France 2003 - Williams on the up 29 Jun 2004
Ralf keeps the Anglo-German squad on a roll
With his second victory on the trot, Ralf Schumacher staked his claim to his brothers championship crown in France, and in beating team mate Montoya, led another crushing one-two for Williams.
The result confirmed Michael Schumachers worst misgivings about the performance of his Bridgestone tyres. Such was the dominance of the revitalised Williams cars that even when Montoya backed off in the final stages, angered that a change of Ralfs refuelling schedule had enabled the German to maintain the lead when Montoya had been fighting tooth and nail to steal it, he still finished well ahead of the Ferrari. Some hard driving and clever racecraft, however, allowed him to jump ahead of the McLarens of Kimi Raikkonen and David Coulthard, which had run ahead of him in the early stages.
Ralf Schumachers sole problem came on the 52nd lap when, having made his final pit stop the previous lap, Juan Pablo Montoya closed to within 1.2 seconds of him. But the German kept his head and simply opened up the gap again.
The car was very good from the start and I was able to disappear after the first stop, said Ralf. Maybe we got the pressures wrong with the second set of tyres because the car felt bad and Juan was able to get closer while we were lapping guys. I came in a little early for my final stop, because I knew he would have caught me if Id stayed out longer. Near the end I got a bit wide in Turn 7 when I braked a bit late, but nothing special. You know, I really cant believe that Ive won two in a row! Its fantastic!
Montoya was philosophical in defeat. He said that his FW25 did not feel particularly comfortable to begin with, and then he lost time with a problem with a wheelnut in his first stop. After that he pushed very hard and was right with Ralf before their last stops, being notably more aggressive in traffic. But when he stopped two laps earlier than scheduled, Ralf came in a lap sooner, nullifying any advantage. Furious with his team, Montoya backed off. Some say that may have been the moment in which he began to seriously consider a move to McLaren for 2005.
Raikkonen only just made the flag after a rear brake disc shattered three laps from the finish. Coulthard had trouble too and lost a much-needed podium place with a misunderstanding during his final pit stop on lap 48. First the original refuelling hose developed a problem and Raikkonens had to be substituted. Then Coulthard mistakenly believed he had been signalled to leave the pit as the pit stop controller lifted his lollipop prematurely while refueller Steve Morrow was still in the process of disconnecting his hose. Morrow was dragged along the ground and fell over the left rear wheel as the Mercedes surged forward. Fortunately he was unharmed.
Before the French Grand Prix weekend, Ferrari and Bridgestone representatives had met for a crisis meeting at a local restaurant and planned an intensive test session prior to the British Grand Prix. But Ralf Schumacher, who had closed to within a mere 11 points of his big brothers championship lead and was only three behind Raikkonen, sounded cautiously optimistic as Williams moved to within three points of Ferrari in the constructors chase.
If we keep working like this we can keep this going, he said, referring to the teams newfound momentum. There will be circuits that are tough for us, but we are very encouraged. Battle was now fully engaged.