McLaren heads to Ferrari territory

If the Montreal form guide suggested McLaren drivers David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen would have a tough time, the Magny-Cours equivalent is likely to have them running for cover. The French circuit has traditionally been a Ferrari stronghold, and McLaren has seriously faltered there in recent races

McLaren heads to Ferrari territory

A glance back over Michael Schumacher's record at the French Grand Prix reveals a formidable record. The German has amassed 46 points in eight appearances, including four wins. Ironically, the only time Schumacher has taken pole at the circuit - in 1996 - he failed to finish. In fact, this says more about Ferrari's almost uncanny grip on the billiard-table smooth tarmac at Magny-Cours, as 1996 was a year in which Ferrari could not be said to have the fastest car over a single lap. The '96 race was part of an embarrassing run of unreliability for the Scuderia, and Schumacher broke down on the parade lap. His Ferrari has enjoyed metronomic reliability since then, and only a couple of car failures for team mate Rubens Barrichello suggests that Schumacher might be at risk from breakages.

The German's strike rate at the track is a relatively massive 5.75 points per race - in effect, equivalent to nearly second place in each appearance. His average qualifying placing is 3.375, equally formidable.

The McLaren drivers, on the other hand, have but a fraction of Schumacher's form. Hakkinen made his first appearance in a French GP in 1991 - the first GP held at Magny Cours - in the ungainly Lotus-Judd 102, and failed to qualify. He finished a far more promising fourth the next year, also for Lotus, but that was his best result until he made it onto the podium in 1998, his championship year. His points tally is a barely credible nine in eight appearances - an average points total of 1.125 bears out this poorer-than-average performance, as does the fact that Schumacher has scored 37 more points in the same number of appearances. His average qualifying placing is 10.625, a situation which was not helped by 1998's wet weather 'lottery' of a session.

David Coulthard has fared little better than his team-mate in his five appearances. The Scot qualified and finished third in his first appearance in a Williams in 1995, but that result accounts for all but two of the six points he has scored at French Grands Prix. His batting average is 1.2, just a whisker better than Hakkinen. His qualifying average is 5.2 - again, better than his team-mate, but still trailing Schumacher.

In actual fact, the most recent race allows McLaren a glimmer of hope, in that Ferrari were less convincing there than at any time since the early nineties. Schumacher had electronic problems which necessitated a change of steering wheel as the atmosphere dampened, and eventually had to fend off his team-mate Eddie Irvine - who was forbidden to overtake by the team - for fifth place.

The McLaren drivers were generally better off, as Coulthard led before succumbing to a mechanical failure, and Hakkinen later took over at the front, only to be second guessed by Jordan and Heinz-Harald Frentzen on pit-stop strategy.

McLaren has also appeared to be the slightly quicker of the two teams in testing at the circuit last week, but in reality, it is difficult to tell if there is anything between the two teams in terms of qualifying, or race, pace. One thing is next to certain - that McLaren needs to beat Ferrari at what has become one of the latter's strongest circuits, if they are to stop Schumacher taking an unshakeable grip on this year's title race.

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