Panis waves the tricolor after his improbable triumph. (LAT archive)
The Monaco Grand Prix has always been a race unto itself among Formula 1 events, with the narrow street track increasingly an anachronism among modern, wide-open, carefully manicured circuits that make up the balance of the F1 calendar. But the minimal passing it generates means that starting up front normally guarantees success – thereby making upset wins a rare thing. But that just makes big surprises like the May 19, 1996 race that much more memorable.
The race was run in tricky wet conditions, causing significant attrition and setting a record for the least number of classified finishers (three!) to be running at the end of a grand prix. One of them was Olivier Panis, who scored his first – and as it would turn out, his only – career F1 victory on (almost) home ground at the Principality, located a stone's throw from French territory. It was also the last for the Ligier team, which had briefly emerged as a contending squad in the 1970s and early '80s before sinking into mediocrity for 15 years before Panis carried the team to the checkers in Monaco.
Panis' win was no mere act of inheritance, though. After switching to slick tires in a well-timed pit stop – in itself something of a rare coup for equipe Ligier – the Frenchman forced his way past Eddie Irvine's leading Ferrari with a spectacular pass at the Loews hairpin. He came under late pressure from David Coulthard's McLaren as the time limit drew near, but held on to win one of F1's most bizarre, but entertaining races.
By the way, Panis had been a 300-1 longshot before the race in Europe's gambling capital...
• Also, many happy returns of the day to Dario Franchitti, who turns 39 today.