Schumacher unstoppable in France 04 Jul 2004
Michael's seventh French win a four-gone conclusion
Michael Schumacher and Ferrari delivered a tactical masterclass as they stole victory in the French Grand Prix, giving the World Champion nine victories from ten starts this season.
Schumacher had to play second fiddle to Fernando Alonso in qualifying, and then for the first 32 laps at Magny-Cours, but after that a devastatingly clever reorganisation of Ferraris race strategy gave the champion all he needed - and more - to decimate Renault on his way to the 79th victory of his career. Only Jim Clark has ever made winning French Grands Prix look so effortless.
Alonso, predictably, got the drop going off the line, and as Schumacher slotted in behind him Jarno Trulli, equally predictably, vaulted ahead of second row starters David Coulthard and Jenson Button. Initially Alonso opened a gap, as much as a second and a half, over Schumacher, but it was less than half that when Michael made the first refuelling stop on lap 11. This was a surprise, since most believed that if anyone was running light on fuel, it was Renault. Trulli pitted on lap 13, Alonso lap 14, and Alonso kept his lead. That was also a surprise.
Now Schumacher came back at him, slashing what was at one time a 3.9s lead to a mere nine-tenths between laps 18 and 25, aided only a little by Alonso having to lap traffic. Then Schumacher pitted again on lap 29, and once more Alonso outran him, stopping on lap 32. But this time Schumachers lighter load had been sufficient to give him the lead, and he never surrendered it.
During the third stints Schumacher inexorably pulled away, and everyone thought it was simply the pace at which the red car would have run had it not been stuck behind the blue one. There was nothing to dissuade one from this viewpoint when they made what appeared to be their final stops, on laps 42 and 46 (Schumacher and Alonso respectively). Ferrari and Bridgestone were simply better on the day than Renault and Michelin.
But when Schumacher swept into the pits a fourth time, on lap 58, Ferraris strategy was finally unveiled. A canny change to four stops had given Michael a lighter car at a crucial point, and all it needed after that was the best driver in the world to steer it home - it never breaks down, of course - and the job was done. End of story.
Renault were left feeling very surprised by it all, but there was worse to come. In the wake of the two fleet leaders, Trulli seemed to have third place locked up all the way through, able to hold Jenson Button at bay until the Briton lost out to Rubens Barrichello in the final stops (Barrichello on lap 51, Button on lap 52). Button actually got out of the pits ahead of the Ferrari, but on the run down to the Adelaide Hairpin, as Button himself was doing all he could to close up on Trulli, Barrichello used his greater momentum to slip by on the inside. Thereafter the three circulated nose to tail until Trulli seemed to fall asleep with only Turns 15 to 17 to go. Making a tiny mistake and leaving just enough room on the inside for a Ferrari, he slid wide and Barrichello pounced with only the final chicane to go. To go from 10th on the grid to third was a fabulous result, overshadowed by only the two men who finished higher.
McLaren had something to be pleased about as Coulthard pushed home for sixth after a race-long fight with team mate Kimi Raikkonen, but Williams had very long faces after the best a once-spinning Juan Pablo Montoya could summon was eighth place. Mark Webber pushed the troubled Colombian so hard that he set fourth fastest lap for Jaguar and finished ninth, ahead of an unhappy Marc Gene, Christian Klien, who drove well, and the gripless Saubers of Giancarlo Fisichella and Felipe Massa (the only man to use a two-stop strategy). Cristiano da Matta and Olivier Panis were 14th and 15th ahead of Nick Heidfeld and Giorgio Pantano (who got a drive through penalty for pit lane speeding), and Gianmaria Bruni brought up the rear for Minardi.
Zsolt Baumgartner spun off on lap 32, and Takuma Sato vacated the fight for ninth place just after his first pit stop on lap 15, when his Honda V10 ventilated itself. One of these days Formula One racing is going to match the record of the 1961 Dutch Grand Prix, in which every car finished.