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Thursday race preview 03 Jul 2003

The podium (L-R) David Coulthard (GBR) McLaren 3rd, Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) McLaren 2nd, Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari 1st, Jean Todt (FRA) Ferrari General Manager.
Formula One World Championship, Rd11, French Grand Prix, Magny-Cours, France., 21 July 2002

Hello and welcome to the start of the French Grand Prix weekend. The race, the 10th in the 2003 FIA Formula One World Championship, holds the promise of yet another gripping chapter in what has already become the most exciting title fight in years.

Ralf Schumacher's recent victory for Williams in the Grand Prix of Europe brought the team's tally of Grand Prix victories to 110 and engine partner BMW's to 16, and with team mate Juan Pablo Montoya finishing second, Williams now has 32 one-two finishes. It was the first one-two finish for BMW in Germany and the first for the Williams team since the 2002 Malaysian Grand Prix.

On top of that, Ralf Schumacher's win marked the first time since 1999 that six different drivers have won races in a Formula One season. The winners so far this season have been David Coulthard (Australia), Kimi Raikkonen (Malaysia), Giancarlo Fisichella (Brazil), Michael Schumacher (the only repeat winner so far, at Imola, Spain, Austria and Canada), Juan Pablo Montoya (Monaco) and Ralf Schumacher (Germany). There were four different winners in 2002, five in 2001 and four in 2000. The six drivers to win in 1999 were Eddie Irvine, Mika Hakkinen, Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Coulthard and Johnny Herbert.

In France Rubens Barrichello will be anxious to join this squad, but the acknowledged excellence of the Ferrari chassis and engine notwithstanding, the odds appear to favour the Michelin-shod runners unless Bridgestone has some new tyres available.

Tyre degradation is the major issue at Magny-Cours. This is because the surface of the track is almost unnaturally smooth by race circuit standards. This means that the cars tend to move around a lot. Then there is the unusual climate in that region of France. The track temperature is prone to change a great deal during the day, much more so than at any other circuit, which also reduces grip. Between practice in the morning and qualifying in the afternoon, it is not unknown for the track to change to the tune of two seconds, simply because of temperature variation.

Since none of the teams have had the chance to test between Nurburgring and Magny-Cours, because the races are only a week apart in order to make a space after Hockenheim at the end of the month for the now traditional three-week 'holiday' break, the teams who have signed up for the Friday morning testing session may enjoy the sort of advantage they did in Monte Carlo. The 15-minute warm-up session before final qualifying, where teams hone their cars' balance, will also be more crucial than ever.

Besides durable tyres, you also need good aerodynamic stability - Magny-Cours is like Barcelona in that it requires a high downforce set-up - good braking stability for the Adelaide Hairpin which is one of the best overtaking spots, and good traction. It will be particularly interesting to see the effect of changes to the final section of the lap, where the old chicane has been deleted.

The tyre wear factor will make strategy very interesting this weekend. Since Monaco most teams have opted for two-stop races with a reasonably short first tint, a long middle stint and a short final stint. However, some may be tempted, for reasons of tyre wear, to go for three stops here. Though the pit lane entry is notably tight, the exit is quick, so three stoppers are certainly feasible.

The situation at the head of the championship tables is very close, and nobody can afford to relax or not to finish. Kimi Raikkonen's engine failure in Germany, in particular, had a debilitating effect on his position. The new points system introduced this year was designed to keep the championship battle closer, and has certainly done just that. After nine of the 16 races, Michael Schumacher leads the table with 58 points from Kimi Raikkonen with 51. However, the Williams drivers are closing in. Ralf Schumacher is third on 43, Juan Pablo Montoya and Fernando Alonso are tied for fourth on 39 and Rubens Barrichello is sixth on 37.

In the constructors' stakes, Williams' maximum points score in Germany, thanks to its one-two finish in the Grand Prix of Europe, moved it into second place on 82 points to leader Ferrari's 95. McLaren dropped to third on 76 with Renault fourth on 52.