France flashback 2007 - Ferrari faultless, McLaren falter 20 Jun 2008
This year the French Grand Prix follows hot on the heels of Canada, but last season the Magny-Cours race was separated from Montreal by the United States Grand Prix. And while the 2007 Indianapolis race had thrown up a few surprises, McLarens Lewis Hamilton had shown enviable consistency, backing up his Canadian win with another dominant performance.
As a result, Hamilton was favourite to take a third consecutive victory in France. His team mate Fernando Alonso, however, had other ideas. Regaling swathes of journalists with talk of his desire to boost his title chances in France, Alonso was determined to score big at Magny-Cours after a run of comparatively disappointing results.
Ferraris Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen were also hoping to improve in France, and with the teams wind tunnel woes solved, both were confident that the F2008 could show more form after taking a battering in North America. Testing at Silverstone the preceding week had turned up a few outside bets too, including Toyota, Renault and BMW Sauber, who had Robert Kubica back in the cockpit after his spectacular Montreal crash.
But in spite of McLarens air of confidence, it was Ferrari who set the initial pace at Magny-Cours, with Massa and Raikkonen clocking the fastest time in Fridays morning and afternoon sessions respectively. Many doubted they could maintain the same pace on Saturday, but all the same it was a promising first day for the Italian team.
If Ferrari celebrated day one in Montreal, McLaren were left frustrated. Alonso only managed the eighth-quickest time in the afternoon, while Hamilton was relegated to the sidelines for 40 minutes after an automatic cut-out problem on his car. For the rest of the field, the competition was equally tough, with times for 13 drivers in the midfield separated by just a second.
After their troubles on the opening day, McLaren bounced back on Saturday morning with Hamilton topping the timesheets, despite completing just eight laps in the MP4-23 after some troublesome artificial grass halted the session for seven minutes. Massa and Raikkonen, however, continued to have the jump on Alonso, finishing second and third. The Spaniard could only muster eighth after suffering brake problems.
And his troubles didnt end there. In qualifying it was the Ferrari and Massa who had the edge and took pole for the French Grand Prix. Hamilton, unable to improve on his first Q3 run, was relegated to second, while Raikkonen and BMW Saubers Kubica would start the race from the second row, third and fourth respectively. But Alonsos reliability woes continued, with the reigning champion prevented from setting a time in the final phase of qualifying thanks to gearbox problems - he would start the race from tenth. Those who benefitted from Alonsos misfortune included Renaults Giancarlo Fisichella and Heikki Kovalainen (fifth and sixth respectively), and Nico Rosberg for Williams (ninth).
Fate continued to favour Ferrari on Sunday, with Raikkonen leading pole-sitter Massa home for a dominant one-two victory. Although the Brazilian had held the lead from the start, the Finn crucially had a heavier fuel load for his second stint and was therefore able to stay out longer and leapfrog his team mate at the final pit stops. It was Raikkonens first win since the season opener in Australia and, with hindsight, proved the long-awaited turning point for his championship chances.
Hamilton saved face for McLaren to some degree, although the British driver, on a three-stop strategy, finished over half a minute adrift of the Ferrari duo. And with Alonso a meagre seventh in the second silver car, the best performing team of the race (apart from Ferrari) was BMW Sauber, who notched up nine points thanks to Kubicas fourth place and Nick Heidfelds fifth.
Their strong showing was the first obvious sign the German-Swiss team had overtaken Renault as a real player for points. The French team had to satisfied with Fisichellas sixth place after Kovalainen was taken out of the equation when Toyotas Jarno Trulli hit the back of his R27 on the first lap. The final point (and sixth-fastest lap), meanwhile, went to Jenson Button in the much-improved Honda. In contrast, the unluckiest driver of the day was arguably Spykers Christijan Albers, who retired his F8 VIII after dramatically dragging the refuelling rig with him when he left the pits after his second stop.
At first glance, the post-France championship table showed little change, with Hamiltons six points boosting his tally to 64, still a healthy lead over nearest rival Alonso on 50. However, it was the gains made by Raikkonen and Massa that would later prove critical, the Ferrari pairing moving on to 42 and 47 points respectively. As Silverstone beckoned, McLaren were put very much on their guard for their home race.