The last Formula One race to feature a full grid of 26 cars took place on this day in 1995. The Monaco Grand Prix, round five of the championship, was contested by 13 constructors each fielding two cars.
The collapse of the Simtek team following the race left Formula One without enough cars to fill the grid – a situation which has persisted ever since.
The race saw the continuation of the rivalry between reigning champion Michael Schumacher and Damon Hill, who had been runner-up the previous year. Ahead of the most prestigious grand prix of the year, each had won two of the previous four races and Schumacher led Hill by a single point.
The organisers had expected to see two world champions among the 26 drivers, but that changed just days before practice was due to start. In a far from unexpected move, McLaren announced Nigel Mansell had stepped down from the team.
Mansell had returned from IndyCar racing part-way through 1994 to perform as an occasional substitute for the late Ayrton Senna at Williams. After winning the final race of the season at Adelaide, Mansell was expected to make a full-time return with the team, but instead they selected the inexperienced David Coulthard.
In a situation not unlike this year, McLaren was embarking on a difficult first season with a new engine supplier – in this case Mercedes. Title sponsor Marlboro was anxious not to miss the opportunity to sign a world champion, and pressed for Mansell’s appointment alongside Mika Hakkinen.
The marriage did not last. At the launch of the inelegant MP4-10 the assembled media wondered why Mansell was perched on the side of the car instead of sat in it. The rumours he couldn’t fit in the cockpit were later revealed, embarrassingly, to be true. He missed the opening rounds in Brazil and Argentina while McLaren constructed a chassis wide enough to accommodate his frame.
But once Mansell returned, he did not enjoy what he found. The car handled poorly, and the team’s young charge ran rings around him. After two unhappy appearances at the San Marino and Spanish rounds, the 1992 world champion bade farewell to F1. Mark Blundell, who had stood in for him at the beginning of the season, returned to the cockpit.
There was another change in the field from the previous race. Twelve months earlier Karl Wendlinger had been left in a coma after crashing at Monaco’s harbour front chicane. Wendlinger had returned to the Sauber team at the beginning of 1995 but with team mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen out-qualifying him to the tune of two seconds all was clearly not well.
Rather than subject him to the pressures of competing at the track which maimed him the year before, Sauber swapped him for Williams test driver and reigning Formula 3000 champion Jean-Christophe Boullion.
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In previous seasons ‘qualifying’ had meant exactly that: as there were more cars entered than there were places on the grid, the purpose of qualifying (and sometimes pre-qualifying) was to eject the slower entrants. This ceased to be the case at the end of 1994 as the Lotus and Larrousse teams collapsed. Only the arrival of Forti meant there were enough cars for a full grid.
The last driver to occupy 26th place on an F1 grid has his preparations for the race wrecked – quite literally – by a shocking lapse on the part of the organisers.
Taki Inoue spun at Mirabeau during the Saturday morning practice session and had to wait until the chequered flag had fallen to be recovered by a tow truck. While this was happening rally driver Jean Ragnotti was treating an FIA delegate to a high-speed tour of the circuit. Arriving at the Swimming Pool complex, where the entrance was blind, Ragnotti slammed into Inoue’s car with enough force to flip it over.
Inoue – who fortunately had his helmet on but unfortunately was not strapped in – was thrown clear. His car’s roll hoop was too badly damaged for the chassis to be used so the organisers permitted him to use his spare car. This proved academic, as Inoue was not ruled fit to drive again until Sunday, so he remained rooted to the bottom of the times sheets.
Hill heads frantic session
Rain disrupted Thursday’s first qualifying session but the decisive hour of action on Saturday was dramatic.
Gerhard Berger hustled Ferrari’s last V12 car around the circuit to dramatic effect, but his efforts were only good enough for fourth on the times sheet. Before the end of the session he had to give his car up to team mate Jean Alesi, who had suffered an hydraulic failure on his car. But Alesi’s attempt to recover the provisional pole position he held after Thursday was thwarted when Eddie Irvine smashed his Jordan into the barrier at Tabac.
Schumacher and Hill had traded best times but it was the Williams driver who came out on top. Coulthard took a strong third on his debut in front of the two Ferraris. Next was Schumacher’s team mate Johnny Herbert, who had discovered that the flow of information at Benetton only towards Schumacher, and not from the world champion to his team mate.
Benetton’s priority in the opening races had been to regain their lost initiative. Despite having joined Williams in using Renault’s powerful V10 engine, ahead of the Spanish round designer Pat Symonds admitted Schumacher was having a much more difficult time than he had 12 months ago, when he swept to victory in the first five races.
Schumacher won the season-opener at Interlagos, but only after a suspension problem eliminated Hill. The Williams driver responded with wins at Buenos Aires and Imola – Schumacher crashing out of the latter.
The fourth round at the Circuit de Catalunya was Benetton’s breakthrough – Schumacher won from pole. But Hill, who lost precious points with a last-lap gearbox failure in Spain, now had a chance to emulate one of his father’s five Monaco Grand Prix wins.
1995 Monaco Grand Prix grid
|Row 1||1. Damon Hill 1’21.952
|2. Michael Schumacher 1’22.742
|Row 2||3. David Coulthard 1’23.109
|4. Gerhard Berger 1’23.220
|Row 3||5. Jean Alesi 1’23.754
|6. Mika Hakkinen 1’23.857
|Row 4||7. Johnny Herbert 1’23.885
|8. Martin Brundle 1’24.447
|Row 5||9. Eddie Irvine 1’24.857
|10. Mark Blundell 1’24.933
|Row 6||11. Rubens Barrichello 1’25.081
|12. Olivier Panis 1’25.125
|Row 7||13. Gianni Morbidelli 1’25.447
|14. Heinz-Harald Frentzen 1’25.661
|Row 8||15. Ukyo Katayama 1’25.808
|16. Luca Badoer 1’25.969
|Row 9||17. Mika Salo 1’26.473
|18. Pierluigi Martini 1’26.913
|Row 10||19. Jean-Christophe Boullion 1’27.145
|20. Domenico Schiattarella 1’28.337
|Row 11||21. Bertrand Gachot 1’29.039
|22. Pedro Diniz 1’29.244
|Row 12||23. Jos Verstappen 1’29.391
|24. Roberto Moreno 1’29.608
|Row 13||25. Andrea Montermini 1’30.149
|26. Taki Inoue 1’31.542
Simtek outpaced fellow newcomers Pacific in 1994 and had clearly made further gains in their second season. They now benefitted from the use of Benetton gearboxes and the arrival of that team’s test driver, Jos Verstappen, who took them to the heights of 14th on the grid in Argentina.
But there were worried faces at Monaco. The team’s debts were mounting up, and manager Nick Wirth admitted that if further funding did not materialise before the next round in Canada they would have to close. Monaco was the one venue where the possibility of a high rate of retirement could give them cause for optimism – but it would prove to be a crushing disappointment.
Coulthard tangles with the Ferraris
The drivers had been advised that in the event of a crash at the first corner the Safety Car, introduced to grand prix racing a few years earlier, would be deployed. However when that very scenario unfolded the decision was taken to red-flag and restart the race.
Starting his first Monaco Grand Prix from third on the grid, David Coulthard was too busy steering clear of Berger’s Ferrari on his left that he didn’t notice Alesi in the other red car appearing on his right. Contact was made, and Coulthard arrived at Sainte Devote facing in the wrong direction and tangled up with both the Ferraris.
The red flags duly appeared. This was a relief for Coulthard and the Ferrari drivers, who all had spare cars available to take the restart in, but a disappointment for Martin Brundle, whose Ligier had emerged from the melee in third place.
And for Simtek the red flag marked the end of their F1 adventure. Schiattarella’s damaged car was pushed away, and a damaged gearbox kept Verstappen from taking the restart. Never again would 26 cars take the start of an F1 race.
Schumacher outmanouevres Hill
The second time around Coulthard made a much better start – so much so that instead of worrying about the Ferraris he had a speculative look down the inside of Schumacher as they braked for Sainte Devote. From then on, however, the Benetton ahead diminished in his vision as Hill and Schumacher quickly drew clear of the chasing pack.
Not everyone had got away so cleanly, however. The recent introduction of automatic jump start sensors – replacing the start line judges used before – caught out no fewer than six drivers: Gianni Morbidelli (who pitted soon after the start to have a tyre blanket cord removed from his wheel), Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Rubens Barrichello, Andrea Montermini and the Ligiers of Panis and Brundle.
These delayed drivers were among the clutch of backmarkers which Hill and Schumacher began to catch around lap 20, by which time a gearbox failure had sidelined Coulthard. Schumacher had put Hill under fierce pressure initially then dropped back, but as lapped traffic 20 years ago were not obliged to move aside as quickly as they are today, the delayed Hill was soon caught again by his rival.
In-race refuelling had been reintroduced to Formula One at the beginning of the previous season at Bernie Ecclestone’s urging, out of a desire to ‘improve the show’. It shaped the outcome of the race on a few occasions, and when it proved decisive it usually showed Benetton had sussed its nuances more quickly than Williams.
Monaco supplied evidence that in the second year of refuelling this was still the case. Williams took the opportunity to get Hill away from the slower cars, bringing him in for the first of what would be two pit stops. Theoretically a two-stop strategy could be faster than one.
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But Benetton understood that building up the necessary gap over a rival to justify an extra pit stop would always be difficult at Monaco, where overtaking is difficult. Unlike today, backmarkers 20 years ago did not have to pull over immediately once they had been shown three blue flags.
Sure enough, soon after his pit stop Hill was back in traffic again. So was Schumacher, albeit with the benefit of a lighter car, allowing him to take advantage of clear air ahead when he had it. Even so he raised his arm in frustration as he lapped Blundell, having spent almost two laps behind the McLaren.
Schumacher eventually headed to the pits on lap 36, having gone 12 laps further than Hill, and he lost the lead not to the Williams driver, but Alesi. The Ferrari was also one-stopping, and though he spent just a single lap in the lead, after making his pit stop he also returned to the track in front of Hill.
It seemed as though Williams’ strategy had dropped Hill from first to third, but he was grappling with other problems as well. A faulty differential left him grappling with pronounced understeer, though the problem wasn’t diagnosed until his car was stripped down post-race.
Alesi was destined not to finish ahead of Hill, however. Four laps after his pit stop he was trying to lap Brundle when the Ligier hit the barrier at Tabac and Alesi was unable to avoid getting tangled up in the accident.
Berger, whose replacement Ferrari was not as powerful as his original car, therefore inherited third place. Johnny Herbert moved up to second in front of Blundell. And Minardi’s Luca Badoer gained two places, briefly putting him on course for his first points finish, until his pit stop dropped him behind Heinz-Harald Frentzen.
1995 Monaco Grand Prix result
|Pos.||#||Driver||Team||Laps||Time / gap / reason|
|1||1||Michael Schumacher||Benetton-Renault||78||1hr 53’11.258|
|4||2||Johnny Herbert||Benetton-Renault||77||1 lap|
|5||7||Mark Blundell||McLaren-Mercedes||77||1 lap|
|6||30||Heinz-Harald Frentzen||Sauber-Ford||76||2 laps|
|7||23||Pierluigi Martini||Minardi-Ford||76||2 laps|
|8||29||Jean-Christophe Boullion||Sauber-Ford||74||4 laps|
|9||9||Gianni Morbidelli||Footwork-Hart||74||4 laps|
|10||21||Pedro Diniz||Forti-Ford||72||6 laps|
|11||Domenico Schiattarella||Simtek-Ford||Did not start|
|12||Jos Verstappen||Simtek-Ford||Did not start|
Schumacher seizes the initiative
With his second consecutive Monaco Grand Prix victory, Schumacher had regained the initiative in the drivers’ championship contest. Hill would only take one more win that year – in Hungary – before Schumacher clinched the title.
Benetton also scored a coup by giving their new engine supplier Renault their first ever victory in their principality. None had come during their time as a works constructor, nor when supplying Lotus with engines or even when Renault’s V10 powered the all-conquering Williams cars of 1992 and 1993.
Williams had nowhere to hide after losing the most prestigious race on the calendar through a clear strategic error. Williams technical director Patrick Head later admitted Benetton had exposed them as being “operationally poor” in 1995.
Others in the team laid the blame for the poor season elsewhere. Design mastermind Adrian Newey reckoned Hill “wasn’t the driver in 1995 that he had been in the previous year” and that Mansell “would have won the championship” in the FW17. Later that same day, Jacques Villeneuve won the Indianapolis 500, and within a few months Williams had hired him to take Coulthard’s place for 1996. Before the year was out, Hill’s seat had also been earmarked for another driver – Heinz-Harald Frentzen – from 1997.
Grids get smaller
At the other end of the grid, the loss of Simtek brought an end to years of full fields for F1 races. Just six years earlier races were regularly attended by 50% more cars than there were spaces for them on the grid – nearly twice as many as there are today.
Those running the sport, however, felt that further obstacles needed to be put in the way of F1’s smallest teams. From 1996 a new rule prevented any driver who did not lap within 107% of the pole position time from starting.
That year just 22 cars started the first race of the year, and the grid has rarely risen above that level since. Today the figure is just 20, and it is only that high thanks to the 11th-hour rescue of the Manor team.
Later, new teams were required to lodge a multi-million pound bond with the FIA. Today no one can enter the sport without submitting a tender to the sport’s governing body. Given the huge cost of competition and revenue system skewed in favour of a small number of preferred teams, there are unsurprisingly few takers.
Twenty years on, full F1 grids are a thing of the past, and that is undoubtedly by design.
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