Teams still guessing on tyres after damp opening day
Toyota's Cristiano da Matta set the pace this afternoon at a damp Magny-Cours circuit. The Brazilian left it late to grab the top spot from the Renault of Jarno Trulli on a drying track.
The second session of French Grand Prix practice started on a track that was still damp in places this afternoon, following another shower towards the end of the Formula Three Euroseries session. Mark Webber opened up with 1m 31.079s for Jaguar, well off Barrichellos 1m 15.487s time before the rains came this morning. It wasnt long before a dry line developed, however, and within 10 minutes Timo Glock had redefined that with 1m 28.725s for Jordan before Marc Gene continued his rapid re-acclimatisation with Formula One racing, as opposed to testing, with 1m 28.368s.
The pace was picking up all the time, and Anthony Davidson had a spell at the front with 1m 27.873s for BAR and then slashed that to 1m 25.644s and then 1m 24.960s. While the Spaniard was out chasing him, Williams were still repairing Montoyas heavily damaged car. They were lucky that a supply of new spares for the significantly revamped machine arrived from the UK in the nick of time. Up to then they had only had a set of revised bodywork for each FW26.
While all this was going on, most of the other top teams kept their cars in the garages. Halfway into the session Webbers 1m 20.525s and then 1m 19.307s was further indication of the tracks improvement, but the skies remained very threatening. Gene went back out and exploited that improvement with 1m 18.085s, and one by one the other big teams sent their cars out. Olivier Panis and Gene had turns at the top again, before Jenson Button posted 1m 17.207s. It was almost the way that old qualifying used to be, with times improving every lap. In rapid succession came new marks from Kimi Raikkonen (1m 16.794s), Fernando Alonso 1m (16.786s), Button (1m 16.397s), Trulli (1m 16.206s)
Then it began to rain again with 20 minutes left, and everyone ran for cover. By this time Trulli was still tops from Button, but Schumacher was now third with 1m 16.397s (matching Button), Alonso was fourth (1m 16.454s), David Coulthard was fifth (1m 16.464s) and Webber (1m 16.745s). Raikkonens time held up for seventh, Barrichello had moved up to eighth on 1m 17.094s, Paniss 1m 17.303s was ninth and Giancarlo Fisichellas 1m 17.324s was 10th.
But then, just when everyone thought matters were settled for the day, the rain eased, allowing just a handful of drivers to improve their times in the dying minutes. Key among them was Toyotas Cristiano da Matta, who leapt from 12th in the times to steal Trullis glory just before the flag fell. Davidson also seized his chance to edge ahead of Button and Schumacher.
Montoya did only five laps, but they were sufficient to earn him 13th place in his rebuilt Williams with 1m 17.556s, the Colombian complaining only of a sore shoulder after his big off this morning.
Off-course moments befell Ricardo Zonta, in Turn 3 just after hed gone second fastest with 1m 25.089s and Raikkonen, who ran wide in Turn 6 and later bounced his new McLaren MP4-19B hard over one of the chicanes.
Perhaps the most significant thing about practice today is that nobody has yet been able to make a valid tyre choice, something that is unusually critical here due to the characteristics of Magny-Cours surface. However, as both sessions today were officially wet, the teams will not be forced to choose their tyres for qualifying and the race until after Saturday mornings practice.