After the clowning at Indianapolis last time out, the Formula One circus produced an altogether different kind of show at Magny-Cours, with Fernando Alonso calling the shots in the French Grand Prix.

As well as being the obvious candidate as ringmaster, the Spaniard also produced a disappearing act to rival the best as he scorched away from the field, competing three fuel stops on the way to a comfortable eleven second victory. In his wake, Kimi Raikkonen performed an escapology display to salvage second from 13th on the grid, while world champion Michael Schumacher walked the high wire as the last unlapped runner in third.

With much debate over the various fuel loads that teams may have used in qualifying, and the merits of individual laps in the timed session, Alonso's initial pace could have been forgiven for representing a possible four-stop strategy. The Spaniard made the most of pole position to leap into the lead at turn one, and then romped away as second-placed Jarno Trulli bottled up Schumacher and the rest of the top ten.

With Raikkonen also mired back in the pack, despite having split the Saubers off the line, Alonso was able to make hay while the Burgundy sun shone. Lapping at anything up to 1.5secs a lap faster than his pursuers, the points leader had opened up a three-second advantage in as many laps, and continued in the same vein right the way through to his first pit-stop.

Contrary to may expectations, that stop didn't materialise until lap 20 - two after Schumacher - by which time he had built up a 30secs gap that enabled him to resume at the front.

By running longer even than the Renault, however, McLaren ensured that the cars that Alonso rejoined in front of were those of Juan Montoya and Raikkonen, up from eighth and 13th respectively. The silver machines passed Schumacher and Trulli while the pair pitted together on lap 18, and continued to open a gap so that, when Raikkonen finally pitted on lap 28 - underlining a qualifying effort which initially netted third, just one-tenth off pole - he was able to rejoin in front of both his team-mate and the current world champion.

Schumacher was able to retain fourth place when he stopped for the second time just shy of half-distance, having short-filled on his first stop in an effort to leap-frog the Trulli roadblock, effectively reducing the number of potential winners to the leading quartet.

The field was already two light by this point, Christian Klien having had his car quit on him when its fuel pressure died on lap two and Felipe Massa pitting repeatedly before succumbing to an hydraulic problem. They were soon to be joined by both Minardis, worryingly as the two backmarkers appeared to suffer similar tyre problems on the left rear corner. Patrick Friesacher managed to park up at the Adelaide hairpin after his tyre reportedly let go on the preceding straight, but Christijan Albers was pitched into the barriers without warning, fortunately without injury.

Takuma Sato came close to joining them when an ambitious lap 27 lunge at Trulli resulted in him overshooting the hairpin and dropping to tenth. The Japanese had been running fifth prior to his own early fuel stop, but failed to feature after his off, save for avoiding contact with the barriers when caught out by a slippery surface in turn two on lap 51.

Behind the top four, Trulli slotted into fifth but clearly didn't have the sort of long-term pace that he showed in qualifying. Having been left behind by Schumacher and the McLarens, the Italian briefly came under pressure from Rubens Barrichello until the pit-stop schedule dropped the Brazilian away again. That left the steady if unspectacular Jenson Button to catch and pass the Toyota, albeit requiring his second stop to complete the move.

The pair would have been fifth and sixth at the flag except for the only crack to show among the frontrunners. While Alonso, Raikkonen and Schumacher - the top three in points - motored on, Montoya's miserable season continued as his McLaren gradually slowed and eventually coasted to a halt just as the team were clearing a space in the garage for him. Like Massa, hydraulics were blamed for the loss of power.

Button eased away from Trulli following their change of position, but both were already being lined up by Alonso, whose pace had carried him on to the tail of the man with whom he shared the front row just 50 laps earlier.

Barrichello had already fallen prey to the flying Renault, and would eventually slide out of the top eight. In his place, Giancarlo Fisichella recovered from a faulty fuel rig at his first stop to claw his way back into the points, even getting right on to Schumacher's tail before making his third and final call for fuel. Sadly for the luckless Italian, however, his engine cut as he tried to pull away, and the lost time dropped him back behind Button and Trulli, although sixth was still secure. Ralf Schumacher drove a quiet race from twelfth on the grid, completing his rehabilitation from concussion at Indianapolis with points for seventh, while Jacques Villeneuve - another to pop up in fourth during the pit-stop shuffling - completed the scorers.

Outside the top eight, the usual tales of woe abounded, particularly on this occasion from the Williams camp. Already reeling from the news that engine partner BMW had bought into Sauber in the week before the race, the Grove team failed to find pace from its latest aero developments - now rumoured to number into three figures this season. In addition, Nick Heidfeld ended the race complaining about a lairy rear corner, despite the team, not being able to find anything wrong with tyre or suspension - while Mark Webber reported a different problem with his rear - namely that he was suffering from a burning sensation due to heat build-up beneath his seat. Add animal tamer and ring or fire to the list of circus acts on view...

Alonso, meanwhile, re-appeared on the radar only as his three-stop strategy coincided with Raikkonen's two, the pair getting to within eleven seconds of each other in the closing stages. Waved on by hordes of blue-and-yellow flags in the grandstands - for Renault this time rather than Asturias - Alonso closed on Schumacher in third, but was to be denied the chance to assert his authority over the world champion as the laps ran out.

After Indianapolis, something approaching normal service was resumed in France, with Renault, McLaren and Michelin returning to the front. Ferrari, against expectation, remained in the frame, although Schumacher will be cracking the whip in order to close the gap as Formula One enters its busiest-ever phase, with three further races scheduled before the month is out.

Despite Alonso's 24-point half-time advantage, the championship battle is far from over, with McLaren and Raikkonen sure to hit back at Silverstone and Hockenheim.

Roll up, roll up. Come and see the show.



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