Magny-Cours was always set to be a boring race. The circuit is not known for its competitive racing, and it’s difficult to imagine a more favourable circuit for Ferrari. The red team did indeed pull off into the distance, but that didn’t stop it being a more interesting race than expected.
Kimi Räikkönen looked good for the win at the beginning of the race. But just when you think you’ve seen everything in F1, something new and unexpected happens — and once again Räikkönen was at the centre of it all for the third race in a row.
Kimi Räikkönen’s season is fast turning into a story of Mark Webber-esque bad luck. First there was his crash in Monaco which was partially his fault but which he had little control over. Then he got the surprise buttsecks treatment in Canada.
Now in France he has suffered from an odd exhaust failure. The component was flapping around in the air causing all sorts of damage to the right rear of his car — both in terms of physical knocks and the kind of heat the exhaust must have been giving off. Initially the problem was causing Räikkönen several seconds per lap but over time he managed to adapt to it. But the exhaust eventually flew off which leads me to wonder if it might have been safer for the stewards to order him to pit to have the exhaust removed before it flew off into the path of another driver.
Despite Räikkönen’s woes, he still managed to finish 2nd which rather underlines Ferrari’s dominance at this circuit. Felipe Massa, in an uneventful race for him, took the win and at the same time takes the lead of the Drivers Championship for the first time in his career. He is the first Brazilian to lead the world championship since Ayrton Senna.
Massa is in fact the fourth different leader of the championship in four races. The championship is very close at the moment — just ten points separate the top four drivers. It is doubtful, however, that either Kubica or Hamilton can prevent Ferrari from running away with it at this stage, with many of the up-coming circuits suiting Ferrari and some of McLaren’s best circuits having been visited already.
BMW in particular struggled badly this weekend. Kubica certainly was struggling with handling problems during practice. And notably, Heidfeld struggled to get through to Q2 during qualifying, setting three laps in a row that were only good enough for 18th on the grid. He did surpass that eventually, but lined up on the grid way back in 11th. His race ended in 13th. It was a far cry from his second place in Canada.
Meanwhile, plaudits have to go to Kubica for wrestling the car into 5th. He had some moments during the race where he looked quite fiery, but he had little potential today to make much of the race.
This underlines just how close Formula 1 is this year. Moving from one circuit to another results in sometimes dramatic changes in the order through the field, particularly from the third-best car down to the eighth-best.
Toyota, however, are showing consistent improvement. I wouldn’t have trusted Jarno Trulli to hold on to third place. At this very circuit in 2004 he managed to lose a position to Rubens Barrichello on the penultimate corner of the race, cementing his reputation as a poor race driver who lacks full concentration over a full race distance.
However, this year he managed to hold off a late charge from Heikki Kovalainen (and, at one point, Robert Kubica) to take third position. It’s Toyota’s first podium for over two years and it is fitting that it should come in the week that the team mourns the loss of its founder team principal, Ove Andersson.
As for Heikki Kovalainen, he had a fantastic race. Starting tenth on the grid following a 5-place grid penalty after impeding Mark Webber during qualifying, Kovalainen stormed his way through the field to take fourth. Just as it was beginning to look as though Kovalainen did not have what it takes, he has managed to salvage something from what was becoming a disastrous weekend for McLaren.
His team mate Lewis Hamilton certainly did not storm through the field. He needed to take pole position for his strategy to work, but it backfired as he qualified third — which meant starting 13th on the grid. On soft tyres and a light fuel load, Hamilton was aggressive at the start and overtook many cars.
However, his first overtaking manoeuvre raised eyebrows. It was a brave move on Sebastian Vettel, but it was a touch too brave and Hamilton ended up cutting the chicane slightly. At that point Hamilton should have let Vettel pass again because Hamilton clearly gained an advantage by cutting the corner. Ron Dennis protests that Hamilton had clearly passed Vettel by that stage, but I have to disagree. Hamilton would never have made that move stick if he took the chicane correctly and the stewards were right to give him a drive-through penalty.
I think Red Bull can be reasonably pleased with their performance today. Mark Webber took another points-scoring position in 6th while David Coulthard was perfectly positioned to take advantage of any front-running retirements in 9th. This was arguably the team’s best result all season.
Renault are also looking like they have more speed in their car now. I think Alonso had the pace today, but his race was seriously compromised by yet another dodgy strategy from Renault. Alonso was very light at the beginning, and was the first to stop after just 15 laps. The team then switched him to a two-stop strategy, meaning that Alonso had to deal with a heavier car and spend longer on the (sub-optimal) soft tyres.
Alonso’s race of unfulfilled potential was underlined by the fact that his much-maligned team mate Nelsinho Piquet overtook him very close to the end after a traffic-related confusion. Piquet certainly looks as though he has turned a corner now. He was on the pace much more consistently all weekend, and did not make any silly mistakes during the race. This could be the turning point of Piquet’s career and he can now point to the fact that he has beaten the most successful active F1 driver in equal equipment.
I have no idea what happened to Toro Rosso during the race. Sebastian Vettel in particular looked great earlier on in the weekend, but it just didn’t come together for him during the race.
I am starting to wonder about Sébastien Bourdais. After a great start to his season in Australia, Bourdais has been anonymous at best and his middling performances are beginning to make him look as though he is not F1 material. Today he finished 17th, ahead only of the Force Indias, and as far as I could see he had no problems. What was that all about?
Williams must also be desperately frustrated with their performance today. Nakajima and Rosberg finished in 15th and 16th, way off the pace. For a team that was touted as the third-fastest in winter testing, this is just not good enough. This season was supposed to be so much better for Williams.
Honda also had a dire race. Jenson Button was the only retirement after he was involved in an accident while Barrichello could only manage 14th. Just as things were looking up to Honda, they suddenly find themselves firmly at the rear of the grid again.
The British Grand Prix is next. I reckon Ferrari will storm away with that one as well. Let’s see. We’ve been treated to some good races recently. Even the French Grand Prix had more drama than anticipated — even if the predicted rain came to nothing.