Friday, June 29, 2007

The French GP Preview

Can McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton keep his world championship aspirations rolling with a third consecutive victory, in what may be the last French Grand Prix for at least a couple of years?Or will his team mate Fernando Alonso make good on his promise to start winning as the title campaign moves to the first of four tracks he claims as his favourite hunting grounds? Or will Ferrari get back on a par with McLaren as the series moves back to Europe?

There is no shortage of key questions as the championship approaches its mid-point and a spate of three races in four weeks.

Testing at Silverstone last week indicated that Ferrari and Toyota were fully on song, while McLaren described the test as ‘the most intensive’ of their season. Testing results are not always reflected at races, however, and it is likely that the fight in France will be between McLaren and Ferrari as usual, with BMW Sauber close at hand and Renault desperate to do well on their home turf.“The French round of the GP2 championship last year was not my best weekend,” Hamilton admits. “I had a coming together in the first race and therefore started race two in 19th. I did make my way up through the field to fifth to score some points, so it is possible to overtake here.

”Meanwhile, Alonso says: “I have always liked racing at this track, when you hear people talk about circuits that are technical, Magny-Cours is definitely one of them. It is important to have good speed in the slow corners as they tend to lead on to long straights. You have to have good mechanical set-up for the corners and the same with traction for the exits. My favourite sections of the track are the two high-speed chicanes at the back of the circuit. We go through them at speeds of up to 200 km/h, which is very fast for a chicane; very special to drive through and unique in Formula One.

”Over at Ferrari, Chairman Luca di Montezemolo has made subtle hints to Kimi Raikkonen that he expects him to be the man others fear, while Felipe Massa is his usual bubbly self. “I’m not sure what to expect at Magny-Cours, to be honest,” the Brazilian said, “but we will be pushing hard, if not for the win, then certainly to score good points again.”BMW Sauber and Renault are now fully engaged in battle for third place overall, and both will bring aerodynamic improvements to France. Renault believe they are making strong progress, and that they are now on a par with their immediate rival.Elsewhere, Honda signed off on some new mechanical and aero parts during their recent test in Jerez and hope for a ‘small improvement’ here. Toro Rosso will finally have the new seamless transmission already used by Red Bull Racing, and it showed well in last week’s test at Silverstone. “It is worth up to four-tenths of a second a lap, so we are very keen to see how it goes in qualifying,” Tonio Liuzzi says. And Spyker hope to have a significant aero revision ready for both cars.Magny-Cours has a very smooth surface and places a heavy premium on aerodynamic performance with its mix of very high-speed corners, fast chicanes and frequent sharp changes of direction. It also requires good brake performance and stability going into the chicane, and can be hard on tyres because the track temperature is often high. Bridgestone will be bringing its medium and soft compounds, and making the latter last each race stint will require a good chassis set-up. In general, the rear tyres take a beating accelerating out of the slower turns, while the fronts work hard during the directional changes.Overall, given the general similarity between Monaco and Magny-Cours - both are medium to high downforce tracks with some tight corners - it will be fascinating to see if McLaren have it all their own way this weekend, or whether Ferrari can fight back.

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