The final French Grand Prix to be held at the rural circuit of Magny Cours in France has been won by Kimi Raikkonen, with fellow Ferrari driver Felipe Massa bringing home his red car in second. In what was a relatively boring race, the Ferrari’s controlled the pace from the front, and despite Lewis Hamilton showing signs of strong race speed, the young rookie could only manage third, ahead of a stunning return by Robert Kubica, who led home his team mate Nick Heidfeld.
The race start was dominated by Felipe Massa who left the line well, but it was Kimi Raikkonen who made the biggest impression by passing Lewis Hamilton to take second from the McLaren. From here on in, Lewis struggled to keep up with the Ferrari’s and although the gap stabilised at around 5 seconds, each attempt at closing them down was met with faster laps from the leading duo.
Fernando Alonso also struggled around the super-smooth track, and despite changing his strategy from three to two stops at the second stint, the Spaniard could not capitalise on the advantage as Ferrari who stopped later just did the same. Fernando seemed to have a frustrating afternoon, getting caught up behind slower cars, Nick Heidfeld and Giancarlo Fisichella being just two. So many times Alonso attempted a pass down into the Adelaide hairpin, only to find the leading driver go defensive, force Alonso to the outside, and then tip-toe around the outside. Had the McLaren been able to accelerate out of the corner better, Alonso could have ducked up the inside on the way out, but it seemed everybody else could match his traction and the reigning World Champion left the circuit today with only two points from his seventh place finish.
From frustration though, came what Sidepodcast described on Twitter as the pass of the year. It seems that when Fernando gets rattled, he manages to pull some blinding manoeuvres out of the bag, and that is what he did when he passed Nick Heidfeld. Going into the fast sweeping chicanes, Alonso managed to get on the right side of the German and swept passed the BMW with confidence and charisma. The move reminded me of the Japanese Grand Prix in 2005, when Alonso famously passed Michael Schumacher on the outside of the flat and blind 130R. These moves highlight to me that Alonso is a true racing driver, in the essence that he can and will put his car and himself at risk to make a move stick. Commentating for ITV, Martin Brundle suggested that Alonso has something “enormous, and probably two of them”. I would have to agree.
Unfortunately for Fernando though, the move was in vein as after the stops had shaken out, Nick was still ahead, and there he would remain until the chequered flag. Both BMW drivers impressed today, with Robert Kubica returning after taking time out following his accident in Montreal three weeks ago. Out-qualifying team mate Heidfeld, and maintaining position during the race, Kubica brought home five points for the German marque by finishing fourth. Nick Heidfeld, who qualified seventh managed to improve his lot by following Kubica across the line in fifth, bringing BMWs points haul in France to nine.
Another team to improve, but simultaneously shoot themselves in the foot, were Renault. During the recent test and build to the Grand Prix, the Anglo-French squad stated to the press how they have improved and believe they share pace with BMW, possibly even being a tad faster. While Renault have certainly worked hard on the R27, and while they have certainly improved the race pace, sixth place isn’t much to shout about. Especially given that sixth was around about the average for team in the first few races. It was Giancarlo Fisichella who kept his head clean to improve from seventh on the grid, but Heikki Kovalainen (who demonstrated his skills in qualifying to end Saturday in sixth) could only manage fifteenth in the race. The Finnish driver struggled after being tipped into a spin by Jarno Trulli at the Adelaide hairpin on the first lap. Up until that moment, the race looked to be an upturn for the Enstone-based squad, but alas they haven’t quite shrugged off the bad luck yet, and three points was all they could claim from the weekend.
The incident at Adelaide which caused Kovalainen to lose position was due to Jarno Trulli over-cooking his entrance speed into the hairpin. Speaking to the media after returning to the pits, Jarno apologised to Heikki and accepted blame. Maybe, just maybe Ralf Schumacher could learn something from this. Having been involved in an incident himself at the first turn at Indianapolis two weeks ago, Schumacher tried to deflect the blame by suggesting he had no idea what had happened. Ralf received a fair amount of stick over that (and quite rightly so), whereas Trulli, despite causing an avoidable accident, hasn’t received the same treatment.
Ralf Schumacher had a better race than normal, finishing the day in tenth from eleventh on the grid. Although it is fair to say he had a non-eventful race, he still brought the car home and managed to keep his nose clean. Had Trulli been able to continue, I’m sure Ralf would have been beaten by his team mate again, but keeping it all together when you’re the only team runner left is an achievement. It was still nil-points for Toyota in France though, who languish in sixth place in the constructors table with nine points only three ahead of the improving Red Bull.
Honda, who so far have been struggling to keep up with the 2006 car run by sister team Super Aguri, have finally move off the bottom of the championship table by scoring one point at Magny Cours. Jenson Button drove a clean and stable race from his twelfth grid slot to eighth at the chequered flag, and has given the Brackley team their first point of 2007. The weekend went much better for the team, and improvements made while testing in Jerez last week have obviously helped the RA107 and given confidence to both drivers. Lining up alongside each other on the grid, it was Jenson who capitalised the opening lap better, but Rubens Barrichello also finished, albeit in eleventh.
Williams had a non-eventful day I’m afraid, with Nico Rosberg finishing where he started in ninth. Alex Wurz managed to improve from eighteenth to fourteenth, but it isn’t exactly worth shouting about. Spyker too kept themselves to themselves, although a pitlane incident caused Christijan Albers to pull off the circuit and retire. The Dutch driver left his box with the fuel hose still attached, and while the fuel chamber in the garage automatically shuts off, the tank on the car would have been open. Thankfully no spillage occurred, and the worse injury to the pit crew were some minor bruises. However, this incident is one of quite a few this season, which leads me to wonder if the teams are pushing the stops a little too hard. Felipe Massa ran down the pitlane with a small fire over his engine cover due to a fuel spillage earlier in the year, and Nick Heidfeld was forced to lap the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve with one of his wheels attached by gravity and central-fugal force only, as the nut rolled down to the Toyota garage instead of staying on the car.
Super Aguri fell from grace somewhat after their fine performance Stateside. Takuma Sato and Anthony Davidson lined up on the penultimate row, and Davidson retired while Takuma maintained position just ahead of the Spyker in the race. Scuderia Toro Rosso also didn’t perform to standard (or expectation) with Liuzzi retiring at the start because of a clash with Davidson, and Scott Speed pulling off the track with gearbox failure. Possibly, quite possibly, Red Bull are struggling with their seamless-shift box! The innovative technology employed by most teams this year is hampering both the Rosso’s and the Bull’s, and while the senior team appear to have improved a little (Coulthard still had issues in qualifying though), it is now the turn of Toro Rosso to experience the lack of drive. Webber led Coulthard to twelfth and thirteenth respectively, while the double blow for Rosso will add further pressure to the team in Silverstone next weekend.
All in all, the French event was somewhat dull, only livened up by the fact that McLaren struggled which has opened the championship up a little, and that pass by Alonso-on-a-mission. It is a shame that the final Formula One event for Magny Cours will disappear out of memory for most, but I guess that is why Bernie has retired the track from the calendar. It will be a shame to lose the race, I for one really enjoy watching the cars snake their way through the quick chicanes (one of which, it should be noted, Kubica was able to take almost flat out. Talk about enormous things!) but I would have to agree that the racing the circuit produces does tend to lean on the boring side. I’m not sure a street race in Paris (as rumoured) would be an improvement, and it is a loss to France at the moment, being one the founders of car and Grand Prix racing back in the early 20th century. All said and done, let’s see if Bernie Ecclestone can find an improved venue for the French Grand Prix, and quickly.