NEVERS, France -- Normally the French Grand Prix is seen as an event of lesser importance in the Formula One season. Not this year. With Michael Schumacher in a position to collect his fifth World Championship; Renault making its first official ...
NEVERS, France -- Normally the French Grand Prix is seen as an event of lesser importance in the Formula One season. Not this year. With Michael Schumacher in a position to collect his fifth World Championship; Renault making its first official return to the French circuit of Magny-Cours as a constructor; Arrows not sure they will even make the race and a French driver, Olivier Panis, and a French-Canadian, Jacques Villeneuve, in the field, this Sunday's French Grand Prix has become a key event in the 2002 season.
Schumacher, who drives for Ferrari, said during Thursday's press conference that his focus this weekend will be on winning the race rather than the title: "I will race as normal and obviously try to win the race, that's the target and then we will see what will be the result in the end. Whether it happens here or another time, I don't think that is really important to me. What matters for me is that it does happen in the end."
In a statement released on Wednesday, Arrows Grand Prix confirmed that outstanding bills owed to its engine supplier, Cosworth Racing, had been paid and that its cars were being sent to Magny-Cours. However, as of Thursday the team still did not know if it would compete in the race. Arrows missed the first day of practice during the British Grand Prix because Cosworth had not been paid a portion of its engine bill. A partial payment was made and the team were allowed to take part in qualifying and the race. Arrows' driver Heinz-Harald Frentzen was the 1999 winner of the French Grand Prix.
For Renault this is an important and news-filled weekend. Though the team would prefer to concentrate on the on-track action, much of the focus has been on its driver Jenson Button, who could remain at the team in 2003 or move on to another F1 team. Button, who revealed an announcement about his 2003 plans would be made within a few days, said he would not take a pay cut to remain at Renault and has been linked with Jaguar.
If he were to leave Renault, his replacement could be team test driver Fernando Alonso, who is managed by Renault F1 boss Flavio Briatore. Briatore said that "four or five teams" are interested in Alonso. "If he doesn't get a place at Renault, he will definitely find a place at another team," he commented.
While Renault may be in a position to make more news off-track than on, British American Racing is hoping to repeat its British Grand Prix success this weekend. Up until the British Grand Prix two weeks ago both Panis and Villeneuve, drivers for BAR-Honda, had failed to score a point. In that race, Villeneuve finished fourth and Panis fifth. Villeneuve said the British GP result has had a positive effect on morale at BAR.
"It just made everybody happier, so it's easier to work," he said in Thursday's press conference. "It's like waking up and putting some cold water on your face. It was needed, it's been a very hard season since the beginning and it looked like we weren't going to score any points until the end of the season. That was bad, it was very hard for everybody to carry so now everybody is standing a little bit straighter and it's easier to work."
Panis doesn't think driving in front of the home crowd will increase his motivation. "For me it doesn't make a big difference really because I am a Formula One driver, I like my job," The Frenchman said today. "Magny-Cours is a home Grand Prix and I am really happy to drive in front of the French spectators, but for me it is the same job compared to every other one."
Since the French Grand Prix moved to Magny-Cours in 1991 Schumacher has taken five wins, including last year's victory. The only other current F1 drivers to win in France are McLaren-Mercedes' David Coulthard (2000) and Frentzen. Schumacher's brother, Ralf, of Williams-BMW, took the 2001 pole position at Magny-Cours. Coulthard has taken the fastest lap in each of the previous four French Grands Prix.