Heinz-Harald Frentzen added variety to the grand prix winners list this afternoon by triumphing for Jordan at Magny-Cours.


The German - with a lot of help from his team - out-foxed the opposition, including the likes of title rivals Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher, to take his second career win at the French Grand Prix, with Hakkinen and Rubens Barrichello filling the other podium positions.


Contrary to many drivers' fears, the race began in dry conditions, albeit under a very overcast sky. Surprise polesitter Barrichello made a good getaway to lead the field for the opening laps, but soon came under heavy pressure from McLaren's David Coulthard, the Scot finally finding a way through at the Adelaide hairpin on lap six.


Coulthard was immediately faster than both Barrichello and the rest of the field, pulling clear at the rate of 1.5secs a lap. His progress was not to last, however, and, just as it seemed as though his luck was changing, Coulthard pulled off before Chateau D'Eau with an unspecified mechanical failure. This promoted Barrichello back to the front, and the young - if experienced - Brazilian was determined not to concede as easily given a second chance.


By now, those unfortunate to have found themselves lower down the grid than expected on Saturday were beginning to make inroads into the top six. Both Hakkinen and Schumacher had been caught out by the unabating rain during qualifying, but were soon contesting fourth and fifth places. The Finn had been meteoric in the opening laps, climbing from his 14th starting position to tenth by the end of the first tour, before picking off rivals at regular intervals to take up a top six position.


This ultimately proved to his advantage when, on lap 22, the rain returned with a vengeance. The downpour quickly had drivers scurrying for the pits - some, like Irvine, catching their teams out with the decision to stop. The lead positions changed little despite the order closing up in the worsening conditions, but the rain would soon begin to claim its victims.


Among the first to go was Jean Alesi. The French hero had manfully defended first second place, and then third - at one point running neck-and-neck with Hakkinen into Adelaide, and locking up in tandem with the Finn as both sought the advantage. The sight of the Sauber spinning backwards to a halt in the gravel brought an audible sigh from the soaked home crowd, and precipitated the use of the Safety Car.


The toll of retirements did not abate with the appearance of the Mercedes as those playing catch-up after late pit-stops suffered from their actions. Jacques Villeneuve and Alex Wurz departed in tandem as conditions worsened, and Marc Gene quickly joined a list that already included pre-rain retirees Johnny Herbert and Pedro Diniz.


Damon Hill's miserable season continued as the Jordan was clipped by an Arrows in the pit-lane after making its stop and had to crawl the entire track length with a puncture. The Englishman's unhappy afternoon - he was running two laps off the pace as a result - was finally ended with engine problems, leaving a frustrated Hill to claim that this may have been his last appearance in F1.


With the tension rising in both cockpit and pit-lane, the Safety Car retired after ten laps at the head of the field, allowing Barrichello to resume his position as race leader. The Stewart was quickly under pressure from Hakkinen, however, as the Finn got to grips with the conditions. Hakkinen spent three laps behind the leader before making his move, but it almost ended in tears as the McLaren snagged the painted kerb at Adelaide and rotated to a halt. In a flash, the rest of the top six - Frentzen, Schumacher, Panis and Trulli - were through, and Hakkine was forced to begin again in seventh.


With the race passing half-distance, Schumacher assumed the mantle of man most likely to win. The German had been spotted making set-up adjustments on the grid, and his choice of greater downforce looked perfect for the conditions. Passing Frentzen at the hairpin just one lap after Hakkinen's incident, the German was quickly breathing down Barrichello's neck, but the Brazilian proved a more feisty opponent.


The wet conditions had made the racing line as treacherous now as off-line had been at the start, and Barrichello repeatedly used the unconventional route to rebuff his assailant. Once through at Adelaide on lap 44, however, Schumacher continued to prove his wisdom by romping away at almost two seconds a lap.


Both the race and championship lead seemed to be in his pocket at this stage, as Hakkinen's fightback had stalled behind a squabbling quartet comprising Frentzen, Panis, Ralf Schumacher and Irvine. Only an early second stop for the Irishman allowed the McLaren back into the points, but was just enough for Hakkinen to begin clawing his way back to the front.


At the same moment as both Schumacher Jr and Hakkinen found a way by the usually stubborn Panis, the leader suddenly lost eight precious seconds of his advantage. A gear selection problem was suspected as the Ferrari struggled to pull away from the hairpin and, sure enough, a replacement steering wheel was readied for Schumacher's final stop.


This dropped the German back to the rear of the point-scoring train, and allowed the gutsy Barrichello into the lead for a third time. With Frentzen and the recovering Hakkinen locked in battle for second, the Stewart was allowed to build a slight advantage. Indeed, the battle for second may have ended on lap 57, as Frentzen replied to Hakkinen's inside move at Adelaide by matching the McLaren inch for inch. Eventually, both ran out of room and overshot the hairpin, fortunately without penalty, although Hakkinen was finally able to snatch second.


With his main opposition despatched, the Finn wasted no time in catching Barrichello and, at the second attempt, past the Stewart between Estoril and Adelaide to take the lead. Frentzen now appeared to be struggling, fighting for gears as he arrived at the same spot, before finally being able to resume his pursuit.


With almost fifty laps in the books since the first round of stops however, the big question remained whether the leaders could make it to the finish without pitting a second time, and letting Schumacher through.


The question was answered when both Hakkinen and Barrichello appeared on pit-road. Although both managed to rejoin without seeing the Ferrari go past, they were now behind the yellow Jordan. Frentzen, it appeared, wasn't stopping, the Jordan team having taken the opportunity to fill the car to the brim during the yellow flag period, and praying that the tyres would last.


Last they did, as the German reeled off the final laps of an extraordinarily dramatic race. A last lap twitch under acceleration would have had a few hearts in mouths but, in reality, there was little Frentzen's rivals could do. Hakkinen and Barrichello were too far back to capitalise, and Schumacher was still experiencing gearshift trouble. The German was forced to watch, helpless, as his younger brother sailed past in the Williams, and suffered an anxious moment as it appeared Irvine was going to defy team orders and follow suit.


Frentzen's win - the second for Jordan in as many seasons - has elevated him to the fringes of the championship battle, as the German lies just nine points behind second-placed Schumacher. With last year's victory at Spa coming in similar conditions, Eddie Jordan's team may just be assuming Schumacher's mantle as rainmaster, and will be praying for more of the same at Silverstone in a fortnight.

 

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