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Race analysis - Renault put on red alert 17 Jul 2006

Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari 248 F1 leads Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault R26.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, French Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Magny-Cours, France, 15 July 2006 Jean Todt (FRA) Ferrari Sporting Director celebrates victory for Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, French Grand Prix, Race, Magny-Cours, France, 16 July 2006 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault celebrates his second position on the podium.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, French Grand Prix, Race, Magny-Cours, France, 16 July 2006 Ralf Schumacher (GER) Toyota TF106 fourth place.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, French Grand Prix, Race, Magny-Cours, France, 16 July 2006 Nick Heidfeld (GER) BMW Sauber F1.06.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 11, French Grand Prix, Qualifying Day, Magny-Cours, France, 15 July 2006

The French Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher suggested, was another near-perfect weekend for Ferrari. If they had anything to complain about, it was that Renault’s late switch from a three- to a two-stop refuelling strategy allowed Fernando Alonso to sneak ahead of Felipe Massa, who had played the dutiful team mate role early on to keep the Spaniard at bay while his team leader built up an advantage.

After the uncertainty of Indianapolis, where observers put much of Ferrari’s advantage down to Michelin’s assumed (and understandable) conservatism, it transpired that Bridgestone had made much greater progress than suspected. At Magny-Cours, Alonso estimated that the red cars had two to three tenths of a second advantage over his blue steed. They were as reliable as ever, too, after their Saturday morning practice dramas (in which the rear of Schumacher’s car was briefly engulfed in flames), and the 16-point haul for first and third places cuts the deficit to Renault in the constructors’ championship from 26 points to 21.

Renault and Michelin put a brave face on things, but they must be on red alert in Enstone, Viry-Chatillon and Clermont-Ferrand after two heavy defeats. Alonso’s second place was a fine bit of damage limitation by all concerned, but Giancarlo Fisichella didn’t add much to the campaign with only three points for sixth place, complaining of tyre graining in his second stint and then brake problems. Overall, they lost five points to Ferrari.

Toyota kept up their recent momentum with another haul of five points for Ralf Schumacher’s fourth place, overtaking BMW Sauber for fifth place and creeping ever closer to arch-rival Honda. But if Jarno Trulli hadn’t succumbed to brake problems while running ahead of his team mate - the pedal movement just got longer and longer until the Italian deemed the situation dangerous - they would have made even greater inroads. Honda remain stuck on 32 points, while Toyota now have 21. BMW Sauber are still right behind them, however, as Nick Heidfeld’s single point from Sunday keeps them in play on 20. The German was satisfied with eighth place as he felt the team could not have aspired to anything better, but crucially he overtook David Coulthard on the first lap which later paid the dividend of that point. Jacques Villeneuve believed his F1.06 was very good all through the race, but could never break free of the midfield traffic.

At McLaren, the departure of Juan Pablo Montoya did not outwardly appear too disruptive as Pedro de la Rosa got back into the swing of racing. Team mate Kimi Raikkonen was really happy with the handling of his MP4-21 on his way to fifth place, as was the Spaniard after claiming seventh. Each had to put up with traffic problems that blunted their challenge, but the silver arrows were quick. Schumacher set the fastest lap in 1m 17.111s with Massa close behind on 1m 17.141s, but they were next with 1m 17.625s (De la Rosa) and 1m 17.717s (Raikkonen). That put both ahead of Alonso, whose best was 1m 17.770s. De la Rosa had a minor drama after the race, as his McLaren expired for undisclosed reasons on the slowing-down lap.

Williams deserved a point courtesy of Mark Webber, who was running ahead of Heidfeld when his FW28 sustained damage to the left-rear Bridgestone. The car was generating excessive heat on the inside edge of the rear tyres, but the failure was due to the wheel rim failing. The incident typified the bad luck that both Webber and Williams have had to endure in 2006. Nico Rosberg brought the sister car home, but could only muster 14th place after starting from the rear of the grid and struggling throughout with a car that was difficult to drive.

Red Bull’s drivers started ninth and 12th, and finished ninth and 12th, courtesy of David Coulthard and Christian Klien respectively. Understandably, both felt frustrated not to have made any progress, but judging from the fact that both of their Toro Rosso colleagues lapped faster on their way to10th (Scott Speed, 1m 18.674s) and 13th (Tonio Liuzzi, 1m 18.241s), it may be that Red Bull’s development budget is now going fully into next year’s RB3.

Midland got Christijan Albers home 15th, two laps down with gearbox problems that included loss of first and subsequent selection difficulties, but lost Tiago Monteiro after 11 laps when the Portuguese driver appeared to out-brake himself chasing after Franck Montagny, spun in the first quick chicane, and then thumped back down after the kerb had launched his Midland. The car lost hydraulic pressure, and he was forced to retire.

Super Aguri also lost a car early on. Takuma Sato had a clutch problem leaving the line for the grid formation lap, and retired by Turn Six in the race. Franck Montagny soldiered on to finish 16th and last, three laps in arrears. But though the bad news for the Frenchman was that this was his last scheduled Grand Prix outing in the foreseeable future, the good news is that it should also have been the last race for the faithful SA05. The team hope to have two of the new SA06s in Hockenheim, for Sato and Sakon Yamamoto.

Finally, what can one say about Honda? The drivers might have tried to put an optimistic spin on a terrible race, but the facts were all too apparent. Rubens Barrichello never ran higher than 12th before succumbing to an engine-related problem after 18 laps, while Jenson Button lasted until lap 61, albeit without rising above 11th position. Then his engine appeared to suffer a similar fate.

So that was the French Grand Prix. With seven races left Fernando Alonso could still win the title by three points even if Michael Schumacher wins them all and he only finishes second in each, but life is rarely like that. Suffice it to say that the world championship fight gets better with every race.