Michael Schumacher took another giant step towards repeating as world champion by scoring an impressive 50th grand prix success at Magny-Cours.

The German did not have things all his own way in the French Grand Prix, but made the most of the few opportunities that came his way, and capitalised on driving the fastest car in the race, to pull out a 31-point advantage over nearest challenger David Coulthard.

As in recent races, the Scot was not the only driver looking to get the better of Schumacher, and it was the Ferrari man's younger brother Ralf who posed the biggest threat at the Circuit de Nevers. Starting from his maiden F1 pole position, the Williams driver made an impressive start to outdrag the Ferrari, which was later diagnosed as having some sort of clutch problem.

These hampered Schumacher Sr's getaway to such a degree that Coulthard, starting third, almost made up a place by the first corner. Through Grande Courbe, Estoril and Golf, Ferrari and McLaren ran all but side-by-side, before Schumacher made his small advantage stick heading into the Adelaide hairpin.

Any hope that Coulthard may have had that McLaren team-mate Mika Hakkinen would be in a position to aid his championship charge ended before the starting lights even came on, as the Finn's car coughed and died as he tried to move away on the final formation lap. Frantic attempts to kick-start the Mercedes engine proved futile and, despite the mechanics beginning to alter the settings on the spare lest there be a restart, Hakkinen's race - and, dare it be said, season - were over all too soon.

''I simply cannot believe this bad luck,'' Hakkinen sighed, ''I had the engine running fine, but then it just stopped. I sat there while the mechanics worked on it, but it was no good.''

With the Finn missing from his fourth grid slot, Juan Montoya took full advantage of his prodigious BMW power to leap ahead of Jarno Trulli off the line, slotting in behind Coulthard as the field filtered through the hairpin. Trulli was not even fifth, however, as Montoya's move caused him to lose momentum, and allowed Rubens Barrichello to make up another place part way round the opening lap, having already disposed of the other Jordan of Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Running through the Imola chicane, still on the opening lap, Ralf was confronted by a group of marshals making their way back to their post having push-started the stalled Pedro de la Rosa, but it proved to be no bother for the recently-turned 26-year old, who gradually eked out a gap over his pursuers in the first few tours.

Only a couple of lunges by brother Michael at Adelaide looked set to threaten the younger German, but a pair of fastest laps on the second and third time of crossing the timing beam moved the Williams out of reach by the time Jacques Villeneuve retired on lap six. The Canadian had made a promising start, inching ahead of Nick Heidfeld's Sauber off the line but, as the blue car came back at the BAR, the latter's electrics cut and Villeneuve coasted into the gravel trap at turn two.

Approaching quarter-distance, and Ralf had pulled away to the tune of 1.5secs, while Coulthard kept his brother honest in second. Behind them, Montoya's performance gave the clearest indication that he was running on harder tyres than his team-mate, and possibly considering a one-stop strategy, as he slowly found himself being reeled in by the flying Barrichello.

The Brazilian could have started on a lighter fuel load then most, designed to bring him up from his fourth row starting slot, but pitted just a couple of laps before his team leader. Sandwiched between them in the refuelling timetable was the leader, and this is where the race turned around for, while Michael would subsequently be turned around in 7.7secs, the Williams crew struggled with the right rear on Ralf's car, costing him more than a couple of seconds to the Ferrari.

Emerging behind the new leading pair of Coulthard and Montoya, Michael wasted little time in pulling out a gap over his younger brother and, when DC pitted on lap 26, was running a comfortable second. The gap to leader Montoya was eight seconds and decreasing when the Colombian made his stop, and it was clear that, if Ralf had been in control over a single lap, Michael now had the faster car.

Montoya's stop, although quicker than Ralf's dropped him to fifth, behind the two Schumachers, Coulthard and Barrichello, re-establishing the status quo that had existed since the start, but about to be handed an unexpected bonus for his strategy.

Six laps after he had made his call for tyres, Coulthard was assessed a stop-go penalty for speeding in pit-lane. The Scot remained confused at the end of the race whether this was for an infringement entering or exiting the pits, but it made little difference as he dropped behind all his main rivals while stationary outside his garage.

Montoya, promoted to fourth by the penalty, wasted no time in closing on those ahead of him, while Barrichello, who also benefited from Coulthard's misfortune, was also on the move. The Brazilian homed in on Ralf's Williams with such speed that it became apparent that his short first stop had switched him from two stops to three, but also emphasised that the Williams man was struggling with an ill-handling set of Michelins.

Ferrari decided, however, that, instead of having its second driver sit behind the Williams and lose valuable time, it would call Barrichello in earlier than expected, in the hope that he could make up ground in clear air and, possibly, secure a one-two finish for the Scuderia.

This left the two Schumachers separated by a massive 14secs and, as Ralf continued to struggle, saw Montoya close right up behind his team-mate. Perhaps intending to surreptitiously move the Colombian ahead of Ralf, Williams called the German in for his final stop, competing the job in a more satisfactory 8.2secs and returning the #5 car to the fray well placed for another podium.

It was never going to be good enough to claw back the lead, however, and, when Michael Schumacher pitted for the second time, with a 2-secs lead over Montoya, the Ferrari crew had enough in hand to return him to the track in second spot between the two Williams cars.

Sadly, Montoya's second stop led to little but retirement, the Colombian resuming in fourth place before pulling off several laps later with a reported engine failure.

''It is a bit of engine problem, and I am a bit disappointed, but that is racing,'' Montoya sighed with understatement, ''I am pleased with the way the race went, especially after choosing the hard tyres for qualifying, and I really thought we had a shot at the podium.''

With two Schumachers out in front, the race headed towards another family one-two, just as it had in the previous two encounters in Canada and Germany. Coulthard, in third, knew that there was little he could do to affect the result, especially as he had another stop to make, and Barrichello likewise was in position to take the win - even if his strategy had left him out in front.

As it transpired, the two lower placed runners engaged in a scrap of their own, having pitted for the final time within three laps of each other, and ran nose-to-tail right to the flag. Barrichello's third call was enough to keep him ahead of Coulthard, who would have been challenging the leader had it not been for his penalty, and the Brazilian's pace on the straights was just enough to maintain the Ferrari's advantage.

Coulthard was not about to settle for fourth, however, and, remembering last year's frantic dice with Maranello's team leader, took several looks up the inside of the Ferrari at Adelaide. His best chance came when the pair chanced upon a backmarker and, as Barrichello ran wide, the Scot slipped underneath him at the apex. It was not enough, as Barrichello's better drive and line off the corner gave him a valuable couple of yards advantage, something he maintained right to the end.

At the front, Michael had been given the signal to reduce the strain on his car, flattering his brother with a reduced ten-second margin as they crossed the line. It was an emphatic way to move to within one win of Alain Prost's all-time record.

With the action and intrigue at the front, it was easy to forget that there were another 16 cars in the race - or 15 following Hakkinen's untimely demise.

The battle for fifth was settled in quiet fashion in favour of Trulli, who had run unobtrusively on his own for much of the 72-lap distance. With Jordan team-mate Frentzen suffering an erratic afternoon, which included a spin at Lycee and a near penalty for short-cutting the previous chicane while resisting Eddie Irvine, the Italian ran untroubled to the flag, collecting two much-needed points for Eddie Jordan's outfit.

Sixth could have been Frentzen's, had he not been out of sorts, and it could also have been Irvine's had the Jaguar's engine not quit just 18 laps from home. The Irishman had been flying, one of the few to make passing moves, including sticking the green car up the inside of Olivier Panis at the final corner to claim eighth.

In the end, however, it went to Heidfeld, again the model of consistency and combative when needed. The German out-performed young team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, who required an early pit-stop to sort a problem on his C20, and ran just outside the points thereafter. The Finn eventually finished seventh following Irvine and Frentzen's problems.

Frentzen and Panis completed the top ten, with Luciano Burti heading home Giancarlo Fisichella's Benetton for eleventh. The Italian, like team-mate Jenson Button, found that the latest improvements on the B201-Renault were not enough to move them through the midfield, but at least he made it to the chequered flag. Button, running some twenty seconds down on the lead Benetton, went off with four laps remaining.

Race Results:

1. Michael Schumacher Germany Ferrari-Ferrari 72 laps 1hr 33mins 35.636secs 196.093kph
2. Ralf Schumacher Germany Williams-BMW +10.399secs
3. Rubens Barrichello Brazil Ferrari-Ferrari +16.381secs
4. David Coulthard Britain McLaren-Mercedes +17.106secs
5. Jarno Trulli Italy Jordan-Honda +1min 08.285secs
6. Nick Heidfeld Germany Sauber-Petronas +1 lap

7. Kimi Raikkonen Finland Sauber-Petronas +1 lap
8. Heinz-Harald Frentzen Germany Jordan-Honda +1 lap
9. Olivier Panis France BAR-Honda +1 lap
10. Luciano Burti Brazil Prost-Acer +1 lap
11. Giancarlo Fisichella Italy Benetton-Renault +1 lap
12. Jean Alesi France Prost-Acer +2 laps
13. Jos Verstappen Holland Arrows-Asiatech +2 laps
14. Pedro de la Rosa Spain Jaguar-Cosworth +2 laps
15. Tarso Marques Brazil Minardi-European +3 laps
16. Jenson Button Britain Benetton-Renault +4 laps (not running)
17. Fernando Alonso Spain Minardi-European +7 laps

Rtd Eddie Irvine Britain Jaguar-Cosworth 54 laps completed
Rtd Juan Montoya Colombia Williams-BMW 52 laps completed
Rtd Enrique Bernoldi Brazil Arrows-Asiatech 17 laps completed
Rtd Jacques Villeneuve Canada BAR-Honda 5 laps completed
Rtd Mika Hakkinen Finland McLaren-Mercedes 0 laps completed

Fastest lap: David Coulthard McLaren-Mercedes 1min 16.088secs