2003 French GP Preview

By Craig Scarborough, England
Atlas F1 Technical Writer

Fresh on the heels of the European Grand Prix we go straight to the Magny Cours circuit in the Nevers region of France for Round 10 of the championship. After the dramatic race in Germany last weekend the whole face of the championship has changed - last week we were confident of Ferrari dominance with the Williams/McLaren pack following the red cars, but instead we saw Ferrari outpaced by three of the chasing pack on a conventional circuit with moderate weather conditions. This turnaround of pace and fortunes saw the championship turned on its head, and speculation is rife about who the eventual championship winner will be. This in itself is a world away from the predictability of the last year.

Magny-Cours is not a circuit loved by many; even the French were not keen to see the race move from its Paul Ricard home in the eighties. Politics drove the relocation, and the new circuit in the middle of France has a bland layout, with an extremely smooth track surface its only defining feature.

While Williams brought new bodywork to the Nurburgring the change in fortunes can be largely attributed to tyres. The tyre war of the past few years has seen Bridgestone work well on conventional circuits, with Michelin on top in hot conditions. Michelin appears to have turned the table on Bridgestone despite the disruption of rain, which may have affected Ferrari's tyre assessment program. Regardless of tyres Ferrari were beaten; Juan Pablo Montoya's inspired manoeuvre on Michael may have been risky but the Williams and McLaren, in the hands of Ralf Schumacher and Kimi Raikkonen, were able to pull clearly away from the red cars.

With the next four races being held in similar circuits and climates to the Nurburgring we can expect to see the championship positions alter significantly in the run up to the high speed races of Italy, USA and Japan.

Currently Michael Schumacher holds the lead with 58 points while Raikkonen's misfortunes have pushed him 7 points behind, but the Williams duo are following closely, just 8 and 12 points behind Raikkonen. Although not currently threatening the leading pack, Fernando Alonso holds the same number of points as Montoya.

With the fourth placed Montoya still two clear wins from gaining the championship lead the gap is wide, but there are seven races left to run with a potential seventy points. Its too early to work out possible permutations for any of the drivers to win the championship, but given the closeness of the recent races its likely that the championship will not be decided until the circus leaves Europe for the last two flyaway races.

The poor relations in the top three teams are Rubens Barrichello on 37 points, David Coulthard on 25 and Jarno Trulli on only 13. Potentially Raikkonen, Michael Schumacher and the Williams pair are breaking off to fight for the championship, with the number two drivers and the Renault pairing battling for fifth to eighth place. No team outside the leading four breaks into the championship placings; Giancarlo Fisichella gained his ten, and so far only, points from his Brazilian win, while Jenson Button's 10 points were amassed from various finishes down the order. A gaggle of seven drivers find themselves with less than ten points, and only three more are without points; while Minardi were never expected to score points even with the new points system, Antonio Pizzonia has yet to score despite his improved form.

Curiously the constructors championship sees a different order in the top three; Ferrari are heading Williams by 13 points and McLaren by 19, with Schumacher's points providing the majority of the lead, and the more evenly matched Williams drivers have now placed the team ahead of McLaren. The benefit of two consistently well placed drivers is clear this year; despite Williams not challenging in the drivers championship just yet their drivers are separated by just four points, with each driver scoring a win a piece; conversely McLaren sees their drivers separated by 26 points, with Ferrari slightly better with a 21 point gap. To win this championship, the lower placed drivers will need support from the team, along with the usual measure of luck and reliability to get their team in the lead when the chequered flag drops in Japan.

Following the top three teams Renault is in no-mans-land with 52 points, and their nearest rival is BAR with a mere 13 points. Jordan is in double figures (eleven points) from two solitary points finishes, although Sauber, Jaguar and Toyota have picked up points and could reasonably expect to jump ahead of Jordan or BAR with a single good result.

With half the field languishing on so few points one has to question what benefit the new points system has brought to the championships. It is fair to say the reduced gap between a win and a second place has spiced up the lead for the trophies. Looking at the stats Michael Schumacher's run of four wins and one retirement has placed him in the lead, whereas Raikkonen has only one win but four second places. With the new points system this has placed him eight points closer to Schumacher then under the old system, which would have now seen Raikkonen at least 15 points behind. The Williams drivers have only three non-winning podiums behind them, so they have been affected less. But the midfield that was expected to gain from having points down to eighth place has gained very little.

Slightly altered in detail for this year, the Magny Cours circuit presents a limited challenge for the teams; the biggest challenge is for the tyre companies to provide a tyre compound that can give lasting grip on the smooth, and often very hot, track surface.

In basic layout the track starts from a start-finish straight leading into a left hand curve before a punishing third gear right hand corner at Estoril, then a M-shaped series of straights and second gear hairpins form the back of the circuit before finishing off the lap with a reprofiled final corner. Despite the straights and heavy braking for the hairpins there is little overtaking possible due to the narrow track and low grip surface. A premium is placed on brakes, mechanical grip and aerodynamics, which needs fine tuning between downforce and drag to suit both the straights and corners. There is only one long corner so the front tyres do not suffer as much as the rears, which are pressed hard out of every hairpin; the traction control software will need to limit slip, which leads to raised tyre temperatures.

Magny Cours

A Lap of Magny Cours with Kimi Raikkonen

A burst of acceleration along the short pit straight at Magny Cours sees you reach 170mph/273kph in fifth gear on the approach to Grand Courbe, before dabbing the brakes slightly to take the flat out long left hander. The sweeping right hander of Estoril follows immediately, and you must keep as much speed as possible as the corner swings you round 180-degrees onto the longest and fastest section of the track, Golf.

Powering along the back straight, which has a gentle curve to the right, you reach speeds of 185mph/297kph in seventh gear before braking hard for the Adelaide hairpin, which is a good overtaking opportunity. A first gear right hander, you pull some 4.2g as you slow to 50mph/80kph to negotiate the tight bend.

You push hard on the throttle as you exit, reaching 162mph/260kph in fifth gear along the straight, through the slight right kink, before dabbing the brakes for the fast Nurburgring chicane. You take the right-left weave at some 130mph/210kph in fourth. Flicking up through the gears, you briefly touch 162mph/260kph in fifth gear on the approach to the second hairpin. Wider than Adelaide, and therefore slightly quicker, the 180-degree left hander is taken at 55mph/88kph in second gear.

On the power on the exit through another right-left weave, you reach 153mph/245kph in fourth on the approach to the fast fourth gear Imola chicane. The track dips as you take the right-left chicane at 135mph/217kph. A short burst of acceleration takes you to the Chateau d'Eau, the long right hander, which has been altered slightly, sees you slow from 140mph/225kph in fourth to 60mph/96kph in second.

Accelerating out you reach 160mph/257kph along the new approach to Lycee, which has a gentle curve to the left. We will have to brake hard for the sharp right of Lycee, which is taken at 50mph/80kph in second, and leads back onto the start-finish straight, through a right-left kink, to begin another lap.


After the embarrassment of being outraced and even overtaken in Germany Ferrari has to look to Bridgestone to find a tyre able to compete with the Michelins. If Germany was seen in the media as a watershed for Ferrari, and even Schumacher, then the pressure spotlight placed upon the team in the press will make the team personnel feel like their backs are against the wall. In perspective Germany was a single race with rain interrupted practice sessions, and the eventual lack of pace was probably due to a poor tyre choice. Despite this the F2003GA is a consistent car with solid reliability, both of which the opposition has been lacking. The widening gap between the drivers is ever more prominent in the races, with Barrichello again failing to take the fight to Williams and McLaren.


The team are proud to boast that their aggressive development program has reaped dividends, with the car now having won on a conventional circuit. Williams arrived in Germany with a revised aero package, largely to the sidepods, with shortened flip ups and Renault-like cooling chimneys set ahead of the sidepod winglets. The changes are apparently in opposition to each other; the new flip ups would contribute to a dirtier flow over the rear wing, while the heated flow from the chimneys is blown around and away from the rear wing by the winglets. Michelin tyres were a large part of the performance in Germany, as their similarly shod rivals also enjoyed a good race weekend.

This weekend the team can expect more of the same; hot weather puts an emphasis on power and tyre performance, and recent races have seen the drivers compete on an equal footing throughout the weekend, with Schumacher ever more prominent in qualifying following his poor early season form. Reliability has been fair, but the BMW engine will be prone to failures as the development programme accelerates.


McLaren's fortunes were raised last weekend, with a dominant performance from Raikkonen throughout the weekend until his unexpected engine failure. Clearly the car has more pace then it has been given credit for. This cannot be solely put down to the Michelins, as Coulthard's form was far from that of Raikkonen. Perhaps the McLaren bugbear of knife-edge set up is a factor; fast when it's right, mediocre when it's not. Allied to this Coulthard has a reputation of being unable to drive around poor handling, whereas Raikkonen improvises to get more speed.

Again this weekend could be all or nothing for McLaren; Coulthard has been spoken to by the team, and can be in no doubt his performances of late are not what Ron Dennis expects. Raikkonen is maturing into a very strong race driver, getting the car on to the podium even when qualifying suggested it was beyond his reach. The team also needs to accept some criticism; the car has retired six times this year, and even though these were not all car related last weekend saw an engine failure lead to the loss of an easy ten points and possibly the regaining of the championship lead.


Unable to chase the leading three teams and unchallenged from behind, there appears to be stagnation at Renault as far as performance is concerned. Reliability too has been weaker recently. Any prediction of their form for France will clearly place them fourth of the teams, but how close they'll be to Williams, Ferrari and McLaren will depend on their straight-line performance, the Achilles heel of the car/engine. Between the drivers the gap of 26 points is matched only by that between the McLaren drivers; Trulli's poorer reliability plus a few shunts has created this gap against Alonso's three podiums and regular points finishes.


Currently in an unfamiliar seventh in the constructor's championship, Sauber are making slow progress this year. Qualifying has seen the car able to break into the top ten but the races have given both drivers an equal mix of retirements, lowly points finishes and finishes out of the top eight. Poor Bridgestone customer tyres and unexpected reliability problems from the Ferrari engine account for some of the lost places, but Sauber have failed to make much progress with the car through the year.


It looks doubtful whether Jordan has the resources to turn the EJ13 into a better car. Persistently lacking in any grip, the teams' enviable sixth position in the championship hides the actual lack of competitiveness of the outfit. As with Sauber poor reliability and finishes just outside the top eight shows how bad a position the team are in. This weekend the lack of grip will be all too evident, and no points are likely.


Jaguar, with a reasonable package this year, has done well to finish in the points four times in the last five races, but it is Mark Webber carrying the car home alone, Antonio Pizzonia having suffered four retirements and only once getting within a sniff of points. The car doesn't seem to have any particular vices, and running on Michelins could be seen as an advantage, but the whole package seems to lack speed. Reliability willing, Webber can once more be relied upon to deliver a points finish, however the car goes.


Another Bridgestone midfield team in dire straits. Jacques Villeneuve has only finished three races, with only one of those in the points, whereas Button's steadier runs have seen four points finishes, only two retirements and one non-start in Monaco due to his accident. 2003 was supposedly a new dawn for the team, but it hasn't eventuated; poor handling, engine failures and gearbox failures all hark back to previous seasons under different management. In raw speed the car should run well in France, but in race trim with Bridgestone tyres and BAR reliability there is little hope for more than a few points.


Last in the championship, with ten retirements and only one finish higher than eleventh for Minardi. Little can be said for the team other than to point towards the evidence of their spirit, seen when Villeneuve was racing the two Minardis in Germany. Probably the only sport for Minardi this weekend will be to see how close they can qualify to Toyota.


With the chassis shortcomings well known the smooth track should give a little relief for the team, although last year the team suffered there from a lack of mechanical grip. Two points finishes between the drivers is woeful, as is the reliability record of 9 retirements and an average of the remaining race results being around tenth place. Points would be a welcome reward for the team if the reliability issues can be resolved.

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Volume 9, Issue 27
July 2nd 2003

Atlas F1 Special

David Coulthard: Never too Late
by Timothy Collings

Jordan vs. Vodafone: The Transcripts
by Pablo Elizalde

Tifosi IPO
by Thomas O'Keefe

European GP Review

2003 European GP Review
by Pablo Elizalde

Racing Between the Lines
by Karl Ludvigsen

Out of Whack
by Richard Barnes

Ann Bradshaw: View from the Paddock
by Ann Bradshaw

French GP Preview

2003 French GP Preview
by Craig Scarborough

Stats Center

Qualifying Differentials
by Marcel Borsboom

by David Wright

Charts Center
by Michele Lostia


Season Strokes
by Bruce Thomson

On the Road
by Garry Martin

Elsewhere in Racing
by David Wright & Mark Alan Jones

The Weekly Grapevine
by Tom Keeble

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