RACE DEBRIEF

    Later today we'll be streaming the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix in full. As a preview to that, we caught up with Olivier Panis - the man who the race made a star...

    Until 1996, no driver had ever won the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix from lower than eighth on the grid, French team Ligier hadn’t tasted the sweet nectar of victory in 15 years, and Frenchman Olivier Panis was still searching for his inaugural Formula 1 win. But in one of Grand Prix racing’s most extraordinary races in history, all three statistics were consigned to the trash…

    Every driver wants to win the Monaco Grand Prix. If they tell you otherwise, they’re fibbing. Achieving the feat is not easy, especially if you’re starting 14th on a grid of 22, in a car that is handy but top of the midfield at best.

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    But when Panis drew the curtains in his hotel room on the morning of race day and saw the rain bucketing it down – so hard a support race that morning was abandoned – he had the feeling it was going to be a good day.

    “I said to my wife, ‘I’ll finish on the podium today’,” he says, as we speak ahead of the F1 Rewind screening of the 1996 Monaco GP. “She said: ‘Yeah, yeah. I think you’re crazy, you’re starting 14th in Monaco!’

    After the birth of my kids, this was the best day of my life

    Olivier Panis

    “I said: ‘Yeah, but it’s raining, and you never know what is going to happen! I believed in it. I just convinced myself it was possible.”

    Even with the rain belting it down, no one was considering Ligier and Panis as contenders for the podium, let alone the race victory. Even when Panis went quickest in warm up, Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill, who locked out the front row, were favourites.

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    “When I did the best lap time in warm up, people thought we didn’t have much fuel in the car,” says Panis.

    “Even Flavio [Briatore, who had acquired the team and signed Panis] came to see us. ‘How many kilos did you have in the car?’ We told him the number. He said: ‘You have the right fuel for the strategy, this is unbelievable!

    “We knew we had the pace. When you start 14th in Monaco, anything can happen, anything is possible.

    941843358
    This was the first win for Mugen-Honda in F1 and they sent the car back to Japan after the race, along with Panis's overalls, helmet and gloves, for display

    “On Saturday in qualifying, we had an electronics problem, otherwise we could have started in the top five. My race engineer started crying, because he knew we were quick, and he felt our chance was lost. I said ‘don’t worry man, the race is tomorrow, you never know what can happen.”

    The rain had stopped but the track was wet when the race began. And while cars slid into the barriers – like Schumacher – or succumbed to mechanical failures – like Gerhard Berger – Panis quietly went about his business, passing seven cars.

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    The challenge was to judge the crossover perfectly, and swap to slicks. Race leader Hill did it first and when it was clear that was the right move, Panis was the next to box. It was inspired, as the strategy vaulted him up to fourth.

    “We were competitive,” he says. “I could feel it. The car was amazing.”

    Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine was ahead and occupied the final podium space.

    941842984
    Fuel warning lights soon began blinking in the Ligier and Panis was being implored to pit.

    “We knew we were there to race and sometimes it’s very close and very tough. Eddie and I have a lot of respect for each other. He knows I’m not doing it with the purpose to touch him, I’m trying to overtake him. There was no problem.”

    He was third, with Benetton’s Jean Alesi and race leader Hill in the Williams well clear. But then Hill’s engine expired and Alesi ran into trouble with his suspension, forcing him out of the race. That promoted Panis into the lead. “I could see my car on the TV screens as I drove by,” he says.

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    “And I could see how much support I had. So in my mind, I was just thinking – don’t crash the car! There were some moments where it was very close. But they managed it.”

    It wasn’t plain sailing once he was in the lead, though. With 10 laps to go, he was told he didn’t have enough fuel to finish the race.

    1250418
    No one has won from lower on the grid in Monaco than Panis

    “All my engineers, speaking in different languages, were coming onto the radio at different times and telling me I needed to pit for a splash of fuel.” But Panis refused. He knew if he did that, the race would be lost. So he asked his engineer for help.

    “I said: ‘Look, just tell me the time I need to do each lap to finish the race with the fuel I have in the car,” he says. “Every lap, I saved a lot of fuel. I didn’t use sixth gear, I didn’t push each gear on the upshift.

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    “I know David Coulthard was chasing me but when he got close, I pushed a bit more to show him there was no way he was passing me.

    “I said to Flavio and the guys, ‘if I’ve made a mistake [by not pitting], I’ll take the responsibility to say I’m stupid. But if we do that we lose. We need to try and win.’

    941842688
    Panis' victory remains the last in F1 for a French driver

    “My engineer agreed. He told me exactly what I need to do lap by lap. All the lights were flashing. I said – ‘No, don’t let me down now!’ But I wasn’t stressed. I believed in my engineer and I believed I could do it.

    “I stopped the car in front of the podium, and the car never started again, because there was no more fuel! When it’s your day, it’s your day.”

    That victory was Panis’ first and only F1 triumph. It was all the more special because it was a Frenchman, winning for a French team, in Monaco. No Frenchman has won in F1 since.

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    “After the birth of my kids, this was the best day of my life,” says Panis. “It was a reward for all the effort of my team, the sponsors and me and my family. It was a huge thing for me. I got much more respect in the paddock. I was a Grand Prix winner, it’s a big thing.”

    As is tradition for the race winner, Panis and his wife Anne were invited to the dinner hosted by Prince Rainier that night. You need appropriate attire, but all Panis had were t-shirts and jeans. “The Prince found me a shop and opened it up so I could buy a suit,” says Panis. “It was funny.”

    1250422
    Panis is congratulated by Johnny Herbert, who finished third

    The Frenchman was on the main table, along with Prince Rainier and Princess Stephanie. “It was an unbelievable night,” he says. “For me and Anne, it was a dream to be there. We didn’t care about anything else in that moment. We just enjoyed it because we didn’t believe it was true.”

    His team didn’t miss out on a celebration, though. “We couldn’t party after the dinner because everyone headed to Barcelona for a test on Tuesday,” says Panis. “So we did a big party in Magny-Cours, before the race, with all the team in a pizza restaurant we always went to ahead of the race. It was a big night, a messy night. I have very good memories.”

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    When the car came to a stop in front of the podium, little did anyone know that that would be the last time that machine turned a wheel. “Mugen-Honda sent the car, with my overalls, helmet and gloves, by plane to Japan. They then rebuilt it and put it on display.

    “I had a brand new car for the next race. I did get to see it again until three years ago, though, when we got together for a big party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of that win.

    “It was a completely crazy race and one that I will never, ever, forget.”

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