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Two race weekends, two 1-2 finishes. Once the object of pit lane criticism in the opening races of the season, Williams has suddenly vaulted past both McLaren and Ferrari to establish itself as the team most in form.
Everyone expected Michelin's tyres to be very strong in its homeland, and especially in the high ambient and track temperatures that are so often a feature of the race. And the result bore out such expectations.
As Kimi Raikkonen struggled with traffic and, later, a shattered rear brake disc, and David Coulthard had a bodged refuelling stop that lost him time, McLaren’s reliability gremlins again prevented it scoring to its potential. Ferrari struggled for grip with its Bridgestones initially, and by the time the irrepressible Schumacher was able to charge the Williams duo had all but disappeared.
If proof were needed of the growing Williams menace, in the last five races McLaren, initially the 2003 series leader, has scored 34 points; Ferrari has scored 55; and Williams has scored 70. That has taken the Anglo-German team to 100 points, a mere three short of Ferrari. This points not just to admirable reliability on both cars, but underlines that the Schumacher-Montoya pairing is closer to the optimum at present than Schumacher-Barrichello or Coulthard-Raikkonen.
The Nurburgring was sufficient to put Ferrari and Bridgestone on red alert and led to a high-powered meeting here at Magny-Cours on Thursday night, and after the rout this weekend they plan intensive tests in Barcelona, Mugello and Fiorano in readiness for Silverstone.
"Whilst valuable points were gained today for Ferrari, this afternoon's race was very important and we will learn from it," said Bridgestone technical manager Hisao Suganuma. "I am sure the loss of this race will serve only to inspire us to produce better and faster tyres. We will strike back, there's no doubt about it."
The question is whether Bridgestone can do it quickly enough to unseat Michelin in time to prevent further successes at Silverstone and Hockenheim prior to the summer break. Michelin's Pierre Dupasquier is equally confident that he can keep his company ahead. "We have a very big test programme planned this week," he said, "and we'll be evaluating many new products."
If the constructors' championship is finely poised, the drivers' is no less exciting, with Schumacher extending his lead over Raikkonen by a point but Ralf Schumacher taking two points off his brother and five off Raikkonen. The latter pair are now separated by only three points with six races to go.
Outside the top three, Renault suffered characteristic engine problems on its home ground, but Jaguar again looked strong with Mark Webber running well to finish sixth again, and Toyota was gratified to see veteran Frenchman Olivier Panis score the final point.
At Silverstone recently Williams was again the fastest in testing, but individual team performances at the British Grand Prix will very much depend on who gets their homework done best in this week's critical tyre tests.
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