FRENCH GP - SUNDAY - RACE REPORT
Wake up and smell the horse manure
Michael Schumacher won the French Grand Prix - his 88th victory and his eighth win in France (a new record). There were 84,000 people in the grandstands, a good effort for a race in the middle of nowhere. But after that there was not much to say. The race was ultimately dull and there is no point in trying to pretend otherwise. TV commentators were left gabbling like geese. The show was hopeless. The most exciting thing to happen in the course of the afternoon was that Renault issued a press release about the political situation in F1. In the middle of the race.
And that said it all.
What no-one inside F1 seems to understand is that no-one outside the sport cares about the politics. They want to see racing. They want to see heroes being brave in spectacular cars. And it is not happening. The time has come for Formula 1 to wake up and smell the horse manure in which it is now mired. It is time to look at the sport and ask what the hell is happening. How can F1 compete with other sports if the show is less exciting than a sheep-dog trial? In the hour before the Grand Prix began a lot of F1 people watched the motorcycle racing from the Sachsenring. The MotoGP race was sensational with four men dicing for victory right to the final corner. It was everything that F1 should be.
One cannot blame Magny-Cours. The last four races have all been dull. The conclusion must be that there is something wrong with the cars. Could it be that two-race engines have to be so reliable that we are actually watching endurance racing? Could it be that there is no room in the regulations for any real innovation. Will it help that one variable we have - tyres - are being standardised next year? Will freezing engine power help the sport to produce a better show?
Or are things about to get even worse in the name of cost-saving and safety.
The money-men will say that we should become showmen and follow the lead of GP2 and put a bunch of bad drivers in half the cars and force everyone to make a compulsory pit stops in order to jumble the order? Or to reverse the grids to create unnatural grid orders?
The racing folk will say that F1 has always been about natural selection and the survival of the fittest.
What we have now is not the answer and the efforts to create something better seem misguided and there is not enough flexibility going on.
The one positive thing at Magny-Cours was that the World Championship is perhaps a little closer after the race than it was when the grid lined up - but that does not mean excitement. Fernando Alonso knows that all he needs to do is to cover Michael Schumacher's Ferrari and he will win a second title. Fernando can win the title if he finishes second to Michael in the remaining seven races. The fact is that at Magny-Cours he knew he was not going to win unless he took the lead at the start and that did not happen. Trapped behind Massa for the first few laps, Fernando's only strategy was to aim for second place.
Those who thought that Michelin had simply been cautious at Indianapolis and would come steaming back in France were disappointed. Bridgestone is ahead again and Michelin will have to dig deep to catch up again.
"At this race we have clearly made up ground," said Schumacher, "Everybody here is giving everything for the last seven races. The championship is far from being over. What matters is how the car and the package match a circuit, and we are confident ours will be a good match at Hockenheim. We have to hope for the coming races that we can keep the momentum going. It's going to be a battle in the development of the car."
The other good news for Ferrari is that Felipe Massa has come good recently and seems to have stopped making as many mistakes as he used to make but Fernando Alonso still beat him, by using a two-stop strategy.
"That was a long, tough race for me," Alonso said, "but in the circumstances, it was a perfect result. We went into the race with two possibilities on the strategy, and once we saw that Ferrari would be three-stopping then we knew it would be hard to pass them on the track. So we chose to rely on the consistent tyre performance, and make two stops. The car balance was consistent all the way through the race, and I pushed hard to make sure I could get ahead of Felipe in the final part of the race. Given where I started on the grid, I think second is everything I could have hoped for because we knew that Michael was a bit quicker this weekend."
Massa was nonetheless happy because he knew that his points had helped Ferrari in the Constructors' title and enhanced his image - and his chances of a better drive next year if he cannot stay at Ferrari.
Behind the little Brazilian was Ralf Schumacher who used a two-stop strategy to beat off the challenge of a three-stopping Kimi Raikkonen. Giancarlo Fisichella was a lacklustre fifth while Pedro de la Rosa's three-stop plan was hurt badly when he made a poor start. He came back to get two points but his car came to a smoky halt on the slowing down lap.
The final point went to two-stopping Nick Heidfeld, who never managed to find the pace that put BMW fastest on Friday and Saturday morning. That looked ever more like a PR stunt.
Honda could use a bit of positive PR at the moment but there was nothing positive to be had from Magny-Cours. Neither Rubens Barrichello nor Jenson Button finished and the cars were weak throughout. Jarno Trulli's chance of finishing in fourth place evaporated with mechanical trouble and Mark Webber's hopes of a much-needed point for Williams - which might have been possible - ended when he fell victim to a left rear Bridgestone tyre failure.
"Of course I'm massively disappointed because we could have scored a point," he said. "I was trying hard to stay with the quicker guys but we had some heat issues with the inside edge of the tyre and then the aerodynamics were affected as a result of the damage. We're making it very hard work for ourselves at the moment, everyone is working so hard but we don't have anything to show for it."
Thoughts are already turning to 2007 and the cars that will be raced then.
Assuming, of course, that there are enough people still watching.