Michael Schumacher struck first at the French Grand Prix, leading the way after both halves of Friday free practice had been completed.

Title rival Mika Hakkinen had led the times after the first hour, but Schumacher bounced back from an unplanned excursion to topple the Finn and head Ferrari team-mate Eddie Irvine in the order. Hakkinen held onto third, ahead of David Coulthard and surprise of the session Alex Zanardi.

Interestingly, neither Ferrari took a serious part in the opening hour, preferring instead to watch how the other teams fared under the hot summer sun. Schumacher spent time adjusting his cockpit for comfort, and Eddie Irvine was conspicuous by his absence from both track and garage, but both emerged strongly after the mid-session break.

The Irishman jumped to second place on his first flying lap, but Schumacher took his time before venturing out - and immediately his F399 into the gravel trap at Estoril. Although he managed to extricate the car, the resulting pit-stop cost the German more time. It mattered little, however, as Schumacher rejoined the session and instantly went to the top of the times.

No-one else managed to dip below the 1min 18secs barrier, with Irvine coming closest on 1min 18.199. Hakkinen was over 2/10ths from Schumacher's time, and Coulthard a similar distance back from his team-mate.

Zanardi, so often seen struggling in 1999, initially sat in third place after the opening hour, and was only demoted by the appearance of the Ferraris. Indeed, the Italian proved quick enough to hold off Coulthard until the closing stages of the session, before the McLaren man upped his performance.

The recovering Heinz-Harald Frentzen proved that there was little wrong with his confidence after his Canadian shunt, clocking sixth best time, and heading Jean Alesi, Rubens Barrichello, Ralf Schumacher and Johnny Herbert to complete the top ten. Damon Hill was 12th, almost two seconds off Schumacher snr, as the press watched for any sign that his retirement may arrive early.

Alesi, Herbert, Ricardo Zonta and Jacques Villeneuve all spent time in the gravel, with the Frenchman suffering a nasty moment as his Sauber rolled.

Friday untimed practice (combined sessions) - French Grand Prix.

Michael Schumacher Germany Ferrari-Ferrari 1min 17.912secs

Eddie Irvine Britain Ferrari-Ferrari 1min 18.199secs

Mika Hakkinen Finland McLaren-Mercedes 1min 18.251secs

David Coulthard Britain McLaren-Mercedes 1min 18.468secs

Alex Zanardi Italy Williams-Supertec 1min 18.746secs

Heinz-Harald Frentzen Germany Jordan-Mugen 1min 18.779secs

Jean Alesi France Sauber-Petronas 1min 18.908secs

Rubens Barrichello Brazil Stewart-Ford 1min 18.950secs

Ralf Schumacher Germany Williams-Supertec 1min 19.069secs

Johnny Herbert Britain Stewart-Ford 1min 19.260secs

Alex Wurz Austria Benetton-Playlife 1min 19.491secs

Damon Hill Britain Jordan-Mugen 1min 19.591secs

Giancarlo Fisichella Italy Benetton-Playlife 1min 19.651secs

Jacques Villeneuve Canada BAR-Supertec 1min 20.002secs

Jarno Trulli Italy Prost-Peugeot 1min 20.121secs

Olivier Panis France Prost-Peugeot 1min 20.285secs

Pedro Diniz Brazil Sauber-Petronas 1min 20.528secs

Pedro de la Rosa Spain Arrows-Arrows 1min 20.655secs

Ricardo Zonta Brazil BAR-Supertec 1min 20.681secs

Tora Takagi Japan Arrows-Arrows 1min 21.418secs

Luca Badoer Italy Minardi-Ford 1min 21.506secs

Marc Gene Spain Minardi-Ford 1min 21.928secs



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