French Grand Prix: Second win in eight days for Ralf
Ralf Schumacher put himself in serious contention for the 2003 world drivers' crown with a dominant victory in the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours. It was the German's second win in eight days, having been victorious in the European GP at the Nurburgring last weekend, and was his third podium finish in succession. He now lies just 11 points behind his brother Michael, who leads the championship, and eight points behind Kimi Raikkonen in second
Starting from pole position, Ralf led every lap, and with the exception of his third stint where he considered himself the victim of tyre pressure issues, was well capable of controlling the attack from his rivals. The nearest of those was his team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya who pushed hard despite a number of problems during the race to get within striking distance of Ralf in that third stint. But after the final round of pit stops the Colombian gave best to the German and that, pretty much, was that.
Michael Schumacher finished third having bided his time behind the two McLarens until the final stops. The Ferrari star jumped ahead of them both as he made full use of blindingly fast in and out-laps. Raikkonen came home a distant fourth ahead of team-mate David Coulthard, who may well have placed ahead of the Finn had he not suffered a calamitous final pit stop which resulted in him pulling away from his slot with his fuel rig, and two mechanics, still attached. Fortunately, no-one was hurt.
Ralf assumed the lead at the start with Montoya slotting in behind. Michael Schumacher made a terrible getaway and Raikkonen was ahead of him before Turn One, while Coulthard was alongside the Ferrari for the first three turns. By the end of the first lap the order was Ralf Schumacher, Montoya, Raikkonen, Michael Schumacher, Jarno Trulli, Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber.
Rubens Barrichello spun at the end of the first lap and effectively eliminated himself from the race for serious points. The Brazilian's fight-back was spirited however and he would eventually pick-up two for seventh place as he benefited from retirements ahead of him.
The order remained the same up to the first pit stops with Ralf steadily building a lead over Montoya. Both WilliamsF1 BMWs quickly put some space between themselves and Raikkonen. Schumacher could not stay with the Finn and appeared to be holding up the progress of Coulthard and the two Renaults. McLaren decided to bring Coulthard in and thus the first round of stops began. Everyone except Barrichello and Heidfeld three-stopped.
Coulthard moved ahead of Schumacher, whose Ferrari F2003-GA did not seem to have the legs (or the tyres) to stay with the cars ahead of him, and the Scot set off in chase of his team-mate.
While Ralf enjoyed a super-fast stop, Montoya had problems with his. "The first stint was not very good," said the Colombian, "I couldn't push the car and there was a problem with a wheel nut in the stop which cost me a lot of time." Schumacher took advantage of this and with an initial lead of 7.5s after the stops, began to slowly build on that advantage.
It was after the second stops that things became complicated for Ralf. "I was able to disappear in the first and second stints, but maybe we got the tyre pressures wrong on the third set. I got stuck in traffic, especially when Trulli slowed under the yellow." The yellow flag was for the sister Renault of Alonso whose engine had detonated. Embarrassingly for the Regie on home ground, Trulli would retire moments later on lap 46, just as Giancarlo Fisichella's Jordan-Ford would too. These were the only mechanical official retirements of the race. Jenson Button also dropped out but only because his fuel rig failed to deliver his BAR-Honda enough fuel.
Ralf was now having problems and Montoya was closing fast. By the time the German pitted there was just over a second between the two cars. "It was close," said Ralf, "I pitted early, because I knew if I stayed out longer he would have caught me." When Schumacher returned to the track, Montoya already on to his last set of tyres, was apexing Turn Three. Ralf got out just in front, but only by 0.6s.
"I pushed very hard and I was with him before the last stop," said Montoya. "Despite all the advantage I made I probably needed one more second to get ahead of him [after the pit stop]. After that I backed off."
In the last 15 laps, Ralf built the lead back up to 14s, with only a minor moment at Chateau D'Eau, where he out-braked himself a little, to halt his progress.
Michael Schumacher was not surprised to finish third but was disappointed at Ferrari's apparent lack of pace: "I was hoping for better this weekend but the race is what I thought we'd do."
Coulthard lost a huge amount of time during his bodged stop, which was further complicated by the team having to switch to the spare rig, and thus was never really given a fair crack at fourth-placed Raikkonen. Mark Webber was sixth for Jaguar, having run in the points all day ahead of Barrichello and Toyota's Olivier Panis. Jacques Villeneuve finally finished a race for BAR in ninth and Antonio Pizzonia rounded out the top ten.
Cristiano da Matta was 11th ahead of the lacklustre Sauber team. Heinz-Harald Frentzen three-stopped to 12th and managed to run over one of his pit crew by being over eager to get away. Again there were no injuries but the German apologised. Heidfeld made a bad call by two-stopping and finished 13th. Justin Wilson enjoyed another good race, outpacing team-mate Jos Verstappen while Ralf Firman was sandwiched between the two Minardis in 15th.
Despite hitting a fantastic vein of form during the summer races of this season, Ralf is still keen not to get too excited: "If the two of us [myself and Montoya] and the team keep working together we'll keep going forwards like this. It is certainly the right direction. But nothing is certain in Formula 1 and some circuits will be harder than this." Everyone not driving a WilliamsF1 BMW right now will be hoping that Ralf's last point is true.
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