Panis stays course to fly French flag

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The Independent Online
The centre-piece of the Formula One calendar became a freak show yesterday, the line of royal succession at the Monaco Grand Prix broken to accommodate a French commoner.

Michael Schumacher crashed out on the first lap, Damon Hill, a comfortable leader, was forced out at just over half the distance, and Jean Alesi, the subsequent leader, had to retire too as the field of 21 was reduced to a record low of three finishers.

And there, at the head of the trio, was Olivier Panis, a 29-year-old former mechanic, claiming his maiden victory and delivering to Ligier their first win for 15 years. Alongside him at the presentation ceremony were two British drivers, David Coulthard, of McLaren-Mercedes, and Johnny Herbert, of Sauber-Ford.

Panis did his best to express his delight for his team and his country and he had, in truth, produced a consistently aggressive drive in fiendishly tricky conditions, the wet track eventually yielding a dry line. The subdued demeanour of Coulthard and Herbert, however, conveyed the reality of the situation. They were there largely by default, both, through a combination of judgement and good fortune, avoiding the hazards which proved the undoing of so many others.

Hill, more than anyone, is entitled to feel aggrieved the principality's wheel of fortune turned against him. He left behind the pole sitter Schumacher, at the start and was seemingly cruising towards his first win on the circuit where his father, Graham, won five times.

Schumacher, in fact, was in pursuit for barely half a lap before, in obvious anxiety to stay in touch, pushing his unsympathetic Ferrari too hard and thumping a barrier.

Hill was oblivious to the incident. He had eyes only for the road ahead. Then, suddenly, came the warning of a red light. He was put out of the race a lap later - his Renault engine gave way as he emerged from the tunnel and the Williams rolled to a halt on the escape road by the harbour chicane.

Hill will be comforted by the fact his 21-point championship lead remains intact, but was scarcely consoled by the acknowledgement of his flawless performance. He said: "I dearly wanted to win this one, not only for myself but for the team. It's the race to win.

"We have to try again next year," he went on. "It's no consolation to think we had done everything perfectly. It's a long time since an engine let me down and this is not a very hard circuit on the engine. The reaction of the crowd was some consolation. They were absolutely brilliant. It shows I was doing a good job before that happened."

Alesi, the Frenchman struggling to fill the void left by Schumacher at Benetton-Renault, inherited the lead until he had to retire with a suspension failure.

So that left Panis at the front and, although Coulthard briefly threatened to reel him in, the Ligier-Mugen-Honda eased away and the Scotsman resigned himself to second place.

Panis, watched here by Jacques Laffite, the last man to drive to drive a winning Ligier and now an affable consultant with the team, said: "This is important not only for me and the team but for all French drivers. We are only two in Formula One now, me and Alesi, so I hope this will give momentum to others."

Coulthard, who did not start well, said he was constrained in the later stages because his car had been set up for wet conditions and he accepted first place was beyond him. That pragmatic approach served him well during the early part of the race, as he watched Heinz-Harald Frentzen, in a Sauber, hound the stubborn Eddie Irvine and his Ferrari.

The German's patience finally snapped, he hit the back of the Ferrari and his interest in events at the front of the Grand Prix were over. Irvine was to be in the wars again, losing out to the uncompromising Panis, then spinning where Schumacher came to grief and creating a barrier across the road which collected Mika Salo and Mika Hakkinen.

It was that sort of day. Five drivers failed to negotiate the opening lap, chief among the victims being Schumacher, world champion for the past two seasons and here confident of registering his first victory for Ferrari.

He said: "I'm upset with myself. I made a mistake - it was clearly my fault. I am human. It always hurts more when you make a mistake yourself. I'm upset because for the first time I could have won for the team. It is my biggest disappointment in racing." It was that sort of day for Schumacher. As he attempted to ride away on his motorbike he stalled it.

Martin Brundle, in a Jordan-Peugeot, spun out at Casino Square and Jacques Villeneuve, in the other Williams, was unceremoniously punted out by Luca Badoer's Forti-Ford, a misdemeanour which cost the Italian a $5,000 fine and a two-race suspended ban.

Nowhere, however, are recriminations likely to be more painful than inside the Minardi camp. Their drivers, Pedro Lamy and Giancarlo Fisichella, managed to eliminate each other on that bizarre first lap. Their distinctly unamused boss, Gian Carlo Minardi, said: "In 12 years of Formula One I've never seen anything like this. We planned this race in every single detail and it's annoying to see everything wasted by two unbelievable mistakes of our two drivers."

Monaco Grand Prix

1 O Panis (Fr) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 2hr 45.6629sec 10pts

2 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +4.428 6pts

3 J Herbert (GB) Sauber-Ford +37.5 4pts

4 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Ford +one lap 3pts

5 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Yamaha +five laps (hit Irvine) 2pts

6 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes+five laps (hit Salo) 1pt

7 E Irvine (GB) Ferrari 77 laps (span to halt). Not classified: 8 J Villeneuve (Can) Williams-Renault 66 (collision); 9 J Alesi (Fr) Benetton- Renault 60 (broken rear suspension); 10 L Badoer (It) Forti-Ford 60 (collision); 11 D Hill (GB) Williams-Renault 40 (blown engine); 12 M Brundle (GB) Jordan- Peugeot 30 (spun and hit guard rail); 13 G Berger (Aut) Benetton-Renault 9 (broken gearbox); 14 P Diniz (Bra) Ligier-Mugen-Honda 5 (stalled after spin); 15 R Rosset (Bra) Footwork-Hart, Brazil 3 (spun and hit guard rail); 16 U Katayama (Japan) Tyrrell-Yamaha 2 (hit guard rail). Did not finish first lap: 17 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari (hit guard rail); 18 R Barrichello (Bra) Jordan-Peugeot (hit guard rail); 19 J Verstappen (Neth) Footwork- Hart (hit guard rail); 20 P Lamy (Por) Minardi-Ford (collision); 21 G Fisichella (It) Minardi-Ford (collision); 22 A Montermini (It) Forti-Ford (hit barrier and span).

Drivers' championship

1 D Hill 43pts

2 J Villeneuve 22

3 M Schumacher 16

4= O Panis, J Alesi 11

6 D Coulthard 10

7 E Irvine .9

8= G Berger, R Barrichello 7

Constructors' championship

1 Williams-Renault 65

2 Ferrari 25

3 Benetton-Renault 18

4 McLaren-Mercedes 16

5 Ligier-Mugen-Honda 11

6 Jordan-Peugeot 8

7 Sauber-Ford 7

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