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Chaos in the casino- Monaco 1996

Written by Jacob Awcock, Edited by Hugh W


Back when reliability was a bigger issue in Formula One it was not unusual to see a car pulling off to the sidelines and retiring. Yet on a damp May afternoon Formula One was set to witness one of the most phenomenal, and expensive, Grand Prix ever.


It was Michael Schumacher who would head the pack of 22 for this year's Monaco Grand Prix with championship rival Damon Hill right behind. Drama was predicted as always in Monaco yet drama was dished up prior to lights out.


Due to heavy rain prior to the race a 15 minute acclimatisation session was given to the drivers so they could get used to the damp track. Yet as Mika Hakkinen headed into Tabac he lost control and crashed his Mclaren into the wall.


The car was badly damaged meaning Mika had to run back to the garage to get the spare car so he could start the race. Not an ideal start to the race for the Finn, but, he wasn't the only one who was in a spot of bother.


Andrea Montermini didn't even get to take the start as he crashed his Forti Ford on the warm up lap. Due to the team’s lack of a spare car Montermini was forced to watch from the sidelines. One car out, the question was would more follow?


Damon Hill led into the first corner from Schumacher; Image Credits: Getty images

As the lights blinked out Schumacher got a good initial start but a large amount of wheelspin left him vulnerable to Damon Hill shooting round the outside of him into Sainte Devote (Turn 1) and taking the lead. There was further drama at Sainte Devote as the two Minardi’s, Giancarlo Fisichella and Pedro Lamy, collided with each other leaving team boss Giancarlo Minardi livid with the pair.


At the same corner Jos Verstappen (father of current world champion Max) found the wall eliminating himself from the race. The field had not even completed a lap of the principality when the first major shock of the day was dished up.


As the cameras filmed the iconic shot of the cars filling into the hairpin, commentator Murry Walker’s already enthusiastic and excited voice increased in volume as the cameras panned to footage of a scarlet red Ferrari creeping down the escape road at Portier with severe front end damage.


To everyone's surprise it was the German and defending world champion Michael Schumacher. Murray Walker echoed fan’s disbelief at this sight exclaiming “Schumacher, Schumacher, Michael Schumacher is out of the Monaco Grand Prix”. Having got a dose of oversteer exiting Mirabeau the German slid on the wet kerbing across the track into the wall. Six drivers had been eliminated before even one racing lap had been completed in Monaco.


As the drivers flashed across the finish line it looked as though the drama of the first lap had been replaced with a calm collective sense of order throughout the field. Yet, anyone who realistically believed that were to be heavily mistaken as drama once again occurred with the Tyrrell of Ukyo Katayama pulling to the side of the barriers at Turn 14.


It would later be revealed that Ukyo was the first retirement due to a mechanical issue as a damaged throttle was the cause of the young Japanese driver’s retirement. As the drivers crossed the start-finish line to start Lap 3, Murray Walker began to list the already lengthy list of retirements, but was cut short as the other Footwork of Ricardo Rosset completed a move similar to that of Rubens Barrichelo on Lap 1 with a similar result: A trip to the wall and an early ending to his race. 


For the first time of the race, drivers completed Lap 4 without anyone crashing out of the race, but the hope of completing a second lap without this happening was shattered by Pedro Diniz who pulled off the track with a transmission issue to become the ninth retirement after just five laps completed.


Just four laps later it looked as though the strategic game play was about to enter this already chaotic race but no, Gehard Berger pulled into the pits, was refueled but no tyres were out. It quickly became clear that this was not a strategic gamble by the Benetton team but instead a mechanical issue which was later revealed to be a gearbox sensor that had broken, eliminating Berger and placing him as the tenth retirement of the Grand Prix.


With twelve cars left in the race battles were occuring everywhere but due to the tight twisty nature of Monaco overtakes were at a minimum. Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Eddie Irvine were battling away and as the pair shot down towards Turn 1, which had already claimed three victims before, contact was made.


Irvine moved to the inside to cover off the Sauber but Frentzen reacted too late and clipped Irivine’s rear wheel. Surprisingly Irvine didn't get a puncture and pulled away damage free but the same couldn't be said for Frentzen; the damage had cause his front wing to get dislodged and he had to trundle all the way back to the pits for a new front wing, consequently dropping him all the way back down to eleventh place.


Having calmly led the race from lights out Damon Hill was the first driver from the front runners to pit for slick tyres having run the initial start of the race on wet weather tyres. The tyres were changed, the fuel hose was pulled out and Damon slid out of the pits.


The question was where was Jean Alesi, was Damon going to keep the lead of this race? As Damon accelerated out of the pits Jean Alesi shot past and into the lead of the Grand Prix with Damon in close pursuit of the Benetton. 


With fresher dry tyres Damon was flying, he smashed the fastest lap set on wet tyres by ten seconds and was right up behind Alesi, practically pushing him around the circuit. As the pair started lap 29 Damon switched from the inside to the outside but still couldn't get past. But, with much better acceleration heading up Beau Rivage the Brit shot around the outside and re-took the lead of the race. 


Lap 31 and chaos once again ensued, this time with Martin Brundle spinning into the casino, hitting the aramco and damaging his rear right wheel and consequently his chances of finishing the race. This meant eleven cars were left with the field not even having completed half the race distance. 


Further back in the field Eddie Irvine and Oliver Panis were nose to tail, Irvine frustrating the Frenchman who was placing his Ligier Honda in every place possible in an attempt to pass scarlet-red Ferrari but he just could not find the room to squeeze past.


Frustrated, Panis felt enough was enough and, as the pair headed into the tight hairpin, sent a move down the inside of the Ferrari. The Ligier locked wheels and went straight on into the Ferrari forcing him into the wall and dropping him back down the order.


Hill seemed to be going well, he had led the vast majority of the race and seemed in complete control, cruising almost. Having never won the Monaco Grand Prix, the Brit was desperate to secure his first win at the principality and be able to claim that he won one of the most prestigious races in motorsport history.


Yet, it was not to be. As the Williams entered the tunnel a big puff of smoke came out of the Williams’ engine and the Brit crawled to a halt at the escape road. From the lead to the layby, what had looked like a comfortable victory for him had resulted in him being the eleventh retirement of the race.


Jean Alesi took the lead but only for a little while. The Frenchman pulled into the pits with a similar mechanical failure all of a sudden the frontrunners were dropping like flies, now the front two were both out of the race just adding to the extortionate amount of retirements.


Now it was the Frenchman, Oliver Panis’ turn to lead the race in his Ligier, the first time that the Frenchman had ever been in a race-winning position and what a race to be leading. All he had to do was keep his Ligier on the track and pray that everything else inside the car kept doing its job.


There were now just nine cars running in the race and as a result battles were emerging on track. Luca Badoer and Jacques Villeneuve were battling away for fourth position. As the pair headed into Mirabeau Villeneuve sensed an opportunity down the inside and he went for it. But the bright yellow Forti-Ford began to close the gap and squeezed Villneuve up onto the kerb and into the inside barrier.


The Candian’s front right suspension was broken immediately sending him out of control into the rear right tyre of Badoer. The Italian’s rear suspension shattered and his car was sent airborne before abruptly coming back down with a heavy hit.


Both cars were eliminated on the spot leaving now just seven cars left in what had been one of the most chaotic races ever seen in Formula One history. And there were still six laps left for everything to change.


On the final lap all seemed comfortable. Panis led Coulthard by nearly two seconds with Irvine running in third further back. As the Ferrari exited the hairpin he lost the rear and spun around, somehow avoiding the barriers.


As he turned his Ferrari around to continue in the race a blindsighted Mika Salo went careering into the rear of the Ferrari followed by fellow Fin Mika Hakkinen. All three were out, despite the efforts of the marshalls and a livid Hakkinen, leaving four cars left in the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix with one lap left to go.


Surely nothing more could happen but, unsurprisingly, as the cars headed up to the line fourth place Heinz-Harald Frentzen decided that he would pull into the pits as the top three had already taken the Chequered flag meaning he was classed as a DNF (did not finish) as well.


This would be Oliver Panis' one and only win in F1; Image Credits - Getty images

Only three drivers finished the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix and the leading one was Oliver Panis. The Frenchman claimed his maiden victory around the casino with Brit’s David Coulthard and Johnny Herbert completing the finishing order.


Points were still awarded though to retirees based on what lap they retired on. Heinz Harold Frentzen took fourth followed by Salo, Hakkinen and Irvine rounding out the classified finishers as they all participated in the last lap. Villneueve took eighth from Badoer and Alesi rounding out the top ten. 


“Catching is one thing in Monaco, overtaking is another” claimed David Coulthard in an interview recapping the race 20 years on. There weren't many overtakes in 1996 yet it is undebatable that there was indeed action, drama and of course an element of chaos around the principality in 1996.


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