Motor Racing: Slick Schumacher in control

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The Independent Online
With a little help from above we had drama and controversy at the end, the concentration of activity proffering some consolation for the earlier drudgery, but now we must begin to wonder what sort of force will be required to prevent Michael Schumacher from winning his third world championship this season.

On the evidence of yesterday's French Grand Prix, Jacques Villeneuve is not up to that formidable task. Schumacher's third victory in four races was the most significant and ominous for his main rival and the Williams-Renault camp.

Ferrari are undoubtedly making up ground, as was evident in Eddie Irvine's third place here, yet Heinz-Harald Frentzen was a comfortable second in the other Williams. The difference was Schumacher and that difference is so substantial that even the best team in the business may not be able to compensate.

Schumacher's calculated risk, staying on slick tyres as the rain fell on the closing stages, proved prudent and, but for one anxious excursion onto the gravel, he maintained a steady course to the flag, 23 seconds ahead of Frentzen, who opted for the same strategy.

Villeneuve, restricted by another imperfect set-up, failed in a desperate if entertaining attempt to take Irvine at the last corner, which left him 14 points adrift of Schumacher and sweating over a reprimand from the stewards. He spun into the pit lane entry, then booted the Williams- Ford, cutting the corner by veering across the gravel to the line. However, he avoided punishment from the officials.

Jean Alesi, driving a Benetton-Renault, followed him in similarly robust fashion. He bumped David Coulthard's McLaren-Mercedes into the gravel, compounding the Scot's exasperation. He had already been barged out of fourth place by Villeneuve and Ralf Schumacher.

The younger Schumacher claimed the final point in his Jordan-Peugeot, courtesy of his brother's remarkable capacity for thinking of everything even in the heat of conflict. Michael backed off just before the start of the final lap, allowing Ralf to unlap himself and have another tour of the circuit in the hope of making up a place. Coulthard's misfortune was his gain.

If Ralf, 22 today, has a hard act to follow, he is not short of company. Not so long ago the aficionados scoffed at suggestions his big brother might be the greatest of them all. Now, at least, some of them wonder. And those with no unshakeable dedication to Ayrton Senna are beginning to concede the Brazilian may be eclipsed.

Schumacher had command of proceedings here when he took pole position. His start was clean and his surge in the opening laps decisive. Frentzen could not live with his compatriot's pace and the rest were stranded.

Schumacher's advantage in the championship ensures he will be leading the pack when he heads for his home race, at Hockenheim, no matter what happens in the British Grand Prix on Sunday week. "My prediction about my chances here was totally wrong," Schumacher said, much to the amusement of all in earshot. "But we made no mistakes on strategy and we were able to get control of the race.

"I had a moment when I went into the gravel and it was very slippery at the end. I had to look what Heinz-Harald was doing but I knew it was going to be only a short shower so it was the right decision to stay on slicks rather than change to intermediates."

Frentzen elected to confront Schumacher on a level playing field, and still could not make a match of it. But then, as he admitted, the damage had been done long before the rain intervened. He said: "I was astonished by the speed of Michael at the start. I thought he must be on three stops, rather than two, because he was pushing like hell, so I let him go."

Schumacher, never one to miss an opportunity, interjected: "Thank you."

Frentzen resumed: "I was desperate for points before this race. It takes time to understand everything at the team and it was mainly a question of experience. I'm finding more tricks and it's getting better."

So much so he is now up to third place in the championship, one point ahead of Irvine. The Ulsterman, however, can be content at another job well done.

Coulthard was less amused by the final act of his race and an apology from Alesi scarcely assuaged him. "He isn't crazy," the Scot said. "It's just his driving style. There's no compromise. If there was any justice he would have gone off with me. I'm angry, disappointed and frustrated because I've got only 11 points this year and that is no reflection on my performance and the team's performance."

Johnny Herbert had to work hard for his eighth place in the Sauber-Petronas while Damon Hill was in trouble on the first lap, bouncing across the gravel and through a swamp before repairs to his Arrows-Yamaha sent him back on his way. He completed the race, albeit three laps down on Schumacher, 12th and last of the finishers.

FRENCH GRAND PRIX

1 Michael Schumacher (Ger) 10pts

(Ferrari) 1hr 38min 50.492sec

(average speed 115.353mph/185.639kph)

2 Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Ger) 6pts

(Williams-Renault) at 25.537sec

3 Eddie Irvine (GB) 4pts

(Ferrari) at 1min 14.801sec

4 Jacques Villeneuve (Can) 3pts

(Williams-Renault) at 1:21.784

5 Jean Alesi (Fr) 2pts

(Benetton-Renault) at 1:22.735

6 Ralf Schumacher (Ger) 1pt

(Jordan-Peugeot) at 1:29.871

7 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes at 1 lap; 8 J Herbert (GB) Sauber- Petronas 1 lap; 9 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Peugeot 1 lap; 10 J Trulli (It) Prost-Mugen-Honda 2 laps; 11 U Katayama (Japan) Minardi-Hart 2 laps; 12 D Hill (GB) Arrows-Yamaha 3 laps. Not classified (did not finish): 13 M Salo (Fin) Tyrrell-Ford 61 laps completed; 14 A Wurz (Aut) Benetton- Renault 60; 15 P Diniz (Bra) Arrows-Yamaha 58; 16 N Fontana (Arg) Sauber- Petronas 40; 17 R Barrichello (Bra) Stewart-Ford 36; 18 J Magnussen (Den) Stewart-Ford 33; 19 M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 18; 20 J Verstappen (Neth) Tyrrell-Ford 15; 21 S Nakano (Japan) Prost-Mugen-Honda 7; 22 T Marques (Bra) Minardi-Hart 5.

Fastest lap: M Schumacher 1:17.910 (196.380kph).

Constructors' championship

1 Ferrari 65pts

2 Williams 52

3 Benetton 25

4 McLaren 21

5 Prost 16

6 Jordan 13

7 Sauber 8

8 Stewart 6

9 Tyrrell 2

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