Ralf Schumacher marked himself out as a genuine world championship challenger with a second grand prix victory in as many weeks, leading home Williams-BMW team-mate Juan Montoya to a second successive 1-2 result in the French Grand Prix.

The result, following just seven days after the German led home his team-mate at the Nurburgring, reduced both the gap between himself and his points-leading brother Michael, and that between Williams and Ferrari in the constructors' championship. as the world champion finished only a distant third.

Having secured the front row in Saturday's qualifying session, the Williams duo made no mistake at the start, with Schumacher romping away from Montoya over the course of the opening few laps. Almost two seconds up at the end of the second tour, the German extended his advantage to almost four seconds by lap nine, whereupon the gap plateau'd out. Montoya, for his part, had made a slightly sluggish getaway, but tucked straight in behind his team-mate to protect their 1-2 from Michael Schumacher.

He need not have worried, however, as the elder German had his hands - and mirrors - full of blue and silver, as a muffed second gear change dropped the Ferrari back into the clutches of the Renaults and McLarens that started immediately behind him. The error benefited title rival Kimi Raikkonen most, allowing the Finn to jump from fourth to third, while Schumacher eventually saw off the concerted pressure of David Coulthard by holding the right line around Estoril. Behind them, Jarno Trulli gave team-mate Fernando Alonso a rude brush, sending the Spaniard onto the verges of the gravel, before both cars settled into sixth and seventh.

Despite the opening corner's reputation for causing the odd skirmish or two, there was no contact this time around, with only Giancarlo Fisichella's slide up the inside of Jordan team-mate Ralph Firman at Adelaide looking likely to rate as an incident on the opening lap. Of all people, however, Rubens Barrichello salvaged the count by spinning backwards across the start-finish line, having grabbed a handful of kerb exiting the revised section of track, and dropping himself to the very tail of the field.

The order remained pretty static throughout the opening quarter of the race, but it quickly became apparent that most cars were on three-stop strategies as they began to filter into the pits. Coulthard was among the earliest pit callers, but the move appeared to come at just the right point as the Scot was becoming bottled up behind the world champion's Ferrari. DC was turned around in seven seconds flat, which was good enough to vault him in behind tem-mate Raikkonen as the cycle played out.

Montoya and Michael Schumacher stopped together three laps later, but the race leader went a full tour further before receiving a 6.4secs service to confirm his advantage at the head of the field.

Where Coulthard was able to get ahead of Schumacher Sr, however, the Renaults were unable to take any such advantage, despite being in close contact with the Ferrari in the run-up to the stops. The 'home' team also opted only to change rear tyres during the stop, but immediately regretted the decision as their performance dropped away during the second stint.

Barrichello had not stopped by the start of lap twenty, marking himself out as an oddity among the field by going for a two-stop strategy, but had climbed as far up the field as eighth by the time he had to call in for more fuel. It had not been an easy passage for the Brazilian, however, with Jos Verstappen and both BARs making life difficult for him as he attempted to make up for his first lap error, and would have to do some of it again as his top dropped him back five places in a still full field.

Next time around, however, Barrichello would only have to deal with one BAR, as Jenson Button pulled out from the slipstream created by team-mate Jacques Villeneuve and pulled off onto the grass. The Briton's desperate sawing at the wheel immediately before his exit confirmed the team's suspicion that hardly any fuel had gone into the Honda engine despite Button suffering a long stop.

The BAR's demise remained the only retirement until well in to the second half of the race, with the rest of the field cycling through another round of pit-stops before anyone else was forced to call it a day. Again, the order remained largely static during this time, with only Alonso's long second stint altering the field and allowing the Spaniard to run third behind both Williams until he pitted.

The front two were, by now, well out in front, with Montoya banging in the fastest lap of the race on his 36th tour to extend the gap back to Raikkonen to 18secs. Coulthard continued to hold fourth spot ahead of Schumacher's Ferrari, with the Renaults in line astern restricting Mark Webber to the final point-scoring position. Barrichello was back to ninth as the pit-stops petered out, heading Toyota twins Panis and da Matta.

That all changed in a dramatic couple of laps for the French team as, with Trulli reporting what he thought was a throttle problem, Alonso exited stage left with his engine doing a passable impression of Raikkonen's at the Nurburgring. Trulli followed suit a couple of slow tours later, flames licking from one of the exhausts, acting as the meat in a sandwich surrounded by two smoky exits as Giancarlo Fisichella's Ford V10 also gave up the ghost.

Remarkably, however, that would be it in terms of retirements, although Verstappen appeared to be on the verge of joining them in the closing stages. The race, though, would not be without incident between the final round of pit-stops and the chequered flag, with Schumacher Sr and the McLarens in the thick of it.

Although the two Williams-BMWs continued to motor away, the battle for third heated up and reached boiling point at the very moment the field started to pour in for its third and final round of stops.

Raikkonen was the first to stop, turning around in eight seconds dead, but failing to make any real progress thereafter as his lap times yo-yo'd between quick and slow.

Team-mate Coulthard saw the chance to move up to his first podium since winning the opening race in Australia four months ago, but was scuppered by a recurring F1 problem as his fuel rig was swapped for the team's spare. The Scot's grief was not over there, however, for the spare nozzle refused to disengage cleanly and, DC, having got a premature nod to go, succeeded in bowling over both his refuellers, fortunately without injury, before he was finally released.

The delays were enough to drop the Scot behind Schumacher's persistent Ferrari, and the world champion was also to gain another place as his in and out laps then elevated him ahead of Raikkonen's troubled machine. From hoping to cut the championship deficit, the Finn was now looking at an increase of a point.

Webber, running a largely anonymous race in sixth spot was not close enough to take advantage of Coulthard's setback, but was equally untroubled by the recovering Barrichello, who was allowed back into the points by the simultaneous demise of the two Renaults. Panis, too, had gained entrance to the top eight, and would hold on for a point to commemorate his tenth year in the top flight.

Out front, the battle briefly looked to be on, as Montoya closed in on Schumacher approaching the final round of stops. When the German emerged from the pits for the last time on lap 51, just metres separated the two white-and-blue machines, but order was soon restored as the long-time leader gradually eked out another gap. If Montoya received the word to back off, he almost took it to extremes, allowing the world champion to close within a handful of seconds, but Ralf was not slowing for anyone, even after running wide at Chateau d'Eau with four laps to go.

He eventually won by 14secs over his team-mate, his sixth career win moving him to within eleven points of the series lead, and just three of the troubled Raikkonen. Williams-BMW is even closer to its quarry, with a mere three points separating it from a share of the constructors' championship lead.

Formula One is alive and well - and heading for Silverstone.

Race result:

1. Ralf Schumacher Germany Williams-BMW 70 laps 1hr 30min 49.213secs
2. Juan Montoya Colombia Williams-BMW +13.813secs
3. Michael Schumacher Germany Ferrari-Ferrari +19.568secs
4. Kimi Raikkonen Finland McLaren-Mercedes +38.047secs
5. David Coulthard Britain McLaren-Mercedes +40.289secs
6. Mark Webber Australia Jaguar-Cosworth +1min 06.380secs
7. Rubens Barrichello Brazil Ferrari-Ferrari +1 lap
8. Olivier Panis France Toyota-Toyota +1 lap

9. Jacques Villeneuve Canada BAR-Honda +1 lap
10. Antonio Pizzonia Brazil Jaguar-Cosworth +1 lap
11. Cristiano da Matta Brazil Toyota-Toyota +1 lap
12. Heinz-Harald Frentzen Germany Sauber-Petronas +2 lap
13. Nick Heidfeld Germany Sauber-Petronas +2 lap
14. Justin Wilson Britain Minardi-Cosworth +3 laps
15. Ralph Firman Britain Jordan-Ford +3 laps
16. Jos Verstappen Holland Minardi-Cosworth +4 laps

Rtd Jarno Trulli Italy Renault-Renault 45 laps completed
Rtd Fernando Alonso Spain Renault-Renault 43 laps completed
Rtd Giancarlo Fisichella Italy Jordan-Ford 42 laps completed
Rtd Jenson Button Britain BAR-Honda 21 laps completed

Fastest lap:

Juan Montoya Williams-BMW 1min 15.512secs lap 36


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