Olivier Panis had a difficult F1 career, but the peak arrived on 19th May 1996. Against the odds in a midfield car, he won the Monaco GP with a storming drive.
A Bit About Oliver Panis
Before we cover the race, here’s a bit about Panis. A calm and very likeable chap from Lyon. He was also no one-hit race winning wonder.
We include the above 2010 clip as we just like to hear folks talking in French, plus we feel it’s a rather flattering video of the Frenchman (now 53). Oui!
He arrived in F1 at the start of 1994, driving for the midfield Ligier team. He’d won a bunch of titles in lower categories and was thought of as a potential star.
And in 1994, 1995, and 1996 he was remarkably consistent. And able to bag several podiums (including that first win).
In 1997, he rose to the front of the grid driving for Prost. After only six races, he was at the front of the pack and in title contention.
He was fifth in the first race, third second time out, and would have won the next race in Argentina but for mechanical failure.
He was then fourth in Monaco, before finishing second in Spain. And, again, he probably would have won the latter had Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine not held him up for 15 seconds as a backmarker.
Third in the title race, and only a race win behind championship leaders Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve, the F1 circus went to Montreal. Panis was the favourite for the win.
Unfortunately, after another storming drive, suspension failure led to a violent accident that shattered his legs.
He missed most of the rest of that year, losing his shot at the title.
He drove for Prost again in 1998 and 1999, but the car was a disaster. And he wasn’t quite the same driver after his crash (having to drive with giant metal pins in his legs), so it’s a real shame he was cut short at his peak.
However, he did enjoy various big moments in his career. Podiums and much respect from the sport.
Former F1 driver Jacques Laffite said of the current F1 field in 1997 (weeks before Panis’ leg breaking accident):
“There’s no way anyone comes close to Michael Schumacher. Except for maybe Olivier Panis.”
Panis also won widespread respect for his stunning pace in 2000 as test driver for McLaren, often eclipsing the team’s drivers—David Coulthard and double world champion Mika Hakkinen’s.
That bagged him a race seat for BAR in 2001 and 2002, before he rounded out his career with Toyota. Retiring at the end of 2004.
Until 2019, Panis was also the last Frenchman to win a Formula 1 race. Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc has since taken French honour back up.
But for Panis, his moment in history is secure thanks to that one win. That crowning moment—the one race every F1 driver is desperate to claim.
And he did it in emphatic fashion. A storming, sensational drive from 14th on the grid to the very front.
Just a quick note, but F1 Management won't let you watch clips on different sites. A legal thing. To view the clip, you'll have to click on the title in the top left of the video. You'll have to do that for every clip, as F1 Management is really slamming down on F1 clips on YouTube, unfortunately.
Back in 1996, Williams was the top team in the sport. The Adrian Newey designed, Renault powered car was a formidable beast.
The team’s drivers were Damon Hill and young upstart Jacques Villeneuve. Both sons of F1 legends—Graham Hill and Gilles Villeneuve, respectively.
But the sport’s superstar driver was double world champion Michael Schumacher, who left Benetton at the end of 1995 and was in the early stages of his Ferrari career.
Schumacher’s genius was on a different level—he eventually won seven titles.
Even in a dreadful car that should have been struggling for points finishes, he was hassling the Williams drivers for wins.
Schumacher duly stuck the Ferrari (and it’s important to stress the car was an unreliable shed in 1996) on pole.
Jacques Villeneuve, in easily the best car on the grid, qualified 10th (he never did run well at Monaco).
Tellingly, in the warm-up before the race Oliver Panis was fastest. An omen for his form ahead. He told his wife on the morning of the race he was going to finish on the podium.
But no one in their right mind would have expected him to win.
What unfolded was arguably the most chaotic grand prix in the sport’s history. In wet dry conditions, the compact circuit punished even the most minor mistakes.
And as they set off, Hill took the lead in commanding fashion. Flummoxed, Schumacher made a rare error and crashed out of the race before even completing half a lap.
This essentially handed the Williams driver the win, as the Benetton drivers of Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi were fast. But no match for Hill’s car.
And to be fair, Hill was driving beautifully. Commanding and serene—until his engine blew up.
Berger, meanwhile, retired with mechanical issues. So, Alesi was in the lead.
He was also one of the unluckiest drivers in the sport’s history, winning one race at Montreal in 1995. But retiring from the lead at least a dozen times during his career.
But whilst Alesi was out front looking good for his second win, the second Ferrari of Eddie Irvine was getting in everyone’s way.
As it’s so difficult to overtake at the track, despite being way off the pace he was running in third—but with a huge gaggle of cars impatiently queuing up behind him.
In fourth was Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who was very eager to get a move on. Eventually, he made a marginal error and knocked his front wing off after clipping Irvine.
A mistake that likely cost him his first race win (he had to wait until Imola 1997 for that).
In wet dry conditions, the race was a total gamble. Panis at one point spun after hitting Hill’s oil patch.
But he was driving much faster than everyone else and was blasting through the field—he’d already overtaken seven drivers by the time he came up to Irvine.
Now, the Irishman was notoriously obstinate and single minded. And he never made it easy for anyone (Ayrton Senna punched him after the Japanese GP in 1993, due to Irvine’s petulant behaviour—on and off track).
Panis wasn’t in the mood to stay stuck behind the Ferrari, so made a dramatic lunge into Lowe’s Hairpin. It was a bit messy, but got the job done.
Irvine got started again but, later in the race, spun. Facing the wrong way, he spun back around… just as Mika Salo and Mika Hakkinen arrived on the scene.
That three car accident removed what was left of the field, meaning only four drivers were left in the race.
Moments earlier, Jacques Villeneuve’s race ended after colliding with backmarker Luca Badoer.
As six cars had retired in the first lap mayhem, subsequent retirements in the race meant barely anyone completed the race.
Alesi had retired with mechanical issues from the lead on lap 60, with the Irvine/Salo/Hakkinen hodepodge occurring on lap 70.
The top three then ran as Panis, David Coulthard (DC) in his McLaren, and Johnnny Herbert for Sauber.
DC tried to hassle Panis for the win, but the Frenchman easily had him covered.
Although Panis recently confirmed his Ligier’s readouts were stating he was out of fuel. The team asked him to pit, but he refused. Preferring to go for the win. And it had started raining. So, no pressure then.
He duly took a glorious, if confusing, victory. Parking the car for the podium celebrations, the team couldn’t fire it up again after. He was out of fuel.
Frentzen finished fourth, although retired in the pits. So, really, only three drivers completed the race.
And despite crashing out on lap 70, Salo was fifth, Hakkinen sixth, and Irvine seventh. Back then, drivers only got points for top six finishes, though.
But Monaco 1996 was something else. When it rains in F1, driving those things becomes even more difficult.
And Panis, although lucky, put himself in that position through sheer skill.
His drive was sensational—for much of the race he was the fastest driver on the track. In a pretty average Ligier.
So, thoroughly well deserved as a win. It’s just a shame that Montreal 1997 crash ensured it would remain his only one.
25 Years On: The Memories
In May 2021, Panis caught up with Tom Clarkson for a full podcast on his experiences in the sport.
Particularly at Monaco in 1996 and he includes plenty of extra details, such as how the Ligier team thought he was about to run out of fuel.
He also recalls his recovery from the Montreal 1997 accident.
That includes this horrific accident at Interlagos in 1998, something of a forgotten major crash in F1.
Panis was lucky to get away with this, given his legs weren’t in the best shape at that time.
1998 was a dismal year for Panis and the Prost team, but things picked up in 1999. And he enjoyed a solid end to the season and a revigorated career from 2000 onward.