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French GP report

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As the drivers prepared for the start the threat of rain played heavy. Some drivers, such as Damon Hill, were almost doing a rain dance. It almost didn't matter to Damon as he went off into the gravel on the first lap, and spent the rest of the...

As the drivers prepared for the start the threat of rain played heavy. Some drivers, such as Damon Hill, were almost doing a rain dance. It almost didn't matter to Damon as he went off into the gravel on the first lap, and spent the rest of the race at the rear of the field, after a lengthy pit stop. At the front, Schumacher got away from pole in the lead, with Frentzen following, and Irvine moving up from 5th to 3rd. By the end of the first lap, Schumacher had 0.8 seconds over Frentzen. The pattern was to continue for many laps, with Schumacher pulling out a bigger and bigger lead with each lap. On lap 5, Tarso Marques' Minardi retired with smoke pouring from the back, and a small oil fire. A lap later, Nakano spun off across the gravel and into the wall backwards. The major battle was for 8th, with Trulli, Alesi and Wurz in contention. Behind Schumacher; Frentzen, Irvine, Villeneuve, Ralf and Coulthard did what they could to keep up with the German. It was a lost cause.

Diniz and Verstappen did their best to liven up proceedings by having a coming together. Diniz pitted the same lap, and rejoined the race ahead of Hill at the rear of the field. Fontana made his first very leisurely stop. A few laps later, Verstappen retired after going off and coliding with a wall. Whether this was linked to earlier mishap is at present unknown. By lap 21, Hakkinen was retiring, pulling off at the side of the track.

Soon followed the pit stops, with Schumacher apparantly taking 33kg of fuel on board in 8.0 seconds, rejoining the race behind Irvine, and allowing Frentzen a brief glimpse of the lead. It was already despair and woe all around at Williams who could not understand their lack of performance. Alesi soon pitted with a lengthy 10.9 seconds, with Frentzen pitting the next lap, and found his race further hindered by Irvine coming into the adjacent pit just as he was about to lead. The Williams pit crew kept him back whilst Irvine went in. Apparantly the mechanics were later questioned if it really was necessary - it certainly was, and a collision in the pit lane was narrowly avoided.

Coulthard also pitted, with Wurz also pitting, and getting turned around in 8.4 seconds - a clear 2.5 seconds faster than Alesi - and rejoined ahead of his experienced team-mate. Villeneuve also had his first stop, along with Barrichello. By the end of lap 26 the positions were Schumacher, Frentzen (+14.967), Irvine (+23.256 on Schumacher), Villeneuve, Trulli and Ralf Schumacher, with Fisichella, Coulthard, Wurz, Alesi, Herbert, Magnussen, Barrichello, Salo, Katayama, Fontana, Diniz and Hill behind.

Trulli and Magnussen were next to stop, and the first of the one-stoppers. However Magnussen found himself retired a short while later. On lap 36, Fontana pitted and promptly wheel spun his way out of the pits, undoing all the good of the new tyres in about 10 metres. Fisichella also soon pitted from 7th place. A lap later Barrichello had retired his Stewart with a very smokey rear-end. Wurz continued to make good progress on Coulthard. Herbert pitted from 11th, and Diniz spun off the track. By lap 40, Schumacher had a healthy 21.931 seconds on second place Frentzen, whilst Fontana pitted again for a new nose cone and then promptly stalled, closely followed by retiring - not an inspired replacement for Morbidelli. Irvine was in for his second stop just as it started to rain, but too early to do anything about it - he went out on a new set of slicks, as did Schumacher a lap later, allowing Frentzen a taste of the lead again for a lap, before he likewise pitted.

Williams were all fingers and thumbs - delaying Villeneuves stop just in case it rained heavier, then deciding to go for it, then changing their minds all over again! Coulthard pitted for new slicks, as did Wurz with it pouring down in the pit lane. The Austrians car bogged down in the pits, and looked set to stall until he found a new gear again and got away. Finally Williams made up their mind, and Villeneuve pitted for slicks, whilst Trulli took a gamble on Intermediates. Ralf Schumacher and Alesi who soon followed into the pits stayed on slicks. At the front Schumacher was leaping away from Frentzen in second place.

Within a few laps it was becoming less clear who the correct ones were, with some going still with slicks, and the likes of Herbert joining in on intermediates. With only 10 laps to go it was pouring with rain, and now inters seemed the correct choice. Ferrari decided to keep Schumacher out, and this suddenly seemed a bad move when his car left the track and went across the gravel. He managed to rejoin and keep the lead safely. Williams continued to dither with their choice, whilst Herbert retook a lap from Schumacher on his inters. Suddenly Williams decided to get the inters out for Frentzen, whilst Alesi actually pitted. Ralf Schumacher left the track in the greasy conditions, but managed to rejoin, whilst Frentzen was being attacked by Trulli on his inters, and unlapped himself. Fisichella decided to pit for inters, whilst Ralf Schumacher unlapped himself from his big brother, and went chasing after Coulthard.

Williams continued to dally about, and then decided to bring in Villeneuve after a trip across the chicane with 5 laps to go. Coulthard seemed to have the best set up, being 8 seconds a lap faster than Schumacher. Unfortunately he was 90 seconds behind the leader! Irvine also pitted at the same time as Villeneuve. Coulthard and Ralf were now ahead of Villeneuve, whilst Irvine kept his third place. Alesi was now upon Villeneuve's tail, whilst Irvine suddenly had a very slow lap (reason unknown). Alesi continued to pile on the pressure to grab 6th from Villeneuve. The top 6 being now Schumacher, Frentzen, Irvine, Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher and Villeneuve. Villeneuve then took Ralf, whilst this was followed by Villeneuve and Ralf taking Coulthard, with Ralf then spinning off on the last lap, and rejoining, but losing the place he had just gained. Coulthard and Alesi battled on the last section of the last lap, only for Coulthard to go off when he claims he was hit from behind by Alesi. Villeneuve at the last corner attacked Irvine for third and spun off - Patrick Head's face by all accounts was a picture - regained the track and managed to just keep 4th, with bodywork hanging from the car.

1. Schumacher 2. Frentzen 3. Irvine 4. Villeneuve 5. Alesi 6. Ralf Schumacher 7. Coulthard 8. Herbert 9. Fisichella 10. Trulli 11. Katayama 12. Hill

-- Stephen M Baines

"[The Autosport sticker] started to peel off in the middle of Eau Rouge and it distracted me. In fact it was the first thing to hit the barrier" Tiff Needell - Jaguar XJR-15 Challenge - Interview with Autosport

F1/TouringCars http://web.ukonline.co.uk/Members/stephen.baines/

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