David Coulthard returned the world championship to its previous 12-point status quo after a thrilling drive to victory at Magny-Cours.

The start, however, did not hold much promise for the Scot for, as Michael Schumacher made his now customary swerve across the road, the McLaren also found itself passed by Rubens Barrichello's Ferrari, and just held on to fourth spot from team-mate Mika Hakkinen.

Barrichello's role was clear from the off, holding Coulthard and Hakkinen at bay as Schumacher made good his escape at the front. Three laps in and the German had almost as many seconds to his advantage, as his Brazilian team-mate thwarted Coulthard's every attempt to get past.

The battle raged until lap 17, when Coulthard found enough momentum to pull alongside the Ferrari on the outside heading into the Adelaide chicane, before powering out on the tighter line at the exit. Barrichello was powerless to resist, and later admitted that his car was already in handling difficulties as its tyres went off on the smooth surface. Hakkinen, at this point, was not close enough to challenge the Brazilian, but grew inexorably closer as the first round of pit-stops approached.

Despite the possibilities and rumour surrounding race strategy, almost everyone of note opted for two stops to combat the stifling heat and tyre degradation that came from running the extra-soft Bridgestone compound. Schumacher, in particular, appeared to be in good shape, having maintained his advantage over Coulthard, despite the Scot closing in marginally once past Barrichello, and kept three sets of brand new tyres for the race.

It was ironic, therefore, that his rubber was the first thing to let the German down. Having retained his lead through the first round of stops, Schumacher was powerless to prevent Coulthard from closing in rapidly, and within seven laps the two cars were nose-to-tail. The Ferrari was clearly unable to transfer its prodigious power to the tarmac through this particular set of tyres, but Schumacher tried everything he knew to keep his rival at bay.

Time after time, Coulthard would get better traction on the run from Estoril to Adelaide, only to find the inside line blocked by the scarlet car. Then, on lap 33, the Scot appeared to be through - only for Schumacher to resist his early turn in and earn himself one finger and sundry other gestures for his defence!

He knew he was fighting a losing battle, however, and six laps later Coulthard finally found room on the inside. Reprising Schumacher's own tactics of running a little beyond the apex, the Scot was content to exchange rubber and paint with the Ferrari before easing away into the distance.

Only a short delay behind backmarkers prevented the McLaren from making an immediate escape but, by the time the second round of stops loomed on the horizon, he was a comfortable couple of seconds clear.

Schumacher and Hakkinen - elevated to third by a slow first stop for Barrichello - pitted simultaneously, the German getting a way fractionally quicker to preserve his second place. Coulthard, meanwhile, made the most of his clear track, putting in a handful of fast laps to further increase his advantage before the McLaren team turned him around without fuss. His lead now increased by several seconds, the Scot was left just to pray that his engine would not let him down again.

Indeed, adding further irony to the proceedings, it would be the previously bullet-proof Ferrari powerplant that let go, stranding Schumacher by the side of the road. Hoping that a change of rubber would allow him not only to catch Coulthard, but also pull away from the closing Hakkinen, Schumacher would be disappointed when his third set of Bridgestones also failed to give him more than ten laps good service.

Hakkinen again made the most of a poor stop for Barrichello to close in on the number one Ferrari and, despite not appearing to have the wherewithal to make a pass, still found himself in second place as Schumacher's car twitched and ran wide at Adelaide. The incident looked very reminiscent of Barrichello's departure from the British Grand Prix and, sure enough, before the lap was out so was the German, his engine blowing clouds of smoke across the run back to pit-lane.

Now comfortably ensconced in first and second, Hakkinen saw no point in fighting his team-mate to the line, and concentrated on monitoring the gap back to the still third-placed Barrichello. He needn't have worried, for the Brazilian had been told to back it off lest his engine go the same way as his team-mates, and the front three held station to the flag.

Barrichello's task was made all the easier by a late race battle for fourth, now some thirty-odd seconds down the road. Jacques Villeneuve, having put in another solid qualifying performance in the BAR, made another of his lightning starts to run fifth on lap one, and held on to the place through two rounds of stops and under severe pressure from the two Jordans and Ralf Schumacher.

The battle in his wake in the early to mid stages actually helped the Canadian eke out a five second gap by the second round of stops - something not normally associated with a BAR in 2000 - and this was sufficient to combat a slow pit-call. Only in the dying stages did Villeneuve actually have to race hard, for Schumacher Jr, having shaken off the attentions of the Jordans and team-mate Jenson Button, was then right with the Canadian. Jacques had enough in the bag, however, and a canny drive equalled his - and the team's - best result of the year.

Schumacher, baulked by misplaced tail-enders in the last couple of tours was safe enough in fifth, with Jarno Trulli equally well placed to salvage sixth for a Jordan team strangely subdued despite the announcement of its Honda deal. The Silverstone outfit was still able to feature in two of the best battles of the day, however, with 1999 winner Heinz-Harald Frentzen having to resist stern late-race pressure from the flying Jenson Button. Sadly, neither driver received any reward for their entertainment.

Equally entertaining - and again without points - were the incidents further down the field, with both Jordans again involved as Trulli muscled his way past Frentzen at Lycee in a reprise of 'the Prost incident' at the start of the race. On that occasion, Nick Heidfeld's desperate attempt to pass Alex Wurz saw him collect and spin veteran team-mate Jean Alesi and, although both could continue, the incident rather summed up the 'home' team's day.

Alesi soldiered on through another spin and excursion - and being passed by Marc Gene's Minardi to take 14th place - while Heidfeld fared little batter in twelfth. Between them and the midfield lay Giancarlo Fisichella and the two Saubers, while Eddie Irvine suffered another nightmare with Jaguar to somehow take 13th from sixth on the grid. Team-mate Johnny Herbert was again a frustrated retiree, joining Ricardo Zonta, both Arrows, Mazzacane, Wurz and Schumacher on a small withdrawal list.

Few though the retirements may have been, Schumacher's inclusion among them has, once again, thrown the world championship open. A bizarre sequence of results has seen the German open out a 22-point gap after both the Nurburgring and Canada, only to have retirements allow Coulthard to reduce it back to twelve after Monaco and Magny-Cours. The Scot's win in France was McLaren's first there since Alain Prost triumphed in 1989 and, if the latest race was not a good one for le professeur, it certainly was for one of the sport's most diligent pupils.

Austria next time around may not bring back good memories for McLaren - with Coulthard tipping Hakkinen out of contention twelve months ago - but at least until then the team has something to celebrate.


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