France analysis - doubling up at the top 05 Jul 2004
Champions extend lead despite strong Renault pace
Ferrari have exactly twice as many world championship points as their closest rival, Renault, following a one-three in the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours. They have 158, Renault 79. BAR have 62. Interesting statistics, when you consider that Williams still have only 37, and McLaren 22, with ten of 18 races gone.
Its been a tough season so far, and for some, all the effort that went into sending improved machines to France did not pay immediate dividends.
Lets deal with Williams first, since their weekend was so unproductive yet had appeared to promise so much. Nobody knows what happened to the car that Juan Pablo Montoya drove in pre-qualifying, but they do know that it went fast enough to set the best time. Yet somehow, after Montoya admitted that a mistake had left him only sixth in qualifying, the car lost even more pace in the race and the Colombian couldnt have hoped to finish better than sixth even if he hadnt spun exiting the last corner at the end of the 17th/start of the 18th lap (he crossed the line while rotating). Schumacher set the fastest lap of all, with 1m 15.377, but the closest a Williams got to that was Marc Genes 1m 16.070s, and Montoya lapped in 1m 16.140s. He complained of neck pains, which were a corollary of his Friday accident, so perhaps the fact that he was not fully au point exerted an influence, but the team were deeply disappointed after the promise the revised aerodynamic package had so clearly shown on Saturday. Gene, meanwhile, lost places at the start while babying the clutch because of a problem, then had a clash in Turn Three with Webber.
Jaguar, too, showed glimmers of promise again without getting the big result, though Webber was giving Montoya a hard time for a long time, and set the fourth fastest lap in 1m 15.956s. Webber was full of enthusiasm for the R5, especially as debris in the brake ducts created its own special problems. The feeling at Jaguar was definitely one of progress again.
Minardi had little to celebrate, and nor did Jordan or Toyota, and lack of rear-end grip consigned both Sauber drivers to tough races that did not yield points. Climbing back up the order, however, McLaren went away feeling quietly confident again. On the face of it there was nothing new about sixth and seventh places, which merely repeated the results of Montreal and Indianapolis, but this time around the MP4-19B was much more competitive. Coulthards sixth place was only three seconds adrift of Buttons BAR, and Raikkonen set the third fastest lap in 1m 15.791s, which was within striking distance of Renault and Ferrari. The car isnt a winner yet, but its a lot better and the team are moving in the right direction again after a massive amount of hard work.
Fifth place would once have been a big result for BAR, but these days they expect greater. Coming to this race they even dared to hope for the breakthrough win, but soon revised their aspirations to the podium. Button should have made it, too, and would have done had his cars anti-stall not activated itself on his final stop and lost him two critical seconds. They added more points, to keep the team comfortably in third place thirsting after Renault, but yet another Honda engine failure for Sato hurt the quest for crucial points. They havent finished both cars in the points since Spain.
For Renault, the failure to win was desperately frustrating, because the R24, Alonsos at least, had the pace (with second fastest lap of 1m 15.551s) to match the Ferrari. The reds are convinced they could have won anyway with the three-stop strategy, and they were probably right, but the Renault was superbly suited to the circuit on its Michelins and was a genuine contender for victory.
Silverstone next weekend will be fascinating!