Last Hurrah for Les Bleus
There was no team more patriotically French than Ligier. Many say that this was their downfall. When the team became Prost in 1997, the inevitable move to Peugeot engines in 1998 was the first step in a chain of unfortunate events which brought down the team. But five and a half years before the team folded, this team were winners once again. This article looks back at the last race win for the Ligier team.
That final win - at Monaco in 1996 - has surely gone down as one of the most bizarre wins in history. The 1996 Formula One world championship had been a straightforward affair with Williams-Renault winning every race, prior to the circus arriving in Monaco. Michael Schumacher's challenge had been dented by a recalcitrant Ferrari, which had all the poise and grace of an elephant on a tight rope.
Olivier Panis was in his third season with Ligier, and his second season with Mugen-Honda power. Mugen had been involved with Formula One since 1991 (when they prepared Tyrrell's Hondas), but hitherto had not scored a win. That was all to change around the streets of Monte Carlo.
Ligier had of course had been involved with Formula One since 1976, and had scored eight victories. The most recent of those victories had been Jacques Laffite's victory in the 1981 Canadian Grand Prix. Put into context, that was a similar amount of time to Michael Schumacher's entire Formula One career.
Ligier's fortunes took something of a dive in the mid 1980s. For example, Rene Arnoux spoke unfavourably about his Alfa Romeo engine pre-season in 1987. The French and Italian collaboration was always destined to end in tears, and Rene's comments were particularly poorly timed as Fiat had just bought Alfa Romeo. Their F1 ambitions were naturally behind Ferrari, and they took no time in pulling the plug on the Ligier operation.
Some say that anyone contemplating running a French F1 team, with all the politics that that involves was doomed to fail. Matters were never helped by the flamboyant Guy Ligier, a former rugby player renowned for his short temper. Indeed, in his book Inside Formula One Nigel Roebuck notes that at Dijon one year, as paddock folklore has it, Ligier is alleged to have attacked the car of a circuit official with a fire extinguisher, only to realize that it wasn't the circuit official's car.
He was also alleged to have thrown a race official across the room when he interrupted him, only to realize that the poor chap worked for France Telecom and had come to fix the phones. When Ligier had made a partial recovery in 1993, the combination of Renault engines and Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell bringing fifth place the constructor's championship, Guy Ligier was no longer directly involved with the team.
The following year Olivier Panis made his debut with Ligier. A former formula 3000 champion for DAMS, he made a fantastic start to his Grand Prix career, finishing all but one of the races in 1994, including a somewhat fortuitous second place in German Grand Prix at Hockenheim. In 1995, Martin Brundle undoubtedly did a better job, but he only had the Ligier drive part-time, with Aguri Suzuki filling the second car at selected Grands Prix as part of the team's Mugen-Honda engine deal.
That said, Panis finished on the podium in the Australian Grand Prix in a car smoking and clunking over the line, thanks mainly to just about everybody else falling off the road. But early 1996 had not been kind to Ligier. Panis had only scored one point for 6th place in the Brazilian Grand Prix. Panis' milk-monied teammate Pedro Diniz was pointless and to rub it in was almost barbecued by his fuel-spewing Ligier in Argentina. The team looked far from the podium, and race wins appeared out of the question.
Qualifying at Monaco saw Michael Schumacher on pole with his nemesis Damon Hill on the front row next to him. It was the first Ferrari pole at Monaco since 1979 - if Michael could convert it into a win, it would be the first for the Prancing horse since the great Gilles Villeneuve triumphed in the box on wheels, with a turbo in the back 126C in 1981.
Qualifying had not been without controversy though. Schumacher had completed his hot lap and was cruising slowly back to the pits, waving to the crowd. Gerhard Berger came upon him in his Benetton, and had to take desperate avoiding action, which led to him spinning backwards into the harbour front chicane. Unlike the events of the Monaco GP ten years later, Michael was not penalised. Panis qualified down in 14th place, his second worst qualifying performance of the year thus far.
On race day, the circuit was wet, due to a storm in the morning. Despite the seemingly obvious choice of rain tyres, in a move of characteristic bravery/madness Jos Verstappen chose to start the race on slicks. This sort of plan had worked for Keke Rosberg back in 1983 - he simply drove away from everyone else as the track dried out.
Verstappen on the other hand had something of a red mist episode as the lights went out. Rather than bide his time and wait for the race to come to him, he decided the best strategy was to try and pass as many cars as possible off the line. Verstappen's master plan lasted approximately 16 seconds. Going into Ste Devote, Jos attempted to go around the outside of Mika Hakkinen, touched the McLaren, and ran out of road finding a nice bit of Armco, leaving a bent Arrows chassis and a lot of explaining to do to Tom Walkinshaw.
Into Loews, Hill led from Schumacher and the two Benettons of Alesi and Berger. Then, driving down to Portier, Michael incredibly clipped the pavement on the right-hand side and oversteered, forcing him to apply opposite lock, only for the tyres to bite the road and dump him unceremoniously into the barriers. It was an uncharacteristic, unforced error that made Jos Verstappen looked like Fangio.
Barrichello then spun at Rascasse in his Jordan. Panis was already up to 11th. On lap 2, Irvine began what was to be a race long battle with Frentzen. Coming into the harbour chicane, the Ulsterman got it all wrong, outbraked himself, and the German in the Swiss Sauber got alongside. The grunt of the Ferrari V10 got Irvine out of trouble down to the swimming pool this time, but it was obvious that neither the conditions or the setup on his car were to Eddie's liking.
Irvine's tardiness allowed Coulthard to cruise up to the back of Frentzen. On closer inspection though, whoever was in the McLaren was wearing one of Michael Schumacher's helmets. The story was that Coulthard was having misting problems in the wet conditions, and had asked to borrow one of Michael's, supposedly because of their similarly shaped heads, but also probably because of the Marlboro sponsorship connection between McLaren and Ferrari.
While all this was going on, Hill was simply romping away with the race at the front. At the start of lap three he had a nine second lead. The Hill/Williams combination was simply unstoppable. Damon's father, Graham Hill, was known as Mr. Monaco having won there five times, and Damon was desperate to get a victory on the streets of Monte Carlo. The year before, he had been desperately disappointed to be beaten by Schumacher, and he had a real desire to make amends for it in 1996.
Ricardo Rosset then dropped it at the Rascasse ending up backwards against the barrier. Curiously, it was the same place he would end up at two years later in a Tyrrell, when a pathetic attempt at a spin turn only managed to wedge his car against the guardrail. Panis at this point was stuck behind Brundle. Martin was without doubt a specialist on street circuits. But the Jordan didn't like the greasy conditions, and Panis was able to scoot past at the harbour chicane. Hill continued to pull away at the front. 70 laps to go.
Lap 9 and Berger slowed whilst in third place. He came into the pits where the team plugged a laptop into the Benetton Renault, but to no avail Gerhard popped his belts and was done for the afternoon. Panis was now P10, behind Mika Salo and Johnny Herbert. Up front, Hill rattled off a series of fastest laps from laps nine to eleven, but the track was drying particularly slowly, possibly due to the fact that by lap 11 there was only 12 runners left to clear the water, such was the attrition rate.
Irvine, third behind Hill and Alesi on lap 15, was now struggling in a serious way - Frentzen crawling all over the back of him in the swimming pool section. Irvine was doing his best, but he simply had no traction. The wheels were spinning manically in the traction zones, and the rear end snaking around under braking. Obviously Frentzen was faster and a lap later he almost collected the hapless Irvine as he braked for the swimming pool.
A few corners later, it ended in disaster Heinz-Harald nerfed the back end of the Ferrari trying to get past into Ste Devote. It was enough to break the centre support on his front wing, and the Sauber fell back behind Martin Brundle. Frentzen wasn't to know it at the time, but that dive at Irvine probably cost him his first win. Whilst all this was happening, Panis passed Mika Hakkinen and was now P8.
Fourteen and a half seconds in the pits for a new nose, and a new set of wets (the Sauber team having overruled Heinz-Harald, who had asked for a set of slicks), and Frentzen was back in the fray albeit way down the order. Lap 19 and the first car was lapped. Luca Badoer in his atomic banana coloured Forti was passed by Hill. He wasn't having a half bad race 12th place would normally be very respectable for Forti.
The laps times were now continuing to tumble as the track gradually dried, into the 1min 45s and it wouldn't be long before a change to slicks would have been prudent. Then a Sauber Ford did the then-fastest lap of the race. Frentzen, with a 1min 44s lap went a full three quarters of a second faster than the Williams out front! The German was charging, and would have been a sure bet for the race but for his earlier mishap.
Villeneuve, showing his dislike of Monaco and of the wet in general, was down in fifth over a minute behind his team-mate out front. Despite being a feisty, aggressive racer throughout his career, the truth was that he never really came to grips with the streets of Monte Carlo at any point in his career. 55 laps to go would they all make it to the full race distance?
You could now see a visible dry line appearing on the track. Damon Hill's pit board gave a clue to what was happening next. Although L1 suggested he was at the end of a stint, he stayed out at the end of the lap, having had to lap Frentzen, who only let him through at the harbour chicane. But he was so far ahead of Jean Alesi anyway it didn't really matter. Hill could get out of the car, have a cup of tea, and still come out in the lead.
Frentzen in at the end of lap 26 and finally changed to dries. Hill was in on lap 28 and changed to dries. A slight mistake at the Tabac on his in lap cost him time, and he wasn't able to get out in front of Alesi. But with Jean still to stop, Damon would get his lead back. Panis made his only stop of the race from 9th, changing to dries on lap 28 as well. McLaren brought in Hakkinen before Coulthard - which in hindsight possibly cost the Scot victory as well.
It was now a no-brainer in terms of tyre choice. The tyres to be on to the extent that Damon on his slicks drove around the outside of the wet shod Alesi on the run up the hill to Casino square - was clearly slicks. Cars poured into the pits to make their change to the dry rubber. The race was now one hour old, half way to the two-hour time limit.
It was now Hill from Alesi and Irvine. Having pitted for slicks comparatively early, Panis had climbed up the dizzying heights of 4th! He was looking at quadrupling his points tally for the season. Brundle lost it on lap 30 coming through Massenet. His Jordan swapped ends coming around the left hander at the top of the hill. His left rear kissed the barrier, and he left the car parked on the racing line on the run down to Mirabeau. The marshals were able to move it, and thankfully a safety car period wasn't needed.
Panis was now going at a ridiculously fast rate. On lap 33 he was five seconds faster than Hill up front. He was catching Irvine hand over fist and was just two seconds behind him. Through the Tabac and the swimming pool, into Anthony Noghes, he was almost welded to Irvine's gearbox. A camera mounted behind his front wishbone and pointing at the inside of his left front, allowed the TV viewer see his brakes glowing as he did everything he could to find a way through.
Lap 35 and Panis nearly did a Frentzen. As he and Irvine came down into the Loews hairpin, Olivier saw his chance. He shoved his car down the inside of Irvine, locking up and banging wheels with the Ferrari. With slightly-damaged steering, Oliver ran on to live another day, but Irvine slithered to the outside of the hairpin, and stalled the engine. However, because his car was in a dangerous position, he was given a penalty-free push by the marshals. He got the car going again on the run down the hill.
He drove very slowly back to the pits. The reason why became all too obvious when he got there, as Eddie began frantically gesticulating towards his belts, while his crew busied themselves with changing his wheels and replacing his nosecone. He had actually undone his belts before the marshals had helped him at the hairpin. His belts done up again, he set off - only to stall the engine as he pulled out of his pit box!
Panis set the fastest lap on lap 37, and was now catching Jean Alesi in 2nd place slowly but surely. Irvine rejoined the track right in front of Panis, albeit a lap down. Eddie very sportingly let the Ligier through down at Mirabeau. But suddenly on lap 40, Jonathan Palmer in the BBC commentary box exclaimed, And there's smoke out of the back of the Williams! Coming into the tunnel, the normally bulletproof Renault engine in the back of Damon Hill's car had let go.
Trailing a plume of smoke, he disappeared into the harbour chicane escape road and climbed out, devastated that another opportunity to win the race that epitomised his father's career had gone up in smoke. Alesi now led, from Panis. Jean had, of course, only won one race, in Canada the previous year for Ferrari. Jean was desperate to win Monaco and all he had to do was keep going at a steady pace to do it. Especially since his time at Benetton had been a baptism of fire thus. Many people expected him to be a title contender, but Benetton post-Schumacher was not a happy place.
Panis set another fastest lap on lap 43, but had Coulthard just two and a half seconds behind, the Frenchman having had a quick spin at the chicane. Anyone could win this race now, and all bets were off. A lap later, DC himself made a mistake, out-braking himself at the chicane and losing a couple of valuable seconds. 46 minutes of this to go...
Frentzen had by this time moved up to eighth with the retirements. His team-mate Johnny Herbert was having a great run, up to an attrition-aided 4th place. In fact, Herbert, Villeneuve, Salo, Hakkinen and Frentzen were all separated by a couple of seconds from fourth to eighth. Alesi was now 28 seconds ahead of Panis, and the two traded a series of fastest laps. Coulthard had been dropped, and was now some six seconds behind the man from Grenoble.
Badoer's yellow torpedo Forti had made it's way to the dizzying heights of 10th place thanks to the attrition. Lap 54 and Jean made a splash-and-dash fuel stop, almost losing it as he came out of the pit lane where it was still damp. He pegged his lead at 14 seconds, and had nothing to worry about. Less than thirty minutes to go, and victory would go to Jean if he could keep a steady pace and avoid the barriers. But Panis was still creeping up on him, and umbrellas were starting to go up again...
Jean was pushing hard, the back end dancing around through the last corner and getting close to the armco. Jean really wanted this badly. But going into lap 60, Alesi cruised into the pits unscheduled. He felt something awry at the back end of the car. The Benetton mechanics took the rear tyres off and had a good look, put the wheels back on, and sent their man back out, but he was in again a lap later, this time for good. Tragically for Jean, a rear spring had broken.
Against all the odds, Olivier Panis, in a much unfancied car was leading the most prestigious race in the F1 calendar by three seconds from David Coulthard. There were only 20 minutes remaining and Coulthard was charging - desperate to win his first race for McLaren. Further back, Hakkinen got past Salo on lap 62, before the Tyrrell re-took the McLaren on lap 68, the two Mikas scrapping for most of the race. Herbert was now running an excellent third in the Ford-engined Sauber.
Over the ensuing laps the gap yo-yoed between Coulthard and Panis, Olivier keeping the gap big enough to put Coulthard off having a stab at getting past. Then on lap 66, coming into Mirabeau, the plodding Badoer allowed Herbert to lap him, but didn't see 4th-placed Villeneuve coming through as well. Luca moved back onto the racing line, pinning the Williams against the wall, and throwing the Forti up into the air. Jacques made it as far as the Loews hairpin, whilst Luca parked just before the tunnel, spoiling a potentially excellent finish for Forti.
Six minutes to go, and rain began to fall again in earnest. You really couldn't make it up. Olivier led by 3.1 seconds, and DC began to catch him at a couple of tenths per lap. There wasn't time for DC to catch him, but could Panis take the pressure and keep it on the island?
Then, to cap it all off, a multiple shunt occurred on the run into Portier. Irvine spun in exactly the same place as his team-mate, ending up pointing the wrong way. He did a nifty spin turn to get his car facing the right direction again at the precise moment that Salo and Hakkinen emerged from the preceding corner, blind to the Ferrari. They all shunted nose to tail, and that was it for their day.
Despite there only being four minutes - and indeed only four cars - remaining, Ligier got ready in the pits for a tyre change. The rain was coming down harder, and Coulthard was obviously much happier with his car in the conditions. He had cut into Panis' lead and was now jus a second behind him. But Olivier carried on, grimly pushing on and hanging on to his lead. There was just time for two more laps. Coulthard was hunting him down and Olivier began to get ragged.
Panis' confidence grew and he started to pull out a little. But the tension was unbearable. Entering the 75th lap, there was just 45 seconds left, time for one last tour. Coulthard was too far behind to catch Panis now. Only Olivier could throw it away. The clock ran out as he entered the tunnel. He powered out of the last turn and blasted across the line to claim a memorable win. DC came in second after, an excellent race, and Johnny Herbert deserved his third place.
Frentzen was classified 4th, with the already-retired Salo and Hakkinen claiming the last points, even though the German Sauber driver had pulled into the pits at the end of lap 74, leaving only three cars on the track. There is no doubt that, without the Irvine incident, and had he changed to slicks when he wanted to, this win could have been his. But it wasn't, and instead the cards fell for a Frenchman in a blue car, with a Japanese engine.
Accepting his trophy from Prince Rainier, Panis looked like he could hardly believe his good fortune. At 150-to-1, no one would have bet on a victory for Panis and Ligier, but the last hurrah for Les Bleus had not only come through a fair slice of luck, but had also been thanks to a truly sensational drive.
|Article written by Gary Slevin © 2007|
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