Ralf Schumacher staked his claim to his illustrious brother's world championship crown here yesterday, when he led home his team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya in another crushing one-two for the BMW-Williams team.
Fresh from victory at the Nürburgring last weekend the 28-year-old German led the race from start to finish from pole position, and was only denied the clean sweep of fastest lap by Montoya.
The result confirmed Michael Schumacher's worst misgivings about the performance of his Bridgestone tyres as the Michelin-shod Anglo-German cars proved uncatchable. Such was their superiority that Montoya was able to back off in the closing stages and still stay comfortably ahead of the elder Schumacher. But the champion and his Ferrari team used clever racecraft and strategy to push ahead of the McLaren-Mercedes of Kimi Raikkonen and David Coulthard, which had proved superior on their Michelins in the early going.
His younger brother's victory was the most dominant seen this season, and marked the first time in 2003 that a driver has led throughout. Schumacher Jnr made the best start, and a finely executed three-stop strategy kept him out front. In the opening laps he made the most of his car's set-up to open a lead over Montoya, as Raikkonen sprinted up to third place ahead of Schumacher Snr, who only just kept Coulthard behind him in the second corner.
Schumacher Jnr's only "problem" came on the 52nd lap when, having made his final pit stop in the previous lap, Montoya closed to within 1.2 seconds of him. But the German kept his head and simply opened up the gap again.
"The car was very good from the start," he said, "and I was able to disappear after the first stop, but maybe we got the pressures wrong with the second set of tyres because the car felt bad and Juan was able to get closer while we were lapping guys. In the end I came in a little early for my final stop, because I knew that he would have caught me if I'd stayed out longer.
"Near the end I got a bit wide in Turn 7 when I braked a bit late, but nothing special. You know, I really can't believe that I have won two in a row!"
Montoya was philosophical in defeat. "I got pretty close to Ralf," he said. "The car didn't feel very comfortable to begin with, then in one stop I had a problem with a wheelnut and lost time. After that I paced myself and started pushing very hard and I was right there before my last stop. The car was very good and I was very aggressive with the traffic. I stopped two laps early, but Ralf also came in a lap earlier so all my advantage was gone. So after that I just backed off."
Raikkonen gradually fell away, firstly complaining that lapped drivers ignored blue flags, and then because of a brake problem on his McLaren caused when a rear disc shattered three laps from the finish. Meanwhile, Coulthard's chance of a much-needed podium place ended on the 48th lap in a misunderstanding during his final pit stop. First the original refuelling hose developed a problem and Raikkonen's had to be substituted. Then Coulthard mistakenly believed he had been signalled to pull off as the pit stop controller raised his lollipop prematurely while refueller Steve Morrow was still in the process of disconnecting this hose. Morrow was dragged along as the McLaren surged forward, and fell over its left rear wheel, but fortunately he was unharmed.
"Initially the fuel nozzle didn't attach correctly and we had to use the second one and then struggled when we had to remove it," Coulthard said."Fortunately nobody was injured in the incident but I lost a possible third place."
The delay dropped the Scot behind Schumacher, and then Ferrari left their man out longer so that he could take advantage of the fact that McLaren had not changed their cars' tyres for the final stint. "We ran longer before our final stop and hoped our tyres would hold together," he said. "They did, and that kept our advantage."
Before the start of the weekend Ferrari and Bridgestone representatives had met for a crisis meeting in a local restaurant, and they plan an intensive test before the British Grand Prix. But Ralf Schumacher, who is now 11 points adrift of the championship leader and only three behind Raikkonen, is cautiously optimistic as BMW-Williams move within three points of Ferrari in the constructors' championship. "If we keep working like this we can keep this going," he said, referring to the team's newfound momentum.
After the race, bailiffs tried to prevent BAR-Honda removing its cars from the paddock but accepted BAR's argument that it was in compliance with French law and was entitled to remove its cars.
1 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 1hr 30min 49.213sec
2 J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW 1:31:03.026
3 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1:31:08.781
4 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 1:31:27.260
5 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 1:31:29.502
6 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar 1:31:55.593
7 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari +1 lap
8 O Panis (Fr) Toyota +1 lap
9 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda +1 lap; 10 A Pizzonia (Br) Jaguar +1; 11 C Da Matta (Br) Toyota +1; 12 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Petronas +2; 13 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas +2; 14 J Wilson (GB) Minardi-Cosworth +3; 15 R Firman (GB) Jordan-Ford +3; 16 J Verstappen (Neth) Minardi-Cosworth +4.
Not classified (did not finish): J Trulli (It) Renault 45 laps; F Alonso (Sp) Renault 43; G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Ford 42; J Button (GB) BAR-Honda 21.
Fastest lap: Montoya 1min 15.512sec (lap 36).
Constructors' Championship: 1 Ferrari 103pts; 2 Williams 100; 3 McLaren 85; 4 Renault 52; 5 BAR 13; 6 Jaguar 12; 7 Jordan 11; 8 Sauber 9; 9 Toyota 5; 10 Minardi 0.