by Tom Haapanen - motorsport.com Michael Schumacher experienced a rare mechanical failure - only his second in two years - and failed to finish the French Grand Prix. And, yet, for a change, it wasn't Schumacher that created the headlines on...
by Tom Haapanen - motorsport.com
Michael Schumacher experienced a rare mechanical failure - only his second in two years - and failed to finish the French Grand Prix. And, yet, for a change, it wasn't Schumacher that created the headlines on this Sunday.
It was, rather, David Coulthard who was the man of the day at Magny-Cours. Showing the type of drive, determination and even aggression that is not typically attributed to him, he beat both Schumacher and his teammate, Mika Hakkinen, on the track, in a straight fight.
The starting grid had the two championship leaders, Schumacher and Coulthard, on the two front row spots, with the Scot having lost the pole position to his rival by some one-tenth of a second.
As the cars launched into the race from the starting grid, Schumacher and Coulthard both made good starts, with the Ferrari thus staying ahead. However, Rubens Barrichello, in the second Ferrari, did better yet, and succeeded in reaching the first corner before Coulthard, with Hakkinen getting there just behind Coulthard.
The other notables at the start were Villeneuve (up two places to fifth) and Salo (from 12th to 9th). On the other hand, Irvine did rather more miserably, and ended up in 10th place despite having been in sixth place on the grid.
At the front, though, Schumacher was pulling away quickly from Barrichello, and the German quickly built up a five-second gap, while his teammate bottled up the McLaren teammates behind him.
Coulthard was not content to wait for the usual pit stop passing window, though. And continually pressed Barrichello. Challenging him at every opportunity, he showed aggression and drive worthy of the late Ayrton Senna.
With the Ferraris experiencing severe tire wear, Coulthard's efforts finally paid off on the 21st lap, as he got inside Barrichello's Ferrari at the Adelaide corner. The Brazilian realized that the corner was lost, and gave way to the McLaren, enabling Coulthard to begin the chase for Schumacher and the lead.
Hakkinen was still behind Barrichello, but as the leaders were approaching the pit stop window, he decided to pit early in the window. As he ducked out from a quick 7.3 second pit stop, he found clear road, and thus was able to put in enough fast laps to stay in third place when Barrichello exited the pits.
Further ahead, Coulthard was making some progress against Schumacher, but this was not to be soon enough to get ahead during the stops. Schumacher pitted first, and while Coulthard made his stop, the red Ferrari pulled through on the pit straight while Coulthard was still crawling through the pits on the speed limiter.
After the stops, though, Coulthard began catching the German hand over fist. It appeared that the German's second set of Bridgestones was no match for the tires he started on, and the gap began shrinking at some half a second a lap.
Beyond his raw speed on the track, Coulthard impressed with the decisive way he dealt with the lapped traffic, moving through the backmarkers at a pace better than Schumacher, who is normally recognized to be the best of the leader at this task.
By lap 32, it was nosecone to rear diffuser, as the Scot finished making up the seven seconds' lead that Schumacher had had. And on the next lap, it looked like Coulthard has Schumacher's number already, making an inside move on Coulthard at Adelaide corner - which was, again, the only reasonable passing place on the circuit.
However, Schumacher was having none of it, and closed the door, forcing Coulthard to abort the attempt, and leaving him shaking his fist as the German pulled away again to live another lap in the lead.
This was not all, yet, though, and Coulthard continued to push Schumacher hard, forcing the German to drive a very wide car, and also incur yet heavier tire wear. But Coulthard was not only faster, he was a man possessed, and seven laps later, at the same corner, he took the inside line at Adelaide again, and pulled through into the lead, and took a firm grip on ten Championship points.
Hakkinen was not far behind Schumacher, but he had been missing Coulthard's edge all weekend, and was not able to push Schumacher as aggressively. He was still faster, though, and, after the second d round of pit stops, began to push harder.
As Schumacher arrived at Adelaide corner yet again, with Hakkinen in hot pursuit, the Ferrari twitched visibly, and ran wide. The Finn wasted no time in going through the wide-open door, and pulled away quickly … too quickly, it seemed.
And, indeed, it had not been just a mistake: the Ferrari was now literally crawling along the track, clearly crippled, and with wisps of smoke issuing from the back. Schumacher could not coax it all the way to the pits, though, as the engine transformed itself into shrapnel with an explosion of smoke, ending the German's day, and handing a full ten-point gain to Coulthard.
Hakkinen was now second, but over ten seconds adrift of his teammate, so he satisfied himself with ensuring a finish, six Championship points, and another McLaren one-two finish.
Barrichellow was well back, too, and in no danger from Villeneuve, who was now in fourth, after a solid if uneventful race. Behind them, Ralf Schumacher , who had made his way past the Jordans of Jarno Trulli and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, did not manage to make an impression on the Canadian's BAR-Honda.
His teammate, Jenson Button, fared less well, though. Button, who has been at the center of rumors about the safety of his Williams seat next season - with the possibility of Juan Montoya's arrival - needed a strong showing to strengthen his hold on that elusive seat. However, while ha managed to get past the Jaguars and Salo's Sauber, he never looked to be a real threat to Frentzen's Jordan, and finished the race in eighth place.
But if Button's day was somewhat disappointing, it was a Sunday stroll compared to the Jaguars'. Johnny Herbert lived up to his middle name "unfortunate," as he retired after 51 laps with a gearbox problem.
That may have been less painful than his teammate's fate, though: Eddie Irvine not only could not do anything about Mika Salo's Sauber in front of him for most of the race, but he eventually ended up with grand total of four pit stops, and two laps down in thirteenth place.
But the real story was the continuing ascent of David Coulthard. "No more Mr Nice Guy" may have been said by too many people too often, but it truly appears as if Coulthard now has, for the first time, the drive, dedication and speed to truly challenge Schumacher for the World Championship.
Schumacher's lead in the championship is now down to 12 points over Coulthard and 18 over Hakkinen. All three are still in the running, but, based on the last few races, it appears that Hakkinen will end up playing second fiddle to Coulthard in this year's championship. Austrian GP, in two weeks' time, will likely determine the complexion of the remainder of the season: will it be a two-way or a three-way race to Malaysia?