Everything points to the French Grand Prix being Ferrari’s race this weekend. Kimi Raikkonen must make an impression on the drivers’ championship soon if he intends to keep his world title, and the blazing form shown by team-mate Felipe Massa is giving him a proper run for his money.
Test driver Luca Badoer put in two timesheet-topping performances during the recent Barcelona testing and Ferrari, which describes itself as frustrated at failing to capitalise on the potential of the F2008, says it has “strengthened confidence that the team is currently moving in the right direction.”
The team points points out that the French Grand Prix is traditionally a particularly successful event, with a total of 16 Ferrari wins on French soil, seven since 1997, including a one-two finish last year.
However the other leading teams are still hopeful that things might deviate from the Italian version of the script, as they did in Canada, and go their way instead. BMW are, of course, on a huge high after Robert Kubica secured the team’s first ever win at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve two weeks ago.
And McLaren’s Heikki Kovalainen says he is determined to get his own first win under his belt – perhaps sensing an opportunity to benefit from team-mate Hamilton’s misfortune as he contemplates starting from mid-field at best.
Hamilton is equally determined that the with the 10-place grid penalty he secured after shunting Raikkonen in the Montreal pit lane will not compromise his race.
The Magny-Cours circuit features plenty of technical challenges for drivers, including two high-speed chicanes and turn three, a long, right-handed corner that must be tackled correctly by anyone hoping to extract the maximum advantage from the following straight and Adelaide hairpin, the track’s main overtaking point.
Add the newly-confident Kubica into the mix, ready to spar with the McLarens and Ferraris on equal terms to compete for the drivers’ championship in just his second full season, and you have a volatile mix where every single one of the front-running drivers has something to prove – or something to lose.
It should be an exciting start on Sunday.
The McLaren drivers are due to drive demonstration laps of the circuit in an original 1908 Benz Grand Prix car to celegrate the 100th anniversary of Mercedes’ first race win.
And Hamilton is refusing to let his accident and subsequent grid penalty dent his self-belief: “Mentally, it’s just something that you learn to overcome quickly. It certainly won’t affect my preparations for the French Grand Prix.
“We’ve already looked at the best ways of optimising the strategy to help us move up the field and I guess I’ll just have to pass some cars if I want to get into the points!
“Magny-Cours isn’t the easiest place to overtake but it’s certainly possible. You can dive down the inside into the Adelaide Hairpin and also have a look into the penultimate corner.
“But an area we can really focus on is the strategy – Magny-Cours has a relatively short pitlane which does open up the strategic options available to us in the race.”
He says that despite the challenges he faces, and a flat run of form from team-mate Kovalainen, he believes the team can return to its winning ways:
“Although the result in Canada may have been disappointing, our overall pace was a great boost for the whole team.
“Last year, we lacked a little bit of pace in high-speed corners, but this year’s car definitely seems to have overcome those shortcomings. We are in good shape.”
Kovalainen added: “As I’ve been saying all season, I’m gradually getting to grips with this car even if the results haven’t backed it up.
“And I really enjoy Magny-Cours so I’m looking forward to making progress throughout practice and being in a very good position for the race itself… I’m still absolutely determined to get my first win under my belt”
At Honda Jenson Button is looking forward to the race, particularly after a disappointing weekend in Canada where Honda were off the pace with a low-downforce set-up.
He said: “The Circuit de Nevers is very smooth and has some fast chicanes but despite being a lot of fun to drive, it is actually quite tricky to get your lap absolutely right.
“The key to a really quick lap is getting the front end of the car working well, particularly for turns one and two. You can lose a lot of time at turn two if you have too much understeer in the car.
“You also need to have a car with good stability and good change of direction to make the most of the high speed chicanes.
“In the race, the start is particularly important and you need to position yourself well for the first corners to get a run down the straight to the Adelaide hairpin which is really the only place on the circuit where you have a real chance of overtaking.”
He said he was expecting a better weekend than he had experienced in either Canada or Monaco: “I’ve had some good results in Magny Cours previously and the race can be quite exciting.”
Team principal Ross Brawn added: “We expect the RA108 to be back on the pace of our midfield competitors in Magny Cours this weekend.
“The track at the Circuit de Nevers requires a much higher level of downforce and has a smooth surface which should suit our car much better than the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.
“I expect a stronger performance this weekend and we will be looking to get into the points on the merit of the car’s performance.”
At Red Bull David Coulthard is looking for a race-day performance to consolidate the Canada podium that opened his 2008 account in such style.
The team currently describes itself as holding “a strong fourth position in the constructors’ championship” and will presumably be looking for points contributions from both drivers to maintain that.
It says: “Magny-Cours has good memories for our Scottish driver, as this is the circuit at which David recorded what he describes as his greatest victory: a win in 2000.
“Last season saw the drivers finish here 12th (Mark) and 13th (DC).”