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French GP 2001 - Half century for Schumacher.

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.




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