French GP 2001
JULY 1, 2001
French GP, 2001
Michael's 50th win...
THE race started. The race finished. And by the end of the afternoon Michael Schumacher had clocked up his 50th Grand Prix victory. It was a nice achievement but as a spectator sport it was rather lacking in what one might call interest. Unless you were there to appreciate the noise and the violence of these marvellous racing machines driven by the best drivers in the world, it will not have meant much to you. For those in the grandstands it was a great spectacle ” as any F1 race is ” but for the millions watching on television it must have been rather dull. For those who like an afternoon nap all that was missing was a big Sunday lunch...
It promised a lot more. In qualifying we had the familiar situation of the two Schumacher boys hard at it and on this occasion Ralf came out ahead of Michael. The two McLaren-Mercedes Benz were there too: David Coulthard slightly faster than Mika Hakkinen. Then came Jarno Trulli in his Jordan-Honda and the top six was completed by Juan Pablo Montoya with the second Williams. But the Colombian was using the harder Michelin tires and seemed to be contemplating a rather different strategy. The Bridgestone runners too had rather better tires than of late and so there were hopes of an exciting race.
But things started badly when Mika Hakkinen's McLaren failed again. McLaren, that paragon of efficiency, had made another mess of it. Hakkinen was left sitting on the pre-grid, muttering short Finnish words as everyone drove off and left him sitting there. Eventually the car was pushed away into the pitlane. The mechanics worked on it but it was going nowhere. After the race the team admitted (with admirable honesty) that the disaster had been caused by "an incorrectly assembled component in the gearbox". Ron Dennis made the point that "through thick and thin we are a team and we all make mistakes". Sir Winston Churchill would have been proud of these stirring words but the fact remains that the team is about to overtaken in the World Championship by BMW Williams. The aim of the organization is to win motor races and at the moment that is not happening. No-one is going catch Ferrari this year in the Constructors' World Championship. Michael Schumacher can stop for tea on his way to a fourth Drivers' World Championship. Ferrari has done a good job; Williams is nearly there but not quite but McLaren has thrown away too many chances.
At the French Grand Prix, as in other recent races, the only threat to Michael Schumacher has come from his brother Ralf. On this occasion Ralf took the lead at the start and in the early part of the race Michael tracked him.
When Ralf went into the pits on lap 24 he had a three second advantage. But something went wrong at the right rear of the car. The pit stop was 2.8 seconds slower than Michael's which followed a lap later.
The result of this was that Michael was ahead for the second stint and he began to pull away.
Ralf said he could do nothing about it. "The second set of tires didn't work at all," he said. "After the pit stops I had understeer/oversteer just everywhere and it was really difficult to drive, it was just sliding round the whole circuit. That's why I was so slow."
In just 20 laps the gap between Big Bro and Little Bro went out to 20 seconds. It emerged that the only threat to Michael's domination was going to come from the second Williams driven by Montoya. The harder tires were not good enough to give him the option to go for a one-stop race but they did mean that he could run a longer first stint and so make up places. Things began to look good when he jumped from sixth to fourth (it helped that Hakkinen had disappeared). Juan then drove strongly and was in the lead when everyone else dived away into the pits. He was not going to stop until lap 30. That dropped him back to fifth but second time around his rivals began to pull off. Coulthard disappeared with a 10-second stop-go penalty for speeding in the pitlane; Barrichello was on a three-stop strategy and so disappeared as Ralf zoomed up behind him. Ahead were Ralf and Michael. The Ferrari was 15 seconds ahead of the Williams but Montoya was hoping to do something about that. But he then had to spend six laps looking at the back end of his team mate's car. If one analyses the lap times the minimum time lost was six seconds. The reality was probably more like 12.
From the body language on the Williams pitwall it looked as though there was a lot of frustration going on but it seems that it was not down to Ralf deliberately not moving aside ” or at least that is what everyone said afterwards. Ralf explained that he had a problem with his radio. The cynical folk in the paddock did not believe this explanation. They thought that Ralf was just being selfish. Who can tell?
In the end the team put out a secret pitboard signal which told Ralf to pit immediately. He obeyed. This freed Montoya to go after Michael Schumacher but it was too late. Montoya's lead was only five seconds. An additional 12 would have made seventeen but Juan-Pablo's pit stop when it came deprived him of 25 seconds so there is no real way he could have won the race.
In the end it was all irrelevant because on lap 53 Montoya's car slowed suddenly. The engine had failed. "The main thing was being on a different strategy to Ralf to try to beat him," said Juan Pablo. "And I was ahead."
The point had been made.
That left Michael with no-one to challenge him. When the various strategies had all been played out he was leading and Ralf was behind him. The damage had been done. Barrichello's three-stop plan had worked out but no-one seemed to bother to point out that if Coulthard had not had a 10-second penalty and Montoya had not broken down the strategy would have resulted in Rubens finishing in the same position he had held at the end of the first lap.
But points are points and Ferrari collected 14 of them and when there are only 16 on offer during a weekend this was a pretty good haul.
Coulthard worked hard to try to pass Rubens for the last third of the race but there was nothing he could do.
"The 10-second penalty ruined my race," said David. "I had to face the consequences of my mistake. After that I was pushing as much as possible."
Coulthard said that the World Championship was not won nor lost but judging by the length of the scowls in the McLaren garage on Sunday evening there was a feeling that it is rather unlikely.
Of the rest there was little of much interest to report. The fastest non-top 3 lap went (again) to Eddie Irvine's Jaguar but the mean green machine did not make it to the flag. Eddie had qualified 12th (which was about normal) and then a long first stint took him up to sixth. The pit stop dropped him to ninth. In the course of the afternoon he managed to pass two cars and he would probably have finished seventh if the pneumatic valve system on his Cosworth engine had not failed.
Pedro de la Rosa had looked quite good in qualifying but on the final parade lap the throttle failed and Pedro was able to coast down to the pits. He set off a lap down on everyone else and drove hard all afternoon but his only reward was to pass a Minardi in the closing laps of the race. He set the ninth fastest lap of the race and finished 14th.
The Jaguar qualifying performance was once again responsible for the team's inability to beat the Honda-powered cars and it was Jarno Trulli who led the way on this occasion. He finished fifth and Heinz-Harald Frentzen came home eighth, his race including a spin and a botched refuelling stop. The performance demonstrated reliability but the suggestion that Trulli was challenging the top teams was simply not true. Trulli finished 68 seconds behind the winner in a 72 lap race. So it does not take an accountant to work out that the cars are one second off the pace.
On this occasion British American Racing was not in the ballpark. Jacques Villeneuve ran eighth early in the race and Olivier Panis finished ninth but this is not the stuff which the team needs right now.
"We were really struggling with grip," said Panis. "The car was sliding around so much."
The demise of Villeneuve came after just five completed laps. The engine cut.
Sixth and seventh positions went in the end to Sauber with Nick Heidfeld taking the point and Kimi Raikkonen following him home. It was a solid but unexciting performance after several poor races.
Luciano Burti managed to get his Prost home in 10th place. This was a good effort for the young Brazilian who completely overshadowed Jean Alesi all weekend. Jean struggled to find a good set-up but Luciano had less trouble.
"Obviously we were expecting much more from our home race as we came here with a new aerodynamic package," said technical director Henri Durand. "We have not been able to use all of its potential and we have struggled all weekend with a lack of grip. We must understand why it happened."
The lackluster Alesi finished 12th.
But if Prost was less than impressive at the team's home race, the Benetton team (otherwise known as Renault Sport) had a complete disaster. All year Renault people have banged on about the new version of the engine which was coming for Magny Cours. It came. It saw. It was conquered. To describe the new engine as a damp squib is an understatement. This particular squib was at the bottom of a very full bucket. Everyone tried very hard to dress it up as a big step forward but Giancarlo Fisichella's 11th place and Jenson Button's retirement (with a fuel pressure problem four laps from the finish) would seem to suggest otherwise. Now we must watch to see if there is any political fallout...
The Arrows team as usual deserves merely a passing reference. The cars qualified badly and ran moderately. Jos Verstappen finished 13th. Enrique Bernoldi stopped after 17 laps with an engine problem.
Minardi managed to get two cars classified, although only one actually finished. Tarso Marques finished 15th and was happy to have done so. Fernando Alonso stopped with five laps to go with an engine problem but was classified 17th.