A French driver has not won a Formula One race since Olivier Panis emerged victorious from a chaotic, rain-hit 1996 Monaco Grand Prix. F1i’s Gallic writer Julien Billiotte looks back at two decades of drought and frustration and contemplates what the future may bring.
Sporting his new Haas F1 Team jacket, with his hair slightly unkempt and his chin covered in stubble, Romain Grosjean took a few seconds to answer: “It’s… a long time”, he finally replied.
20 years exactly that a Frenchman has not tasted victory in grand prix racing, since Olivier Panis rose from 14th on the grid to take an epic win at Monte Carlo in 1996. On a day when only three cars finished the race and most frontrunners faltered, the Ligier driver seized the opportunity to succeed fellow countryman Jean Alesi, who had won in Canada one year earlier with Ferrari, in the history books.
Panis actually came quite close to adding another victory to his tally the following season. Driving for Alain Prost’s newly created team, he made the most of the new Bridgestone tyres to show promising pace in the early rounds and secured two podiums finishes in Brazil and Spain. Panis was even third in the championship behind only Williams’ Jacques Villeneuve and Ferrari’s Michael Schumacher when he broke both of his legs at the 1997 Canadian Grand Prix. Although his would recover and race in F1 until 2004 – with a one-year stint as a McLaren test driver in 2000 – Panis would never return to the rostrum.
In the same generation, Alesi’s one-win F1 career is almost something of an anomaly considering the mercurial Frenchman of Sicilian origin racked up another 31 podium finishes, including 12 after Panis’ 1996 Monaco heroics. Alesi came especially close to winning again at the 1997 Italian Grand Prix where he led from pole position but saw McLaren’s David Coulthard leapfrog his Benetton during the pit stops.
Alesi made his final podium appearance at Spa-Francorchamps in 1998 when he kept his nose clean in a hectic race – remember that huge first-lap pile up? – to finish third for Sauber. What follows is France’s longest barren spell with no Frenchman taking part in the champagne-spraying ceremony in the next 14 seasons.
Over that span, Stéphane Sarrazin only made one grand prix start with Minardi in 1999; Franck Montagny was snubbed by Renault to replace Jarno Trulli in late 2004 and competed in seven race weekends with Super Aguri two years later. Both capable drivers – look no further than their subsequent careers in sportscars – they were not given the time, nor the machinery to show their talent in the top flight.