Race: Michael restores family status quo
Michael Schumacher managed to make everything go his way for the second weekend on the trot, taking his tally of victories to 50 by winning the French Grand Prix and turning the tables on pole-sitting brother Ralf, who finished second. Schuey Sr's Ferrari team mate Rubens Barrichello came home third
Ralf led the early running after converting his maiden pole position into an early lead and looked as though he was set to stay there, but Michael got ahead at the first round of stops and with a faster race car under him, never looked back.
As the Ferrari ace appears to move serenely towards his fourth world championship, title rival David Coulthard again suffered and was forced to watch Schumacher net another 10 points as he had to settle for just three in fourth place following a stop-and-go penalty for pitlane speeding.
In a race brimming with strategic battles, but little on-track overtaking, the result was always going to be decided in the pitlane. For the unlucky Mika Hakkinen, however, his race did not last long enough for any strategy to come into play, as the Finn's disastrous season took another blow after stalling on the dummy grid. The double world champ's McLaren was wheeled back into the pitlane, but refused to restart and Hakkinen's race was over.
"Well I think simply you can't believe how much bad luck I have had," said Hakkinen. "The engine was fine and then suddenly it stopped. I was super disappointed."
As for the elder Schumacher, it looked like he was going to have to work harder at Magny-Cours than last weekend, if he was going to have a repeat of his victorious performance at the Nurburgring. Michael's younger sibling snatched pole position at the French circuit on Saturday, and he was beaten off the line by Ralf and duly forced to hold grid position by slotting into second place at the first corner. No squeezing required here...
With Coulthard in third, the top three set about pulling clear of Juan Pablo Montoya in fourth and Barrichello fifth. With all the leaders, bar the Ferrari number two, opting for a two-stop strategy, the gaps were small by the time the first pitstops came around.
Ralf led the way and came in first on lap 25, followed immediately by his brother on the next lap. The Williams crew went to work for 10.3s, almost three seconds longer than the men from Maranello, allowing Michael to take the lead when both had made it back onto the Nevers circuit.
Coulthard was next in from third place and the McLaren mechanics were no slouches and re-suited and booted the sole remaining MP4-16 in 9.1s and put the Scot back out in second place behind Schumacher Sr.
Unfortunately his success was shortlived and Coulthard was forced to make another trip to the pits six laps later to receive a 10-second stop-go penalty for speeding in the pitlane. The extra stop put paid to any hopes of making it onto the podium, let alone fighting for the lead, and despite closing right up on Barrrichello in the closing stages, DC had to settle for fourth.
Ahead of Coulthard, the potential Schumacher brothers battle turned into a one-horse race as Michael stretched his legs out front, while Ralf struggled on his second set of tyres.
"On my second set of tyres, I was losing everything," said Ralf. "If I had come out in front of Michael, then I think it would have been very difficult for me to hold him."
Juan Pablo Montoya, in the second Williams, had opted for the harder Michelin compound and was able to do longer stints. The strategy looked as though it could pay off with the Colombian leading the race twice while his adversaries' tyres went off early. However, he still had to make two stops and wasn't able to make up the time while out front. In the event his BMW engine threw in the towel early, forcing the ever-improving Montoya to retire just 20 laps from the flag.
"It was a bit of an engine problem," he said. "It's a bit disappointing, but that's racing. I thought we could do better on harder tyres, I was running second and then it happened."
Barrichello added cause for extra celebration for the Ferrari camp by coming home third. The Brazilian has not been on the podium since Monaco in May and after qualifying eighth, he had looked unlikely to spray the champagne in France. But a three-stop strategy allowed Barrichello to keep his pace up and after Coulthard's stop-go P3 was his for the taking.
"Ross [Brawn, technical director] asked me if I wanted to do three stops and I agreed because I knew I would be able to be quick out on the circuit the whole time. It was a hell of a race," he said.
Jarno Trulli brought some cheer for the Jordan team by finishing a distant fifth after driving a solid race to keep both team mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen and the harrying Sauber pair of Nick Heidfeld and Kimi Raikkonen behind him. It was Heidfeld who won the battle of the Swiss team's young guns by taking the final point in sixth, with Raikkonen close behind in seventh.
Retirements included Jaguar's Eddie Irvine, who came to a halt at the side of the track on the inside of the Adelaide hairpin on lap 56, while running seventh. The Ulsterman drove a storming race and battled with first the BAR-Honda of Olivier Panis, who finished ninth, and then later Frentzen. Jenson Button also notched up a DNF after his revamped, but still not fully competitive Benetton-Renault finished the race in gravel trap on the penultimate lap.
After only seven days since the last race, the teams and drivers can look forward to a more traditional two weeks off before the next round at Silverstone. Coulthard heads to the British Grand Prix still in second place in the drivers' championship, albeit 31 points behind the Schumacher steamroller.
"We can only wait until the end of the season and then review," said Coulthard, "rather than trying to predict what's going to happen in the future. You don't know, he [Michael] might not finish the next three races."
You can but hope David...
For complete French Grand Prix results, click here.
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