The French Grand Prix heads the next round of back-to-back races on the Formula One calendar, the British GP at Silverstone following just seven days later. F1 is now half way through the season and while there has been entertainment and...
The French Grand Prix heads the next round of back-to-back races on the Formula One calendar, the British GP at Silverstone following just seven days later. F1 is now half way through the season and while there has been entertainment and controversy on and off track, the racing itself has been by and large unremarkable.
Many people were expecting a close battle this year after an unpredictable 2003 season. However, Ferrari has outperformed and outsmarted everyone, leaving competitors trailing in its wake. There have been improvements in the shape of BAR and Renault, but a lack of consistency has let both down. There have been disappointments, notably Williams and McLaren, both of who have performed below expectations.
By the midway point of the season the championship should still be wide open, but at the moment it's hard to image anyone but Ferrari and Michael Schumacher claiming the honours yet again. However, there are still nine races to come and while Ferrari shows no sign of releasing its stranglehold, anything could happen yet.
It may appear unlikely but there have been a few surprises this season, good and bad, so who's to say we might not have a few more? While Schumacher is leading the drivers' standings with 80 points, teammate Rubens Barrichello is only 18 behind. Despite winning every race he's finished, Michael's retirement from Monaco was a costly one.
BAR's Jenson Button and Renault's Jarno Trulli look doubtful to close the 40 odd points gap to the two leaders, and Fernando Alonso and Williams' Juan Pablo Montoya even less so, being in the mid twenties. Ferrari's lead in the constructors' standings appears unassailable -- over 70 points clear of second placed Renault.
It looks like it's already too late for a rival to thwart Ferrari's charge but there's a still a chance -- albeit a very slim one. We can hopefully expect some improvements from the Scuderia's rivals; they certainly have room to increase their competitiveness.
Magny Cours has hosted the French Grand Prix since the early nineties. The circuit is not the most technical on the calendar but has a combination of hairpins, chicanes and medium-low speed corners that require good traction and brakes. Downforce tends to be at the higher end of settings and demands on the engine are fairly average.
Like many circuits, overtaking opportunities are scarce. "The only real overtaking point is the Adelaide hairpin," said Sauber technical director Willy Rampf. "You need good brake stability there. And because there is a wide run-off area on the exit it is the right place for a driver to take a risk with some late braking."
One of the track's notable characteristics is the smooth surface. This tends to make the cars slide around a lot and tyre degradation is high. Compounds from the middle of the range will be the tyre option -- the very fast Estoril right hander generates loads that prevent a softer compound being used, as does hard acceleration out of the slower corners.
France was the scene of a Williams triumph in 2003, with Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya qualifying first and second, then holding formation to finish the race the same way. Ralf will not race at Magny Cours this year due to still recovering from his heavy crash at Indianapolis. Williams has announced test driver Marc Gene as his replacement for this weekend.
"I have raced at Magny-Cours before, and I have clocked up thousands of kilometres in the FW26, so hopefully this will provide the basis for a good performance in France this weekend," said Gene.
Michael Schumacher has little reason to doubt a continuance of Ferrari's form this weekend. "Until now, there has not been a single circuit on which this fantastic car has not performed well," he commented. "So, I am going into the French race in a calm frame of mind. I think that we can go for the win at Magny Cours and I will be trying hard to keep the good results going."
Takuma Sato scored his first podium finish at Indy and is eager for another good race. "This week we have been testing in Jerez where it has been very hot indeed, but we are happy with the tyre programme that we have chosen for France," said the Japanese. "Magny Cours is Michelin's home grand prix, so I am looking forward to us performing strongly next weekend."
France is home to Michelin and to Renault but Toyota's Olivier Panis is currently the only French driver in competition. "I'm very happy to be going back to Magny-Cours again as it is particularly special for me to race in front of the French fans," he said. "I really want to get a result for them, for me and for the team because the fifth place we achieved in Indianapolis was extremely positive."
As usual, a Michael Schumacher win is the likely scenario for France. BAR has been edging closer and closer to Ferrari so Jenson Button or Sato can't be counted out of reaching the top step of the podium for the first time. But will we get another surprise? After all, last year in France we had a Minardi on provisional pole in Friday qualifying…