so until 2008

For much of the early going, Sauber’s Heinz-Harald Frentzen was climbing all over the back of then-3rd placed Eddie Irvine at Monaco, the Irishman making his Ferrari F310 just wide enough to keep the pursuing, and faster, Sauber C15 at bay. Terrific traction out of Anthony Noghés meant Frentzen was closer than ever heading into lap 18, but on the approach to Sainte-Dévote, having been caught out by the Ferrari under braking or through sheer impatience, the German brushed the back of Irvine’s Ferrari, breaking his nosecone in the process. The resultant lengthy pit stop dropped the Sauber to 11th, one lap down.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen eventually recovered to be classified an impressive 4th behind British Sauber teammate, Johnny Herbert, no doubt questioning whether a podium or even a potential win had slipped through his fingers.

Despite the frustration, 3rd and 4th at Monaco ‘96 was nevertheless the best result, collectively, for Sauber since its arrival in F1 three years earlier. Indeed, though the Swiss team would go on to score another seven podiums in the intervening years, Herbert and Frentzen’s 3rd and 4th place finishes were not equalled until Robert Kubica finished 3rd ahead of ‘BMW Sauber’ teammate Nick Heidfeld at the 2008 Bahrain Grand Prix. 12 years later!

Only once though was Sauber’s Monaco ’96 weekend bettered in the team’s 26-year history. That also came in 2008, when Robert Kubica took his only F1 win at that year’s Canadian Grand Prix, Nick Heidfeld once again following his Polish teammate home to claim 2nd.

4) It was the last F1 race at which Jean Alesi posted the fastest lap

Man, Jean Alesi could not catch a break, could he?

With just 10 laps of the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix left to run, the French-Sicilian was in the pound seat, having inherited the lead after Damon Hill’s shock retirement on lap 40 (see point two). When he did so, Alesi was a whopping 31.9 seconds ahead of the admittedly hard-charging Olivier Panis with no more scheduled pit stops left to take. Though the Frenchman had hacked 13.2 seconds out of the leader’s advantage come lap 59, that still left him close to 19 seconds adrift at one of the most notoriously difficult Grand Prix circuits on which to pass. Victory, surely, would go to the Benetton.

Brutally, suspension failure on lap 59 completely destroyed any hope of Alesi claiming his second Grand Prix win, the French-Sicilian retiring altogether just one lap later.

One small – read ‘microscopic’ – consolation from that Monaco weekend is that Jean Alesi did at least set the race’s fastest lap, a 1m 25.205s, just one lap before he retired. Oddly, though his F1 career would last another five years, and despite driving for the still front-running Benetton team for 1997 as well, Monaco 1996 would be the very last Grand Prix at which Alesi set the fastest race lap in F1.

His first, fittingly, was at the 1991 United States Grand Prix at Phoenix, one year on from his heroic fight in a Tyrrell with McLaren’s Ayrton Senna. That was all she wrote for the Ferrari driver until the 1995 Monaco Grand Prix. One year later, Alesi posted the fastest lap twice, at Monaco again and earlier that year in Argentina.

5) Monaco 1996 marked the first of only two times David Coulthard raced in F1 without his Scottish ‘Saltire’ design.

Famously, with both of his helmets misting up during pre-race warm-up, David Coulthard completed the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix with a lid sportingly lent to him by Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher (the German and the Scot shared the same helmet designer). Luck unquestionably followed the McLaren driver: while Coulthard finished a strong 2nd, Schumacher failed to complete even a single racing lap, clattering the barriers heading into Mirabeau Bas with an uncharacteristic driver error, breaking his front right suspension in the process.

Despite the strong result, this was the first of only two times DC would compete in an F1 race without his famous Saltire-liveried helmet.

For the other, you have to fast forward to the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix, at which Coulthard donned a special ‘X’ design in tribute to fellow Scot and 1995 Word Rally Champion Colin McRae, who’d tragically died just a few weeks earlier in a helicopter accident. Though Coulthard, now with Red Bull Racing, could not replicate his 2nd place from Monaco ’96, the Scot did finish a solid 4th, his best result in more than two years. Which does make you wonder why he didn’t ditch the Saltire a few more times, doesn’t it?

And yes, you’ll notice we said ‘F1 race’ above. Though DC did use a special helmet design during free practice for the 2004 Hungarian Grand Prix, complete with a Scottish lion on one side and the Coulthard clan tartan on the other, he reverted back to his traditional blue and white design for the race proper.

*Images courtesy of Motorsport Images and formula1.com

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