In 1930 the second Monaco Grand Prix was won by René Dreyfus, at the wheel of a Bugatti. It was a cause for celebration in France – a Frenchman had won the race, driving a French car. Allez les bleues!
Four years later they played La Marseillaise again at Monaco, this time for Guy Moll, but he was driving an Italian Alfa Romeo. It would be another 21 years before they played the French national anthem again, this time for Maurice Trintignant’s triumph in 1955 – in a Ferrari. Trintignant would win again 1958, but his second victory would be at the wheel of a British-built Cooper.
Fast forward to 1972 and the first of a new generation of rising French racing stars, Jean Pierre Beltoise, won the Monaco GP, but he was driving a British-built BRM. Six years later his protégé Patrick Depailler won Monaco in a Tyrrell, made in the UK. Of the celebrated generation of French F1 stars in the 1980s only one – Alain Prost – won Monaco. He did it four times, but all his wins were in McLarens – from Woking.
The number of Frenchmen on the grid thinned out in the 1990s, and by 1996 only two were left: Jean Alesi and Olivier Panis. Alesi seemed the more likely to win F1 races in his Benetton, while Panis’s Ligier-Mugen was not a bad car, but it didn’t look like a winner.
When the F1 circus arrived in Monaco that year “Olive” had one World Championship point to his name and qualified 14th on the grid. Traditionally there is little overtaking at Monaco and so there was no chance that he was going to win.
Race day was overcast, with occasional showers. Things started strangely with what seemed to be two Michael Schumachers on the grid: one driving a Ferrari, the other in a McLaren, Michael having loaned David Coulthard a helmet because the Scotsman was having problems with his own misting up.
Michael made a poor start from pole in his Ferrari and so Damon Hill took the lead for Williams. Further back Jos Verstappen, who had gambled on slicks, went sailing into the wall at Sainte-Dévote, after a bump with Mika Hakkinen’s McLaren. The two Minardis also collided, taking out Pedro Lamy and Giancarlo Fisichella. The first lap action wasn’t over… indeed there was consternation as Schumacher hit a kerb in the curling right-hander after the Loews Hairpin and the Ferrari smacked into the opposite wall. And at Rascasse Rubens Barrichello crashed his Jordan-Peugeot.
All this meant that by the end of the lap Hill had a four second lead over the Benettons of Gerhard Berger and Alesi. Game over. Berger disappeared with gearbox failure after 10 laps, by which time Hill’s lead was over 10secs.
After 28 laps Damon pitted and emerged from the pit stop sequence still 30secs clear of Alesi. and then his engine blew…
Alesi was the leader and Panis was second. It was a French 1-2. Sacré bleu!
Panis had jumped to fourth during the pit stops and found himself behind the Ferrari of Eddie Irvine. Olivier was in no mood to hang about and muscled his way through and chased after Alesi, but then spun on Hill’s oil and dropped back. it looked like it was over… Jean was going to win Monaco!
And then the Benetton suddenly started handling strangely. It was so alarming that even Jean wasn’t brave enough to drive this one home. He headed for the pits to discover that the rear suspension had failed. Olivier Panis was leading Monaco in a Ligier. How weird was that? Coulthard, disguised as Schumacher, closed in but could do nothing more. He was done. Second.
Johnny Herbert found himself a bemused third in his Sauber. He hadn’t overtaken anyone all day, but had stayed off the walls. The only other finisher would be his team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who had delayed himself running into the back of Irvine and damaging the nose of his car. Driving into Irvine was the fashion that day as in the closing laps Eddie spun and Mikas Hakkinen and Salo ran into him and all retired. That was it. There were no other survivors.
France had its second Monaco victory for one of its drivers in a French car – and F1 had equalled its record for the fewest finishers in a World Championship race.