Fernando Alonso took his fifth win of the season at the French Grand Prix, the first victory for Renault at home for 22 years. Back in 1983 it was Alain Prost who did the honours at Paul Ricard, and it was Prost who presented Alonso with his...
Fernando Alonso took his fifth win of the season at the French Grand Prix, the first victory for Renault at home for 22 years. Back in 1983 it was Alain Prost who did the honours at Paul Ricard, and it was Prost who presented Alonso with his trophy on the podium at Magny Cours. McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen had a great drive from 13th on the grid to come home second and Ferrari's Michael Schumacher was third.
It was a clean, almost sedate start; Takuma Sato's BAR dropped one to fifth, allowing the Ferrari of Rubens Barrichello to move up to fourth, and both McLarens gained a spot, Juan Pablo Montoya to seventh and Raikkonen to 12th. Christian Klien was a very early retiree when his Red Bull lost fuel pressure almost immediately and left him stranded.
"It's a massive disappointment," Klien said. "I had a fuel pressure problem in the first lap and there was nothing to do, but pull over. The whole weekend was not on my side; I had a crash and then qualified sixteenth. I thought it might be hard to get near to the front runners from that far back on the grid, but I didn't expect something like this on the first lap."
By lap three Alonso was already three seconds ahead of second place man Jarno Trulli, who's Toyota was doing a good job of holding back Michael in third and those behind him. Raikkonen got himself up to 10th but was then stuck behind the Sauber of Felipe Massa, who was determined to stay in front.
Minardi's Patrick Friesacher was an early stopper, the mechanics checking over his car for a while as his gearbox was getting rather hot. Sato was the first of the front runners to come in, some being on a three-stop strategy and some on a two. Raikkonen was freed of Massa when Felipe went in for his first stop and set about putting the hammer down.
Trulli and Michael dived into the pits together and Michael came out ahead as he had a much quicker fuel stop than Jarno. Giancarlo Fisichella had a delay on the fuel rig that lost him time and dropped his Renault down the pack, and Alonso had enough time in hand to rejoin in the lead after he made his first stop.
The McLarens, obviously on a two-stopper, were up to second and third, Montoya and Raikkonen respectively, by the time the three-stoppers had been in and out. David Coulthard's Red Bull had a close shave with Nick Heidfeld's Williams when he exited the pits but they escaped unscathed.
Barrichello and Sato had a scrap at the hairpin when coming up behind a backmarker and Sato gained the advantage, while Raikkonen was belting out fastest laps on the run up to his first stop. Montoya was the first to pit and rejoined back in third, just sneaking ahead of Michael, so McLaren's strategy was really working out well.
Sato had banzai lunge down the inside of Trulli at the hairpin but overdid it and slithered into the gravel. He regained the track but was down to 10th. Raikkonen finally pitted on lap 29, which proved just how good his qualifying lap was with that much fuel on board. He rejoined second ahead of teammate Montoya.
Somewhere unseen Massa evidently had a bit of a moment as he dropped from ninth to 14th, and then mysteriously disappeared from the running order. A hydraulic problem was the culprit. Sauber did try and send him back out in hope of gaining a little ground for Silverstone qualifying but the problem was terminal.
"The car was running strongly until I began to experience a loss of hydraulic pressure around lap 25," Massa explained. "First of all the steering started to become very heavy, then I couldn't select the gears. After a couple of laps I had to come into the pits and the team tried to fix the problem. I went out again, but it was still there so I had to retire."
After the pit stop shakeout it was Alonso leading Raikkonen from Montoya and Michael, then Trulli, Barrichello, Button and Fisichella. Mark Webber's difficult weekend was compounded by some problem on his Williams which caused him to suffer a presumably rather uncomfortable burning of the backside. No comment…
Friesacher was the next retiree, a rear left tyre failure leaving him to pull off track. "From the beginning the rear was really nervous," Friesacher said. "The car was sliding around and then the tyre just went." A few laps later his teammate Christijan Albers crashed out at turn two with the same problem -- Minardi discovered later that the tyre valve caps had not been replaced in the previous pit stop.
Montoya's bad luck wasn't about to let him off the hook and his McLaren began to slow. Michael got past easily down the pit straight and Juan Pablo retired to the side of the track shortly afterwards. "It's a shame," the Colombian shrugged. "It was a hydraulic leak, I lost the steering, then the gears. It's been a bad season for me, things keep going wrong, but we keep trying."
Button had leapfrogged Trulli in the second round of stops to move up to fifth, so with Montoya's retirement he was fourth and Michael was promoted to third. Nick Heidfeld was faring no better than Williams teammate Webber. He was complaining that the handling was terrible -- so bad he even thought he'd had a suspension failure -- and a differential problem was diagnosed but nothing could be done except struggle on.
Sato had another trip into the gravel, seemingly due to someone in front of him doing likewise -- possibly Villeneuve -- and putting gravel on the track, causing Sato to skid. Fisichella was closing on Michael and Barrichello on Ralf but neither was close enough to challenge. The three-stoppers visited the pits again and Fisichella stalled, which dropped him from 4th to 6th.
The last stint of the race was static, with Alonso maintaining a 17 second advantage over Raikkonen. Michael was about minute behind the leader and by the chequered flag Alonso had lapped everyone behind the Ferrari. It was a very good drive by the Spaniard, calm and untroubled from start to finish, to give him his fifth victory of the season.
"It was really really good," said the winner. "The car performed extremely well again in the race. We were very competitive from the first lap. I saw in the mirrors Jarno going back a little bit so I pushed a little bit more until the first stint and then the gap was quite nice and we controlled the race a little bit more."
"I think Barcelona and here at Magny-Cours, to see all the supporters, all the blue grandstands I think is an extra motivation and we did two good races, Barcelona and here, but obviously better to win."
Raikkonen's performance was also praiseworthy. The McLaren is a very good car at the moment and if he hadn't had the qualifying penalty, Alonso would have had a fight on his hands. The two youngsters continue to be the class of the season, with Alonso stretching his lead over Raikkonen to 24 points.
Raikkonen was moderately pleased but diappointed not to win. "Second place is quite good for us," he conceded. "We only dropped two points so it didn't cost too much, but of course I want to win races and we have definitely got the speed here also. I think we stopped quite a bit later than most of the front runners, so let's say that in circumstances we did a good job but it's still disappointing to only finish second."
Michael had a fairly reasonable race but to be well over a minute behind Alonso in the closing stages indicates that Ferrari is not exactly making any big leaps forward in competitiveness. Barrichello finished outside the points, which further underlines that the Scuderia still has a lot of work to do.
Michael admitted that third was probably the best he could have managed. "If you look at the speed we have had, then clearly I have to say that third place was about the maximum," he said. "If our strategy would have worked perfectly we could have been in front of Kimi due to the situation he was in his race but our race didn't go perfectly, so that was the way it was."
Button finally got BAR onto the points table with fourth. BAR was quite competitive this weekend, although Sato finally finished 11th after his few adventures, and we should see the team in the thick of the action at Silverstone next weekend. Button was aiming to be on the podium in France but at least he got his first points of the season.
The Toyotas had a fairly quiet time, Trulli fifth and an almost invisible Ralf Schumacher seventh. Trulli isn't quite managing to match his race performance with his star turns in qualifying, while Ralf struggles with various gremlins, but the team is just about maintaining its presence in the constructors' standings.
Fisichella, as already mentioned, lost out in his last pit stop and finished sixth, and Jacques Villeneuve picked up the final point for Sauber in eighth. Villeneuve was another we didn't see much of but every point is hard won for Sauber. Barrichello came home ninth after struggling with his brakes.
Coulthard was the sole Red Bull to get home and despite their various troubles, Webber and Heidfeld also reached the chequered flag. Jordan maintained its good rate of finishes with Narain Karthikeyan and Tiago Monteiro also crossing the line but it must have been a bit of a reality check after the events of Indianapolis.
France was not one of the better races we've had this season but after the recent upheavals we probably didn't need too much more excitement. The fallout from Indy continues to rumble on but the drivers did their job at Magny Cours and even if it was less than thrilling, it at least gave a semblance of normality.
Silverstone, a place that's garnered a fair amount of controversy of its own in the past, is the next venue and with only a week between races we can perhaps assume that McLaren and Renault will again be the main contenders. But then again, it's probably not safe to assume anything at the moment. Final top eight classification: Alonso, Raikkonen, M. Schumacher, Button, Trulli, Fisichella, R. Schumacher, Villeneuve.