Saturday, 21 June 2008

French Grand Prix Qualifying: Ferrari lock out the front row in France

Kimi Raikkonen led home Ferrari team mate Felipe Massa to score a fairly comfortable front row lock out for tomorrow's French Grand Prix. With Hamilton receiving a penalty and BMW looking strangely out of sorts it was always looking likely to happen. The only man you would have thought was capable to stop him was Heikki Kovalainen, but he wasn't able to step up to the plate and spoil Ferrari's party, much to the disappointment of McLaren. In fact it was Fernando Alonso who got closest to stealing the headlines from the Scuderia, putting in a great performance in front of the Renault fans.

After stunning the F1 world with a 1-2 finish in Canada last time out, perhaps the biggest talking point of the days events will be the poor showing of the BMW team. They struggled from the beginning of the very first session with understeer problems on corner entry and oversteer on exit. On a short track like Magny-Cours where the cars are very closely matched in terms of time throughout the field, those tenths of a second that slip through your fingers when struggling to get a car locked on to an apex are crucial. Heidfeld struggled to make it through even the first session, and then ended up 12th in the second. Kubica was lucky to make it through to the final ten, although he did recover to finish 7th (effectively 6th after Hamilton's penalty).

BMW's disappointment was good news for the likes of Renault, Toyota and Red Bull. Fernando Alonso finished fourth (net third) to delight the French fans. Perhaps Renault have fuelled him light and put him on a three stopper to snatch a few headlines, but it's still a decent performance from Alonso who is driving on top form here this weekend. Toyota really pulled it out of the bag today with a very strong performance from Trulli. It's always hard to work out what's going on with Toyota as they are the masters of inconsistency; one race they're average, one race they're poor, then the next race they're up on the second row!

Another team that would have expected to profit from BMW's woes is Williams, but they really disappointed today. After all the early season optimism and Rosberg's podium at Australia things really seem to be fizzling out for them, with Rosberg and Nakajima in 15th and 16th respectively. Still, at least they aren't Honda! They are really struggling badly at the moment. Perhaps the worst part of all is that neither driver is complaining of any problems with the cars or any handling difficulties. Their car drives well, but they're just plain slow.

Honda and indeed Williams look to have been overtaken by the Toro Rosso team, who have really got their new car firing well. It's a mark of how far they've come when they are disappointed at the fact that they didn't get Vettel into the final session. They'll just have to settle for 13th and 14th, which is still a very respectable finish for a team of their size and resources.

With Lewis Hamilton knowing that wherever he finished he would drop 10 places the final session was as much about strategy for McLaren as it was about outright pace. It seems likely that Hamilton will run a 3 stop strategy and try to stay lighter than his rivals throughout the race. Hamilton will have wanted to finish first on the timesheets, with Kovalainen also looking strong in order to try and disrupt the Ferrari's plans. As it was, Hamilton finished a decent but slightly disappointing 3rd (net 13th) and Kovalainen a very disappointing 6th. There is very little Heikki can do to influence the race from the third row, barring some kind of miracle first lap. He'll have a tough enough job just getting past the likes of Alonso who is clearly running a little light.

So after a pretty faultless performance from Massa and Raikkonen it is Ferrari's race to lose. Unless they manage to take each other out at the first hairpin there should be little to stop them scoring a 1-2 finish. The only thing that could really throw a spanner in the works from them is the potential of thunderstorms. Rain always makes things unpredictable in racing, and there is a strong possibility of safety cars in those kinds of conditions, which could play into the hands of the likes of the McLarens. Either way though, you'd be a fool to bet against a red car taking the chequered flag tomorrow.
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Friday, 20 June 2008

French Grand Prix: Free Practice 2

Fernando Alonso sprung something of a surprise in Friday's second free practice session for the French Grand Prix by edging out the Ferraris to take top spot. It was more of an eventful session this time out, with several drivers taking high speed trips through the kitty-litter. Thankfully nobody hit anything solid at the end of it, but it was evidence that the drivers are really pushing to find the absolute limits of grip out there.

Again the session was run under blue skies and glorious sunshine with no sign of the thunderstorms that had threatened to cast a shadow over proceedings. Thankfully there was far more running in the early part of the session than in first practice.

As previously mentioned, there were several drivers pushing beyond the limits of gri[ in this session. The outside of turn 7 was proving particularly popular, although these days it's all astroturf and tarmac in the run off area so there is little chance of a major incident there. Lewis Hamilton was the first driver to sample the gravel on the outside of the high speed Estoril corner, and he wasn't to be the last. Aside from a chipped front wing and a bruised ego there was no major repercussions for Hamilton.

Fisichella and Piquet both managed to go too hot into the second to last corner and ended up in the gravel, but they also managed to avoid hitting anything. The man who came closest to a serious incident was Felipe Massa in the dying moments of the session. He ran wide on the exit of Estoril and kept his foot in as he bounced across the gravel. He came within about a foot of clipping the tyre barrier at very high speed.

Massa couldn't quite repeat his excellent showing from earlier in the day and ended the session in second place behind Alonso. Kimi Raikkonen was in close attendance in third place with Hamilton in fourth. Perhaps an even bigger surprise than Alonso in first place was Sebastien Vettel in fifth. He beat the likes of Robert Kubica and Heikki Kovalainen on pace in yet another superb showing for the young German.

It was a good day in general for Toro Rosso with Bourdais putting in a good showing in 13th place too. They look as though they are really getting their act together and could well start pressing their big brothers Red Bull in terms of pace. They certainly seem to have left behind the likes of Honda, who are again struggling badly. After what seemed like a mini recovery after their appalling pre-season they seem to have gone backwards and are now battling with the Force Indias at the very bottom of the time sheets!

But the headlines belong to Fernando Alonso who looks to have found some real pace here. It will make it all the more galling for him that he had that problem right at the end of first practice, which looks like it will cost him places on the grid. He looks as racey as ever though, and was certainly the most spectacular driver through the tricky final chicane. Several times he was seen airborne across the bumpy kerbs, and then using armfuls of opposite lock to keep the Renault out of the barriers. Normally that sort of driving doesn't pay dividends in terms of lap times, but Alonso seems to have found a way to make it work for him!

Free Practice Two Times

01 F. Alonso Renault 1:15.778 37 laps
02 F. Massa Ferrari 1:15.854 24 laps
03 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:15.999 42 laps
04 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:16.232 28 laps
05 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:16.298 42 laps
06 R. Kubica BMW 1:16.317 35 laps
07 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:16.340 36 laps
08 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:16.458 43 laps
09 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:16.543 39 laps
10 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:16.572 36 laps
11 N. Rosberg Williams 1:16.682 42 laps
12 J. Trulli Toyota 1:16.743 43 laps
13 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:16.758 42 laps
14 K. Nakajima Williams 1:17.002 32 laps
15 T. Glock Toyota 1:17.092 39 laps
16 M. Webber Red Bull 1:17.106 38 laps
17 J. Button Honda 1:17.244 37 laps
18 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:17.394 42 laps
19 R. Barrichello Honda 1:17.591 27 laps
20 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:17.868 33 laps
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French Grand Prix: Free Practice 1

Felipe Massa started his French GP weekend off in perfect style by comfortably setting the fastest time here in first practice. He led Lewis Hamilton by a full 7 tenths of a second come the end of the session, with Kovalainen, Raikkonen and Kubica trailing even further in his wake. It was a fairly uneventful session in terms of on track incident, but many drivers complained of struggling to find grip on the 'green' track. Nobody was as frustrated as Fernando Alonso however, as he ended the session prematurely in smokey fashion.

With the skies looking relatively clear and the sun shining it seems to be a perfect day for burning some hydrocarbons around a racing track, but few drivers managed to get fully to grips with the circuit. Whether it is a problem with the track itself, or with the tyres that Bridgestone have brought to France remains to be seen, but there have been plenty of lock ups and slides, and a few drivers complaining of graining on their tyres.

For the first 25 minutes of the session literally nobody set a single time! Most drivers had a quick installation lap, but nothing serious. Eventually things got going, and one of the early men to impress was Sebastien Vettel. This kid really does have rare pace and talent. Given a few years' development and a good car he really could become a superstar.

Eventually it became the expected battle between Ferrari and McLaren for the top spots. McLaren looked the strongest early on, but toward the end of the session Felipe Massa really came to the fore. By the end of the session he was the only man in the 1.15s, and comfortably so at that. The McLarens looked decent throughout, but didn't have the outright pace to match Massa.

After a spin by Trulli towards the end, the session ended in rather dramatic fashion. Fernando Alonso was forced to stop out on track with his Renault gushing out huge plumes of smoke. It looked suspiciously like an engine failure, and will surely mean a ten place penalty for him for the race on Sunday. Bad news for Alonso and the partisan Renault fans, and a real shame as he was looking decent in terms of pace throughout the session.

Free Practice 1 Times

01 F. Massa Ferrari 1:15.306 22 laps
02 L. Hamilton McLaren 1:16.002 22 laps
03 H. Kovalainen McLaren 1:16.055 20 laps
04 K. Räikkönen Ferrari 1:16.073 21 laps
05 R. Kubica BMW 1:16.377 19 laps
06 F. Alonso Renault 1:16.400 23 laps
07 J. Trulli Toyota 1:16.758 32 laps
08 S. Vettel Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:16.838 27 laps
09 N. Heidfeld BMW 1:16.870 21 laps
10 T. Glock Toyota 1:16.886 31 laps
11 N. Piquet jr. Renault 1:17.063 31 laps
12 D. Coulthard Red Bull 1:17.234 21 laps
13 M. Webber Red Bull 1:17.269 22 laps
14 N. Rosberg Williams 1:17.394 30 laps
15 R. Barrichello Honda 1:17.491 25 laps
16 S. Bourdais Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:17.683 27 laps
17 K. Nakajima Williams 1:17.696 25 laps
18 J. Button Honda 1:17.928 21 laps
19 G. Fisichella Force India F1 1:18.072 27 laps
20 A. Sutil Force India F1 1:18.673 13 laps
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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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