Monte Carlo has hosted wet races since it beginnings, as well some races of attrition that beggar belief, but the events that unfolded during a saturated afternoon in 1996 combined both to give us a race that goes down in history as having the least amount of cars running at the finish.
The whole weekend up until race day had been dry, and the customary grid that we’d become so associated to that season had taken shape. Michael Schumacher used the narrow streets to his advantage in his very first Ferrari visit ot the Principality to secure pole position, with nemesis Damon Hill next to him.
The Benettons of Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger were next, with McLaren’s David Coulthard 5th. Hill’s teammate Jacques Villenueve never liked the confines of Monaco, and could only manage 10th in the grid’s fastest car. Ahead of him was Mika Hakkinen in the second McLaren, Heinz-Harold Frentzen, Eddie Irvine and a surprising 6th place for Jordan’s Rubens Barrichello.
Two warm-up sessions were held; one in the dry, and then another hastily arranged one after the heavens opened and drenched the track. Oliver Panis was fastest in the first, while Mika Hakkinen was in the second, before his time on track was curtailed due to a crash. Andrea Montermini wasn’t so lucky, damaging his Forti to the point he couldn’t make the start. The Footwork team didn’t even attempt to set a time due to the fact they had zero spare parts at hand.
The race would start after a delay, and after the first few laps it became clear it would be a case of last man standing. 21 cars took the start – the other Forti of Roberto Moreno crashed on the formation lap – and by the end of the very first racing lap a further five cars would be lost.
Jos Verstappen slid into the barriers after starting on slicks, the Minardis eliminated each other after the very first corner and Barrichello spun out. The biggest casualty was pole man Michael Schumacher, who skidded into the barriers chasing Hill, who’d passed the German off the start.
Sixteen cars remained. Hill led from Alesi and Gerhard Berger, and they were opening a substantial gap to 4th placed Eddie Irvine as the laps started to tick by.
Ricardo Rosset and Ukyo Katayama were the next to go, also through lack of talent on the wet track. Pedro Diniz’s transmission gave up on lap 5. We now had just 13 cars remaining.
Berger’s gearbox gave up the ghost on lap 10, so Irvine was promoted to third place. The queue of cars behind his Ferrari started to get impatient though, and Heinz-Harold Frenzten ended up with a broken front wing thanks to a mistimed pass. The German rejoined second from last, ahead of only Luca Badoer. Martin Brundle spun his Jordan out on lap 31 to leave 11 cars left in the race.
Irvine’s robust defense was penetrated finally on lap 34. Panis, who had stopped for slicks and had started on a full tank of fuel, dived down the inside of the Ferrari at Loews and forced his way past. Irvine was now facing the barriers and was completely stuck, even giving up by undoing his safety harness. The marshalls at Loews got him bump started though, and he continued on.
At the front Damon Hill led comfortably from Jean Alesi, only briefly losing the lead during his stop for slick tyres, but retaking it by passing the Benetton on track. Alesi stopped soon after and re-joined 30 seconds behind. The race was Hill’s for the taking, but the drama hadn’t quite finished yet.
On lap 40, the Williams pulled off down a side road after the tunnel into retirement. The Renault engine, a key ingredient in the team’s success that season, cried enough as Damon exited the tunnel. The dream of emualting his father’s success in Monte Carlo went up in smoke – literally.
Jean Alesi now inherited the lead, but the luck of the Frenchman was everything but good throughout his career. His stint at the front lasted 20 laps, until broken suspension put him out for good. Two more cars out, and they were joined on the same lap by last placed man Luca Badoer, who collided with Jacques Villeneuve while being lapped for the sixth time. Both were eliminated on the spot. Seven cars remained.
To take stock, Olivier Panis was now leading the Grand Prix. David Coulthard – wearing a helmet gifted to him by Michael Schumacher, after his malfunctioned – was 2nd, and Johnny Herbert had kept his Sauber out of trouble to be running 3rd. Mika Salo was 4th in the under-powered Tyrrell, Mika Hakkinen was 5th, Heinz-Harold Frenzten 6th, and Eddie Irvine 7th, two laps down.
With the two-hour time limit slowly ticking down, Couthard was catching Panis. All the Frenchman had to do was hold on to the chequered flag, but one more incident would seal the deal for him.
Eddie Irvine tipped himself into a spin at Mirabeau, compounding a miserable afternoon for Ferrari at that very corner. As he tried to rejoin he was unsighted and drove into the path of Salo, who had nowhere to go. Both hit each other and stopped on track, and were then joined by Hakkinen. Three cars out on the spot. Four were left, with minutes to go.
With the marshalls struggling to get the three stranded cars off the track, Frentzen retired his car on the penultimate lap to secure 4th place mere moments before the flag fell.
It was relief all round. Panis delivered a race win under the most extraordinary circumstances from 14th on the grid – a record for the track that still stands today.
Some people see this maiden – and ultimately, solitary – victory on the streets of Monaco as a gem of strategic magic, with the Ligier team brimming the tanks and making the switch to dry tyres at precisely the right time. Others might see as a massive stroke of luck that the car managed to get to the finish in one piece when twenty others failed to, either due to reliability or driver error. Either way, it was an afternoon we’d never forget.