Michael Schumacher became the first driver to win the same race eight times when he took victory at the French Grand Prix. Ferrari couldn't quite make it another one-two finish as Renault chose a two-stop strategy for Fernando Alonso which ...
Michael Schumacher became the first driver to win the same race eight times when he took victory at the French Grand Prix. Ferrari couldn't quite make it another one-two finish as Renault chose a two-stop strategy for Fernando Alonso which eventually moved him ahead of Felipe Massa for second. Massa had to be content with third but did another good job.
It was a race of uncertainty as there were different strategies being played out and some drivers turned out not to be on the strategies expected. Pole sitter Michael got away in the lead and Alonso tried hard to get past second placed Massa in the first couple of corners. They got very close and Alonso wisely decided to back off rather than risk contact.
Super Aguri's Takuma Sato crawled off the grid and only managed a couple of laps before he pulled off and retired with a clutch related problem. Behind the leading trio the next four held formation, Toyota's Jarno Trulli fourth followed by teammate Ralf Schumacher, McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen and the second Renault of Giancarlo Fisichella.
Mark Webber got his Williams up two places to eighth while Pedro de la Rosa had a slow start and his McLaren dropped a spot to ninth. Nick Heidfeld's BMW Sauber gained one to 10th and David Coulthard's Red Bull fell two to 11th. His teammate Christian Klien also suffered and fell three places to 15th.
Honda's Jenson Button and Williams' Nico Rosberg, who started 16th and 17th, were having a good old scrap, while towards the front Fisichella was closing on Raikkonen. Massa was doing what Ferrari needed of him -- holding Alonso back while Michael scooted away in the lead. Alonso was close on the second Ferrari but not looking likely to get past.
Rubens Barrichello's Honda went wide and allowed the Toro Rosso of Scott Speed to nip past into 12th and then Barrichello had Jacques Villeneuve's BMW Sauber on his rear wing. Webber was fending off an increasingly aggressive de la Rosa and there were a few good fights going on down the pack.
Tiago Monteiro was another early retiree when his MF1 went airborne through one of the chicanes. A mechanical gremlin sent him into a spin and the car hit the kerb quite hard then launched sideways into the air. Luckily it didn't roll when it landed and Monteiro was able to nurse it back to the pits.
"I haven't seen it," he said of the incident, "but it felt bad, it was a hard one. There was an alarm on the hydraulic pressure system and the differential went. The rear wheels locked and put me into a spin."
De la Rosa was keeping up the pressure on Webber and the pair went side by side but Webber held the McLaren off. Massa was the first in the pits, on lap 17, and Alonso was in shortly afterwards, so it seemed like they were both on three-stop strategies. Then Raikkonen went in, which was a bit surprising because it was thought McLaren was two-stopping.
Alonso had rejoined behind Massa and de la Rosa was next in for his first stop. He managed to clear Webber and Michael and Fisichella both pitted on lap 19. Who was doing what -- was everyone three-stopping? The Toyota's were then up front, Trulli leading Ralf, and Massa cranked out a fastest lap on his fresh set of Bridgestones.
Barrichello was the next retiree with what looked like engine troubles. "It was a weekend from hell really," said the rather dejected sounding Brazilian. "I had started with a lot of fuel and the car was beginning to pick up pace, but I was struggling with the brakes." It wasn't to be the last of Honda's woes either.
Trulli ducked in the pits leaving Ralf in the lead until Schumacher Junior also took his first stop. He had a delay on the left rear which lost him some time. Once the front runners had all taken their first stops the points order was Michael, Massa, Alonso, Trulli, Raikkonen, Fisichella, Ralf and Heidfeld up to eighth but he hadn't been in the pits yet.
Button was down in the midfield stuck behind the MF1 of Christijan Albers and the order outside the points was changing often due to the pit stops coming and going. Raikkonen lined up Trulli heading into the Adelaide Hairpin and had despatched the Toyota to move into fourth by the time they reached the chicane.
Heidfeld had taken his first stop and Coulthard was into eighth but then he too had to duck in for fuel and tyres, which put de la Rosa into the eighth spot. Raikkonen was closing on Alonso but then took his second stop, which seemed rather early. However, Massa was in shortly afterwards and the whole sequence started again.
With Massa temporarily out of the way, Alonso was pushing extremely hard -- you could almost imagine him in that Renault screaming and swearing at it to go faster. De la Rosa charged up behind Heidfeld and the German simply got out of his way -- strange, as Heidfeld wasn't being lapped but he said after the race that he had been wrongly shown the blue flags.
Michael took his second stop and left Alonso in the lead for the first time but it was short-lived. The Ferrari came out the pit lane right behind the Renault and was all over it for a few corners but then it seemed that Michael decided it wasn't worth it as Alonso would have to pit soon anyway.
Webber was next to come to grief when delamination on his left rear tyre sent him into a big, bouncy, gravelly spin. Bits of the tyre flew off everywhere but he managed to wrestle the Williams back to the pits. The team sent him back out but it wasn't long before the left rear went again and the Australian was forced back to the pits once more.
Williams seemed baffled as to exactly what the problem was. Mechanics were looking at the back of the car, so perhaps some bodywork was rubbing on the tyre, and Webber again attempted to get the car back into action, despite being four laps down by then. It was doomed to failure and he went back to the garage for good.
"It's massively disappointing," he said. "We could have got a point or two. It looks like an inside (tyre) shoulder overheating issue. The failure in the quick chicane trashed a lot of the aerodynamics too. It was pretty much a waste of a day."
After running comfortably in the points up until then, Trulli was another unexpected retiree, trundling back to the garage disconsolately with brake issues. "It's unbelievable," the Italian remarked. "I had a good start and the package was quick enough to be near the front. After the pit stop the engine dropped and there was a problem with the brakes."
Meanwhile, Alonso had taken his second stop as well as Ralf and Rosberg, who was apparently suffering similar problems to Webber, although Rosberg's were evidently not as serious. The three-stoppers began to go in for their last visits, Massa and Raikkonen in together and Michael shortly afterwards. Alonso stayed out... and stayed out...
With eight laps to go Button drew slowly into the pit lane and retired. "I don't know what the problem was, if it was the same as Rubens, but it's very frustrating," he commented. "I had a lot of understeer at first but the second and third stints were better. We actually went better in the race than we did in qualifying."
It turned out that Alonso, despite his early first visit to the pits, was on a two-stopper. Renault had decided that if he got ahead of Massa in the first lap they would leave him on a three-stop strategy and if he didn't, it would be two. And it duly worked -- Michael took the chequered flag and his 88th career victory with Alonso in second ahead of Massa.
"We were not sure how the race would go because we didn't do any long runs because of some problems we had on Saturday morning so it was a bit of a guess where, and how, the race would go, but I have to say that the car, the tyres, the whole package really worked superbly and it is a great result," said Michael. "I am sorry for Felipe that he couldn't keep his second, but nevertheless back on the podium and important points we got from that."
Alonso was happy enough with second. "Given where I started on the grid, I think second is everything I could have hoped for because we knew that Michael was a bit quicker this weekend -- like in Imola and the Nurburgring," he commented. "Back then, everybody thought that Michael would win all the races after two wins in a row, and we responded very strongly. Hopefully, we can do the same at Hockenheim in two weeks' time."
Naturally Massa was a little disappointed with third. "I think the team did a good job, the car was very good and unfortunately, I couldn't keep the position but I'm still happy to bring points home, especially for the team's championship but my championship as well," he said. "I'm just getting closer to Giancarlo and Kimi so I think it was a great weekend for us and hopefully we can maintain this pace."
Ralf did a good job and finished fourth but Toyota could easily have had both cars in the points if not for Trulli's problems. Raikkonen was a fairly sedate fifth and de la Rosa seventh -- it was a solid enough performance from McLaren but there doesn't seem to be any big improvements. De la Rosa's car promptly died once it got over the finish line.
Between the McLarens was Fisichella in sixth and Heidfeld, who had a fairly quiet afternoon, picked up the last point in eighth. Coulthard and Speed rounded off the top 10. It wasn't a terribly exciting race -- Magny Cours rarely is -- but quite an interesting one with the different strategies being played out.
Despite the predictions that Renault would come good again in France, Ferrari had a firm grip on this weekend. Renault did a bit of damage control so that Alonso only lost two points to Michael instead of four but the gap is steadily coming down. With Massa picking up good points these days the gap in the constructors' standings is narrowing as well.
Renault reportedly will have a big upgrade for the next race at Hockenheim in two weeks time and currently one would have to think that the team will be glad of it. Time is ticking away and Ferrari is closing in. Final top eight classification: M. Schumacher, Alonso, Massa, R. Schumacher, Raikkonen, Fisichella, de la Rosa, Heidfeld.