At times, it seems difficult to believe it really has been twenty years. It seems fitting that for a contest so surreal, defined for the past two decades by its outlandishness, it is hard to grasp that a full score of years have passed since 19 May 1996 – the day of the Monaco Grand Prix. For it feels like the race belongs to a different past.
It was when unusual Formula One records were set – the lowest number of cars to finish a race with three – and the ever-destructive stew of wet weather, technical failure and errors produced a heap of battered cars and one unlikely winner.
Glamour and glory
Monaco is one of those wonderfully appropriate sporting arenas. It’s a place for the casinos, the rich and famous and all their expensive yachts. Precisely the kind of wealthy and extravagant indulgence that also characterises F1. Motor racing’s fury of loud noises, colour and sponsorship money is perfectly in step with glamour of tiny little Monte Carlo.
Over 75 laps and 3.328 kilometres, 22 men were facing a test of their driving ability. Monaco is one of those fiddly little circuits where there is llittle room for error. Grid positions become important, for falling behind can be very damaging and recovery is highly challenging to effect in those narrow, winding roads with acute turns.
That, however, is also why there is so much competitive glamour associated with Monaco. Because of the idiosyncratic nature of the track, the differences between the performances of cars are normalised. It all comes to the driver’s ability to manoeuvre the tight corners and awkward bends at low speeds.
This is Monaco’s mystique and also why it is an excellent filter mechanism. Because skill and mental strength is what counts, not the performance of the engine, it is here that the pretenders are separated from the contenders. Precision is essential, economy of movement is critical – the scalpel is a driver’s tool of choice rather than the bludgeon.
Schumacher edges qualifying
It was the afternoon of Saturday, 18 May and conditions were cool, grey and blustery. Many drivers, sensing the weather might turn foul in what was already the most difficult of races, racked up individual laps of their own as insurance policies.
Then there came a moment when the track momentarily seemed to clear. This is precisely what Englishman Damon Hill had been banking on. While all eyes were trained on Michael Schumacher, Hill thundered on, taking pole position with a time of 1:20.866.
But this is where the importance of the driver’s skill was hammered home. Roaring his middle-of-the-road (pun mildly intended) Ferrari F310 on to breaking point, Schumacher insouciantly took pole position from Hill by half a second – a staggering lap of 1:20.356. It was the first Ferrari pole at Monaco since the South African Jody Scheckter recorded one in 1979.
Olivier Panis, meanwhile, was way down in 14th, his supposedly potent Ligier running into an engine problem during qualifying.