French GP preview

Lewis HamiltonAs paddocks go, this one has as much atmosphere as a supermarket car park on a bank holiday. You know there’s action going on somewhere, but it ain’t here.

Magny-Cours has always been like this. When we first came here in 1991, James Hunt marched in – late as usual with a pack of Marlboro in the back pocket of his cut-off denims – and said simply: ‘There’s nothing here, is there? No people, no birds, nothing…’

The 1976 World Champion wasn’t wrong. And nothing has changed since.

Trouble is, Magny-Cours is in the middle of nowhere and the circuit reflects it. Some drivers – Giancarlo Fisichella and Timo Glock, for example – are quite open about their dislike of the place. Others – Lewis Hamilton, Robert Kubica, Heikki Kovalainen – say they enjoy the challenge of the interesting mix of fast curves and quick chicanes where the car needs to be able to change direction quickly.

Magny-Cours, for all its apparent simplicity, is actually very tricky – as Kovalainen will confirm after a dusty high-speed ride at the exit of the 150mph Estoril curve this morning. The Finn, third fastest, was trying to match Lewis Hamilton’s second fastest lap at the time. In the end there was only 0.05 seconds and sidepods full of gravel between them.

There was not a soul in sight at 08.30am when Kovalainen walked down to the lower paddock where the motorhomes (if you could call these elaborate structures such a thing) are arranged in a ring, the F1 equivalent of cowboys arranging their wagons in a circle to keep the Indians at bay. Quite appropriate here because the public cannot get within shouting distance of the fence, never mind inside it.

Kovalainen is the main man at McLaren insofar as he represents the team’s best hope for victory on Sunday. Hamilton, at best, will start from 11th on the grid as he pays the price for failing to see the red light in Montreal two weeks ago.

The stories here this morning are about drivers possibly going on strike over the cost of their superlicences (absolutely no chance of a strike since this lot couldn’t agree on the time of day, never mind militant action that might offend their bosses) and the suggestion that Bernie Ecclestone is in talks with Donington about the possibility of switching the British Grand Prix from Silverstone.

You could write off the latter as the usual seasonal scare for the BRDC and it’s stuffy committee but I’m told there might be something in the story. Tom Wheatcroft, the owner of Donington, is a good mate of Ecclestone and Wheatie would not be averse to letting Bernie have a free reign to do what he wants.

That’s the only way the necessary £25 million or so would be spent to bring Donington up to scratch. If you believe Bernie would not put his hand that far down his deep pocket, then think again. Ecclestone would spend twice that amount to screw the BRDC while apparently ‘saving’ the British Grand Prix. And there’s one or two F1 people here who would quietly enjoy seeing him do it.

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