Friday, 20 June 2008

French Grand Prix: Preview

This weekend the Formula 1 circus moves to France to shatter the idyllic peace of the French countryside region of Nevers, and for possibly one of the last ever times at the Circuit Magny-Cours. If it is to be the last ever race here, hopefully the track can provide us with one final dramatic race to give us something to remember it by. Traditionally the circuit has been a Ferrari stomping ground with Michael Schumacher in particular enjoying incredible success here. With one of their main rivals suffering a 10-place grid penalty for this race, Ferrari would have to be strong favourites to continue their rich vein of form here on Sunday.

All the talk in the wake of the excellent Canadian Grand Prix has revolved around Lewis Hamilton and his uncharacteristic mistake in the pit lane. The controversial incident eliminated both Hamilton and current Champion Raikkonen, thereby handing a debut race victory and the World Championship lead to Robert Kubica. As a result Hamilton will start the race with a 10 place grid penalty, and something of a mountain to climb if he is to avoid losing ground in the championship battle to the likes of Massa, Kubica and Raikkonen.

Last year's French GP winner Kimi Raikkonen will be looking to rediscover his touch and get his title defence back on track. Obviously, last time out he was unlucky to be taken out of the race in that bizarre pitlane incident, but prior to that he had been looking rather indifferent. Indeed, after a troubled start to the year it is his teammate Felipe Massa who has been looking much the stronger of the two Ferrari drivers on current form. The young Brazilian will see this weekend as an excellent chance to depose Kubica from his spot at the top of the standings.

One man who could have a key role to play here is Heikki Kovalainen. After some bad luck and a couple of weak performances it is looking like he is out of the running for the WDC. However, his McLaren team will be desperate for him to get amongst the Ferraris and Kubica to try and take as many points off them as possible. With Hamilton likely to be fuelled extremely heavily from the start, McLaren may run Kovalainen light to cement pole position and to try and control the pace of the race from the front for as long as possible.

A lot of the discussion and speculation in the media in the run up to the event has revolved around Renault's Fernando Alonso. He will be looking to put on a good show in front of the French Renault fans who fell in love with him as he stormed to two back-to-back titles for the team in 2005 and 2006. It is highly unlikely though that he will repeat his excellent victory here in 2005, or even come close to it. The Renault isn't competitive enough, and that is the main reason so much speculation has continued to follow the Spaniard. He is yet to commit to another year at Renault and is said to be considering his options for 2009, with strong rumours in the air that he has already signed a pre-contractual agreement to drive for Ferrari in 2010.

The track itself here isn't a bad one. It is super smooth and usually in excellent condition, and the highlights are two super-fast chicanes where you really get to see Formula 1 cars being worked to their limit. With sweeping changes to the aero regulations for 2009 it is unlikely that we'll ever see cars cornering at such vicious speeds through corners like these again, so it's definitely worth paying as much notice as possible before F1 cars get somewhat neutered. There is also one VERY tight hairpin which creates overtaking opportunities aplenty. This will be the point where we'll no doubt see Lewis Hamilton making his moves on the slower cars to try and battle his way through the field.

The other big factor here this weekend could well be the weather. We have been predicted scattered thunderstorms throughout the weekend, and they could play havoc with race day if they hit at the right time. The predicted rain didn't quite come in Montreal, and we'll have to see whether the drivers will be as lucky this time with the weather. One man praying for the rain to come will be Hamilton. It will open up options for him to get creative with his strategy to try and drag himself up toward the podium places, and also he just loves the rainy conditions as Monaco last month, and Fuji last year proved.

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