Motor racing Schumacher the master once more

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The Independent Online
Motor racing

DERICK ALLSOP

reports from Magny-Cours

A familiar pattern, and everyone in the Williams-Renault camp must now fear it may not be broken this season. Michael Schumacher and his Benetton- Renault confounded the evidence of qualifying to win the French Grand Prix here with more than half a minute and perspiration to spare.

Damon Hill was a resigned second and David Coulthard, in the other Williams, a similar distance adrift in third place. He was thankful to keep his podium position from the clutches of a predatory Martin Brundle, in the Ligier-Mugen.

Hill talked of the "mysterious" reversal of fortunes, but the consistency of Schumacher's superiority in the races ought to leave no one in doubt he is simply the best of this field by some distance. Schumacher now leads Hill in the drivers' championship by 11 points, and unless the Englishman counters with victory in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone on Sunday week, he may have to acknowledge - privately at least - that the title chase is a lost cause.

The 26-year-old German hounded Hill in the opening laps, and almost ran into the back of the Williams as they darted around a back-marker. Schumacher later claimed Hill deliberately "lifted or even braked." He went on: "I'm very angry. If he does it again I'll know what to do. I'll take it up with him when we get a quiet moment."

Schumacher made the first of his pit stops after 19 laps, leaving Hill to negotiate increasingly heavy traffic. The Williams came in two laps later, and by the time it re-emerged, Schumacher was ahead and disappearing fast.

The champion might have gone for a three-stop strategy, but now opted for only two visits to the pits, assured that the race was under his control. Hill, buoyed by recent testing and a third consecutive pole position, forlornly settled for a third consecutive second place.

Once again Schumacher's tactics had worked perfectly, but Hill made no attempt to hide behind that smokescreen this time. He said: "The fact is he was faster as well. He was more than 30 seconds in front. That is the truth of the matter. He beat us hands down. It's frustrating. I've had enough seconds here. It would be much nicer to be first.

"It's a mystery to me why we're not so good in the race, but I've no complaints. The car did last the distance and was reliable, so Williams have done a good job. We just need to sort out the last little bit of performance.

"Michael has extended his lead in the championship, but there's still a long way to go and it's wide open. I'd like to start winning again at Silverstone. We have a good understanding of the circuit there and we need to reverse the advantage Michael has."

Schumacher's only anxiety came when rain began to fall just after half distance. To his relief, it did not last, while his machinery did. "I was also worried in the last 10 laps that I might have the sort of problem I had in Canada," he said. "Fortunately, the car was perfect throughout."

Yet again, any prospect of a prolonged contest for victory was removed by the first round of pit stops and although Schumacher, celebrating a fourth success in seven races, inevitably had no wishes to question refuelling, Hill lamented the passing of the time when "you filled up with gas and went to the end of the race with it."

There was a much more absorbing fight for third place. Coulthard, to his enormous gratification, managed to cross the line barely half a second ahead of Brundle, who took full advantage of Ligier's local knowledge. "I had a dream last night that I would spin off at the last corner, so I was pleased to get through and on to the podium," Coulthard said. "I thought Martin might make a lunge for it. But after spinning off so early in Canada, the last thing I wanted was to fall off again."

For once Brundle avoided tangling with the Ferraris, and permitted his compatriots that dubious privilege. Johnny Herbert, in the other Benetton, collided with Jean Alesi and went out. The Frenchman continued to take fifth place. Mark Blundell, in a McLaren-Mercedes, had close encounters with Alesi and Gerhard Berger before coming in 11th. Eddie Irvine, in a Jordan-Peugeot, was ninth.

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