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Review of a memorable year in F1

2003 was a good year for Formula One. We had some real racing, a decent fight for both championships and some much-needed unpredictability after the mind-numbingly dull 2002 season.

A combination of the new rules, youngsters coming to the fore and increased competitiveness from the teams made 2003 a breath of fresh air in what was becoming a rather stale state of affairs.

Michael Schumacher took his sixth world championship, but this time he had to really fight for it. Until the final stages of the season it was by no means certain that Schumacher would actually win the title -- which is precisely what F1 needed. Ferrari produced its usual admirable reliability but it had to battle every race to fend off challengers. Schumacher being lapped is a very rare occurrence but it happened twice this season -- the Scuderia's former untouchable performance was matched and sometimes bettered in 2003.

McLaren showed its hand first with David Coulthard's victory and Kimi Räikkönen's third at Melbourne. Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello had lined up one-two on the grid but Ferrari couldn't even manage the podium. For Coulthard, however, it was to be a long haul before he was back on the podium again: 11 races later in Germany. Räikkönen, on the other hand, was rarely off it. The Finn had ten podium finishes and ended the season just two points shy of Schumacher.

Räikkönen took his maiden F1 victory in the following race, at Malaysia, and another rising star, Renault's Fernando Alonso, also scored two firsts: pole position and his first podium, for third. Again, no Schumacher on the podium -- what on earth was going on? Barrichello did manage second, but Williams, who had Juan Pablo Montoya second in Australia, only got Ralf Schumacher into the points, in fourth.

With two races complete, the critics were already claiming that Ferrari faced a crisis situation. Hardly a crisis, but it was surely a surprise to have Michael not on the podium so far. Coulthard failed to finish at Sepang and McLaren's fortunes were clearly split, a situation that continued for most of the season. Williams, too, was unsettled and Renault was emerging as a contender to fight with the big three. Indeed, outside the top four teams, only Jaguar's Mark Webber and BAR's Jenson Button were regularly in the points.

The Brazilian Grand Prix was as surprising as it was chaotic. Torrential rain caused havoc and turn three finished many a driver's race, including Michael's. Pole man Barrichello retired from his ninth home race in succession when he ran out of fuel while leading. A huge blunder by Ferrari and with Michael's watery end at turn three, it was the first double DNF for the team since 1999.

The entertainment was bought to an abrupt and ugly end when first Webber, then Alonso, crashed hugely at the entry to the pit straight, red-flagging the race. Thankfully they were both unharmed -- and then there was the confusion over who had actually won! Jordan driver Giancarlo Fisichella's jubilation at his maiden victory was swiftly dampened when Räikkönen was declared the winner on lap count-back. The decision was reversed a few days later, leaving Kimi to hand the trophy over to Giancarlo at Imola.

Ferrari breathed a sigh of relief after Michael won the San Marino GP but Räikkönen was ever-present, second on the podium and giving the reigning champion something to think about. Williams managed to get both cars in the points but was still struggling for results. Michael followed up with a victory in Spain for a little breathing space when Räikkönen shunted the back of Antonio Pizzonia's Jaguar on the grid. But Michael's win was overshadowed by local hero Alonso coming second -- the young guns perpetually reminded the experienced campaigners of their presence this year.

Michael made it three in a row in Austria, again with Räikkönen shadowing him in second, and the early mid-season saw Ferrari return to form. Michael won four races and Barrichello was on the podium four times but after Canada there came another struggle. Williams suddenly woke up: between Monaco and Germany, Ralf and Montoya took four wins and four second places between them. In comparison, Ferrari managed two victories and three third places.

Montoya's win at Monaco was Williams' first in the principality for 20 years but the team was still lagging compared to McLaren (who jumped ahead of Ferrari in the standings) and the Scuderia, both of whom were nearly 20 points ahead. Come Germany, five races later, Montoya and Ralf had two wins each and a string of podium finishes that put Williams ahead of McLaren and just two points behind Ferrari.

Räikkönen also had a less than stellar mid-season and dropped to third in the drivers' standings, while Montoya climbed to second behind Michael. While the focus was on the frontrunners, Renault was working hard -- Alonso was ahead of the far more experienced Coulthard and the team had already cemented its fourth place in the constructors' championship. Mark Webber had his best run over the summer, with five points-finishes in six races, while Button was managing minor points positions just about every other race.

One of the highlights of the mid-season was little Team Minardi taking provisional pole in France! Mixed weather conditions caused the Friday qualifying session to be turned upside-down -- early rain gave the front runners problems but by the time Jos Verstappen and Justin Wilson took to the track they were on dry tyres. Verstappen ended up on provisional pole with Wilson second, although Justin's time was disallowed for an overweight car. While not a representative result, for Minardi it was truly worth celebrating.

The memorable event of the summer was the British Grand Prix. Barrichello triumphed in an action-packed race, with more overtaking in a single afternoon than there had been in years. A lunatic running down Hangar Straight gave cause for a safety car period, after which it was non-stop racing all the way to the line.

Montoya was victorious in Germany but Räikkönen fell foul of a crash with Ralf and Barrichello that put him out. Michael couldn't take advantage, managing a paltry seventh, and heading into the autumn the title fight was still wide open.

Hungary saw Alonso top his superb progress through the season with a faultless drive to his first win. The Spaniard broke Bruce McLaren's 44-year-old record to become the youngest-ever driver to take a race victory. Fernando led from pole to chequered flag, with Räikkönen in second and Montoya coming home third. All hail the rise of the young guns! Michael scraped a single point in eighth, Barrichello didn't score and Coulthard was fifth -- the new generation firmly put the old in the shadows.

Just one point then separated Michael, Montoya and Räikkönen, and Williams led the constructors by nine points from Ferrari. Ralf was still just in touch, but a crash in testing put paid to any slim chance he might have had. Forced to sit out the Italian GP, Schumacher Junior was out of the running and while Alonso, Barrichello and Coulthard were mathematically still in with a chance, it was down to a three-way fight in the final three races.

Michael pulled his socks up and won in Italy. Come America he faced his first chance to clinch the title. Räikkönen only finished fourth in Italy although Montoya was second, which opened the gap between Michael and the Colombian to three points. If Michael won at Indianapolis, Montoya finished lower than fifth and Räikkönen lower than second, the German could say hello to title number six. It seemed a tall order but the result was not as expected.

Michael did indeed win, but Montoya's chances disappeared when he pushed Barrichello's Ferrari into a spin and got a drive-through penalty for his efforts. To make matters worse, the bad weather forced the Colombian into tyre changes while Michael's Bridgestones fared much better in the wet. It seemed the previously unlikely event that Michael would claim the title was going to happen -- until Räikkönen refused to give in. The young Finn clawed his way to the second place he needed to keep the championship going to the last round at Suzuka.

Indy proved an unexpected bonus for Sauber. The mixed conditions and other people's misfortunes saw Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Nick Heidfeld finish third and fifth respectively, propelling the team to fifth in the constructors' standings -- to the dismay of Jaguar, BAR and Toyota, who had been scrapping for the position through the mid-season.

Räikkönen may have kept things going, but for him to snatch the title from under Michael's nose in Japan was an unlikely scenario. Kimi needed to win and have Michael not score a point at all. As it happened, Räikkönen came so close to making it -- he finished second to Barrichello and Michael just managed to scrape the single point he needed in eighth. It was a scrappy performance that gave Michael title number six, but at the end of the day, and the season, it was enough.

Of course, there were other drivers doing other things outside the top four teams -- whose drivers made up the top eight in the standings at the end of the season -- but to mention everyone's activities would take far too long. Webber and Button, as previously mentioned, were noticeable for racking up points, albeit in mostly minor positions. The pair completed the top ten of the drivers' standings on equal points, although Button was ahead due to a better finish in Japan.

BAR, Jaguar and Toyota made noticeable steps forward and although Sauber finished sixth, the team's lucky result at Indianapolis was a big factor. Frentzen did manage a couple of reasonable results but it wasn't enough for Sauber to keep him, nor Heidfeld. Sauber and Jordan had a dismal season; Fisichella's win in Brazil was circumstantial and both teams were lacklustre and generally uncompetitive.

If Räikkönen had kept the Brazil win, would it have made the difference between second in the championship and claiming the crown? Perhaps. But 'what ifs' are redundant -- people say that if the points system hadn't been changed, if qualifying hadn't been changed, whatever, things would have been different. So what? We had a great season, the best for a long time, no matter what the contributing factors were. Pontificating on what might have been is pointless.

Next year, we hope we can expect more of the same battles. Undoubtedly Michael will be aiming to defend his record-breaking title run but it's likely to be even tougher in 2004. This season showed that Ferrari has progressed almost to the point where there's little room for further improvement, whereas McLaren, Williams and Renault have the scope to at least equal Ferrari's performance.

The time is drawing closer for the new generation of drivers to take over. Michael, Barrichello, Coulthard: their task is getting harder every year. It seems Jacques Villeneuve's time is already at an end. Räikkönen, Montoya, Ralf and Alonso are eager for their chance to shine and their luminance is growing ever brighter. Behind them, the likes of Webber and Button are already clawing their way forward. It's impossible to predict what might happen in 2004 but let's hope Formula One produces as much entertainment as this year.

© Nikki Reynolds - MNI

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