Michael Schumacher is not the only man dominating a championship in 2004: earning his fourth win in five races, Vitantonio Liuzzi reclaimed the top of the FIA International F3000 drivers championship with an impressive win at Magny-Cours yesterday.
After a disappointing run last time out at the Nurburgring, the Italian was in determined mood to reclaim top spot from championship rival Enrico Toccacello from the start of the weekend.
‘It’s much better now that I’ve got back my leadership of the championship,” the winner declared. “But as I said before Nurburgring, we cannot be relaxed. I think the championship is still a long way away.”
Content with his performance in free practice on Friday, the Arden driver set a marker for race day when he secured his fourth pole of the season. His 1:30.273 lap was four tenths faster than any of his rivals could muster and thus the stage was set for a fourth win – providing the 17-car field could make it through the infamous Adelaide hairpin without incident on the opening lap.
At the lights, Liuzzi made a clean getaway from Yannick Schroeder to lead going into Turn One. Thankfully, everyone trickled through Adelaide without incident at the first time of asking and at the end of the lap, it was Liuzzi, from Schroder, Thomas Enge (up from seventh on the grid in the Ma-Con), Robert Doornbos (Arden), Patrick Friesacher (Coloni), Toccacello (BCN)and the ever improving Jose Maria Lopez (CMS).
Lap 2, and while Friesacher made a textbook move on Doornbos, the battle for 13th settled in the blink of an eye as Alan van der Merwe (SuperNova) and Mathaius Lauda (CMS) tried to claim the same piece of tarmac. Inter-locking wheels sent the Austrian’s car into a barrel roll before it landed the right way up, if a little dog-eared. It was a relief to see Lauda step from the vehicle unharmed, as collisions of this kind are so frequently left in the lap of the gods. With no alternative, the Safety Car was deployed before racing resumed on lap 4.
Hunting the Czech ahead, Friesacher moved up another place with a fine move on Enge going into the hairpin and now set about catching Schroeder, whom he passed two laps later.
Establishing a small margin over his most recent victim, Friesacher entered the pits for new rubber on lap 8 to begin the sequence of mandatory tyre changes. Eager to attempt a small gain in track position, Toccacello and Lopez pitted from 6th and 8th positions respectively on lap 9 while Enge, Raffaele Giammaria (AEZ, 10th), van der Merwe, Nico Verdonck (Astromega) and Can Artam (Coloni) all came in for fresh rubber a lap later. While his competitors managed to vacate their pit boxes without incident, Verdonck’s exit was a little more dramatic. His car now serviced with fresh tyres, the Astromega driver stunned his mechanics by flooring the throttle and sending the front jack – still attached to the nose of his car, flying into the air at an alarming rate. The incident was a touch ironic when one considers that the Belgian and his team had practiced 25 pit stops in a single day during the lull between the Nurburgring and Magny Cours. Who says practice makes perfect…
Momentairily back into second, Schroeder entered the pits on lap 11 with Doornbos (3rd) and fourth placed Esteban Guerrieri (BCN) in close attendance.
His mechanics working like a well oiled machine, Liuzzi exited his pit box on lap 12 and rejoined the proceedings in 3rd place, more than two seconds clear of Friesacher. Temporarily occupying first and second positions, Fernando Monfardini and Viso were the last to stop on the fifteenth tour and as a result, it was Liuzzi ahead of Friesacher, Enge, Schroeder, Doornbos, Lopez, Guerrieri and Tony Schmidt (Ma-Con) as the crossed the line to begin lap 16.
Further back, Toccacello, frustrated by an evil-handling car, pushed a little too hard going into the fast right hander leading onto the back straight and dropped to 15th position after running wide at Estoril.
Now five seconds down and struggling to keep the gearbox of race leader Liuzzi in sight, Firesacher soon came under pressure from Enge and an exiting battled ensued over the next few laps with Enge feverantly seeking a way past the Coloni driver.
Lying 6th on lap 23, Lopez over cooked it at Estoril and unlike Toccacello a few laps previous, was unable to emerge from the gravel. The Argentine’s retirement subsequently lifted the impressive Monfardini up into a potential points-scoring position for the first time this season.
Leading the field in a manner all within the F3000 fraternity have become accustomed too this year, Liuzzi continued serenely up front while behind the Arden driver, the battle for 2nd continued to rage. His impatience growing with each second spent staring at the rear wing of Friesacher, Enge finally passed the Coloni going into the hairpin on lap 24 and immediately began to pull away. Now struggling for grip,m Friesacher was soon under pressure from Schroeder but the 3rd placed man was soon breathing a sigh of relief when the chasing Durango machine locked up at the hairpin and ran wide.
Now 6.4 seconds to the good, Liuzzi took the flag on lap 35 and with it, regained the series lead. It was a consummate fourth win of the season for the Italian, so could he now start to think about the championship?
A delighted second, Enge led from Firesacher – pleased with his result following the switch from SuperNova to the Coloni outfit since Nurburgring. Fourth went to Schroeder with Doornbos, Guerrieri, Schmidt in 5th, 6th and 7th positions respectively. Perhaps a contender for driver of the day, Viso scored a point for 8th position on his F3000 debut.
In the paddock, there was however, little doubt as to who was the real driver of the day. Four wins from five starts, it would be a brave man to bet against anyone beating Liuzzi to the title this year.