Michael Schumacher turned a fortuitous second start into the launching pad for a virtuoso performance in the French Grand Prix, going on to win by almost twenty seconds from Ferrari team-mate Eddie Irvine.


After the original start had been aborted with Jos Verstappen's Stewart stationary on the grid, Schumacher made the most of the second attempt by rocketing away from the rest of the field. Stretching his advantage by around a second a lap, the German was soon out of sight of his pursuers. Irvine again played the dutiful number two, a rapid start of his own putting him ahead of the two McLarens in second place. Here he was able to frustrate the silver cars as Schumacher made good his escape.


Pole-sitter Mika Hakkinen had held his advantage at the first start, only for the orange abort lights to come a second too late. Schumacher made the better getaway second time around, and the Finn was further demoted as Irvine swept around the outside going through Grande Courbe. Only when Schumacher was almost 15 seconds down the road did Hakkinen see his chance to pass Irvine, but a misjudgement going into the final corner saw the McLaren spin through the gravel and down to fourth place.


Hakkinen's McLaren team-mate was having problems of his own, running wide at the Adelaide hairpin after getting too close to his partner's rear wing. It would get worse for the Scot, as the refuelling nozzle refused to connect at his first stop, and a recurring problem at the second eventually saw him have to pit four times in total. Twice dropped out of the points, Coulthard refused to give up, and finally took sixth place and fastest lap for his efforts.


Schumacher went on to take a consummate victory, but behind things were never certain. Hakkinen's spin meant that he had to work to get as close to Irvine again, but going into the final laps the Finn was right on the Ferrari's tail once more. A desperate last corner lunge saw both cars sideways, but it was all to no avail for the McLaren driver, as Irvine held on to a well deserved second place. This gave Ferrari its first 1-2 finish since the Spanish GP of 1990, and the team were understandably elated.


The minor points were settled between Coulthard, Alex Wurz and Jacques Villeneuve. While Coulthard battled gamely to pip Sauber's Jean Alesi for sixth on the final lap, his rivals had relatively uneventful races. Villeneuve stayed out of trouble to take fourth and his best finish of the year, with Wurz benefiting from a three-stop strategy and Coulthard's misfortune in fifth.


Further back, the Sauber pairing of Alesi and Johnny Herbert finished just outside the scoring positions, and just ahead of Benetton's Giancarlo Fisichella. The Italian had made a flying start at the first attempt but was thwarted in his quest for the same second time around. A damaged nosecone further frustrated his progress. French national team Prost could only get one car to the finish, but Olivier Panis was restricted to 11th overall, splitting the two Stewarts of Rubens Barrichello and Verstappen.


Jordan's nightmare season continued, despite two solid qualifying performances. Damon Hill was the event's second retirement - following the improved Ricardo Rosset's early demise - and team-mate Ralf Schumacher was forced to soldier on at the back of the field after Wurz collided with him and broke a track rod. The German eventually finished three laps down.


This was Michael Schumacher's day, however. Having suffered weeks of press analysis of his driving and personality after Canada, the German proved in the best way possible that he is still the best driver out there. And he is now a real contender for the title. (The championship was always in my thought throughout this race,) he said afterwards, (I was crossing my fingers hoping that Eddie would finish second, because a six point gap in the title chase is nothing. It bodes well for the rest of the season.)

 

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