Ferrari again dominated the French Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher claiming clear victory over Renault from an all-Ferrari front row of the grid. The flawless victory, Schumacher's fourth of 2006 and the eighth victory of his career in France, narrows the gap in the championship standings.
Fresh from their one-two finish at the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis, the Shell V-Power-fuelled Ferraris claimed another front row in thrilling fashion in Saturday's new 15-minute final qualifying session. Michael Schumacher claimed his fourth pole position of the 2006 season convincingly, dicing with reigning champion Fernando Alonso as if the timed session was the race itself.
Team mate Felipe Massa also put in an impressive time, just hundredths of a second off Schumacher's blistering pace, to claim the second grid spot. It was the third all-red front row of the year, and the 68th pole position of Schumacher's career.
Schumacher, who had suffered an engine bay fire Saturday morning, credited the hard work of his mechanics for getting his car ready for Saturday's qualifying session.
The best Alonso could achieve for his home-race Renault supporters was third on the grid; team mate Giancarlo Fisichella was down the board in seventh position. The Toyotas of Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher and the McLaren of Kimi Raikkonen rounded out the top six.
Conditions were hot, dry and sunny for Sunday's race at the central France Circuit de Nevers Magny Cours. Air temperatures of 35C and track temperatures of 50C-plus greeted the drivers for the start of the 70-lap contest.
When the red lights went out to start the French Grand Prix, it was an ideal result of Ferrari. Schumacher took full advantage of his pole position, quick away from the line to claim the lead. Massa, starting from second position, emphatically defended his place under pressure from Alonso. Side by side into the first turns, Massa asserted his Ferrari strongly to retain second position and keep Alonso at bay.
Schumacher quickly went to work, building up a lead over the field. By the first lap alone, he had 1.7 seconds of clear space ahead of Massa and, critically, even more of a margin over championship leader Alonso. But Massa wasn't about to be complacent, setting a new race fast lap 0f 1:17.141 on lap 19.
Schumacher built his lead until his first pit stop, a quick 6.7 seconds for a fresh batch of Shell V-Power and used tyres. He returned to build an even stronger lead, which was up to 16.6 seconds over Alonso by the halfway point of the race. Schumacher also set the race's ultimate fast lap.
Schumacher and Massa were both racing on a three-stop strategy, but Alonso and Renault switched to a two-stop strategy, fuelling Alonso's car heavily enough in the second stop to go the distance. This relegated Massa into P3 after his third stop, but with 10 laps to go, Schumacher's lead was 18 seconds over the Spaniard. The race ended in that order, the Ferraris sandwiching the Renault of Alonso in the top three.
'This was yet another very hot race and it's great to score another victory for Ferrari and Shell,' said Mike Copson, Shell Motorsport Technical Manager. 'Since we introduced our latest high-performance, higher-volatility formulation of Shell V-Power, Ferrari has really been charging back with pole-position and race-leading performances. We're also pleased that our Shell Helix lubricant package did its job of coping with the track conditions and high temperatures here in France.'
Ralf Schumacher was fourth for Toyota. Team mate Trulli had retired with engine and brake problems. McLaren's Raikkonen perked up after the first set of pit stops to move up as high as fourth position before the second round of pit stops. Raikkonen would become involved in a late-race battle Ralf Schumacher for fourth position, but couldn't close the gap by the checkered flag, settling for fifth place. Renault's Fisichella was sixth.
The run-up to Sunday's French Grand Prix featured the surprise news that McLaren driver Juan Pablo Montoya was leaving the team immediately to pursue a career in America's NASCAR series. Spaniard Pedro de la Rosa, an F1 veteran and McLaren test driver, was nominated by the team as Montoya's replacement. De la Rosa qualified an impressive eighth, but suffered a bad start, falling back in field and having to fight his way back toward the front, finishing an impressive seventh.
Sauber-BMW's Nick Heidfeld claimed the final points-paying position.
It was another frustrating event for the Honda team, with both Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button retiring from the race.
Ferrari maintains second spot in the FIA Formula One Constructors' Championship with 121 points to Renault's 142.
The gap between Alonso and Schumacher in the Drivers Championship has also narrowed. Alonso now leads Schumacher by 17 points.
Formula One action resumes in a fortnight with the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim on 30 July.