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Olivier Panis in Monaco Grand Prix in 1996: when you least expect it

© Gabriele Ferraresi / LUZ

Sometimes it happens like this: rarely, of course, but when it happens it's beautiful. It was 19th of May 1996 and the Formula 1 Grand Prix was held at the Principality of Monaco. The fastest spectacle in the world was still recovering from an immense mourning, Ayrton Senna on 1st May 1994. But the race never stops: in 1996 Michael Schumacher was already twice world champion in 1994 and 1995, and won with Benetton; the team manager was Flavio Briatore. But these are other times.

Olivier Panis, zero claims and lots of grit on the track

Olivier Panis, on the other hand, was a mid-range driver, from the middle of the standings and a driver who goes to points. Nobody really knew him, just the fans, only the French, who had nicknamed him panique. He drove in a Ligier: a mid-ranking car, with no pretensions, let alone that of winning. A team that hadn't won since 1981, and that hadn't been on the top step of the podium for 15 years.
Just before the start, a biblical downpour fell on the Monegasque circuit. It didn't last long, but it left the asphalt of the damp, slippery circuit.
The race started late, in the hope that the track would dry out: instead, nothing happened. From the first corner on, little by little, everyone went out. Schumacher goes out, almost immediately, to crash at the Mirabeau curve, Damon Hill went out for mechanical failure. Slowly all the drivers and the first level teams were forced to retire. Everyone, from Jean Alessi to Eddie Irvine, the other Ferrari driver in the race, were caught up in a collision from a traffic light on the ring road with Mika Salo and Mika Hakkinen. So what about Olivier in the meantime? He continued his focus, and kept on driving. He made it his race.

That day in Monaco, however, among the curbs, yachts, skyscrapers and helicopters, things were about to change. Fate put its hand on it.

Keeping his speed making no mistakes was enough to finish first after 75 laps and cross the finish line in a surreal elimination race. Only four would see the checkered flag. After Olivier Panis, David Coulthard and Johnny Herbert in second and third place. Fourth place went to Heinz-Harald Frentzen. What about the others? The top teams? The big ones, the ones who always win? They got nothing and sometimes, that's the way it goes.

L'allenamento del pilota di Formula Uno

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