Formula One returns to Europe after a brief North American sojourn with the championship bearing a remarkable resemblance to the positions before Monaco.

Michael Schumacher's win in Canada has re-established his earlier 22-point advantage over nearer challenger David Coulthard, with reigning champion Mika Hakkinen another handful adrift. Some of those who should know better insist that the German has all but wrapped up the title but, despite his recent success in France, Schumacher is reluctant to agree.

With the exception of last season, however, the Ferrari pilot has generally made Magny-Cours his own, winning in 1997 and '98 against stronger opposition that he faces now, and only succumbing to a rare mechanical hitch in 1999. As the F1-2000 - and five wins in eight races - have already shown, Schumacher has the chance to win on almost any type of circuit in 2000, and it was be an unwise man who bets against him this weekend.

''Magny-Cours is a track with a little bit of everything, so the car has to be good in all areas if it is to be quick,'' the German says, ''Our car has worked well on all kinds of circuits this year, so I expect it to be very competitive in this race. We tested at the circuit last week, and I am very confident that we will go well this weekend. We've made another step forward in the championship, but I'm not forgetting what happened in Monaco, and that can always happen again. Things can change very quickly, and I'm not making any predictions yet.''

Obviously, not actually topping the times is not something that bothers Schumacher too much, for it was the McLaren duo of Coulthard and Hakkinen who led the way throughout the three-day session at Magny-Cours.

Of the two, Coulthard remains the man on form, despite his setback in Canada when he received an unfortunate stop-go penalty for infringing the start procedure. Having closed the gap to Schumacher from 22 to 12 points with victory in Monaco, a seventh place finish in Montreal - allied to Schumacher's success - presents the Scot with a restored deficit heading into France. Despite this, however, he remains confident of his chances this weekend.

''We tested at Magny-Cours, and went got a lot of work,'' he explains, ''I ended up fastest on both my days in the car, and things are looking promising for the race.''

Hakkinen, too, topped the times on day three but, as in Canada, was outpaced by his team-mate when the pair ran together. Fourth place in the last round enabled the Finn to close the championship gap slightly, but he still appears to be driving at a level well below his best. Unable to beat either Coulthard or the two Ferraris in qualifying in Canada, Hakkinen has been accused of relying on racecraft rather than outright speed in recent weeks, but knows that he will be able to use either this weekend.

''Magny-Cours is a circuit we know well,'' he acknowledged after testing, ''It has a mix of low-speed hairpins, medium-speed corners and fast chicanes, and there are some good overtaking opportunities - particularly into Adelaide - so we should be alright.''

Hakkinen's problems could be increased this weekend should Rubens Barrichello show the sort of form he displayed in Canada - and has also produced on a regular basis in France. The Brazilian could easily have won the Montreal race, but for team orders preserving Schumacher's ailing lead, and continues to hunger for his first grand prix victory.

He took an inspired pole position in the wet for last year's French GP, then led a large part of the race in similar conditions, and would not be sorry to see more rain on Sunday.

''Rain always makes the race more difficult,'' he admits, ''but it can also make it more exciting. It can change the outcome of the race completely, particularly in France, where the surface is very smooth and becomes very slippery as the water builds up.''

Tricky conditions in Canada not only allowed Barrichello to show his wet-weather skills, but also brought Benetton's Giancarlo Fisichella a second successive Y2K podium. The Italian made quiet progress through the field, and benefited from a well-timed pit-stop, in Montreal, but is hopeful of a repeat performance this weekend. He has shown that the B200, for all its shortcomings, can work equally well with or without downforce and, according to technical director Pat Symonds, this may be important on its return to Europe..

''Testing last week was, generally, very successful and we found a reasonable balance for both cars,'' he said, ''The smoothness of the Magny-Cours track enables us to run very low ride-heights in search of grip but, unlike Canada, this is a typically European medium to high downforce circuit.

''It is also one where the weather conditions can change rapidly, affecting the set-up the cars, the lap times and even the tyre choice quite dramatically. This may mean that, in spite of all the testing we have done here, the final decisions on set-up will not be made until after the end of practice. It may not be the best circuit for an enthralling race, but tyre choice and strategy may inject some excitement.''

Fisichella's place in the top three in Canada could, on 1999 form, have been expected to go to one of the Jordans but, after another brake failure for Heinz-Harald Frentzen, it was left to Jarno Trulli to pick up a single point for sixth. Frentzen, of course, bounced back from a heavy accident in Canada last year to win at Magny-Cours, and the German would like nothing less than a repetition of that fortune this weekend.

''Over the past few seasons, I only have good memories of racing at Magny-Cours,'' he smiles, ''Last year, in a race that was really up and down, I was able to gain my first win for Jordan, and I would like to be on the podium again, at least, this year. After testing here, I think we are in a good position to make that happen.''

Team-mate Trulli concurs to a point, but is reluctant to share Frentzen's top three optimism.

''We found a good set-up at the beginning of the week, but were unable to find much improvement on that later,'' he admitted, ''I think the car will be at the front of the grid, but maybe not a strong as in either Monaco or Canada. Top six or eight in qualifying should be possible, though, and strategy and the weather may still work for us on race day.''

Taking advantage of Jordan's problems in Canada, Jos Verstappen put in a sterling display of wet weather driving to make up three places in the second half of the race and finish in the points. A heavy accident at Magny-Cours just days later rendered him hors de combat for much of the recent test, however, but the Dutchman remains confident that he can add to his tally on Sunday.

''It should be a good race for us,'' he reveals, ''The circuit and our car suit each other quite well, and there are some fast corners and long straights, which I like. I hope that we can continue our recent success, despite my accident.''

Arrows team-mate Pedro de la Rosa made a similarly strong impression in Montreal, building on a strong start and light fuel load to run in the train behind Jacques Villeneuve's BAR. That, and the need to refuel earlier than the rest of the field, then scuppered his chances of moving into a scoring position, however, and the Spaniard was lucky to escape a mid-race collision with namesake Pedro Diniz without injury but, he too, feels that France could be another happy hunting ground.

''It should be a circuit which suits the car quite well,'' he explains, ''It's a very flat circuit, with a smooth surface, a long straight around the back and fast chicanes, which are the sort of corner the car likes best. It also has good traction, which should make it strong on the last part of the circuit too.''

If Arrows has been the team on the way up in recent races, Williams has been the one on the slide. No points at the Nurburgring, Monaco or Canada has seen the Grove outfit concede third place in the constructors' championship to Benetton, and the pressure is on to rectify the situation this weekend.

''Benetton and Jordan have caught up with us,'' admits BMW motorsport boss Gerhard Berger, ''but, after three turbulent races - with rain at the Nurburgring, restarts in Monaco and rain again in Montreal - it would be nice to have a grand prix without so many external factors coming into play. We have been working step-by-step on the development of our V10 engine, and this had led to increased reliability so, with this in mind, we hope to finish the race on Sunday - preferably in the points.''

One bonus for Williams comes in the shape of a fit again Ralf Schumacher. Although team-mate Jenson Button has some previous experience of Magny-Cours from Formula Three, it is the German that the team will look to for points this weekend, and he is hoping for a turnaround in his recent results.

''After the last three races, where we unfortunately haven't scored a point,'' Schumacher said, ''I am hoping for better fortune at Magny-Cours and, after testing there last week, I am hopeful that this is the case. One thing is for sure, and that is that my leg is no longer causing me any pain. I feel that I am totally fit again for racing, which is a good start.''

On its Canadian showing, British American Racing could be confident of its ability to race with Williams, if not actually overtake it in the standings just yet. Villeneuve and team-mate Ricardo Zonta qualified sixth and eighth in Montreal, and the home hero might even have taken an unlikely win had his pit-stop gone to plan. In the end, he once again crashed out of the event, and hopes for more reward this time around.

''After the disappointment of Canada, it would be great to get a points finish in France,'' Villeneuve said, ''I think it's clear from our performance in Montreal that the car is getting more competitive all the time, although there are naturally still areas that we need to work on. Magny-Cours is not particularly challenging for a driver, but it has produced some exciting races, and I'm looking forward to the weekend.''

BAR took three drivers to the French circuit for testing last week, and returned with increased confidence in its performance. After a disappointing showing in Monaco, and the bad luck of Canada, the team is confident that developments to engine, aerodynamics and number two driver could reap some benefit this weekend.

''We have been working very hard to address the shortcomings that led to our difficulties in Monaco,'' revealed chief engineer Steve Farrell, ''and we now believe that we have a direction on set-up that will help us gain the best from the car at these sort of circuits. As in Canada, we expect to be able to contend for the top ten positions in France - Ricardo's eight place in qualifying in Montreal was highly encouraging, and we hope that there will be more good things to come from him as the season progresses.''

Of the rest, only Jaguar and Sauber have shown the sort of potential that could result in, admittedly surprise, points this weekend.

After the joy of a fourth place result in Monaco, the former returned to the sort of despondency in Montreal that characterised its early season appearances. Neither car qualified in the top ten - despite Johnny Herbert being a fixture there during free practice - and, while the Englishman retired early on race day, team-mate Eddie Irvine stalled on the grid and then spent much of the afternoon floundering around at the back of the field.

Despite the setbacks, however, technical director Gary Anderson is confident that the team will bounce back - even if it is unlikely to make a huge impact in the immediate future.

''We have been in the news a little of late, mostly for the wrong reasons,'' he admitted, ''and, sure, the level of performance has not lived up to expectation so far this season. I've been in this sport long enough to realise that we were never going to be an overnight sensation, but our development has gradually gathered pace, and we continue to strive for more performance from the package. We made several improvements to the car's overall handling and aerodynamics at last week's test, which are crucial for Magny-Cours as the circuit is characterised by fast corners and high-speed chicanes.''

Both Irvine and Herbert were outspoken about the car after Canada, but both are experienced enough to know that speaking out never solved technical problems. Instead, both have vowed to continue working towards the solutions that need to be found, and are keen to get the programme back on track this weekend.

''I quite like Magny-Cours, even if the place lacks atmosphere,'' Irvine admits, ''It is a complex surface, which puts a premium on aerodynamics, but there are some overtaking opportunities and a couple of challenging corners - although some sections are still too tight. It could be interesting, though, particularly if the weather plays an important role.''

Neither Sauber driver is too optimistic about his chances, and give the fickle weather conditions as the reason for their pessimism. Despite a relatively encouraging test with an uprated Ferrari/Petronas engine at Magny-Cours last week, both Mika Salo and Pedro Diniz know that a couple of degrees either way, a change in wind direction or the expected rain can ruin any pre-planned set-up.

''It will be nice to go to Magny-Cours after the bumpy street circuit in Montreal,'' the Finn says, ''and the car should be more reliable there than it was in Canada. With a good set-up and choice of tyres, a new engine specification and new aerodynamics, we should be in good shape. But the circuit is one where you need a good combination of three elements - and the engine and tyres are only two of them!''

Despite being the 'home' team, Prost is unlikely to trouble the scorers this weekend, after another disappointing showing in Canada two weeks ago. Jean Alesi continues to show promise with the AP03 but, sadly, the car refuses to co-operate for long, and the fiery Frenchman is invariably on the sidelines long before the chequered flag. Rookie team-mate Nick Heidfeld has suffered the same fate all too often, but will be hoping that his own shortcomings in recent Friday practice sessions can be overcome to increase the amount of running he gets.

Minardi may have enjoyed better reliability than its French rival but, without a powerful engine in the MO2, it has also yet to break into the top six this season. Things are unlikely to change on Sunday, unless the weather really does play tricks and Marc Gene is able to replay his Nurburgring performance from 1999.

Given the likely conditions and lack of general grip from the French surface, Bridgestone paid particular attention to the findings produced at last week's test. As a result, it intends to offer the teams the soft and extra-soft compounds taken to Monaco, with a choice of hard or soft wets in the event of rain.

''Although the teams concentrated on their own set-ups at last week's test, it was also extremely valuable for us to have got a lot of tyre testing under our belt at Magny-Cours, because there are not too many tests at this kind of circuit, which is different from the more regularly used Barcelona and Silverstone,'' revealed technical manager Yoshihiko Ichikawa.

''The track has good traction [even though it takes a long time to dry after rain],'' he continued, ''Some drivers have experienced understeer when running the extra-soft tyres at other grands prix, but we would recommend the softer compound this time - it has more traction and rear grip, and the understeer is less pronounced. However, it will still degrade at a high rate, especially at the rear, and cars will start to lose traction after a certain number of laps. This could make for an interesting race!''

If Michael Schumacher continues his string of results at Magny-Cours, he will equal the late Ayrton Senna's career total of 41 wins at Magny-Cours. The Brazilian's former boss, Ron Dennis, made a point after the Canadian Grand Prix of saying that his team was good at clawing back deficits. This weekend would be a good time to start.

 

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