Copyright © 1997, 2014 Glenn B. Manishin.
The 2001 Formula One season began with new faces joining the F1 circus. French tire manufacturer Michelin returned to the series, two future World Champions started at the back of the grid in the form of Minardi’s Fernando Alonso and Sauber’s Kimi Räikkönen, and another former CART/IndyCar titleist, Juan Pablo Montoya, was signed by Williams, taking the team’s first seat from young Englishman Jenson Button — who in turn had replaced Alex Zanardi at the end of 2000. Button’s 6th-place finish in the prior year’s Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos in São Paulo made him, at the time, the youngest driver ever to score a Formula One championship point, and thus presumptive heir apparent for the British F1 faithful as well. After a long period during which traction control was banned, the FIA decided to re-allow its use in 2001 — as of the Spanish GP since the smaller teams requested a delay for development — because it was becoming increasingly difficult to prove that the software in digital ECUs (Engine Control Units) was not being used to replicate traction control functions.
Yet the results were almost exactly the same. Michael Schumacher won the drivers’ crown with a record margin of 58 points, achieving nine victories and five 2nd places, and together with second-year teammate Rubens Barichello Scuderia Ferrari handily won the constructors’ award. While not quite as dominant as would be his 2002 and 2004 seasons, ’01 stands as the second in a remarkable streak of five straight World Championships for the German, something not even the great Juan Manuel Fangio ever accomplished. Schumacher also scored his 52nd Grand Prix victory at Spa, putting him above Alain Prost’s previous record tally of career victories. Button, meanwhile, finished the year with a mere two points, his best result being a solitary 5th in Germany. Renault team principal Flavio Briatore observed after that disappointing performance, “Either he shows he’s super-good or he leaves the top echelon of drivers.” Speculation was that with a playboy reputation, Button might not become just the 3rd British World Champion since James Hunt himself in 1976.
Grand Prix motor racing in 2001 also saw several poignant ends. Driving in F1 for the last time was Jean Alesi, who passed the iconic 200 start mark shortly before his final GP in Japan. It was the end for famed British Formula One television announcer Murray Walker too, who gave his final commentary, and “Murrayism,” at the United States Grand Prix. That would ironically also prove to be Mika Häkkinen’s
Schumacher stands as the most complete driver in Formula One. Apart from the dazzling car control, Michael ruled his Italian team with a psychological rod of iron, taking as much responsibility for technical decisions as he did for capitalizing on them during the race. . . . Jackie Stewart believes that the man who eventually eclipses Schumacher is not yet even in F1. He could be right.
Autocourse 1997-98 — Alan Henry
last victory in F1, as an announced one-year sabbatical turned permanent. And Formula One teams Prost and Benetton disappeared as well from the sport at the end of season; Prost folding due to a lack of financing while Team Benetton was re-christened as Renault after the French manufacturer bought the organization outright.
In its third year on the Grand Prix calendar, Malaysia’s Sepang Circuit produced one of the more interesting races of the season, as the tropical storms that would soon become the track’s trademark hit in earnest. Conditions were so bad that the two Ferraris of Schumacher and Barrichello spun off almost simultaneously at the same corner. Astonishingly, they both recovered to score a Ferrari 1-2 victory, since for most of the race the F2001 chassis was nearly five seconds faster than any other car in the field. Other season highlights included Montoya’s stunning three poles in the last six races and his emotional maiden win at Monza, where the Italian GP was the first F1 race run after the terrorist attacks of September 11 in New York and Washington, DC. During that subdued weekend — no champagne on the podium — the Ferraris appeared without any sponsorship livery, painted with matte black nose-cones in remembrance, while sadly, a day earlier in Germany, Zanardi was critically injured in a savage, high-speed CART oval race crash, leading to the emergency amputation of both legs.
Astoundingly, in the 2002 season Michael Schumacher and Ferrari simply one-upped themselves. Schumacher finished first or second in every race except for the Malaysian Grand Prix — where he was classified 3rd — thus making the podium each outing. He was victorious in a brilliant 11 GPs, surpassing the previous record of nine wins, jointly held by himself (1995, 2000 and 2001) and Nigel Mansell (1992). He would also set the mark for shortest time in which the World Championship had ever been clinched, securing the title with a win in July at the French Grand Prix with six races remaining on the calendar. In the German GP at the newly refurbished Hockenheimring — no more forest straights through the trees but a stadium section filled with 100,000 adoring fans — Michael dominated the entire weekend, taking pole position, race victory and fastest lap in the all-conquering Ferrari F2002. The Monaco GP saw David Coulthard emerge victorious to take his and McLaren’s only victory of the 2002 season, out-pacing Montoya (on pole) at the run down to Ste. Devote and then holding Schumacher at bay for the remainder of the outing, an absolutely faultless performance. The Canadian GP at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve then witnessed Michael Schumacher notch up Ferrari’s 150th victory in Formula One. Schumacher secured the drivers’ title by a record 67-point margin over teammate Barrichello, beating his own record from 2001, and Ferrari amassed as many championship points as all the rest of the F1 constructors put together. For purists, that still could not atone for the Scuderia’s clumsy use of team orders — something with which Maranello has struggled repeatedly over the years — most controversially at the seasons’s 6th round in Austria, when the team directed Rubens to let Michael pass for the race-lead near the end, Scumacher awkwardly repenting by allowing Rubens to share the top step on the podium.
Elsewhere, Kimi Räikkönen was released by Sauber and allowed to sign on with McLaren, where he took Häkkinen’s seat — but retired in 10 of the season’s 17 races, overshadowing four podiums in his other seven starts — and Felipe Massa was recruited by Sauber to take Räikkönen’s place. Fernando Alonso left Minardi after an impressive 2001 campaign, joining Renault as a test driver, while his former Minardi seat was taken over by Australian Mark Webber. Tom Walkinshaw’s Orange Arrows team suffered financial collapse after the German GP and did not take part in any of the remaining races. Later, the team’s attempt to register for 2003 was rejected by the FIA. In their checkered history, Arrows set the unenviable record of 382 Grands Prix without a win — although since at 97 of of its earlier races the team had officially been known as the Footwork team, Minardi (present-day Scuderia Toro Rosso) holds the record for the most Formula One races by a single marque without a victory, 349.
Bewteen the dry, warm late afternoon of 12 March 2000 at Albert Park, Melbourne, and the dry, sunny late afternoon of 10 October 2004 at Suzuka, Michael Schumacher and Ferrari imposed their will on Formula One so completely that nothing like it had ever ben seen before. Five years earlier a rare conjunction had been reached: a team with resources to do whatever it considered necessary; a great driver now mature and at the height of his powers; key personnel at the height of their ingenuity. Through it all walked the craggy figure of Schumacher himself, seemingly a mystery within a mystery.
Michael Schumacher: The Whole Story — Christopher Hilton
Ferrari’s dominance continued unabated in 2003, a season in which the FIA tinkered, yet again, with the sport’s technical regulations. One-lap qualifying was introduced as a way for smaller teams to get more television exposure. Optional Friday testing at Grand Prix events was introduced in exchange for fewer miles on stand-alone test days. This was intended to give less well-financed teams a cheaper alternative to off-season testing, which was to be restricted even further in 2004. Only one type of rain tire was allowed for wet races. Cars were to start races with the same fuel load used in qualifying (although not required to be disclosed publicly for several years), effectively making Saturday’s Q2 session the opening stint of the race from the standpoint of fuel strategy. And most significantly, the point scoring system was extended — from 10, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1 for the first six finishers at each race to 10, 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 for the top eight drivers — in an attempt to make Formula One’s title contests closer.
The result was indeed a much tighter championship battle, in which Shumacher and Räikkönen ended separated by a mere two points, although the “Ice Man” won only one race in his McLaren to Schumacher’s six in his Ferrari, with eight different drivers hoisting the Moet — but yet another World Championship for the German and another constructors’ championship for the Prancing Horse of Maranello. The year started with a win for Coulthard in Melbourne on a wet-dry afternoon in which tire selection was problematic, remarkably the first time since Nürburgring 1999 there wasn’t a Ferrari on the podium. Notable races also included a chaotic Brazilian Grand Prix, which was plagued by monsoon conditions, the British GP, where the historic Silverstone circuit was memorably invaded by deranged priest Neil Horan, who ran onto fast Hangar Straight during the race itself wearing a green kilt and waving incomprehensible religious signs, and Fernando Alonso’s first GP victory at the Hungaroring, winning on that tight Budapest circuit known for processional racing from his second career pole in the Renault. On the other side of the equation, after a string of disappointing results Jacques Villeneuve was replaced at BAR by test driver Takuma Sato for the Japanese Grand Prix. Jacques would later join Renault in 2004 as a replacement driver, sign a multi-year contract at Sauber for 2005 (only to be replaced in 2006) and in 2009 have his quest to start a new F1 team rejected summarily by the FIA, sadly never regaining his winning form of 1996 and ’97.
Finally in 2004, Michael Schumacher’s unsurpassed dominance would reach its crescendo. After the nail-biting finish to the 2003 season, many pundits predicted that ’04 would be a closely-fought affair. They could not have been more wrong. This was the F1 season in which Schumi scored an amazing 12 wins in the first 13 races — eventually coming in first at a record 13 races — while cruising to an incredible seventh and (almost surely) his last driving World Championship. The sequence of consecutive wins was broken, rudely, at Monaco, where he qualified on the second row and, leading, was struck from behind by Montoya in the tunnel under the Safety Car. Michael’s brother Ralf Schumacher suffered a massive accident during the United States GP at Indianapolis and was out of action for six races. The 2004 Formula One season ushered in the first of a string of new regulations mandating reusable car components; each driver was limited to just to one engine for the entire Grand Prix weekend, on pain of a 10-spot grid penalty. The F1 calendar featured two new events, the Bahrain and the Chinese Grands Prix, held on two newly built — and altogether boring — Hermann Tilke designed circuits at Sakhir and Shanghai. It was the first F1 season with more races outside Europe, with eight GPs held in the Americas, Asia and Oceania. The Brazilian Grand Prix was moved from its traditional early season slot to become the season finale, whereas the US Grand Prix was switched from its previous date in late September to late June as a back-to-back race with the Canadian GP. As part of a global restructuring and cost-cutting exercise, Ford announced during the season that the company would not be racing in F1 during 2005, also selling its storied Cosworth divisions. Ford’s Jaguar team was bought by energy drink maker Red Bull and continued to compete in Formula One as Red Bull Racing. (The only exit in ’04 was the Austrian Grand Prix, jettisoned by Bernie Ecclestone after seven years at the A1-Ring, the modified old Österreichring.) The last race of the 2004 season, in Brazil, saw a curious symmetry, as Montoya’s Williams-BMW outpaced future teammate Kimi Raikkonen’s McLaren-Mercedes in a battle that was so close that on one occasion they ran down the pit lane side by side after refueling. Anyone who predicted in ’04 that this would be the last Grand Prix victory for Frank Williams’ F1 team would have been derided at the time, but totally prescient.
For Michael’s Schumacher’s incredible career, all one needs is these numbers: 7, 68, 76, 91, 1369. They are, respectively, the number of World Championships, pole positions, fastest laps, Grand Prix victories and points scored. All records, by a wide margin, over anyone else, ever. Schumacher may or may not have been the best driver in Formula One history. There is no denying he was the most successful. Michael dominated his Scuderia Ferrari, and the entire sport, so thoroughly that an entire generation of race drivers had only ever known Schumacher himself as world driving champion. The Schumacher Era of F1 was so one-sided that, to casual TV fans and those less knowledgeable about Grand Prix racing, it had become simply boring. Metronomic.
In response — the cynical thought more in retaliation — FIA again revised its technical regulations for 2005 to force aerodynamicists to be even more ingenious. In a bid to cut speeds, the rules robbed the cars of a chunk of downforce by raising the front wing, bringing the rear wing forward and modifying the rear diffuser profile. Racecar designers quickly clawed back much of the loss with a variety of intricate and novel solutions, such as the “horn” winglets first seen on the McLaren MP4-20. Every surface of a modern Formula One car, from the shape of the suspension arms to that of the driver’s helmet, has its aerodynamic effects considered, especially controlling disrupted air, where the flow separates from the body, creating turbulence and increasing drag. Look, for instance, to the vertical end-plates fitted to wings to prevent vortices forming and to the diffuser plates mounted low at the back of the gearbox, which help to re-equalize pressure of faster-flowing air that has passed under the car and would otherwise create a low-pressure “balloon” dragging at the rear.
At Interlagos in 2006, the immense crowd saluted Massa as he went into his final lap, charged moments because no Brazilian had won his own GP since that other Paulista, Senna. Schumacher took the Ferrari to its limit on his own final lap as if he wanted to beat the fastest lap he had just set, leaving Grand Prix racing with one ultimate, immortal gesture. Alonso came home second, no drama and no histrionics. just a proper professional winning a second consecutive World Championship.
Autocourse: 60 Years of World Championship Grand Prix Racing — Alan Henry
In F1, of course, nothing lasts forever, as even the great Schumacher himself was soon to find out. Formula One in 2005 thus saw something different, the glimpse of a new, post-Ferrari era when 22 year-old Fernando Alonso — now racing for Renault, the successor to Schumacher’s former team — burst forth to challenge the legendären Rennfahrer himself. From the word go, Alonso looked like a potential Grand Prix winner. In ’03 he had taken pole at Malaysia, claiming his first podium finish, hounded Schumacher to a second place at Circuit de Catalunya and, at the Hungaroring, became the youngest GP winner in the official history of F1, besting by three months Bruce McLaren’s mark from the 1959 U.S. Grand Prix at Sebring. In 2005, Formula One quickly devolved to Alonso and Schumacher. By the German GP, round 12, they’d won every race between them except Malaysia, which fell to Fernando’s teammate Giarncarlo Fischella. But Alonso took it up a notch, overtaking Schumacher by wining at Imola in his R25 from the front and holding Michael off brilliantly at the U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis to become the then-youngest World Champion since Emerson Fittipaldi, earning a sloppy, wet kiss from Renault’s Flavio Briatore in return. First signing a contract with Ron Dennis to move to McLaren in 2007, Alonso repeated the title march for Renault in the 2006 season, a year in which the scream of 3.0 litre 20,000 RPM V10 engines disappeared from F1 in favor of 2.4-lire V8s, and in which Ferrari and Schumacher scandalized the F1 fraternity by feigning mechanical trouble to literally park in the middle of Monaco’s Anthony Noghes corner, ruining Alonso’s pole lap and sending Schumacher’s F2006 to the back of the starting grid.
Oh, and Michael Schumacher retired. Since 1996, when Schumacher arrived to rescue the Scuderia, Ferrari had scored 1,709 points in the Constructors’ Championship; in the ten years before there had been but 572. Schumacher took Ferrari to a yet another mythical victory in the ’06 Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September — where the podium ceremony was from the movies, Michael embracing Todt above a sea of thousands of Tifosi overrunning the track like a giant, throbbing red carpet — and then walked off the Formula One stage, delivering a final (76th) fast lap in the season’s finale in Interlagos, won by new teammate Felipe Massa. Schumacher had devastated every important record posted since the F1 World Championship began in 1950. You can argue forever, and many still do, about relative merits and where this slew of records really leaves Schumacher. But the reality was that with the Schumacher Era officially closed, Formula One would venture once again into uncharted waters in 2007.