World champions sure to come under serious pressure
Ferrari may be favourites for this weekends French Grand Prix, but the opposition has never been more threatening, as the teams head to Magny-Cours for round 10 of the 2004 season.
Jenson Button is brimful of confidence that his BAR will be at its best on the French track, which should suit his Michelin tyres, and said at the recent Goodwood Festival of Speed: I am confident that our strong package should definitely enable us to fight for a podium finish. Our car felt fantastic in Indy so it was disappointing that I was forced to retire from the race. We need to focus on getting both cars to the end of the race and well in the points if we are to challenge for second place in the championship. Wouldnt it be nice to go to Silverstone with a win under our belt? Magny-Cours is going to be our best chance of the season and we are really going to be pushing hard there." Honda is due to continue its engine development.
Then there are Williams. They didnt have much to shout about after two disastrous North American races which featured three disqualifications and an accident, but they had a definite performance improvement in both Canada and Indianapolis in low-drag trim, and there is a heavy package of aerodynamic modifications to the FW26 to improve it further. Within the factory the mood is high.
Ralf Schumacher will miss this race (and almost certainly the British Grand Prix) after his accident in Indianapolis, when a deflating tyre sent him backward into the Turn 13 wall at around 280 kph (175 mph) and an impact force of 77g according to his BMW engines telemetry. His place will be taken by Spaniard Marc Gene, who last raced for the team at Monza last year after Schumachers testing accident at the Italian track.
McLaren are also feeling cautiously optimistic, after promising tests of the evolutionary MP4-19B at Jerez. Three of the heavily modified cars will be on hand for David Coulthard and Kimi Raikkonen to race.
This of course is a key race for Renault, too, in its homeland. As the team seeks to regain their record of finishing both cars, Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso will have a new aerodynamic package and suspension modifications to help them stay in the hunt this weekend.
Elsewhere, Sauber will have a new front wing, and Christian Klien will race for Jaguar despite almost severing the top of his right index finger last week.
The 4.4 km Circuit de Nevers Magny Cours marks a return to high downforce set-ups, not just because of the nature of its corners - a mixture of slow hairpins with wide exits, medium-speed turns and high-speed chicanes - but also because it has an unusually smooth surface. This is extremely sensitive to ambient temperature, so the level of grip changes all through the day. This can also lead to high tyre wear due to oversteer, hence the need for maximum downforce to keep the cars from sliding around. Its very important to make the right tyre choice on Friday, and besides good balance, traction is also at a premium, especially on the last corner as a drivers exit speed here determines his ultimate pace through the first corner and down to the Adelaide hairpin, which represents the best opportunity for overtaking.