Trecherous at the best of times, the 1996 running of the Monaco Grand Prix was made more challenging – and ultimately more eventful – with the arrival of unseasonal rainfall both during qualifying and for a large portion of the race itself. The sixth race of a season which would eventually be dominated by Williams (and won by Damon Hill), it was Michael Schumacher who made the most of the damp qualifying session to position his Ferrari on pole position. Struggling with mechanical issues, the Ligier cars qualified in 14th and 17th places, with Panis ahead of his teammate, Pedro Diniz.
A crash on the warm-up lap by Andrea Montermini meant 21 cars left the grid at the delayed start of the race. This number was quickly culled with Jos Verstappen (gambling too early on slick tyres) running off the track at the first corner and both of Minardi’s cars crashing shortly thereafter. Both Schumacher and Rubens Barichello’s races would also end with early crashes and, after five laps, only 13 cars were still running.
Amid the carnage of further crashes and mechanically related retirements, Panis successfully overtook Martin Brundle, Mika Häkkinen and Johnny Herbert, and following a strategically astute pitstop to switch onto slick tyres, he eventually forced his way past the Ferrari of Eddie Irvine. While Irvine, Häkkinen, Mika Salo and Jacques Villeneuve would all eventually crash out, mechanical issues with race leaders Damon Hill and subsequently Jean Alessi promoted the no. 9 Ligier-mugen-honda to an unlikely lead with the two-hour cut-off time for the Grand Prix looming. Despite a late charge from David Coulthard in one of the only four cars remaining in the race, Panis would cross the line to record his first and only Formula One race victory. It would also be Ligier’s last taste of success at this level.
On 19 May 1996, a French driver, driving a French car, won a French Grand Prix.