On Tuesday 7 May 1996, at Imola, six teams take to the track for the tests that will end on Friday 10 May. Damon Hill (Williams) laps in 1'28"03, preceding Villeneuve (Williams, 1'28"19), Berger (Benetton, 1'28"69) and Barrichello (Jordan, 1'28"85). Alain Prost (McLaren, 1'30"31) also took part in the tests. On Wednesday there will also be Ferrari (new car, old gearbox) with Schumacher. Precisely on Wednesday, 8 May 1996, the lawyer Gianni Agnelli arrives in the pits, suddenly, early in the morning, as is his custom, surprising everyone. He tells Schumacher:
"He amazed me. I found him in front of the car. The visit made me happy. He is experienced, we also need his support".
In a grey double-breasted suit and blue tie, the lawyer Giovanni Agnelli, arriving from Bologna airport in a blazing Ferrari 456 Gt driven by Luca Montezemolo, pays a visit to the Maranello team engaged in testing together with the other major Formula 1 teams. Half an hour of greetings and talks.
"I am very happy with Ferrari and the drivers. Will they win soon? I hope so. The World Championship? It will be difficult, but if anyone can do it, it's Schumacher".
The lawyer talks with the technicians, with Todt and with Eddie Irvine, before leaving for Rome. Says Eddie Irvine:
"He complimented me on a good race on Sunday. Unfortunately we lost a lot at the start. I promised him that he will have more satisfaction".
Later, during the lunch break, Schumacher reveals a few more details of the meeting:
"It was nice of him to come here. It's not the first time I've spoken to him. He follows us closely. He also phoned me after the Nurburgring to congratulate me and to find out how things were going. It would be too long to tell you everything, but you should know that he always wants to know every little detail".
Afterwards the World Champion, who mainly tests some accessories of the old engine to see if there are improvements in elasticity, answers other questions. There is still a problem with the clutch: can it be solved?
"Honestly, we have not yet identified the solution".
How is the relationship with the team?
"The base was good at the start, now things are getting better and better. We understand each other".
To take pole position last Saturday, he had to drive like a kamikaze?
"No, on those occasions you always have to take the cars to the extreme limits, but that's normal for us. By the way, I'm sorry to hear certain things: it's not me who makes Ferrari go fast. It's the job of all the drivers to bring out the best in their cars".
Isn't that too modest?
"No, I would underestimate myself. We are progressing together and have taken a good step forward. We hope to maintain the same pace until the end of the season".
What do you think of Villeneuve?
"He has a remarkable talent. Unfortunately he had a great race in the European Grand Prix, not a single mistake. I am sure he will get more good results".
The Monaco Grand Prix, a prediction?
"Williams is closer. I am optimistic".
The following day, Thursday 9 May 1996, Michael Schumacher promotes Ferrari's evolution engine for the next Monaco Grand Prix. While at the Turin Polytechnic Todt and Irvine take part in a successful debate on the Ferrari, the German is busy simulating a race. The German driver makes five stops, but always for reasons unrelated to the engine: a gearbox problem (from 1995), rain, his own off-track and others of the drivers testing on the circuit A total of 57 laps (the programme was 63), but with very fast passages. At the end, Schumacher says the V10 worked as well as it did in last Saturday's qualifying. Some tests remain to be done, but the outlook is positive. The Polytechnic like Imola or Monza. Same enthusiasm seen at the circuits and a full house for the conference-debate on The Ferrari Myth. Present for Scuderia Ferrari were the sports management director, Jean Todt, driver Eddie Irvine, Stefano Domenicali, head of personnel and sponsor relations, also from the racing team, and engineer Luca Marmorini, in charge of research and innovations in the engine department. On the other side, filling the Aula Magna, named after Senator Giovanni Agnelli, were around 500 students and many lecturers. There was a warm atmosphere - lots of applause for everyone, and thunderous initial protests from the young people who had not been able to enter due to space problems, forced to follow what was happening via video-conference - and a flurry of questions, not only technical but also sporting and human. The university students, future engineers, and even the professors showed a deep knowledge of the topics discussed and a great deal of curiosity. The meeting has a positive, even concrete outcome: Domenicali, on behalf of Ferrari, promises the Politecnico the opening of bilateral collaboration, as already happens with the Universities of Modena and Bologna.
Depending on the possibilities, possible internships could be organised and who knows - perhaps even job prospects would open up for those interested in a company as competitive as Ferrari. About two and a half hours of questions and answers in which the Ferrari men try to give comprehensive and simple answers, even if - as usual - they do not reveal important technical data. They begin with telemetry, then move on to the reasons for breakage, metallurgy, the pouring of technology onto production cars, fuel consumption, and scientific formulas for engine use. There is no shortage of inaccuracies from the students, one of whom asks about 6-valve-per-cylinder engines, which do not exist at production level. Total sympathy for Eddie Irvine: the Irish driver tells of how he used to never train physically, and that now Todt and Schumacher force him to go to the gym every day, while he would rather sleep. Or about the fear a racer feels when driving at 300 km/h in the pouring rain. Then everyone goes home, with a promise: to win as soon as possible. And to this end, Michael Schumacher completes - on Friday 10 May 1996 - a race simulation with the Ferrari evolution engine, thus homologated for the Monaco race. The German laps in 1'28"20. In the morning, as Ayrton Senna is wont to do, he pays a visit to Massimo Galassi, a young man who had a moped accident six years ago and became tetraplegic. Never before has the Monaco Grand Prix, on the difficult street circuit of Monte-Carlo, been so eagerly awaited by Ferrari fans. The Maranello team is on the rise and Michael Schumacher will appear in the Principality with the not-so-secret hope of finally winning with Ferrari after the two second places at the Nurburgring and Imola.
The German champion should make his driving skills count, even if the Williams (more Hill's than Villeneuve's) remain very competitive. The Monaco race has always been considered the third Italian race of the season, and a full house is announced. On Monday 13th May 1996 Eddie Irvine tests the Ferraris at Fiorano, which are then sent to Monte-Carlo. On Tuesday Schumacher takes to the track, and to prepare for Sunday's race he simulates a series of starts and pit stops with refuelling and tyre changes. The German driver also carries out a series of tests on aerodynamics and the clutch, running 77 laps on the Fiorano circuit (best time, 1'03"48) with the F310 with a standard V10 engine: the tests mainly concern a new rear wing, designed especially for Monte-Carlo, where the V10 evolution used only in qualifying at Imola will be used. Then the World Champion leaves for Monaco, where Irvine is already on Tuesday.
"Thank you, Ferrari".
Says Rainier III. If the crisis on the Côte d'Azur, abandoned by its faithful, does not affect the Principality, part of the credit also goes to the Maranello team. Everything is sold out, in fact, for the Formula 1 Grand Prix, the 54th in history, which kicks off on Thursday 16 May 1996 with free practice. Gloating cashiers are also hoping for expensive visits to the casinos, where shiny, noisy slot machines await. Tickets, hotels, restaurants, there is a futile hunt for stragglers. One has to turn to scalpers, unfailing, overpay for a small room, as if it were a suite, settle for pizzerias. The importance of Ferrari, of its almost magical moment, is felt immediately, as soon as you arrive from the invisible French border. One expects bunches of national flags. Instead, the first banner is red, with the prancing horse. It waves, a great note of colour, on the grey day. In the paddock, improvised on the pier, between the motorhomes tucked one next to the other a millimetre apart, Michael Schumacher moves, protected from interference. The German driver prepares the latest plans to seek a not impossible first victory with Ferrari.
"I am optimistic".
The gigantic organisation forming the track (700 tonnes of grandstands, 32 km of guardrails, 13.000 square metres of wire mesh) was, as usual, perfectly formed. Indeed, no expense was spared, as the Grand Prix, apart from polishing the image, is still big business. The asphalt has been resurfaced and there have also been safety improvements. The tickets, which have been sold for three months now, were 27.000, of which 20.000 were for seats. But the organisers know that the attendance will be over 80.000 on Sunday, many of them guests in private homes. A turnover calculated at 60.000.000 lire. René Isoart, general commissioner of the Automobile Club of Monaco, says that the fever for the race has risen to a very high level:
"We have 35 per cent more applications for media accreditation. And the interest is enormous. Why? Because it's been a long time since Formula 1 has been this exciting".
When Ferrari grows, when it shows itself close to success, the audience increases. However, it will not be the French who will take the lion's share of the audience. The forecasts are for 50% Italians, 30% Germans, 5% Belgians, the rest divided between Japanese, French, Americans and British. The Maranello team alone reaches 80%. Meanwhile Gerhard Berger is forced to defend himself, albeit laconically, against an accusation of harassment against a woman. The alleged victim of his advances confirms all the accusations, one point after another, and to substantiate her complaint she does not hesitate to go into rough details that the German newspaper Bild raises with prominence. The Austrian driver - who after leaving Ferrari is racing for Benetton this year - allegedly harassed a 19-year-old Australian shop assistant, Melanie Hilzinger, whom he met during the Australian Grand Prix, held in Melbourne last March. The driver allegedly approached her with a friend, 46-year-old former World Champion Barry Sheene from England, on the evening of the race. The two allegedly invited her to dinner, and for a couple of hours all went well, in good spirits. Melanie says she thought it was a joke when Sheene approached her with the first unseemly phrases: everything around was reassuring - the photographers competing to film them, the music, the festive atmosphere - and nothing foreshadowed the ambush. Especially since they both seemed very friendly. So when Berger suggested to his friend and the girl that they hide in a toilet to escape the onslaught of onlookers, she did not think he was about to set a trap for her. Instead, she now admits:
"What an idiot I was. Gerhard grabbed me from behind at the waist. I told him I wasn't his girlfriend, but Barry unzipped my blouse".
The story continues at this point with more intimate details, which if confirmed would be evidence of an attempted violence. Later, the girl says, Berger would justify himself by saying that it was only a joke, and that it was therefore not the case to dramatise it. Gerhard Berger, 36, who was married for the second time a few months ago to Ana, a beautiful Portuguese woman, is said to have already been heard by the Australian police. In statements to the same Bild, the driver rejected the accusations, announcing legal countermeasures. Questioned by the German newspaper, the Austrian champion insists on proclaiming his innocence, repeating dryly:
"I never bothered the lady".
And on Wednesday, 15 May 1996, in Monte-Carlo, where he arrived to take part in the Monaco Grand Prix practice, Berger repeats once again that he had only met the girl for a few minutes, who now wants to gain publicity. But Melanie guarantees that she will go through with it:
"Not for money, but because I want justice".
Contrary to initial expectations, on Thursday 16 May 1996 Ferrari did not prove competitive. This begs the question of whether Ferrari is in hiding on this first free practice day of the Monaco Grand Prix. Michael Schumacher, P11 in the time classification, precedes his teammate, Eddie Irvine, in P17. Ahead of McLaren (with Hakkinen in first place, surprisingly), then Williams, Jordan, Benetton, Ligier and Sauber. A bit too much to be credible. In the sense that the situation when it's time to get serious - on Saturday, in qualifying - should be quite different. And besides, it is Schumacher himself who is calm.
"I am calm and relaxed. The car is going pretty well, we have confidence. In the first tests I always ran with a lot of fuel in the tank, using only one set of tyres. I also had a bit of understeer, but it can be eliminated. And at the end there was a problem with the gearbox control. Crisis? No kidding. If I had been pushing and we were at this point, I would be worried. But I'm not. You'll see that the improvements of Imola will be confirmed here too".
In fact, Ferrari does not participate in the final rush, when everyone is testing to check the potential of the cars. Many drivers mount new tyres and empty the tank to be light, as one does when one wants a good performance. This is the case with Hakkinen, Coulthard, Barrichello, Panis, Villeneuve, Brundle and Frentzen. Instead, Hill and the pair of Benetton drivers, Alesi and Berger, remain hidden. Williams, therefore, is still in a strong position, at least with the English leader of the standings, second and detached by only 0.039 seconds. More difficult is the position of Villeneuve, who is brushing up on the circuit he hasn't been on since Formula 3. It must be admitted, however, that with each race there is someone who improves as McLaren makes progress. The top eleven drivers are within less than a second of each other. And that is significant. Ferrari, as mentioned, apparently does not force the pace. Not least because Schumacher is stuck in the pits in the final minutes with a gear selector failure due to the hydraulic control system. Irvine makes the wrong settings and is slowed down by an oil leak from the engine sump. It is therefore likely that the values expressed will have to change at the decisive moment. Todt remains cautious:
"We have not yet found the ideal set-up, but we have worked well for the race. For the grid we are aiming for a place in the first three rows".
If it were the third, it would be a disaster on a circuit where half a race is won by starting on pole. And there is no shortage of thrills. The sensations here are always strong. On this street circuit, the single-seaters travel flush with the barriers even at 280 km/h. Centimetres, sometimes millimetres, from impact. The risks are real and there is often fear. The Dutchman Verstappen and the Brazilian Diniz know something about this, as they taste the harshness of the guardrails at Rascasse. With pieces of the car flying all over the place. Schumacher also performs a textbook spin at the same point. The important thing is not to make a mistake in qualifying. the German is serene
"No crisis, no joke: the Ferrari is going pretty well, I just preferred to fine-tune it".
But there were problems with Schumacher's gearbox in action on the Monte-Carlo track...
"You will see that we will confirm the improvements of Imola".
The following day, however, Michael Schumacher hit the brakes. Not on the pedal of his Ferrari, but with words. For the qualifying scheduled for Saturday 18 May 1996, between 1:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m., the World Champion appears less optimistic than he was on Thursday.
"It will be a very tough battle. And it is not certain that we will be among the winners".
"At Imola our car had gone very well, better than expected. Here it is something else. I am bothered by an excess of understeer that sometimes turns into oversteer. So the car, without an ideal set-up, becomes unpredictable. We have improved the clutch system for the start, but it is still not perfect. We know what has to be done, but it's not easy".
The German driver has just come back from a briefing with the Maranello team engineers. He has meticulously prepared the strategy for today. Everything must be under control, as he likes it.
"For the gearbox there are no problems. We found out what had happened, but we couldn't intervene during practice. It will also take a bit of luck, although I never expect gifts. You have to be able to earn your own results".
A crowd of fans surrounds Schumacher, who signs autographs for three quarters of an hour.
"There is a great atmosphere. With a lot of stress: I enjoy being in the car, driving. Afterwards, everything becomes difficult. You can't go to buy bread or lead a normal life, because they haunt you and the weekend becomes too long, tiring".
Someone tells Michael Schumacher what Giovanni Agnelli said on television:
"If I could choose between the Champions Cup and the Formula 1 World Championship, I would prefer the former. Because it is more difficult to get to the final and win".
Schumacher first thinks and then responds:
"If we put it that way, it may well be true. But maybe it's just an impression. If you look at Williams, everything seems easy. Instead there is enormous competitiveness. And I think the Advocate knows how difficult it is even among us to live this situation and especially to win".
Have Agnelli or Montezemolo called Schumacher in the last few hours?
"No, I normally talk to them after the races. But I don't feel alone, I have Jean Todt".
In any case, on Saturday 18 May 1996, the Advocate will be in the pits to see for himself what will happen. The eve of the challenge passed as usual. Thousands of people in the paddock browsing, an incredible crush. Two fans fall off the pier into the sea, but are quickly recovered. The drivers cross the tide quickly, jostling their way through. Hakkinen repeats that he could also provide the surprise with his McLaren, Hill says he is very confident, remembering that his father had won five times. But the idle hours are also used to gossip, or to tell team and driver secrets, to pick up indiscretions. And in this respect many rumours circulate, some of them quite spicy. We learn - this much is certain - that Benetton sent Alesi and Berger on Monday 13th May and Tuesday 14th May 1996 to a dragster track (a long and wide straight) north of Silverstone. Up there, far from prying eyes, Jean and Gerhard worked for 12 consecutive hours each. Thirty or so practice starts and simulated pit-stop refuelling. As for Alesi, just to keep him quiet, Flavio Briatore is said to have asked him to keep his relatives and girlfriend away for a few weeks. Poor Kumiko would have been deprived of her pass to enter the pits. One thing is certain: the beautiful and reserved Japanese model-actress, who has been accompanying the Sicilian-born driver for a year, has not been seen these days. There is also talk of Berger and his judicial misadventures for sexual harassment. But the Austrian jokes about the affair:
'That Australian girl who denounced me and Barry Sheene is trying to speculate on a non-existent story. She claims we would have touched her breasts. Do you really think we would have limited ourselves to that? As a rule we love to get to the bottom of things".
One story leads to another. And the latest one has the improbable. Apparently a driver told his team-manager that on Thursday, during testing, he was distracted by radio interference while in his car. He would have listened for a few moments to a persuasive voice engaged in sexy stories. A pomo-telephone call. Would it be true? Open hostilities, then, while in the afternoon there will also be the prestigious Formula 3 race. Among the competitors are the son of Jean-Pierre Beltoise, who won here in Formula 1 in 1973, and the scion of the designer Mordillo. In pole, however, is Italian Jarno Trulli. And if a good day is seen in the morning...
"Yes, lawyer Agnelli attended our technical meeting this morning. He gave us some advice, on how to set up the car. And we saw the results".
On Saturday 18 May 1996, Michael Schumacher, after winning pole position, also manages to be funny. A sense of humour that the German driver only discovers on his best days. But if the excitement for the feat is great, one wonders what will happen if Ferrari wins the Monaco Grand Prix. Says, with enthusiasm, Michael Schumacher:
"It is possible this time. We have a better chance than we had at Imola. I hope to stay in front. If I can do that and if no unforeseen problems crop up, we will be able to repel all attacks".
It will not be easy. The pursuers' patrol is strong and numerous. Next to Schumacher, in a thrilling start, is Damon Hill. Immediately behind the Benetton pair, Alesi and Berger, one next to the other. Then in order Coulthard, Barrichello, the second Ferrari, with Irvine. Further back were Hakkinen, Frentzen and Salo. All dangerous people in any case. And watch out for the usual race operations: refuelling and tyre changes. Last year Schumacher had won by beating Hill precisely in the strategy of the stops. But, as Niki Lauda says, Schumacher has already won half the race by taking pole. A fabulous lap with a time (1'20"356, at an average speed of 149.096 km/h) that leaves his rivals astonished. Indeed, even the German was very surprised. Not least because in the morning he had gone straight into the barriers for daring too much. But when it came to pushing to the maximum, Schumacher did not hold back. In the very last minutes he managed to outdistance Damon Hill by 0.5 seconds, who was perhaps already celebrating yet another pole position. Second consecutive pole for Michael Schumacher, number 12 of his Formula 1 career, number 116 for Ferrari. The World Champion also broke a negative series for the Maranello team at this street circuit: it was since 1979, with Scheckter, that a Ferrari had not started on pole. And the last success dates back to 1981, thanks to the unforgettable Gilles Villeneuve. Yet even Schumacher made a mistake. In his process of Italianisation, letting himself get carried away by enthusiasm, Michael, after setting the best time, starts to turn slowly around the track, waving to the crowd mad with joy. He does not realise that Berger is coming up behind him, launched at full speed, busy trying to improve on his own fourth place.
"It was all my fault. I thought everything was over, that there was no more competition around. When I realised the Benetton, I accelerated and moved to the right to leave the line clear. But Gerhard had to brake violently and went into a spin".
The scene, seen from the outside, may seem comical. The Ferrari proceeds in the right direction and the Benetton overtakes it with its nose pointing backwards. But Berger was not amused:
"I could have killed myself".
They shout furiously as soon as they return to the pits. Then both drivers are called into the race direction. In any case, the marshals do not take action because they understand that the incident was not intentional. But it is certain that Michael Schumacher will be more careful next time. Just as he will have to be careful at the start.
"We have improved the clutch system for the start, I think I can make it to the front".
But Hill, Alesi and Coulthard are not giving up, they hope to repeat the Imola exploit. Attention above all to the Benetton that is growing, step by step. After a difficult start, Alesi and Berger aim at a double revenge, against Ferrari and against the enemy Schumacher. Meanwhile, as usual at every Monaco Grand Prix, Gianni Agnelli gets off the boat and is mobbed by TV operators, photographers, journalists. A quick debate opens, but long enough to talk more about Ferrari and Schumacher, before meeting the men of the Maranello team, asking Todt for information and also seeing Bernie Ecclestone. Lawyer, do you remember when he said: there's a long way to go, the Japanese...?
"There is still some, but less now".
People really like the nicknames the lawyer gives to champions. Did you find one for the German driver?
"I didn't think so. Schumacher is a real ace, and that's it".
Do you remember anyone?
"Yesterday I said Niki Lauda. But that's not correct. Schumacher is to Lauda as a German is to an Austrian…".
What was your impression of this character?
"He is a great guy. Gifted with great balance. Then, for such a young man, he has an extraordinary maturity. He is very competent and speaks to you easily, moving from leadership to the role of technician".
Michael Schumacher said that the lawyer Agnelli also understands a lot... Well, I spent more years in the environment than he did…
Do you think Enzo Ferrari would have liked it?
"Of course, to anyone. With Schumacher we are talking about the ultimate, one of the four or five best drivers ever".
The driver is there, it seems the car is there too.
"Now we need the machine to give us confidence. The grip is the most important thing".
On Sunday, May 19, 1996, when Olivier Panis pulls back the curtains of his hotel room and sees the pouring rain-so much so that a support race will be abandoned later in the morning-he has a feeling it was going to be a good day. And he says to his wife:
"I'll finish on the podium today".
"Yeah, yeah. I think you're crazy, you're starting 14th in Monaco".
But Panis is convinced:
"Yeah, but it's raining, and you never know what is going to happen".
During Sunday morning's warm-up, the fastest, contrary to expectations, was Olivier Panis, who lapped in 1'23"860, 0.3 seconds ahead of Mika Häkkinen, and almost 0.5 seconds ahead of Michael Schumacher. Even on Saturday, in qualifying, Olivier Panis could have done better but his car had an electronics problem, otherwise he could have started in the top five. His race engineer had been crying at the end of qualifying because he knew they are fast and he thinks the opportunity is lost. But Olivier Panis says:
"Don't worry man, the race is tomorrow, you never know what can happen".
Before the start of the race, a violent downpour falls on the track. Since the warm-up had taken place with the track still dry, the drivers are given an extra practice session of a quarter of an hour to run on the wet track. But during this time, several drivers are victims of accidents; among them Montermini, who destroys his Forti and is therefore unable to take part in the race. The rain stops falling before the start, but the track remains wet and all the drivers, except Jos Verstappen, are on wet tyres. At the start Schumacher gets off to a bad start because of an error in his electronic clutch management, losing the first position in favour of Hill; at the first corner there are several contacts, which cause the retirement of Verstappen, who went out at St. Devote, and of the two Minardi drivers, Pedro Lamy and Giancarlo Fisichella, on the uphill of the Casino. After a few corners Michael Schumacher, in the wake of his rival's Williams, also slips with his car on a kerb at the Portiere corner, crashing into the barriers; Rubens Barrichello does not even complete a lap, retiring at the Rascasse. Michael Schumacher, on his way to the paddock, kicks the ground and says:
"It's my fault, it's my fault, and that makes me even angrier. I touched the kerb, I went straight. It's all my fault".
Difficult wet race for Schumacher?
"Yes, but it is for everyone. There are no stories to tell. The accident is my own fault. And the bad track conditions cannot be an excuse. It shouldn't have happened, but it did".
What did you think when you made a mistake?
"I was upset. Mad for the team. This was the first real chance we had to win and we threw it away. Who knows when it will happen again".
Rough question: it's hard to think of a Schumacher making a mistake. The Lion King:
"I am a man myself. I'm disappointed, and I'm very angry with myself, because when you make mistakes the bitterness is greater. We could have won. Now we will have to wait".
And the departure?
"I had a problem because the wheels were skidding, the tyres weren't catching".
Then Schumacher finishes speaking and leaves:
'This is a day when everything went wrong".
Said and done. He gets on the bike, yellow Ducati roaring, and his friend sits in the back. A reporter, ironically, says:
"He goes out at the first corner anyway".
After five metres, the engine dies. While Schumacher restarts the Ducati's engine, Damon Hill takes advantage of the confusion behind him to gain a large lead over his pursuers, led by Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger. Behind the two Benetton drivers is Eddie Irvine, in trouble because of a Ferrari that is decidedly difficult to drive; behind the Northern Irishman there is a long queue of pursuers, clearly faster but unable to overtake the Ferrari driver. Damon Hill continued to keep an unapproachable pace for everyone, while on the tenth lap Gerhard Berger retired with a gearbox problem. Meanwhile, Ukyo Katayama (lap 2, spin), Ricardo Rosset (lap 3, spin) and Pedro Paulo Diniz (lap 5, transmission problem) are also forced to retire. On lap 18, Frentzen tried to overtake Irvine at the first corner, but ended up crashing into him, breaking the front wing of his Sauber and compromising his race, as he was forced to return to the pits to make a nose change. In the meantime the track dries out and on lap 28 Damon Hill makes the tyre change, fitting dry tyres; the drivers who delay the tyre change (above all Alesi and Coulthard) lose a lot of time, although the French Benetton driver keeps his second position, thanks to the enormous advantage he has gained over Irvine. The Ferrari driver kept his third position thanks to a pit stop made at the right time, but on lap 35 he was overtaken by Panis, who with a decisive manoeuvre flanked him at the Loews hairpin bend, sending him crashing into the barriers. The Frenchman continued in third place, while Irvine - with his engine switched off - was helped to restart by the marshals, managing to return to the pits but losing a lot of time. The Ferrari driver believes he is disqualified, and re-enters the stands with his belts now unbuckled. Irvine loses 1 minute 45 seconds before restarting, and his race practically becomes a practice run. On lap 40, Hill, by then on his way to victory, breaks his engine under the tunnel. The Englishman is thus forced to retire. Alesi takes the lead, with an advantage of around thirty seconds over Panis. The Benetton driver also abandoned the race on lap 60, when a suspension of his car broke. In the meantime Jacques Villeneuve also retired, having come into contact with Luca Badoer while trying to lap him on lap 60; only seven cars remained on the track, with Olivier Panis leading ahead of Coulthard. A few laps from the end (lap 68) Irvine was the victim of a spin, after having mounted slicks, right in the Portiere corner, the one where his team-mate had retired at the start of the race: the Ferrari driver tried to restart, but was hit by Mika Salo and Mika Häkkinen, who arrived at the same time. Olivier Panis controlled Coulthard until the end of the race, which was interrupted three laps early due to the two-hour maximum time limit being exceeded.
The Frenchman thus won his first career victory ahead of David Coulthard, Johnny Herbert and Heinz Harald Frentzen (who retired on lap 73 due to a gearbox failure), while Mika Salo and Mika Häkkinen finished fifth and sixth. For Ligier, however, it is the ninth and final victory in its history, the first since the 1981 Canadian Grand Prix. Only three cars regularly crossed the finish line at the Monaco Grand Prix, something that had not happened since 1950. At this same circuit in 1968 there had been five. He put all his eggs in the #9 basket, and hit the roulette wheel. Olivier Panis, twenty-nine years old, family with distant origins in Friuli, believed in himself. In just one day he conquered his first Formula 1 victory, brought Ligier back to success after fifteen years (last success with Jacques Laffite in Canada in 1981), interrupted an incredible series of first places by the top teams (Williams, McLaren, Benetton and Ferrari). And, finally, it made the Mugen-Honda engine, built by the son of the founder of the Japanese giant, triumph for the first time. Not bad, all in one day. Panis, brunette hair, Mediterranean face, born in Lyon but living in Grenoble, married to Anne, a beautiful blonde, a son called Aurélien, comes from the gavetta. He wanted to be a footballer, he played as a forward, but was taken by the insane passion for karts, as his father ran a circuit for mini-bikes (incidentally, so did Schumacher...). So he found himself on the track at the age of 13 and hasn't stopped since. Champion in all formulas, he went on to win the F3000 title in 1993 and made his debut the following season in the Ligier. Says Olivier Panis, his voice thick with emotion:
"To win in Monte-Carlo in a French car is more than a dream. I still don't realise it. But I don't think anyone has given me anything. I went through very difficult times, even discouragement, because the results were not coming. The team had problems. I hope everything will go downhill, for me and the team. I want more victories, I want to finish in the top five in the championship".
Olivier accomplished his masterpiece with determination and a perfect race strategy.
"I prepared a mixed set-up, which was good in both wet and dry conditions. However, the winning move was to fill up with petrol, because I knew that doing the first thirty laps in the rain would limit fuel consumption. So when I stopped to change the tyres I didn't refuel and went back out onto the track ahead of all my competitors. The overtaking? Let's say I had no mercy. I had to pass and I took some risks, I even did well. I don't think I was ever unfair".
Then, the French pilot recounts some interesting details:
"All my engineers, speaking in different languages, were coming onto the radio at different times and telling me I needed to pit for a splash of fuel".
But Panis refused. He knew if he did that, the race would be lost. So he asked his engineer for help.
"I said: Look, just tell me the time I need to do each lap to finish the race with the fuel I have in the car. Every lap, I saved a lot of fuel. I didn't use sixth gear, I didn't push each gear on the upshift. I know David Coulthard was chasing me but when he got close, I pushed a bit more to show him there was no way he was passing me. I said to Flavio and the guys, if I've made a mistake [by not pitting], I'll take the responsibility to say I'm stupid. But if we do that we lose. We need to try and win. My engineer agreed. He told me exactly what I need to do lap by lap. All the lights were flashing. I said: No, don't let me down now. But I wasn't stressed. I believed in my engineer and I believed I could do it. I stopped the car in front of the podium, and the car never started again, because there was no more fuel! When it's your day, it's your day".
Panis' success opens half a smile for Flavio Briatore. Hard hit by the retirements of Berger and Alesi, the Benetton CEO has made up for it with Ligier, the team of which he is majority co-owner.
"It went badly on the one hand, and I am especially sorry for Jean who would have received a nice boost of confidence. On the other I am very happy. And we are growing on both sides, so the balance is good".
As is tradition for the race winner, Panis and his wife Anne were invited to the dinner hosted by Prince Rainier. You need appropriate attire, but Panis have just a t-shirt and jeans.
"The Prince found me a shop and opened it up so I could buy a suit. It was funny".
The Frenchman is on the main table, along with Prince Rainier and Princess Stephanie.
"It was an unbelievable night. For Anne and me, it was a dream to be there. We didn't care about anything else in that moment. We just enjoyed it because we didn't believe it was true".
His team didn't miss out on a celebration, though.
"We couldn't party after the dinner because everyone headed to Barcelona for a test on Tuesday. So we did a big party in Magny-Cours, before the race, with all the team in a pizza restaurant we always went to ahead of the race. It was a big night, a messy night. I have very good memories.
When the car pulls up in front of the podium, no one knows that this is the last time this car would run on the track.
"Mugen-Honda sent the car, with my overalls, helmet and gloves, by plane to Japan. They then rebuilt it and put it on display".
David Coulthard disputed, ironically and out of necessity, the Monaco Grand Prix using the helmet lent to him by Schumacher.
"In the warm-up I couldn't see, my helmet didn't have the double visor that prevented fogging, and I asked him if I could borrow one of his helmets. Something that is, of course, very unusual to do. He had no hesitation and said: Yes, OK, no problem. So I ran and finished that Grand Prix in second place. Which is why, at the end of the race, I asked Michael if I could keep that helmet. In the meantime I learned that Ron Dennis had gone to the supplier of the helmet and asked for it. So, to resolve the matter, we agreed to make a replica for Dennis. Later I told Ron that I had the original helmet, which is now in my museum in Scotland, while his was just a copy".
There are those who swear that Guido Forti's curses, at the time of Luca Badoer's road accident in the Monaco Grand Prix, were felt as far as the banks of the Tanaro river. At the box of the team from Alessandria they quickly went from elation, for a result within reach, to despondency. There were just eight laps to go when the driver from Padova (at that moment in ninth position), after having given way to Johnny Herbert's Sauber, resumed his trajectory too soon, closing in on Jacques Villeneuve's Williams at the Mirabeau bend. The collision was inevitable, with Villeneuve immediately forced to retire, and Badoer also forced to stop just before the entrance to the tunnel, with his rear suspension torn off. And at the Forti team the recriminations increased, after the chain incident between Irvine, Salo and Hakkinen:
"Sixth place was there, within reach and, with that, the first point in the standings and all the benefits provided by the regulations. That is, reimbursement for material transport and various other expenses, plus a substantial bonus for placing. With that incident we said goodbye to a nice bundle of dollars".
Despite Villeneuve's calm comment, which exonerated Badoer of any responsibility, the Forti driver was punished with a $5.000 penalty and given a three-race probation. He can be disqualified for two Grands Prix if he repeats a similar offence. No complaint is even filed by Forti:
"The rules speak for themselves: after all, Diniz was fined $10.000 for a similar incident at Imola".
For the Alessandria-based team, Sunday had started very badly, with Montermini's accident during practice to determine the set-up of the cars in the wet. Just an hour before the start, the driver from Emilia left the track, crawling for 200 metres against the guardrail.
"Thus his chances of participating in the Grand Prix vanished. In fact, the reserve car was also unusable, after the gearbox had been removed to replace the one in Badoer's car, which had been damaged by the crane that had removed it during the time trials on the eve of the race".
Michael Schumacher, the day after the accident, is still despondent, bitter. But, he says, one must move on:
"In racing, accidents are the order of the day. You can also ask Hill and Alesi, who were already sensing victory. The important thing is not to get demoralised. I am someone who tries to learn and looks to the future. My future and Ferrari's future is to get back to winning. We missed an opportunity, but we are still on the right train. I don't know if I would have finished first, given what happened in the race. But even from this negative episode I will try to learn a lesson".
To hearten his driver, President Luca Montezemolo made a phone call:
"Michael rest assured, we will make up for it. Even great champions like Pelé and Maradona happened to miss a penalty. We'll score next time".
The German driver explains the causes of his exit.
"I am not looking for excuses, I made a mistake, I repeat. I am sorry for Ferrari, for the mechanics, for the technicians, for the fans. In the warm-up at 1:15 p.m., when we had tried the wet track and the rain tyres, it seemed to me that by going up onto the kerb the tyres made more prose and the car could come out of the corner quicker. I had performed the manoeuvre a couple of times and the result had been good. Unfortunately, in the race, instead of ending up in an area with only concrete relief, I got on the kerb in a section painted with paint. Evidently the glossy patina caused the wheels to skid. And I lost control of the single-seater. There's no use crying about it now. I will do my best to prepare for the next Spanish Grand Prix".
An accident similar to the one that happened to Schumacher had also happened to Prost when he drove the Maranello cars, in 1991, at Imola. He lined up on a wet track and the Frenchman ended up off the track. One of the most difficult days of a great Formula 1 driver. Says Alain Prost:
"People cannot understand. Anything can happen on a single-seater, even to the most experienced driver. They are very special cars, difficult to control even at 50 km/h. All it takes is a moment of distraction and you're out of the game. Michael made a mistake, and he paid for it hard on a personal level".
An episode that could shatter the German's self-confidence?
"Definitely not. On the contrary, it enriched his wealth of experience. Next time, in a similar situation, he will be more careful".
But can Schumacher play a similar role with Ferrari as Prost did in his time?
"The objectives are the same, the tasks different. I was also called in because I could give useful technical information after my long winning period with McLaren and Honda. He is a kind of insurance. He is considered the best driver, the fastest. He can make the difference, achieve success without driving the most competitive car. It also removes any alibi and forces everyone to pull in the same direction, because they know that if they don't achieve the goal with Michael they will never get there again".
The positive fact is that a very constructive relationship currently exists between Ferrari, Schumacher, the fans and also the Italian press.
"That is certainly true. At the moment Michael can do whatever he wants. But if he finds some enemies, some hostile newspapers, he will start to have problems. I know something about that".
Alain Prost, cast in the role of test driver and advisor to McLaren-Mercedes, is meanwhile leading Ron Dennis' team back to the top. Can he win in the short term?
"We are making great progress and I believe there will be more. Today it would take some luck, some retirements, as happened in Monte-Carlo for Panis. The cars are still not at their best. If we can continue with our programme, McLaren will soon be able to fight for success. As for the World Championship, the big favourite is and remains Damon Hill. Nobody is able to challenge him: Alesi, Berger, Hakkinen, Villeneuve are not a problem for him. Only Schumacher can be his black beast. But as long as the German is behind him, he's on a roll. If the Ferrari driver ever tries hard and beats him, Damon will go into crisis. And he will be criticised by the media, which he suffers a lot. His problem is Schumacher".
Prince Albert was worried before leaving for Atlanta, where he is attending a meeting of the Olympic Committee. He told his staff:
"Be careful, let's reinforce the controls, because if Ferrari wins, there will be a riot, they'll put the city to the sword to party with us".
The measures prove to be partly useless. At best, they serve to channel the traffic of the sad caravans of fans returning in the pouring rain. Italians and Germans united by disappointment, with their flags folded, while only a few French tricolours waved, for the unexpected but gratifying victory of Ligier and Olivier Panis. The Monaco Grand Prix was, once again, full of surprises. A race with many accidents, breakages, forced retirements. Three cars at the finish with even Coulthard and Herbert on the podium, a negative historical record, even though there were seven finishers. Among them was Irvine's Ferrari, in seventh and last place after incredible mishaps. And Schumacher? Only a trace remains. The one left by the German champion in the barely 1300 metres (about thirty seconds) he ran before crashing into a guardrail. An unexpected mistake, but that's part of the game. You fight, you try your hardest to conquer pole position, then everything is thwarted in an instant. Disappointment? Of course. Much more was expected. The premises were very good.
Admits Michael Schumacher himself, devastated by the mistake he made in putting a wheel on a kerb painted with slippery enamel paint:
"A great opportunity thrown away, and who knows if another one will come up in the next races. If Hill - engine exploded - lost a victory that was already within his Williams' grasp, if Alesi was reconfirmed that he has to go to Lourdes to get blessed (betrayal of a Benetton suspension), for the Maranello team it was a big lie. But it must also be said that the fans are used to it by now".
How long have they been waiting? A long time. Passion is stronger than faith, in their case. Surely they will be ready to turn up at circuits all over the world to support their team. After all, a little masochism is part of this perverse game. You dream, you hope, you take cold showers, you start again. Ready to forgive everything, to praise Schumacher who is, despite the vulnerability shown, the new hero. The heart wants what the heart wants. Meanwhile, team-mate Eddie Irvine, talking about his race, says:
"I got a good start, but at the beginning I had difficulty both entering and leaving the corners. I tended to go sideways. I think Frentzen touched me. Then it was Panis' turn, and at this point I thought the race was over because the engine had died. The marshals pushed me and I restarted. When Salo and Hakkinen bumped into me I had spun and it was a good thing I managed to straighten the car in time, otherwise who knows what would have happened".
We just have to listen to the words of Ferrari's team principal, Jean Todt. For two Grands Prix he has been jumping around on Saturday and not laughing on Sunday. Sooner or later the others will laugh less, but for now Todt is looking at the ground:
"Schumacher is hurting, he is really hurting. That's the way he is. He accepts other people's mistakes, not his own. We, on the other hand, accept his because he is the greatest of them all and we are happy to have him with us, and with him we will win. It was a cruel day. We could have won twice and neither car made it to the end".
On Tuesday 21 May 1996, the Carabinieri keep an eye on Michael Schumacher, an affectionate frequenter of the go-kart track located at the Taggia motorway exit. The Ferrari driver, after his unfortunate performance at the Monaco Grand Prix, is the protagonist of a series of laps of the track at the facility owned by Guido Mandracci, a former Italian motorcycling champion. Schumacher has become a regular visitor since he has been living permanently in the Principality, and as soon as he has some free time he takes the opportunity to leave the Formula 1 racing cars and return to the karts with which he had his first motor racing experiences. The military escort service, despite the track being closed to the public, kept Formula 1 fans away, who were obviously very disappointed not to be able to see their favourite.