French GP: DC beats Schuey in fair fight

This wasn't just the day the world championship came alive - it was the day that David Coulthard joined the true Formula 1 aces. Coulthard won a French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours that saw him take on and beat Michael Schumacher's Ferrari in a straight fight. In doing so, he'd also reduced team-mate Mika Hakkinen to a mere bit-player as he came home 14.7s to the good over the two-time world champion

French GP: DC beats Schuey in fair fight

Coulthard's delight was further compounded by Schumacher's retirement with engine failure - his second DNF in three races. With the German's championship lead whittled down to just 12 points by Coulthard, and Ferrari's constructors' championship lead now just six points over McLaren-Mercedes, it was a decisive afternoon for the Scot and his Mclaren team.

Schumacher led away from the line, forcing across Coulthard's bows and allowing his team-mate Rubens Barrichello into second, but with Coulthard picking off the Brazilian before the first stop and pulling off a similar move on Schumacher before the second, he not only proved that Magny-Cours wasn't a no-passing zone, but also took a huge psychological advantage into the next race, at the A1-Ring in Austria in a fortnight's time.

'It's put us right back where we were after Monaco," said Coulthard of his title aspirations. "We need to close the gap further and it's certainly do-able. We've proved we can pass him on the track, so it's possible."

What Coulthard cannot look forward to is any whiff of team orders just yet, as technical director Adrian Newey explained: 'It's a little early for team orders at the moment," he said. "We haven't introduced them in the past until we believe the man behind is out of the running and I imagine we'll do the same again."

At the start, Schumacher edged it from Coulthard, then pulled across the McLaren's bows to take the line for the Grande Courbe left-hand kink. The Scot was forced to check his speed slightly, allowing Rubens Barrichello to slot into second.

Mika Hakkinen fell in behind Coulthard, with Jacques Villeneuve's BAR into fifth, Heinz-Harald Frentzen's Jordan sixth and Ralf Schumacher and Jarno Trulli seventh and eighth. Disappointing for Schumacher R, who'd qualified fifth, but even more so for Eddie Irvine, with another bad Jaguar start pushing him down to 10th.

In the opening laps, Schumacher made the most of the buffer between himself and the McLarens, taking the gap up to 5.7s after 16 laps. Coulthard was hanging on to the back of Barrichello, but with Magny-Cours such a difficult circuit to pass on, he was forced to circulate off his optimum pace - frustration mounting. Behind him, Hakkinen hung back, hardly deflecting any of the growing criticism that the Finnish double world champion is losing his motivation.

At the back of the top 10, after a spate of disappointing races, Jenson Button was doing his reputation the power of good. 11th in the early going, the Williams rookie took Irvine and Mika Salo's Sauber to move up to ninth and set off in pursuit of Trulli's Jordan, banging in a series of lap times comparable to the race leaders.

First retirement was posted by Ricardo Zonta, the Brazilian's BAR going off at the Imola chicane. He was soon joined by Johnny Herbert's Jaguar - a gearbox failure the reason for his fifth retirement of the season.

On lap 22, having hunted Barrichello down, Coulthard showed he meant business with a move down the outside of the Brazilian into the Adelaide hairpin. Barrichello took a tight line, but with Coulthard getting the better line out and getting the power on earlier, he was able to outdrag the Ferrari and take second.

"Just after the start, when I'd dropped to third I didn't fancy my chances too much," recounted Coulthard. "Initially, I had a lot of understeer and Rubens was quicker, but once I was able to play to our car's strengths, especially on the brakes, it was good. I always knew I could overtake and Rubens was hard but fair."
"I was just settling in to begin with," added Barrichello, "making it easier for Michael. But after 10 or 15 laps, my tyres were giving up a little and it was quite difficult keeping David back, especially under brakes."

The first wave of pit-stops began at the 23 lap mark. Hakkinen came in on lap 23, with Schumacher diving in after 24 laps and taking an unspectacular 8.8s. Temporary leader David Coulthard peeled off the track and into the pit lane after 25 laps, Barrichello coming in right behind, but the McLaren man's 7.3s easily held off another solid but not exceptional stop for the second of the Ferraris.

With the rest of the top 10 pitting in the same window, the order settled down again very quickly: Schumacher was just over three seconds to the good ahead of Coulthard, with Hakkinen up into third ahead of Barrichello. Villeneuve was best of the rest, but it was all change behind: Trulli took sixth from Frentzen on the track, not the pits, with Williams eighth and ninth, Ralf just half a second ahead of Button. Fisichella had crept into 10th, the Italian's Benetton just ahead of Salo's Sauber.

Back at the sharp end, Coulthard made a more decisive job of disposing of a gaggle of backmarkers - sadly including Jean Alesi's off-the-pace Prost - and by lap 31, the Scot was just 0.5s behind Schumacher's Ferrari. Hakkinen was a further 2.6s behind, but Barrichello looked like making it a three-horse race only, the Brazilian dropping to almost eight seconds from the lead battle.

On lap 33, Coulthard tried a repeat of the move he'd played on Barrichello into the Adelaide hairpin, but with Schumacher taking a better line into it than the Brazilian had managed, the Ferrari was able to win the drag race out. Coulthard showed his frustration, waving his hand at Schumacher in the international sign of, ahem, 'self-pleasuring'. On lap 35, Coulthard tried it again, but with a much more clinical block from the Ferrari foiling the danger before it had really begun.

"I have to apologise for the hand gesture," grinned Coulthard afterwards, albeit somewhat sheepishly, "but I felt he drove me wide, which made me very angry - hence the unsporting gesture..."

Behind the lead pair, Hakkinen was now within 0.6s of Coulthard and the fastest man on the track. Barrichello had closed up too, with Villeneuve a massive 32.5s off the lead. It really is 'us and them' when it comes to Ferrari, McLaren and the rest at the moment...

Lap 40 and Coulthard was past, the move coming yet again at the Adelaide hairpin. This time, as the Ferrari moved wide to cover, DC came down the inside lane, then ran Schumacher to the outside verge on the exit. Contact was made, albeit lightly, but the Ferrari had lost the momentum necessary for an instant fightback.

"Ultimately I got inside him," said DC. "I expected him to close the door, but he saw I was far enough in front and gave me room."

Right behind, Hakkinen and Barrichello had both moved onto the back of the lead pair - and they say that Magny-Cours always supplies a dull Grand Prix!

Further down the top 10, things had started to spread a little. Villeneuve and Trulli were static in fifth and sixth, but Fisichella began to make a mockery of the Benetton's handling problems in practice and qualifying, moving up to eighth behind Ralf Schumacher.

The second and final round of pitstops commenced with a double dash in by Schumacher and Hakkinen on lap 43. This time, Ferrari got it right and McLaren struggled, Michael static for 7.3s and the Finn at rest for 8.9. Next time around, Barrichello was in, but a front wheel problem left him stationary for a massive 16.8s and well out of the running.

Coulthard circulated for two more laps, diving in at the end of lap 46, and was stopped on his marks for just 7.9s. As the Scot accelerated out of the pits, Schumacher was powering out of Lycee, but already up to full speed. Tight, but enough for the Scot's buffer to be a handy 3.0s - not a lifetime, but big for this particular duel.

As in the first round of stops, the rest of the lead cars pitted in a similar window, allowing the order to be re-established fairly quickly. Villeneuve was still fifth, but 46s off the money, with Trulli sixth, Schuey Jr seventh, Frentzen eighth and Button and Fisichella ninth and 10th. Joining the retirements by this point were Pedro de la Rosa, Alex Wurz (accident), Gaston Mazzacane and a strangely out of sorts Jos Verstappen, perhaps still feeling the effects of his testing shunt a week earlier.

OK, re-group... 51 laps down, 22 to go. Coulthard 8.0s ahead of Schumacher and now putting an extra second of daylight on the German every time around; Hakkinen just one second behind Schumacher and Barrichello a further 9.5s off the third-placed McLaren. Strange to see the lead Ferrari apparently cruising for points, so was there a problem for the red machine? It certainly looked like the Ferrari had used up its tyres and was struggling for grip, but Ferrari remained tight-lipped - something more than just grip...?

Further behind, Schumacher R had pushed his Jordan into sixth, passing Trulli's Jordan at Adelaide, but the Williams/Jordan balance was somewhat restored when Button took Frentzen for eighth, only for Frentzen to take it back within the lap.

On lap 56, DC came upon the Frentzen/Button squabble, while behind, Hakkinen was right on Schumacher's tail and almost outdragged him exiting Lycee. Schumacher went into wide mode and held the silver car off, but it looked only a matter of time before the Ferrari was passed.

Sure enough, lap 58 and Hakkinen was through as the Ferrari went wide at the Adelaide hairpin. But it was obviously more than just tyres, Schumacher slowing suddenly, blowing out smoke and pulling off the track - game over, with engine the prime suspect. Sure enough, the team quickly confirmed that it was the V10 that had given up the ghost. Strange days at Ferrari...

"A season is a long time," shrugged a stoic, but obviously disappointed Schumacher, "and that can still work in our advantage. I'm pretty sure that fairly soon we'll fix these problems we saw today."

With the world championship leader out for the second time in three races, the Scuderia's reputation for bullet-proof reliability had taken another knock. And with Coulthard just a dozen laps away from his third victory of the year, the title battle suddenly looked most intriguing: if things stayed the same, the Scot would be just 12 points behind the German. If things stayed the same...

Behind, Button was still in full-on 'rat up a drainpipe' mode, clinging onto the back of Frentzen's seventh-placed gearbox, but finding Fisichella moving onto the tail of his Williams. To attack or defend? No contest - attack! Ahead of them, the remaining Schumacher had the fifth-placed Villeneuve in his sights, but with Trulli some 12s behind, the German could concentrate purely on attack.

With McLaren running one-two, it was best case scenario for the team's sagging constructors' title hopes, but it wouldn't be a test of the Woking outfit's policy on team orders: Hakkinen was 16s off race-leader Coulthard and without resorting to cliché, never looked like the Hakkinen of old. Amazing how the balance of power has shifted so dramatically within McLaren in the last four or five races.

Afterwards, Hakkinen explained why he hadn't set off after the lead McLaren: "After I saw Michael had pulled off, and realised David was so far away, I thought 'hold on, there's no point in pushing like mad and risking the car'. I decided just to drive at a pace that Rubens couldn't catch me."

That pace was somewhat reduced by a call to Barrichello from the Ferrari pits: "After Michael's failure, they told me to back off," said Barrichello.

With just a couple of laps to go, Button had to re-evaluate his gameplan - Fisichella was glued to the Williams andlooking hard at taking eighth. Salo and Pedro Diniz held 10th and 11th for Sauber, with the under-achieving Prosts of Nick Heidfeld and Jean Alesi sandwiching Eddie Irvine's Jaguar - a fairly disappointing trio all-round.

Back to the front and no real surprises in the final laps. Coulthard eased it back a little and settled into a comfort zone, but punched the air in exhilaration as he finally took the chequered flag. Win number three. Michael Schumacher beaten in a fair fight. Mika Hakkinen turned into a bit-player by his team-mate's pace. A good day. No, a great day for David Coulthard...

For full race results click here.

Championship standings
M Schumacher
D Coulthard
M Hakkinen
R Barrichello
G Fisichella
R Schumacher

Constructors standings
McLaren Mercedes
Benetton Playlife
Williams BMW
Jordan Mugen-Honda
British American Racing Honda

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