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Raikkonen comfortably takes Lewis Hamilton in French GP

Ferrari delivered an emphatic one-two victory in the French Grand Prix as Kimi Raikkonen returned to form in style in the last race to be held at Magny-Cours.

Raikkonen came home two seconds ahead of his Ferrari team-mate, Brazilian Felipe Massa, ending McLaren’s three race sequence of victories. It was his first win since the Australian GP in Melbourne on March 18, and the 11th of his career.

Massa, on pole, led for more than half of the race, and finished second ahead of 22-year-old British star Lewis Hamilton in his McLaren. The result meant nevertheless that Hamilton increased his lead in the drivers’ championship to 14 points with his home race, at Silverstone, coming up next weekend.

Team-mate, Fernando Alonso, who started from 10th position on the grid, was unable to make much progress through the field and finished seventh.

Hamilton was seeking a hat-trick of victories but, despite his disappointment, he posted his seventh podium finish in seven races in his first season in Formula One.

The full result was :

1. Kimi Raikkonen Finland Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro-Ferrari 70 01:30:54.200
2. Felipe Massa Brazil Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro-Ferrari +2.4
3. Lewis Hamilton Britain Vodafone McLaren Mercedes-Mercedes +32.1
4. Robert Kubica Poland BMW Sauber F1 Team-BMW +41.7
5. Nick Heidfeld Germany BMW Sauber F1 Team-BMW +48.8
6. Giancarlo Fisichella Italy ING Renault F1 Team-Renault +52.2
7. Fernando Alonso Spain Vodafone McLaren Mercedes-Mercedes +56.5
8. Jenson Button Britain Honda Racing F1 Team-Honda +58.8
9. Nico Rosberg Germany AT&T Williams-Toyota +68.5
10. Ralf Schumacher Germany Panasonic Toyota Racing-Toyota +1 lap
11. Rubens Barrichello Brazil Honda Racing F1 Team-Honda +1 lap
12. Mark Webber Australia Red Bull Racing-Renault +1 lap
13. David Coulthard Britain Red Bull Racing-Renault +1 lap
14. Alexander Wurz Austria AT&T Williams-Toyota +1 lap
15. Heikki Kovalainen Finland ING Renault F1 Team-Renault +1
16. Takuma Sato Japan Super Aguri F1 Team-Honda +2 laps
17. Adrian Sutil Germany Spyker F1 Team-Ferrari +2 laps
18. Scott Speed USA Scuderia Toro Rosso-Ferrari 55 laps completed
19. Christijan Albers Holland Spyker F1 Team-Ferrari 28 laps completed
20. Anthony Davidson Britain Super Aguri F1 Team-Honda 0 laps completed
21. Jarno Trulli Italy Panasonic Toyota Racing-Toyota 0 laps completed
22. Vitantonio Liuzzi Italy Scuderia Toro Rosso-Ferrari 0 laps completed.

Silverstone now beckons for the Englishman. It’s likely to be wet conditions so anything can happen.

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Undertaking in Barcelona

Did the new chicane make a difference to overtaking at the Spanish GP? You know it did not. But the modification to the track will sit there and grin at us from now on, having ruined a couple of fast corners without giving us anything in return. Track alterations stay, whether they achieve the desired result or not – after all, it is more important that the track designer save face than that the racing be improved at all.

Start

So Barcelona remains the track where you overtake in the first few hundred yards or not at all. Alonso made his bid for the lead, failed and that was the end of any real fight at the front. Technically, Fernando was a little ahead at the corner and by the unwritten rules was entitled to claim the line in theory. But Massa was already committed and had nowhere to go, even had he wanted to after being criticized in the early races for not being aggressive enough. The slight bump that sent Alonso into the gravel was the risk he took and both drivers were lucky not to have suffered worse – a racing incident, indeed.

Thereafter things settled into the usual pattern of waiting for the driver ahead to run into trouble. Kimi Raikkonen duly obliged, electrical problems putting him out early and allowing Alonso back into third. Perhaps only Chris Amon can truly understand the thoughts that must be going through Kimi’s head as he wonders whether his bad luck has followed him to the ultra-reliable Ferrari team.

If we were only interested in the lead, Barcelona would have been boring indeed. But there was plenty to interest, mostly in the form of progress by some and disaster for others. David Coulthard had a great race in the Red Bull RB3, showing that it is becoming a force at last, and Super Aguri scored a point, admittedly thanks to Renault having a problem with their (French-made) fueling rig.

BMW were a little less convincing this time out, Robert Kubica coming in fourth but Heidfeld being on the receiving end of some blundering pitwork that saw a wheelnut deserting to the Toyota team. A little more Germanic efficiency required, methinks (and a rap on the knuckles for the lollipop man, no doubt).

Talking of Toyota, they joined Toro Rosso in having a truly (Trulli) dismal weekend, both cars retiring before lap 44. Not even Ralf’s optimism and Jarno’s amazing effort in putting the car into sixth in qualifying could save them this time. I have more sympathy for Scott Speed, however, who looked set to prove all his critics wrong with a tenth fastest time in practice and then a leap from last to 14th in the race, only to have a tire explode. After being robbed of the chance for a decent grid spot by engine failure in qualifying, it was Raikkonen-like luck indeed.

The interest was all in what might be coming in the future of this season. Yes, we have a battle royal for the title that should continue for a while at least, but we also have a few teams that look to be getting it together at last. Red Bull are beginning to threaten BMW’s third fastest spot and Renault are improving faster than Fisichella had predicted. Williams are a bit unpredictable but quicker than Toyota at least, while Toro Rosso show signs of real improvement. Things are tight in the midfield and could become even tighter.

And now we look ahead to Monaco, traditionally the circuit where driving skill counts for more than aerodynamics. Hamilton is confident, having raced in the principality before, Fernando and Kimi know it only too well; can this be the circuit where Massa finally convinces me?

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Same Old Ferrari

It seems to me that the knives are out at Ferrari already. After the Bahrain GP, technical director Mario Almondo was critical of Raikkonen’s race, suggesting that he work on starts and restarts; now Kimi has voiced doubts over the preparation of his car for qualifying.

Ron Kimi

Ron Dennis and Kimi Raikkonen

Back in October of last year, I wrote of the difficulties Kimi would experience in fitting into the Ferrari team; since then I have seen nothing to change my mind. Even before he joined, Ferrari were talking about getting their new driver to smile more often and to moderate his private life. As I pointed out at the time, this amounted to implied criticism of a guy who has nothing to prove in F1 – we all know he is one the three fastest drivers around.

And now Almondo finds reason to pick at Raikkonen’s performance in Bahrain and Kimi, stung at last to put his side of the story (very tactfully – he said “we” most of the time), hints that he may not be getting the same treatment as Massa in qualifying. It hardly speaks of a team that is together in their determination for the Finn to succeed this year.

The most telling point is that these guarded exchanges are being conducted in public. Ferrari have been quite open in their criticism of Raikkonen from the very start, while their enthusiasm for Massa has been evident, Todt springing to the Brazilian’s defense after his ham-fisted attempts to pass Hamilton in Malaysia. Kimi has held his tongue until this latest statement but the tension on his face has been plain to see – he knows he’s getting a raw deal.

I have no doubt that Kimi will struggle on through the season, working with what he is given and trying to show the team who they should be putting their major effort into. My point is really that he shouldn’t have to – Ferrari only handicap themselves by favoring one driver over another, particularly when the favorite is the slower of the two.

But that is Ferrari; they have their likes and dislikes and woe betide you if you turn up on the dislike side of the equation.

The photograph up there illustrates the difference between Ferrari and McLaren. Ron Dennis has his detractors but he is the best man manager of the lot (now that Eddie Jordan and Ken Tyrrell are no longer around). He believed in Kimi from the start and never stopped doing so, even if he wished that the Finn wouldn’t party so heartily.

Ferrari assured us that we would see Kimi smile this year – pardon me for pointing this out but it ain’t happened yet. And that looks like a huge grin on the Finn’s face in that photo above.

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Taking Stock After Bahrain

A motor race does not a season make, to mangle a phrase. Three races in and Lewis Hamilton is superhuman, Massa has gone from hero to zero and back again, and poor Alonso and Raikkonen are bidding to become the forgotten men.

Bahrain

The reality, of course, is a bit less dramatic than that – three of the drivers mentioned have had varying fortunes, one has not put a foot wrong as yet. As a result, we have a three-way tie for the lead of the championship with the fourth very close behind; which is great for the sport but nothing to get too excited about just yet.

It is true that Lewis Hamilton looks to be even better than we expected. He is quick, consistent and unflappable in the car, realistic and respectful out of it. It is hard to see how he could have made a better start to his career in F1 and all that we have seen so far points to his being a champion in the future.

But let us not get carried away – in two out of three races, Alonso has been the quicker McLaren driver and he is not going to despair because Lewis beat him in Bahrain. He will just work the harder to be fastest in future.

What is really impressive about the Alonso/Hamilton pairing is that I detect absolutely no needle between them at all. After the finish in Bahrain, Alonso went up to Hamilton to congratulate him and you could see he meant it. And Lewis continues to acknowledge that he is still learning and makes his respect for Alonso quite clear. For this year at least, they make a formidable team.

Things are a bit more complicated in the Ferrari team. Were there any justice in the world, this ought to be the year that Kimi Raikkonen walks away with the championship; he has served a hard apprenticeship, suffered more than his share of bad luck and demonstrated his speed again and again. Yet he finds himself with a teammate who wants to be number one and his old team suddenly come good with a car that performs as well as the Ferrari. Nothing comes easy for the Finn, it seems.

There is a new determination about Kimi this season, however, and it is no accident that he shares the championship lead with the McLaren drivers. In those races where Ferrari give him a car that can win, he will do so; in others he will take as many points as he can. Kimi wants the championship and no longer treats each race as a separate entity.

The roller coaster of Felipe Massa’s fortunes so far is indicative of his strengths and weaknesses. When things go well, Felipe can look unassailable; when they go badly, he tries too hard and makes mistakes. It has been said that Massa needs the support of his team to do well and it seems that he is getting it. Whether this means that Raikkonen receives that much less remains to be seen but I begin to suspect it.

So it is debatable that Ferrari are as well-knit a team this year as is McLaren and that could make all the difference at the end of the season if the championship remains close. Already McLaren have a lead in the constructors’ competition with a car that is not consistently as quick as the Ferrari – the difference is in the quality of the driving team.

If the champion this year is to be one of these four drivers, I think it has to be either Raikkonen or Alonso. Massa is too easily pressured into error and Hamilton has the patience to wait his turn. And, of the acknowledged “stars”, Alonso is the more likely winner since he is in the better team.

There is always the possibility that a wild card, perhaps in the shape of Nick Heidfeld, might be added to the mix, however. Now that would be really interesting…

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