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Magny-Cours 2004: Liuzzi gets back 'on Cours'

3 July 2004

Vitantonio Liuzzi returned to the head of the FIA F3000 Championship standings with another controlled victory at Magny-Cours, while main rival Enrico Toccacelo suffered the sort of result that had seen him take control - against the run of play - at the Nurburgring a month ago.

The four-week break between events gave both Liuzzi and his Arden team time to plot their revenge on the system and, Toccacelo's misfortune aside, the combination could not have done a better job of re-establishing the championship credentials built on the back of three wins in the opening three races.

Starting from the pole in France, Liuzzi made a brief break at the start, held his nerve when the safety car appeared to clear up Mathias Lauda's second lap accident, and then drove away from the field to secure win number four. Easing off towards the end as his red-and-white Lola became a little tail-happy, the Italian always looked to have a little more in hand had he needed it but, with battles for position on-going in his wake, he remained untroubled.

While the Arden driver's route to victory was relatively straightforward, the same could not be said for title rival Toccacelo. Already at a disadvantage because of a grid position dictated by a spin and traffic in qualifying, the Italian found himself mired in a competitive chasing pack, and was unable to make up more than a couple of positions - to sixth - before the mandatory pit-stop. Thereafter, things got steadily worse for the BCN man, a drop down the order culminating in a high-speed trip through the gravel at Estoril while pressing on in search of a minor points finish. Chastened, Toccacelo came home 13th, out of the points - and out of the series lead.

“This was a weekend to forget," the Italian sighed, "I had a problem with my pit-stop and lost a lot of time - and, later, I spun off. I want to forget this race immediately and concentrate on next.”

Toccacelo's absence from the top two left the door open for others to get a taste of champagne, and the opportunity proved particularly enticing for three men.

Yannick Schroeder had assumed Tocca's regular front row starting spot, but was unable to make the most of it, eventually dropping behind a rejuvenated Patrick Friesacher - now of Coloni - and Tomas Enge, who flew out of the blocks and, with a well-timed pass on his Austrian rival, claimed second spot ahead of the pit-stops. The Czech driver had shown his nose to Friesacher at Adelaide hairpin enough times to dupe the erstwhile Super Nova man into thinking that that was where the passing attempt would come, but then pulled off an audacious move into the remodelled final complex to take the place.

With Enge ensconced in second through the pit-stop window, the battle for the final podium distilled into a head-to-head between Friesacher and Schroeder - with the Frenchman the more racy of the two. Although enjoying better performance than he had during a four-race sojourn with Super Nova, Friesacher still had his work cut out as the rear of his Coloni Lola got loose in the closing stages, but managed to hold on despite a couple of good looking moves from his rival. Schroeder's chance of a second successive podium appeared to have gone with an avoidance of the red car ahead of him while locked up at Adelaide, but then closed right back on to Friesacher's tail by the flag. Two-tenths separated the cars in the closest battle on track.

With Toccacelo out of the points, and Jose-Maria Lopez throwing away a possible top six spot, Robert Doornbos was able to take a comfortable fifth place and add to his and Arden's points haul. Christian Horner's squad is now well ahead in the teams' standings, while Doornbos continues to mark himself out as top of the rookie crop.

The Dutchman finished 13secs ahead of another promising newcomer, BCN's Esteban Guerrieri, but the Argentine was unable to make inroads into the gap as he found the second Ma-Con car of Tony Schmidt right on his tail in the closing laps. The German tried a couple of moves to claim sixth, but these were rebuffed, and he had to settle for a couple of points, six-tenths short of his best result of the year.

"In the middle of race, I began to have problems because the car had oversteer and the handling not good," Guerrieri revealed afterwards, "Also, I had problems with brakes, and the final few laps were tough."

The final scoring spot boiled down to a battle between two 'pointless' drivers. Ferdinando Monfardini has had four opportunities to open his account this season, but Magny-Cours looked likely to provide the best chance as he qualified away from his usual back row slot. The Italian found himself battling with debutant Ernesto Viso for much of the race, however, the F3 graduate putting in a strong performance on his first outing at Schroeder's team-mate at Durango.

As close exiting the pits as they had been on track, the pair continued to scrap until the closing stages, where Monfardini was caught out by the deteriorating grip from his tyres and allowed Viso to sneak into eighth place. Any hope of a recovery was then scuppered when the green-and-white AEZ car bounced through the gravel, ripping off its front wing in the process.

The error dropped Monfardini to an unrepresentative tenth, and allowed Alan van der Merwe to move up a place. The South African was lucky to still be in the race, however, following a second lap clash that sent Lauda into a slow-speed barrel-roll at Adelaide. As usual in that sort of incident, views varied between the two drivers, but the result was that Lauda was out on the spot - despite trying to restart his battered CMS entry - while van der Merwe continued, apparently unscathed.

"van de Merwe hit me from the inside and I flew off and turned in the air," was the uninjured Lauda's take, "It's a real pity - I seem to be very unlucky in F3000!"

The Austrian was joined in retirement by team-mate Lopez, who failed to recover from his spin at Estoril, and Coloni's Can Artam, who beached himself at the same spot a couple of laps later, but only after an error-filled afternoon had already seen the tip of his car's nose broken off. The consistent Raffaele Giammaria saw his run of points finishes halted in the closing stages, after pulling in with a mechanical problem affecting the rear of his AEZ car.

At the back of the field, Jeffrey van Hooydonk probably wished that retirement would claim him, as he struggled to pass teenage Astromega rookie Nico Verdonck. Having been ousted from Coloni by Friesacher's arrival, the choice between Astromega and Super Nova appeared straightforward, but left the Belgian to explain away the worst performance of his year.

“We used this race to try a set-up, something completely new, which I personally think works better," van Hooydonk revealed after coming home 14th, "I wanted to finish the race and not be involved in any incidents. I am happy that we finished, although I have a problem with my back, because the seat we made didn't support it enough. From the middle of the race, I struggled a lot and wasn't able to push the car.”

The reversal of fortune at the front of the field sees Liuzzi reclaim the six-point advantage he enjoyed over Toccacelo ahead of round four, with Doornbos moving into third spot. The field reconvenes in less than a week, for round six at Silverstone.