Schumacher travels light to score

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The Independent Online

There were 20 cars in the French Grand Prix, but the television director only had eyes for three of them. One was red, the others blue. But in any case, there were no prizes for guessing which of them won.

There were 20 cars in the French Grand Prix, but the television director only had eyes for three of them. One was red, the others blue. But in any case, there were no prizes for guessing which of them won.

At a time when the government in Britain is considering special motorway lanes for cars with two or more passengers, Ferrari have patented their own for solo drivers, and Michael Schumacher has exclusive access. Fernando Alonso had his moment in the sun after leading the first 32 laps from pole position for Renault, but after that the world champion was the man. In a replay of the last four races, there was no stopping his prancing horse.

The secret of the success lay not just in Schumacher's driving prowess, and the performance of the Ferrari and its Bridgestone tyres, nor even in the package's legendary bulletproof engineering. This time Schumacher was also helped immeasurably by a flexible strategy. Most teams opted for three stops on a track whose smooth surface has an insatiable hunger for tyres, but Ferrari figured four might be the way to go. So it proved.

Alonso exploited his Renault's traction advantage to the full and led to the first pit stops, as Jarno Trulli, likewise, dispensed with second-row starters, David Coulthard and Jenson Button. The first surprise was that Alonso retained the lead after Schumacher had refuelled on lap 11 and he did so three laps later. But an advantage that was once 3.9sec was a mere nine-tenths when Schumacher pitted again on lap 29.

Once again Alonso outran him, stopping on lap 32. But this time Schumacher's lighter fuel load had been sufficient to give him the lead, and he never surrendered it thereafter. It appeared that a short stint had worked the trick, and that still seemed the case when Schumacher made what appeared to be his final stop on lap 42 and Alonso his on lap 46. Ferrari and Bridgestone were simply better on the day than Renault and Michelin, it seemed.

But when Schumacher swept into the pits a fourth time, for a top-up on lap 58, Ferrari's quad-stop strategy was finally unveiled. Giving Schumacher a lighter car at a crucial point had cemented yet another triumph. All that was needed now was for the best driver in the world to steer his machine home - it never breaks down, of course. End of story.

"The strategy and precision of the team in the pit stops were fantastic today," Schumacher said. "Before the start I was not so optimistic, but after the second stop we decided to switch to the four-stop strategy. I had nothing to lose and it was a case of no risk, no fun!"

Normally it is technical director Ross Brawn who calls the shots in such instances, but he said: "I have to give credit to Luca Baldisserri, who came up with the idea this weekend and I just supported him on that." It was a fine judgement and worked brilliantly, and as a neat touch Baldisserri, Ferrari's chief race engineer, joined Schumacher on the podium.

If Renault were bemused to lose a race they thought they should have won, they were even more irritated to lose the final podium slot. Trulli had third place locked up right until the last lap, despite great pressure from Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button. But the Italian made a small error, left a Ferrari-sized gap, and with only the final chicane left the Brazilian injected some desperately needed action into a dull race by snatching the position in sight of the finish. Climbing from 10th to third was a strong performance.

Button was very disappointed, having come here hopeful of his first win. But his final pit stop saw his BAR lose two critical seconds, which allowed Trulli to keep third and Barrichello to use his greater momentum to snatch fourth on the run to the Adelaide Hairpin as Button rejoined on the 52nd lap. "We expected to do a lot better here and fifth is not good enough," the Englishman said. "The strategy was working well for us but at the last pit stop the car went into anti-stall mode and cost me the time advantage that could have put us on the podium."

McLaren celebrated an improved performance which saw a revitalised Coulthard fend off team-mate Kimi Raikkonen for sixth and seventh places, only three respectable seconds adrift of the third-place fight. "I lost some grip mid-race and had a few problems with traffic," Coulthard said, "but it was an encouraging debut for the 19B and I'm looking forward to my home grand prix at Silverstone next weekend."

Williams, however, had bitter disappointment. They lost a car somewhere in France over the weekend. It was in Magny-Cours to set fastest time in pre-qualifying on Saturday afternoon and demonstrate race-winning pace. But between then and the end of the race on Sunday, somebody stole it and substituted something inferior.

Juan Pablo Montoya was an unhappy eighth after a spin, and later complained of pains after tweaking his neck in a heavy accident on Friday. He will have precautionary checks before Silverstone.

In the championship, Schumacher has nearly double third place Button's points (90 to 48), while Ferrari have exactly twice Renault's (158 to 79). We don't need the mindless and dangerous antics that trespasser Father Neil Horan indulged in at Silverstone last year, but we'd better hope that something injects a lot more excitement than we saw at Magny-Cours.

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