Red letter day for Ferrari

I think this is the start of a revival for us. Everything is now working well, so we will try to keep it up and improve, says Kimi Raikkonen.-AP

Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa dominate at Magny-Cours, outclassing Lewis Hamilton and his McLaren with a superb 1-2 finish. Over to Alan Henry.

Lewis Hamilton’s unbroken record of finishing on the podium at every Formula One race in which he has competed remained intact, but a distant third place in the French Grand Prix (July 1) came at the end of a 70-lap race which saw his McLaren comprehensively outclassed by the Ferraris of Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa, who finished first and second.

Massa had qualified on pole and led the race to the point where he had built a 3.7sec lead over Raikkonen in the first 10 laps, the Finn keeping Hamilton’s McLaren neatly bottled up in third place while the Brazilian seemingly made good his escape. However, Raikkonen piled on the pressure coming up to the second round of refuelling stops, and hammered home a sequence of quick laps to vault ahead of his team-mate coming out of the pits for the last time.

It was the first time this season that the driver who led into the first corner of a race failed to win and Raikkonen duly hung on to score his second victory of the season by 2.4sec from Massa. Hamilton, who was switched to a three-stop strategy with an extra stop on lap 51, was 30sec behind.

For Raikkonen the win represented a long overdue return to form after a disappointing sequence of performances since he opened the year with victory in the Australian Grand Prix. His subsequent form had been so average that his role as a Ferrari driver — and successor to Michael Schumacher — had been questioned. Despite this win it still seems that he lacks the sheer pace of Massa, who further embellished his own reputation by setting the fastest lap of the race at Magny-Cours.

“The work is starting to pay off,” said Raikkonen. “It has maybe taken longer than we expected, but we’ve got the win and we’re back in the right place. We didn’t expect to have the problems we’ve had in the last few races, but now we are back where we expected to be.

“I think this is the start of a revival for us. Everything is now working well, so we will try to keep it up and improve.” Massa said he felt his chance of a third win of the year was blown by being held up in heavy traffic. “I lost too much time during the second stint. But whenever I had a clear track I was certainly very quick,” he said. “But, for sure, if you have three or four (slower) cars in front of you, all racing, then you are going to lose time.”

For Hamilton, it was highly disappointing despite extending his World Championship lead with eight of the season’s 17 races completed. His McLaren was fuelled for a short early stint in the hope that he could out-gun any Ferrari that might be close to him on the starting grid. But he dropped from second to third on the run to the first corner. “I didn’t get off to the best of starts and Kimi came flying past me,” Hamilton said. “As Felipe said, even if you are seconds quicker than the car in front, you still can’t pass.”

McLaren had also set their cars up in anticipation of the predicted 90% chance of a wet race, but a change in wind direction kept the track dry.

Hamilton came home 9.5sec ahead of the BMW Sauber of Robert Kubica, with whom he had a spectacular wheel-to-wheel joust after his second refuelling stop, a battle which was every bit as absorbing as the contest between Nick Heidfeld’s BMW and Fernando Alonso’s McLaren, who finished fifth and seventh respectively, sandwiching Giancarlo Fisichella’s Renault.

The long corners of the Circuit de Nevers played to the strengths of the Ferrari chassis, with Massa and Raikkonen relishing the enhanced grip generated by the higher operating temperatures of their Bridgestone tyres. This enabled the Italian team’s drivers to get right up with the McLarens in the battle for pole.

Alonso was written out of contention at the start of the final top-10 shoot-out after his McLaren emitted an ominous puff of smoke at the end of his warm-up lap and the world champion steered into the pit lane, shouting over the radio link that his engine had failed.

In fact, after five minutes’ investigation by the engineers, it was established that the gearbox had suffered a massive internal breakage and the car was stranded in its pit lane garage for the rest of the day. Alonso thus found himself lining up 10th on the grid, leaving Hamilton to battle the Ferraris alone.

The GP was struck by tragedy on the night of June 30 as three people were killed and two injured when their helicopter crashed after leaving the circuit. The circuit’s chief medical officer, Alain Chantegret, said it had left Magny-Cours for Castel Donzy at around 7.15 p.m. but crashed before reaching the destination. He said the injured passengers were taken to hospital in Nevers and Dijon.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007