By Tom Keeble, USA
The 2005 season reaches its halfway point at the French Grand Prix amid a wave of controversy and with the teams and fans hoping to see a real race for a change. Tom Keeble previews the upcoming event and rates the teams' chances of success, ahead of the tenth round of the year
The French Grand Prix is hosted at Magny-Cours, near Nevers. The weekend should be hot with temperatures getting into the eighties, but there is a strong chance of showers. Overtaking is traditionally very awkward unless there is a set-up discrepancy due to expected rain, or inclement weather adds spice to the event. A fast lap requires good aerodynamics to maintain speed in cornering with low enough drag to avoid being passed on the main straight; a powerful engine is rewarded. The circuit eats tyres unless cars are set up well to look after them.
After the excitement of seeing only six cars run at Indianapolis, a more traditional prospect should be in the offing in France, unless the FIA do something radical, like ban the Michelin teams. If all things remain equal, this return to a traditional European circuit should offer plenty of processional racing. Fortunately, the new tyre rules and this high-wear circuit ought to offer some passing opportunities at the end of the race to teams who can look after their tyres.
Track: The circuit is built with corners taken from tracks around the world, resulting in some technically challenging elements. The pit straight, whilst short, allows speeds of 170mph, leading to a fast corner complex (including Estoril) on to the main straight. Should a rival be able to follow close enough, they get a chance to slipstream and attack into Adelaide, the hairpin at the end of the straight. Another straight leads to a kink and a high speed chicane (Nurburgring), leading to a second hairpin. The circuit weaves from there to a second high speed chicane (Imola). A short stretch to the long right hander (Chateau d'Eau) drops speeds down to 60mph before the stretch up to the hard right hander (Lycee) which is followed by a right-left kink leading back to the pit straight.
Tyres: The circuit is one of the smoothest the teams visit, which tends to see teams opt for soft tyres. This aids traction - though with the advent of traction control, rear wear is mostly down to the electronics package rather than the drivers - but can be expensive as the long fast corners are particularly wearing on the front right tyre.
In practical terms, this means that if the cars are properly balanced, the frequent accelerations from low speed will make rear wear the limiting factor for race speeds; however, failing to dial the cars in fully or changing track conditions, will result in accelerated front tyre wear and see cars becoming very difficult to turn into corners.
As front tyre wear increases, particularly if the track temperature is changing, watch out for driver errors in the braking zones leading to flat spots.
Weather: The weather prediction is showing a good chance of showers on both Friday and during the race: whilst likely to change, this should at least ensure the teams spend time running in a wet practice if there is one, as they will want to be able to confirm their wet weather running in case of rain in the race.
Strategy: Although Ferrari won with a bold four stop strategy last season, and this season has offered two stops as the best route forward, the top tips for this year's event are a choice between two and three stops. A single stop is an expensive option, as the quick, short pitlane minimises the penalty of coming in for more fuel, whilst running heavy is wearing on tyres.
Expect teams concerned about their tyre wear, or their ability to qualify effectively, to make three stops, whilst those with self confidence will probably look for two in order to maximise flexibility in the event of rain. Even if it doesn't rain, the rapidly changing temperature of the track in the sun can leave the drivers chasing a good set-up through the practice sessions, and moving out of kilter in the race.
Surprises: If there's a dark horse, it has to be the point-less BAR - watch out for Jenson Button. In the event of a wet race, Jordan could both surprise with a points finish.
Conclusions: This looks set to be a race between McLaren and Renault, with Ferrari ready to make the most of it if any outfit drop much from the pace. Williams, Toyota and BAR are all expected to score points, but should struggle to get on the podium, let alone win.
Team by Team
After the performance at Indianapolis, the Ferrari team are in a far better points position than they could have hoped - and have the bonus of running at Magny-Cours with minimally stressed engines. The car already has excellent race pace, but the outfit have been working hard to improve the pace in qualifying. Whilst overtaking is possible, it is not usually gifted at this circuit, so qualifying strongly is an important factor.
Drivers: Michael Schumacher has an excellent record at Magny-Cours - including a strong performance last year to win with a surprise change to a four-stop strategy. Returning with a car that works over the full distance over qualifying means that a repeat performance will mean putting together a very solid race, probably including on-track passes to take the lead in the closing stages.
If there's any doubt about the possibility of that, then the World Champion can look to his teammate, who made an audacious pass on Trulli in the final corners of last year's race for a podium, having worked up form eighth on the grid.
Objectives: solid qualifying with a podium finish - the race win is possible.
Another pointless weekend in the USA leaves the BAR outfit at the bottom of the table - and having to score seven points just to get ahead of Minardi. After their meteoric performance in 2004, the dismal first half of the season has been a shock. Even if the team have a blinding second half to the year, scoring enough points to finish the year in the top four is going to require race wins.
With that the only real objective they can aim for this season, don't be surprised to see the team looking at strategic options for an edge; the car is quick, in principle, and looks good on the Michelin tyres selected for Magny-Cours, but they are going to have their work cut out to deliver a podium, let alone a win, with Renault, McLaren and Ferrari so strong.
Drivers: Jenson Button had the potential to take pole last season, though his race performance was not so remarkable; an improved performance this season would still see the outfit struggling to finish on the podium. Takuma Sato's qualifying session was less impressive but compromised by a higher fuel load: he looked good in the race until his engine expired.
Objectives: qualify strongly and finish with both cars in the points; aiming for a podium.
Arguably the outfit with the biggest pressure in France, Renault are looking for a strong weekend. Their race lead was not exactly eroded by ceding points to Ferrari in Indy, but it does mean there are now two outfits that are in a position to close them down.
Development at Renault has kept the outfit largely competitive, but the pace of improvements from McLaren and Ferrari has been quicker, putting the French outfit under considerable pressure. The need to perform in front of the home crowd and the board means that the team have to seriously consider going for pole position, even if it slightly compromises race pace.
On the positive side, the circuit should suit the car very well, and the 'home advantage' of crowd support ought to lift the team.
Drivers: Fernando Alonso's pole last season came from a stunning lap; although he lost the race to Schumacher, it was arguably from the Ferrari's excellent pit strategy rather than outright race pace, as the Spaniard was impressive throughout. Giancarlo Fisichella is looking well settled into the team and on top of the car. Should his luck finally change long enough to make the finish, he has every chance of beating his favoured teammate.
Objectives: aiming for pole and a race win; at least a podium finish expected.
Although Williams have been a little off the pace of the leading trio of teams, they have still been able to get cars on to the podium; the new aerodynamic components they are taking to France should help them continue to close up to the front.
For Williams, staying ahead of Toyota has to be something of a preoccupation, or they will slip out of the top four: Ferrari's eighteen-point haul in Indy has now made catching that outfit a season long proposition.
Drivers: Nick Heidfeld has a lot of experience of Magny-Cours, which could lend him an edge in his continued battle with Mark Webber - his recent performances have given the confident Australian food for thought, as quick Nick has put in some excellent qualifying performances to go with his sustained race pace.
Objectives: finish with both cars in the points. Podium finishes are possible if they can get off the start line well. Must aim to compete with Ferrari and beat Toyota.
Although Michelin pulled all their tyres at Indy, one of the few teams that could arguably have run was McLaren, who have a car that was once struggling to use the tyres hard enough. Hard work with Michelin has seen McLaren getting the most out of the manufacturer's softer tyres, finally getting them some real pace in qualifying... which in turn is letting their race pace pay dividends.
Ferrari's recent upturn in qualifying is of some concern; the prancing horse is expected to have excellent race pace, so being in a position to defend a strong late charge will be McLaren's priority, rather than worrying about Renault; it could have some interesting implications for strategy: especially as hedging bets would see at least one of the drivers pitting on out of sequence...
Drivers: McLaren's turn around in form has a lot to do with their revised machinery, but arguably as much with their third driver. The extra work put in by Pedro de la Rosa has helped the team to narrow down their options faster, leaving the race drivers to concentrate on preserving the car or setting it up for racing... which will be even more important at Magny-Cours. When it comes to race day, Kimi Raikkonen is a favourite for the win, but keep an eye out for Juan Pablo Montoya: he is getting to grips with the car and has an affinity for this circuit: he should be pushing his Finnish teammate from here on.
Objectives: strong qualifying and podium finish - aiming for a race win.
Buoyed by news of the BMW takeover, Sauber are heading to the French Grand Prix in a positive mood. The last test saw Felipe Massa put in some excellent laptimes: the team's recent wind tunnel work is looking promising, and appears to offer them some improved stability. Although the Ferrari engine they are running is arguably not the best in the field, the outfit have a sold package and ought to be able to pick up points if they can qualify well, or any of the front runners drop the ball.
Drivers: Neither driver is much of a fan of this circuit. Jacques Villeneuve has a mixed record there, but can put together a good race: consideration of his season to date would leave expectations low, but he is finally looking like he is getting to grips with the chassis. Massa on the other hand has been quick from the outset, so the hopes of the team continue to ride with him; his season has not caught many eyes, but he drove a strong race in Canada with some excellent defensive driving: a repeat performance after a decent qualifying in France would be very welcome indeed.
Objectives: qualify in the top ten; score points - beat Red Bull.
After displaying an apparent lack of pace in tests ahead of the race, the Red Bull team have to be concerned about how they will show in Magny-Cours. Their car is reliable, and clearly has sufficiently respectable race pace to hold a position with faster cars behind, but they are not able to qualify it effectively enough to translate in to good places. As the season progresses and their rivals bring on more developments, faster, they are now struggling to keep up.
Drivers: David Coulthard's excellent run of points so far this season, combined with his affinity for this circuit, gives the team some hope that the Scot can pull something special out of the bag and finish the weekend with a point or two - though that is a tall order. Christian Klien, it should also be noted, has been bringing in points this year, scoring in three of his four outings to date, so a repeat performance will be very welcome, and continue to raise eyebrows in the paddock.
Objectives: qualify in the top ten, score points. Beat Sauber.
After their solid start to the season, it has all gone a bit quiet at Toyota. Their recent performances have not been a match for the revived McLaren, with Williams and Ferrari also moving ahead in the performance stakes. The team do have some new aerodynamic pieces and engine evolutions coming through, but maintaining that relentless pace of development needed to hold station stay at the front is proving tough.
For France, the high downforce requirements and super-smooth surface should let the team show their strong engine well, without showing up the kerb-riding Achilles heel. Race pace is not expected to be a problem, so getting together a good qualifying session should offer the chance of a good points finish.
Drivers: Ralf Schumacher missed the race in 2004 due to a cracked spine, and is lucky to be racing this year after another high speed incident at Indy; he has a good record at the circuit, but most eyes will be firmly on Jarno Trulli, however, as it was at this circuit last season that he let Barrichello get past on the next to last corner - a move that it is widely speculated was the straw that broke the camels back, ensuring his departure from Renault.
Objectives: two points finishes, podium difficult: beat Williams.
With their Indianapolis points, Jordan are now sitting right behind Sauber in the World Championship - though the prospect of beating the Michelin outfit is remote. It does mean, however, that they have finished the season in double digits again: after picking up only five last season, that's still a positive statement for the record books.
However, under current circumstances, there seems little chance that anything will change over the remainder of the season. The management is concentrating what resources they have in to ensuring the team will make it in to next season with a car, let alone a competitive package, whilst the budget is looking stretched just to finish this season.
Drivers: After making the most of their points scoring opportunity at Indy - including a podium for Monteiro - the drivers are expected to resume their rivalry at Magny-Cours. With no other team even close to Jordan, despite Minardi's attempts to get close, this internal battle is set to be it for another race.
Objectives: make a showing, beat Minardi.
Unless it rains, France holds little prospect for Minardi besides a lot of laps for their drivers to run whilst leaping out of the way of their peers as they are lapped. After the points haul from Indianapolis - which actually puts the team comfortably ahead of BAR in the points standings - their season is already a success.
In the event of showers, if the team can stay the course - which is trickier than it sounds if the car is set up for the dry, thanks to very low ride heights and the tendency for standing water to result in a surfing visit to the gravel - then more points could be in prospect.
Objectives: complete race distance - beat a Jordan!
Michael Schumacher's dominant season was switching off viewers worldwide, leading to questions over whether there was a crisis in the sport that result in its decline; with France traditionally only a surprise when it rains, there was little hope for a change as the circus went to Magny-Cours... but at least this time there was a race involved. The short pitlane, combined with an increased pitlane speed limit, offered a wide choice of strategy.
With rain taking out the running on Friday, all the real work for the weekend came from the Saturday sessions. Of course, that didn't hurt Renault too badly, as they have pounded out more testing miles here than any of their rivals, but it did lead to a more interesting weekend.
On pole, Alonso looked solid for Renault with a lap that made of the most of an aero update. Schumacher lined up alongside, after selecting tyres for the race over qualifying, leading to overdriving in the final sector.
Coulthard's third spot for McLaren was testament both to his affinity for the track and the delivery of a new chassis that he could put some confidence in. Button filled out the second row for BAR, after finally getting the car balanced for the final qualifying session. Trulli, meanwhile, was overdriving the second Renault, but still qualified under a tenth off the front row - despite being fifth!
Recovering well from a heavy accident on Friday, Montoya placed his Williams sixth after looking like a pole candidate until a mistake on the high speed chicane damaged his speed. Sato drove a committed lap, and was happy to put his BAR in seventh.
Marc Gene was filling in for the injured Ralf Schumacher, who had cracked his spine in a heavy accident at Indianapolis the race before; the Spaniard's performance was solid - the clean, smooth lap after limited running was his best of the weekend - to take eighth on the grid.
Raikkonen was ninth, after making a mistake in to turn one then overdriving the whole lap, whilst Barrichello's tenth was a fair reflection of the price of running first in the session after missing the first qualifying due to a hydraulic problem.
Race day dawned bright and windless, with the track picking up heat quickly under the sun. There was a clean start to the race, though Panis was very slow getting away, whilst Trulli made a blinding start from sixth to slot in to third behind Schumacher. Button passed Coulthard off the line and attacked Panis in to Adelaide, unsuccessfully as it turned out. Gene started poorly and dropped to eleventh.
As usual for a dry Magny-Cours, overtaking is not a frequent occurrence, so the drivers were largely holding station, though Schumacher and Alonso were making it a two horse race for the win by easing away from the competition at the front.
The first round of stops began on lap 11 - Schumacher dove in to the pits and was stationary for only 7.4 seconds: this was the first indication of Ferrari's strategy as the maestro was in a position to revise the strategy to a four stop approach: mind you, this flexibility from the early stop nearly backfired as the Ferrari slotted back on to the track behind Sato, who was defending well after earlier being passed by Barrichello for eighth. Raikkonen, Gene and da Matta also stopped on lap eleven. Alonso's continued running at the front raised some eyebrows: the Renault had largely been expected to run lighter on fuel than Ferrari, considering the pole position.
Barrichello and Coulthard came in on lap twelve, whilst Trulli and Montoya stopped a lap later. Alonso and Button came in on lap fourteen: the Spaniard returned ahead of Sato, retaining the race lead. Sato's stop a lap later (shortly followed by his engine expiring) allowed Schumacher to return to chasing down Alonso from a three second deficit. Trulli trailed a few seconds back, with Button, Coulthard and Montoya forming a group further back again. Barrichello was busy closing up on Montoya, whilst the two stopping Massa held up Raikkonen, who was in turn being hassled by another two stopper - Webber.
After eighteen laps, Montoya succumbed to his neck pain and made a mistake, spinning on the kerbs and dropping to ninth behind Raikkonen. The Columbian continued to work hard, but the car was not handling well and would continue to bait him through the race.
Raikkonen stopped on lap 27, with Coulthard and Schumacher coming in a lap later. Again the World Champion's stop was stunningly fast, but he returned in fifth, behind Barrichello: nonetheless, he had clear air and set about recording consecutive fastest laps. Coulthard's run of McLaren-style luck continued: fuel hose problems dropped him to eighth.
Lap 30 saw Button stopping from third, followed by Trulli and Barrichello, the Montoya. Alonso finally stopped on lap 32, where despite being stationary for only 6.2 seconds, he returned to the track just behind Schumacher. Although the Spaniard set about closing down the Ferrari, the gap continued to open as the fuel levels dropped: this was the second indicator that something was going on - Ferrari had short fuelled Schumacher to give him the lead, and would now be committed to a four stop race.
Schumacher stopped again on lap 42, returning in clear air and only eleven seconds down on Alonso; the Renault driver, meanwhile, hit traffic just as he needed to have the hammer down. Alonso's final stop on lap 45 was also earlier than idea for a three stop race - he had short filled in order to stay ahead of Schumacher, not realising there was a strategy change afoot in the opposing camp - resulting in his running heavy from a fuel load to reach the finish. Schumacher now had a second per lap pace advantage, and was pulling away relentlessly at the front.
Raikkonen stopped on lap 47; Trulli and Coulthard a couple of laps later. Montoya stopped from sixth on lap 50 - Barrichello stopped the lap after. Button pitted on the same lap, but a near-stall getting away from the pit-box cost dearly as he came out just behind Trulli and the lost momentum gave Barrichello a run in to the hairpin: the problem, which was diagnosed as a misfire of the Honda anti-stall mechanism, took the Briton from a podium finish to fifth place. His attempts to pressure Barrichello came to no avail as the Brazilian worked on passing Trulli for the final podium place.
By lap 57, Schumacher had opened up over 20 seconds to Alonso, and with twelve laps to the end, pitted, returning to the track with a seven second advantage over the Renault: from here, a cruise for the win over Alonso was inevitable.
It looked as though the race would end in a procession, except that Barrichello never stopped pressuring Trulli ... until, at the next to final corner, the Brazilian audaciously stuck his nose inside the Renault, forcing his way past to steal the final podium spot from nowhere.
Point Paying Positions
Pos Driver Team-Engine Time 1. M.Schumacher Ferrari (B) 1h30.18.133 2. Alonso Renault (M) + 8.329 3. Barrichello Ferrari (B) + 31.622 4. Trulli Renault (M) + 32.082 5. Button BAR-Honda (M) + 32.484 6. Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes (M) + 35.520 7. Raikkonen McLaren-Mercedes (M) + 36.230 8. Montoya Williams-BMW (M) + 43.419 Fastest Lap: M.Schumacher, 1:15.377 Classified: 18 from 20 starters