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Pantano back in fight, but Wirdheim pulls away.


Giorgio Pantano became the only FIA F3000 driver to win two races so far this season but, while the Italian moved himself back into position as chief challenger to Bjorn Wirdheim with a lights to flag performance at Magny-Cours this afternoon, the Swede's consistency helped to extend his points lead once again.

Pantano needed a strong result after two non-scoring races at Monaco and the Nurburgring and, having taken pole position on Friday, headed home points leader Wirdheim by just over four seconds on the Nevers track. His second ten-point haul of the season sees him elevated to second in the points table, although Wirdheim used another eight points - his fourth second place in six races - to extend his overall lead to 16 as last weekend's winner - and erstwhile second place man - Enrico Toccacelo finished an uncompetitive 13th in France.

“I made a nice start and was able to keep Bjorn behind in the early laps, which was crucial,” said Pantano having controlled the 35-lap race from start to finish, ''I was really pushing to build a cushion and I think my tyres were in better shape in the later stages. But, overall, I needed this win badly, and it gives me and the team big confidence to catch Bjorn.”

Despite trying to live with Pantano early on, Wirdheim steadily dropped back in the second half of the race, and registered his fourth runners-up position of the year. Maintaining the impressive consistency that was only broken by his altercation with Ricardo Sperafico in Germany last weekend, the Arden driver has the advantage going in to the final four races of the year. While he has been racking up podium places - he has one win to add to his four seconds - his major rivals have been taking it in turns to retire and so lose touch with the points lead.

Ricardo Sperafico, who entered the Nurburgring round looking likely to pose the biggest threat to Wirdheim before they clashed, finished a lonely third at Magny-Cours, while both Toccacelo and Monaco winner Nicolas Kiesa, who had moved into the top three overall after the trip to Germany, both failed to score in France and slipped back in the title race.

Among the other drivers who have compiled a regular points haul so far in 2003 is series rookie Vitantonio Liuzzi, and the former world kart champion continued his front-running form in France with a fighting fourth place, ahead of Astromega pairing Tony Schmidt and Jeffrey van Hooydonk.

It was Schmidt's most competitive performance since he began his F3000 career in 2002 and surpasses his previous best finish of sixth at Imola earlier in the year. van Hooydonk resisted huge pressure from Liuzzi's Red Bull team-mate Patrick Friesacher early on, before the pair collided with just three laps remaining and sent the Austrian spinning down to eleventh place.

The final two points scoring places went to another regular point scorer, Yannick Schroeder, and Raffaele Giammaria in the second of the Durango car. Schroeder's ISR/Charouz team-mate Jaroslav Janis was left immensely frustrated after he stalled on his third grid slot, before retiring on lap five.

The only other non-classified cars in France were the two Den Bla Avis entries of Phil Giebler and Nicolas Kiesa. Giebler was unable to start the race after aggravating the shoulder injury he sustained at Monaco last month, while Kiesa, who was hoping to re-ignite his title push, pulled in to the pits to retire after an altercation with Zsolt Baumgartner's Coloni Lola.

“We were quite optimistic of some points, but unfortunately Nicolas tangled with Baumgartner and spun,” said DBA team manager Paul Jackson, “We hope the team will be back to full strength at Silverstone, and we hope for better fortune there.”

Both BCN Competition cars, run by former F1 designer Enrique Scalabroni finished, with American Will Langhorne coming home in 14th and team-mate Valerio Scassellati one place further back.


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