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EUROPEAN GRAND PRIX

As was obvious, I had run quite light on fuel in qualifying. I had a good start and was immediately able to build up a lead as Raikkonen in second was holding up the others. It was fantastic to see how I could pull away. That gave me the edge I needed and I was confident that our strategy would work.,Ó said Schumacher.

He was assisted by a rather messy start in which Juan Pablo Montoya locked his brakes entering the first turn and colliding with his team-mate Ralf Schumacher. Ralf, having his right front wheel and front wing damaged then speared across the front of ToyotaÕs Cristiano da Matta, taking them both out. Montoya had to pit to replace his own damaged front wing effectively ruining his race. He would eventually finish one lap down in eighth place. Williams' new technical director, Australian Sam Michael summed up the team's day perfectly: ÒWe would have been much more competitive if both our cars had come through the first corner without incident."

Takuma Sato, the first Japanese driver ever to start from the front row of a Grand Prix after a storming lap in qualifying, lost places at the beginning when he ran wide twice while squabbling with RenaultÕs Jarno Trulli for second. They ended the first lap with Sato in fourth and Trulli in seventh place allowing Kimi Raikkonen into second where he held up everyone while Michael did his vanishing act. From there Sato drove a storming race and was the only driver that looked capable of splitting the two Ferraris at the front. Indeed, it looked likely that once all the refuelling stops were made he would emerge from the pits in second place but when he did come out, it was right behind Rubens Barrichello in the second Ferrari. Knowing that he would have to make his move early while he still had very fresh tyres Sato made an overly optimistic dive down the inside of turn 1 a lap later only to damage his front wing on the side of BarrichelloÕs car and have to pit again to replace it. In the end it made no real difference as just one lap later SatoÕs Honda engine erupted in flames for the second week in a row leaving yet another dense cloud of smoke for the following cars to cope with. Fortunately there was no repeat of last weeks carnage but Jarno Trulli who was following closely had a few interesting moments. This all elevated SatoÕs BAR team-mate Jenson Button into third place. Button was not quite on SatoÕs pace all weekend and spent the race fighting with the RenaultÕs of Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso who finished fourth and fifth.

After their triumph at Monaco last week the RenaultÕs were also off the pace all weekend and again, events at the first corner hampered their race. "This was certainly a very difficult race for us,Ó said executive director of engineering Pat Symonds. ÒJarno Trulli lost position on the opening lap, putting him in the gaggles of cars stuck behind Raikkonen, and both drivers then lost a lot of time behind slower competitors after their first stop. Ò

ÒFernando Alonso had a problem with the steering rack on lap 14, which caused him to run wide. This problem slowed him down throughout the remained of the race. Overall, this is not a satisfying result, but getting two cars to the finish has allowed us to increase the gap to our pursuers in the championship."

McLarenÕs season of woe continued with three engine failures throughout the weekend. David CoulthardÕs let go at the end of his first qualifying run ensuring that he would have to start from the back of the grid. Apart from Michael Schumacher, Coulthard & Raikkonen were about the only winners from the first corner dramas. Raikkonen emerging in second place and Coulthard having an astonishing first lap to go from twentieth place at the start to be ninth at the end of the first lap. Ultimately this would be of little consolation as by lap 25 both were out with identical, very smoky, engine failures. They must be hoping that the new car which is due to be tested this week at Silverstone in England is a huge step forward, but even if it is, they still have to sort out the hideous engine reliability problems they have suffered this year.

Despite his problems with the Williams so far this season, Juan Pablo Montoya must now be having serious doubts about his decision to move to McLaren next year.

The other two point scoring finishers were SauberÕs Giancarlo Fisichella who had a fine run also from the rear of the grid after problems in qualifying to finish sixth and Australian Mark Webber in his Jaguar. ÒI never believed that sixth was possible,Ó said Fisichella. ÒThe car was fantastic today, the balance and behaviour were impeccable. I made a good start, our strategy was perfect, and we did a great job as a team. The C23 is improving with every race, so we will keep getting better and better."

"Our race went exactly as we planned,Ó added technical director Willi Rampf. ÒStarting at the back we gave Giancarlo a high fuel load for a long first stint, and because the Bridgestone tyres were so consistent today we were able to execute our chosen strategy.Ó Webber had to overcome a one second penalty in qualifying for ignoring yellow flags and his own season of disastrous reliability to finish seventh after a two-stop strategy.

He ran with a heavy fuel load in qualifying, starting in fourteenth place and made his first stop from sixth place on lap 18, a good ten laps later than most of the front-runners. He spent the rest of the race battling with Fisichella and the recovering Williams of Juan Pablo Montoya. "Two points in the bag is exactly what the doctor ordered," said Webber. "My start was slightly slower than we had expected as I suffered a clutch problem. But our strategy worked really well today and despite my grid penalty I don't think it cost me too much. "As the race wore on the balance of the car got even better and it was good fun to drive. This is a just reward for all our efforts."

All this leaves Michael Schumacher with six wins from seven races and a comfortable lead of 14 points in the World Championship standings over his Ferrari team-mate Rubens Barrichello. Jenson Button on 38 points is 22 behind but ahead of both Renault drivers, Trulli and Alonso and the WilliamsÕ pair Montoya and Ralf Schumacher.

Mark Webber is currently in equal 12th place on just three points. Ferrari on 106 points have a massive 45 point advantage over Renault in the Constructors championship with the surprising BAR-Honda team in third with 46 points and Williams-BMW a further 10 points behind. McLaren, who were serious challengers for last years title are languishing back in sixth place with just 5 points!

Sam Snape

31-5-04