F1 heads to Magny-Cours

The French Grand Prix, so often Ferrari's happy hunting ground since Michael Schumacher joined the team, is the next port of call for the Formula 1 circus. Schumacher, who has won half of all the races he has taken part in at Magny-Cours in central France, claims that the title race has not been won yet, but few would bet against the German winning his sixth GP of the season

F1 heads to Magny-Cours

"We have reason to be optimistic," the German admitted, "but the way to the title is still very long. We also need some luck to get there."

Schumacher has a lead of 22 points - equal to two wins and a fifth place - over second placed man David Coulthard, who has twice been penalised from points-scoring positions. World Champion Mika Hakkinen is a further two points back.

Moreover, France has proved to be a favourable circuit to Ferrari in recent years - in 1997, Schumacher comprehensively outpaced the Williams cars, and in 1998 he did the same to McLaren. Last year, Schumacher came fifth after a rare mechanical failure dropped him down the order.

Hakkinen, by contrast, seems to struggle at the ultra-smooth track, and his best result is third, scored last year. The Finn does, however, come to France off the back of a promising testing performance at Magny Cours last week, where he was fastest, from Coulthard, Barrichello, and Schumacher.

Mercedes' motorsport boss Norbert Haug believes his driver is still in the hunt for the championship this year, claiming "concerning the supposedly burnt-out Mika Hakkinen, I can only say that he was quickest in the rain at Canada and at the Nurburgring in huge parts. A driver who has lost it does not compete like that."

Nevertheless, Coulthard performed better than his team mate there last year, leading until an electrical failure handed the lead to Rubens Barrichello's Stewart. The Scot is in superb form at the moment, and if he is able to avoid another scrape with the stewards, should challenge Schumacher for victory every inch of the way.

It would be a good time for McLaren to win their first ever French GP, for the sake of the team and the title race.

Barrichello had a superb race in France last year; the Brazilian took his second career pole position, and led part of the race. He eventually finished second, one of a series of podiums that he scored that year with a Stewart team punching above its weight.

Barrichello's odds for a race win are put at 8/1, which seems generous considering his pace at Montreal two weeks ago. The Ferrari driver appears to be finding his feet after a couple of mildly disappointing performances with the Scuderia and if anything happens to Schumacher during the race, could be poised to take his first win.

Jordan won last year's race with Heinz Harald Frentzen, but the team has seemed to lose ground to the top players throughout this season, despite a superb qualifying performance in Monte Carlo. Jaguar also had a better than average performance around the streets of the Principality, but the team has come under fire recently from both its drivers - consequently, it should not be expected that the Cat is ready to leap very much further at Magny Cours.

British American Racing, on the other hand, ran both drivers in the top six during the Canadian Grand Prix, and the team claims it has been able to unlock a great deal more potential from the Honda-powered BAR 02 since then. Expect fireworks from a psyched-up Villeneuve, who appeared to regain much faith in his team

In addition, Arrows has displayed an abundance of pace in recent races, and Jos Verstappen was the hero of the Canadian race, and both he and team-mate Pedro de la Rosa are beginning to convert their often impressive qualifying performances into results. The Spaniard and the Dutchman are evenly matched in terms of speed, and seem to push each other along. The chassis appears well balanced, and should work well around the twists and long bends of Magny-Cours. Williams has taken a bit of a step back, according to driver Ralf Schumacher, who recently suggested that developments to the cars had not reaped the expected reward. However, Ralf can be relied upon to fight every inch of the way and remains a regular candidate for a top six placing. Benetton and Sauber seem to get a shade better at every race, but Magny-Cours is likely to highlight any chassis deficiencies inherent in a car in the same way that Montreal can hide them.

Of the rest, Prost may stage a minor revival, as in the team's Ligier days it always seemed to work well at its home GP. However, this may have had as much to do with being based at the track - a luxury it no longer enjoys. Minardi may have a tidy car, but a lack of power continues to hamper progress. Overall, it will take a big effort to spoil what is most likely to be Schumacher's party - though Coulthard and possibly Hakkinen and Barrichello can be relied upon to get close.

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