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New rules but Schumacher stays on top


The joy of six could be just a step on the way to seventh heaven for Ferrari's Michael Schumacher in 2004.

The German, who had to wait until the last race of the season to replace the five stars on his cap with six gold stripes, will be aiming for a seventh Formula One title in 2004 after making history the hard way. The first driver to win six championships, overtaking the late Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio in the record books, is not done yet. If the races in 2004 are anything like this year's, the battle promises to be a thriller.

Fans who fell asleep or switched off in 2002, bored by endless Ferrari processions, stayed on the edge of their seats as Formula One ripped up the rule book and emerged reborn. Even if the end result was familiar, the revamped qualifying and scoring systems produced new winners and the closest championship in years. Schumacher, now with a record 70 wins, celebrated a fourth title in a row while the Ferrari dream team notched up an unprecedented fifth successive constructors' crown.

But the road to victory was far from smooth, both Ferrari and Schumacher making mistakes under pressure in a year that also highlighted their extraordinary resilience. Imola in April saw Schumacher at his most vulnerable as well as most determined. Rushing with brother Ralf from final qualifying at the San Marino Grand Prix to his mother's hospital bedside in Germany, he returned to take a tearful first win of the year at Ferrari's home track just hours after her death. He went on to win the next two races as well.

NEW FACES

It was to be a tough year and the writing was on the wall from the start in Australia, when there was no Ferrari driver on the podium for the first time since 1999. Instead, Schumacher nursed his damaged car home in fourth place to end a record run of 19 top-three finishes in succession.

Malaysia and Brazil, the next two races, offered more disappointment. At Sepang, Schumacher was sixth as McLaren's Kimi Räikkönen, who would remain a title rival all the way to Japan, took a first win. At Interlagos, Schumacher skidded off in a deluge.

Italian Giancarlo Fisichella won there but it took him another five days to be sure of victory in his 110th race after a timing error saw Räikkönen take the top step of the podium. Fisichella was one of eight different winners in the 16 races, more than in any season since 1982. Spain's Fernando Alonso was another, lapping Schumacher to finish first in Hungary for Renault and become -- at 22 years old -- the youngest Formula One winner. The Italian media ripped into Ferrari but the Hungarian humiliation marked another turning point as the team fired back with an impressive win at Monza after casting doubts on the legality of their rivals' tyres.

Williams faded after that, ending up runners-up again with Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher each taking two wins. Schumacher won in Indianapolis and Brazilian Rubens Barrichello, his team mate, in Japan. Barrichello also won the most remarkable race, at Silverstone in July when a kilted Irishman brandishing religious placards diced with death by running on to one of the fastest straights in motor racing.

LOW POINTS

By year's end, Schumacher was Formula One's only remaining champion as Canadian Jacques Villeneuve departed before the final race. He was followed off the stage by German Heinz-Harald Frentzen, a former race winner with Williams and Jordan.

Suzuka witnessed the highs and lows, Formula One's end-of-year celebrations contrasting with MotoGP's darkest hour when Japanese rider Daijiro Kato was killed at the season opener. Spain's Sete Gibernau, his team mate, won the next race and went on to challenge Valentino Rossi for the title but in the end the Italian was too strong.

Rallying hailed a new generation, with Subaru's Petter Solberg emerging as Norway's first rally champion while former greats Tommi Mäkinen and Colin McRae departed. Citroen ordered Frenchman Sébastien Loeb to sacrifice his personal dreams and won the manufacturers' crown in their first full season, ending Peugeot's run of success.

New Zealander Scott Dixon won the IRL title in the United States while Canadian Paul Tracy was champion of the financially-struggling CART series.

The death of U.S. driver Tony Renna in October and a series of big accidents cast a pall over IRL but U.S. racing also produced two of the year's emotional highlights. One was Brazilian Gil de Ferran returning from a big accident to win the Indianapolis 500 before retiring with a win in his last race. The other was Alex Zanardi. Showing an indomitable spirit, the Italian returned to Germany's Eurospeedway and drove 13 laps of the circuit where two years previously he lost his legs and almost died.

"I learned for sure that every one of us has a hidden tank of energies that just comes out when you need it," Zanardi said.

By Alan Baldwin

© Reuters


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