Schumacher powers over the horizon

French Grand Prix: Champion strengthens grip on title and moves with a win of Prost's Formula One record as Coulthard rues pit-lane blunder
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The Independent Online

Michael Schumacher insisted on being realistic, David Coulthard had to appear defiant, but 120,000 people left here convinced they had witnessed the last meaningful throes of the Formula One World Championship. The German had surely put the issue beyond doubt.

Schumacher took command of the French Grand Prix from his brother, Ralf, at the first round of pit stops, never to be threatened. He went on to secure his sixth win of the season and the 50th of his career, one short of Alain Prost's all-time Formula One record. The Ferrari driver could reach that landmark at Silverstone on Sunday week and leave it behind him at his home Grand Prix, a fortnight later.

However, Schumacher consistently contends the current championship is always his priority and he now holds a 31-point lead over Coulthard, who finished the race a contrite fourth after incurring a 10-second stop-and-go penalty for speeding in the pit lane.

Juan Pablo Montoya's enforced retirement moved Coulthard a position up the order but Rubens Barrichello, in the other Ferrari, fended off the McLaren-Mercedes and denied the Scotsman the consolation of a place on the rostrum.

Not that he would have been in the party mood. This was a private celebration. The elder Schumacher, flanked by his brother and his team-mate Barrichello, is almost within touching distance of a fourth championship.

"It was hard work but winning is always enjoyable," Schumacher said. Fifty is a great number and for the Championship this is a big step.

"I am a bit too realistic to think too much about the Championship. We saw last year how things can turn around in two races. Although I have a comfortable margin there are still 70 points to race for so there is no room to celebrate until it is done."

Schumacher, who started second on the grid, behind his brother's Williams-BMW, overcame his only concern at the first corner. He explained: "I had a clutch problem and almost lost position to David. It was very close at the first corner but I managed to stay ahead and after that our strategy worked better than the others."

The younger Schumacher went into the pits for his first stop with a three-second advantage over his brother, but Michael emerged from his, a lap later, with the race effectively in his control. The Williams crew struggled with one of the wheels and Ferrari were characteristically swift and efficient servicing the champion.

Ralf was unable to put pressure on the Ferrari and the more serious challenge might have come from Montoya, had he not been prematurely halted by an engine failure.

Coulthard, encouraged by a more competitive ride than of late, might at least have aspired to second place had it not been for his self-inflicted handicap. He accelerated too early from his first pit stop and exceeded the 50mph speed limit.

He said: "I'm annoyed because it cost me dear. I came off the rev limiter too soon and accelerated 3mph too much. It's not like I did it for the whole pit lane. It's hard but these are the rules and I have to accept it.

"I was very surprised when I was told I had a penalty. I couldn't think what it was for. I'm very disappointed at finishing fourth and the more so because I have made a mistake which cost me the opportunity of going for the Championship.

"The Championship is not won or lost at the French Grand Prix but over the whole season, and Ferrari have had the better package. I've not been thinking about the Championship, just getting the best out of myself. This mistake aside, I think I've done that.

"Now I have to forget it and try to win at Silverstone. I have won there for the last two years."

Only a win will be enough to rekindle Coulthard's title hopes. And he needs to follow up with more of the same. The improbable equation also requires Ferrari to lose the plot or Schumacher to lose form. Both are less likely than a repeat of the accident that put Schumacher out of commission at Silverstone two years ago.

Ferrari's team work and tactical nous were evident again when their technical director, Ross Brawn decided, during the course of the race, to switch Barrichello from a two-stop strategy to a three.

McLaren, by contrast, have stumbled from one embarrassment to another. Again one of their cars was left stranded on the grid as the rest set off on the formation lap here yesterday. Mika Hakkinen climbed out of the cockpit, his race over before it had started. This time the Finn's frustration was, according to the McLaren team principal, Ron Dennis, "caused by an incorrectly assembled component in the gear box."

Jarno Trulli was fifth for Jordan-Honda and Nick Heidfeld sixth in a Sauber-Petronas.

Eddie Irvine had nothing to show for his endeavours in the Jaguar but his satisfaction should have served as a degree of reward. He charged to the edge of the contest for points until an air valve system fault forced him out, 17 laps short of the full distance.

He said: "It's great fun racing in that manner and very satisfying to come through the field and scrap for points. Shame about the way it ended though!"

The Benetton driver Jenson Button's race ended two laps from the end.

RACE DETAILS

1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 1hr 33min 35.636sec (Av 122.558 mph)

2 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW +10.399sec

3 R Barrichello (Bra) Ferrari +16.381

4 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes +17.106

5 J Trulli (It) Jordan-Honda +1:08.285

6 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas +1 lap

7 K Raikkonen (Fin) Sauber-Petronas +1; 8 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Jordan-Honda +1; 9 O Panis (Fr) BAR-Honda +1; 10 L Burti (Bra) Prost-Acer +1; 11 G Fisichella (It) Benetton-Renault +1; 12 J Alesi (Fr) Prost-Acer +2; 13 J Verstappen (Neth) Arrows-Asiatech +2; 14 P de la Rosa (Sp) Jaguar +2; 15 T Marques (Brazil) Minardi-European +3; 16 J Button (Britain) Benetton-Renault +4.

Not classified: F Alonso (Spain) Minardi-European 65 laps completed; E Irvine (GB) Jaguar 54; J P Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW 52; E Bernoldi (Bra) Arrows-Asiatech 17; J Villeneuve (Can) BAR 5; M Hakkinen (Fin) McLaren 0.

Fastest lap: Coulthard, 1:16.088 (Av 125.706 mph).

Constructors' Champonship: 1 Ferrari 108 points, 2 McLaren-Mercedes 56, 3 Williams-BMW 43, 4 Sauber-Petronas 16, 5 Jordan-Honda 15, 6 BAR-Honda 12, 7 Jaguar Racing 5, 8 Prost-Acer 3, 9= Benetton-Renault, Arrows-Asiatech 1.

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