After two 'flyaway' races in Canada and the United States, Formula 1 returns to Europe for another brace of back-to-back events, starting, this weekend, in France.

Much as the teams make out that they despise heading to the heart of the country, and the middle of nowhere, for the race, they will all take a longing last look at Magny-Cours this weekend, for there will be no French Grand Prix in 2008, while the FFSA gets its house in order ahead of a proposed move to another circuit for 2010.

Formula One returns to Europe with as big a buzz surrounding Lewis Hamilton as when it left for Montreal, the British phenomenon having now added two race wins to his already impressive start to the season, and holding a ten-point championship advantage that will ensure he heads to his home race with at least a share of the lead next weekend.

How France will respond to the rosbif remains to be seen, however, especially with none of its countrymen to embrace following the country's continuing absence from the driver roster. Franck Montagny is not only the last Frenchman to grace the F1 grid, he is currently the best placed to return, although Ralf Schumacher's turbulent season with Toyota appears set to continue, depriving the home crowd of someone to cheer this weekend at least.

FIA F1 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP NEWS

The main news since the Canadian Grand Prix - and Lewis Hamilton's second win in succession, concerns former F1 mega star, Michael Schumacher, who has announced that he will come out of retirement to compete in the 2007 Race of Champions (RoC).

The gladiatorial-style RoC has been in existence since 1988, and Schumacher's return - the German previously competed in the event in 2004 in Paris, when he lost out to current Renault rookie Heikki Kovalainen in the final shoot-out - is sure to be a major draw as the event heads to Wembley Stadium on Sunday, 16 December, the first time it has taken place on British soil.

Schumacher's 'team', Ferrari have also been in the headlines for other less desirable reasons following confirmation that they are taking legal action against their head of performance development, Nigel Stepney.

Ferrari believe that Stepney is guilty of 'sabotage' after a mysterious 'white powder' was found in the fuel tank of Felipe Massa's car prior to last month's Monaco Grand Prix.

Stepney and his lawyers have denied all charges brought against him, dismissing the accusations as part of a 'a dirty tricks campaign'.

In other news, British Racing Drivers' Club president, Damon Hill has said that he is confident there will still be a British Grand Prix at Silverstone post-2009, when the current deal expires.

Speaking exclusively to Crash.net Radio during a press call in London to 're-affirm the BRDC's commitment to keep the British Grand Prix' and update the media on the 'Master Plan', he added that while it would be daft to be complacent, he is hopeful 'sense will prevail'.

"I am confident it [the British GP] will be there [on the calendar in 2010]," he noted. "I think everyone wants it - Formula 1 wants it. Sense will prevail and we will go forward."

NEWS FROM THE TEAMS:

McLaren - Fernando Alonso (#1), Lewis Hamilton (#2):

McLaren returns to Europe as top dog in Formula One, having taken both wins on F1's transatlantic jaunt and occupying the top spots in both championships. However, it is its rookie, Lewis Hamilton, that has been taking the points and the plaudits, opening his victory account with victory in each of the last two races.

The team arrives in France with a 35-point lead in the constructors' championship and with Hamilton leading team-mate Fernando Alonso by ten points in the drivers' standings. The Briton now returns to circuits that are familiar to him from his time in both GP2 and the F3 Euroseries, and it remains to be seen whether that will allow him to increase his advantage over the rest of the field, even if his memories of last year at Magny-Cours aren't too good.

"I just want to get back out on track," Hamilton admits, "My aims remain the same, to take it race-by-race and keep focused on scoring good points for myself and the team. The French round of the GP2 championship last year was not my best weekend - I had a coming together in the first race and therefore started race two in 19th, but I did make my way up through the field to finish fifth and score some points. It is possible to overtake here and, although you always want to be on pole, you can pass and the short pit-lane means there are more strategy options."

Alonso, meanwhile, finished second to Michael Schumacher in France last year and, with the German now safely in retirement, will be hoping to go one better to get his title challenge back on track.

"I have always liked racing at this track," he says, "When you hear people talk about circuits that are technical, Magny-Cours is definitely one of them. My favourite sections are the two high-speed chicanes at the back of the circuit. We go through them at speeds of up to 200km/h, which is very fast for a chicane. It's very special to drive through them and unique in F1.

"After the back-to-back races, it seems like a long time since we last raced, so I want to get back on track. The MP4-22 is a quick car and I hope we can get the best out of it at Magny-Cours. There are some similarities between Magny-Cours and Monaco, and the car performed well at Monaco, so I am looking forward to getting it out on track in France."

Team CEO Martin Whitmarsh admits that, while Hamilton and Alonso remain the class of the field at present, Ferrari, especially, won't lie down for long.

"Last week, we completed one of our most intensive tests of the year so far, and our test team worked tirelessly to prove a myriad of components alongside a massive amount of effort being put in across the organisation," he said, "We have a fight on our hands to maintain, and ideally extend, the lead we have in the constructors' championship and the drivers' table. Ferrari and BMW are not standing still, so our job is to keep providing Fernando and Lewis with a car capable of winning. There is no complacency and the motivation is considerable."

Renault - Giancarlo Fisichella (#3), Heikki Kovalainen (#4):

What Whitmarsh failed to mention is the fact that reigning world champion Renault is rapidly becoming a threat to the top three, although BMW Sauber is the team most closely in the firing line as the regie improves. Engineering director Pat Symonds promises that there is more to come too.

"Although the results don't quite tell the full story, I think it's indicative of the fact that the tide is turning - we are very close to BMW now and racing them hard," he claims, "There's plenty of activity at the factory, that's for sure. As we better understand the problems we have been suffering from, we are able to improve the car. There will be enhancements for France and Britain. And that's in addition to continue the push with our normal development processes. There are a lot of new bits coming for the car, and you can be certain that we will keep on fighting."

Symonds is confident that the improvement shown since Monaco will continue in France, where Magny-Cours has traditionally found favour with Renault.

"Magny-Cours is known as a very smooth circuit - although the new final chicane now gives the cars a severe pounding," he says, "The challenge is very different to that of the low-medium downforce tracks in Canada and the USA and, if you look back to circuits like Barcelona, we were struggling there at the time. But since then, some very positive steps forward have been made, and I certainly believe our performance will be better."

Although he failed to match rookie team-mate Heikki Kovalainen in either Canada or the USA, Giancarlo Fisichella is confident that he can get back to the sort of form that saw him take fourth in Monaco.

"As soon as I started running in Canada, I knew that we had taken a good step forward with the car," he notes, "We were quick, consistent and I thought that, in the race, we could fight with Ferrari and BMW - and that was how it turned out. At Indy, the car was good again, so it is getting better all the time. Scoring more points is a priority and, after that, we have to race with BMW and try to beat them. They are the team we are fighting in the championship, and we have to try and out-score them in each race from now on."

Kovalainen, by contrast, heads to Magny-Cours on a high, having finally found his rhythm as he scored good points in both 'flyaway' races.

"I think I have some good momentum going at the moment - and I want to maintain that in France this weekend," the Finn admits, "Montreal was my best result so far in F1, and Indianapolis was my best race - a strong weekend, no mistakes, no problems, five laps led and a good level of performance from me and from the car. I am still improving every time I drive, learning and putting it into practice. And as we develop the car, that is showing in my race results.

"I always believed that things would come together for me, and I was positive even in the difficult moments. I think that the results in North America have changed the perceptions around me, not my confidence in myself. My job is to focus on the essentials, block out the rest - and drive to my full potential. It's no secret that France is a really important race for Renault, and racing in front of all the people from the factory at Viry and the other Renault factories, makes the atmosphere very special for us. When I last raced in Magny-Cours in GP2, I had one win and one podium, so it's a circuit I enjoy. I think we made another step with the car last week at Silverstone, so I am looking forward to getting out there and seeing how things stack up."

Ferrari - Felipe Massa (#5), Kimi Raikkonen (#6):

Outclassed again by Mclaren at Indianapolis, Ferrari knows that Magny-Cours needs to produce a better result or it can begin to kiss goodbye to its title hopes for another year. After a positive test at Silverstone, however, both Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen head to France in positive frame of mind.

"Magny-Cours and the French Grand Prix could be a good weekend for us," the Brazilian claims, "Last year, I finished on the podium and it was the start of a good run for me in the second half of the championship as things started to come right for us.

"When you look back to Canada, maybe we were not quite as quick as the McLarens but, in the race I was ahead of Alonso and maybe I could have finished on the podium, which would have been a good result, even if it had not been possible to win. Our aim there was to get as many points as possible, even if we could not match the pace of our competitor. At Indy, we looked slightly more competitive, if again not quite on the pace of our rivals. Finishing on the podium was not a complete disaster and, looking back at the last two races, if it had not been for that problem in Montreal, then the championship would still be completely open.

"Now, it is still open, but not looking quite so straightforward and we have to be careful not to make any mistakes. If you look at the recent past championships, sometimes we had two weekends better than Renault and sometimes it was the other way round. The competition was very close right to the end of the season. This time, even if our rivals have been better than us over the past couple of races, I think we can fight back and that is what we have been working towards back at the factory. I think we have some good ideas for the next upcoming races which can change the situation."

Raikkonen looked more racy at Indianapolis than he has done for a few races, but it was only his team-mate that he was battling with. However, two days of testing at Silverstone and a vote of confidence from Ferrari's top man, Luca di Montezemolo, has the Finn in good heart for France.

"Last week was a prefect week," he says, "We had a very good test in Silverstone as the car was much better than at the races in North America, and I'm really very confident for the race at Magny-Cours. We have new components, above all in the section of aerodynamics; and we have taken a step forward as far as the performance is concerned. If it is enough, we'll only know in France, but what we know for sure is that we think that we are competitive."

A fan of Magny-Cours from a driving point of view, the Finn is keen to add a victory there to his tally. However, he knows that Ferrari needs to raise its game on a Saturday afternoon.

"This year, it is fundamental to start from the front row, because it is very difficult to drive when you're stuck behind other cars," he explains, "Unfortunately, I've experienced that quite often, but I'm more and more confident with the F2007 now. We found a good set-up in the race at Indianapolis and in testing, so we have to transfer that to the next two grands prix."

Honda - Jenson Button (#7), Rubens Barrichello (#8):

While the majority of its rivals ran at Silverstone, Honda joined engine partner Super Aguri at Jerez, determined to take further steps on the road to making the RA107 competitive for the return to Europe.

"We made some good progress at Jerez, where the excellent weather allowed us to fully complete our planned programme," senior technical director Shuhei Nakamoto reports, "We were able to sign off various new mechanical parts and an aerodynamic upgrade, as well as making further improvements to the stability under braking. We expect a small improvement in performance in both qualifying and the race at Magny-Cours."

Rubens Barrichello's race at the USGP was cut short after getting involved in the first corner accident that also claimed Ralf Schumacher and David Coulthard,and the Brazilian is hoping for a greater involvement this weekend.

"I really enjoy racing at Magny-Cours as it is a really flowing circuits which the drivers generally enjoy," he notes, "The track has a mixture of high- and slow-speed turns and the high-speed changes of direction between turns four and five and seven and eight are particularly challenging."

Despite the attrition in Indianapolis, team-mate Jenson Button only finished twelfth, leaving Honda pointless for the seventh straight race. However, like Barrichello, the Briton is looking forward to racing in France.

"The Circuit de Nevers is quite tricky to get your lap absolutely right, but it is a lot of fun to drive - and very fast," he explains, "The start is particularly important, regardless of what side of the grid you are on, and you have to position yourself well for the first two corners to get a good run down the straight to the Adelaide hairpin. This is really the only place on the circuit where you can have a real chance of overtaking."

BMW Sauber - Nick Heidfeld (#9), Robert Kubica (#10):

As the last two races have shown, even the most impressive formbook means little if you don't get both cars across the finish line, and a crash and a retirement saw the BMW Sauber team leave North America feeling decidedly short-changed, even if Nick Heidfeld did manage a podium in Canada.

The German, who was forced out of the USGP with a rare hydraulic problem, is keen to get himself back into the points in France, and is confident that the F1.07 will remain a potent force at Magny-Cours.

"Although we only picked up a single point in the USA, it's clear that we are still making progress," he insists, "In terms of pure performance, our car was the second-best at Indianapolis - I could have qualified third and also finished third in the race."

Another pre-race medical examination will determine whether Robert Kubica is fit to return to the cockpit after his shunt in Montreal and, having been ruled out of the USGP - where he was replaced by the point-scoring Sebastian Vettel - the Pole is eager to get the go-ahead to race.

"I can't wait to get back into the car," he admits, "I may not have been given the green light to compete in the USA, but I hope the medical examination at Magny-Cours will be a formality. The reason why I wasn't allowed to drive at Indianapolis had nothing to do with how I felt. Instead, the problem was the risk involved in suffering a second accident within such a short space of time. That's also why I wasn't allowed to test last week. But I've used the time to focus intensively on preparing for this next race."

Unusually, BMW struggled at Magny-Cours last year, but team director Mario Theissen is hopeful that there will be no repeat in 2007.

"We were up against it a bit here last season, but managed to escape with a point despite starting from eleventh and 16th," he muses, "The team has come to expect good grid positions in the top ten nowadays - and Sebastian met that standard in his first ever F1 qualifying at Indianapolis. We have finished in the points in every race so far this season but, in the last two GPs, we only managed to get one car to the finish, so we are looking to pick up points with both cars at Magny-Cours"

Both cars will be running with the same engines as at Indianapolis, even though the regulations would have allowed it to change Heidfeld's V8 this time around.

For more see Part 2 of our preview.

 

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