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2003 season review - Hungary to Japan 27 Oct 2003

1st Place Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault R23 punches the air on the podium as he claims his first place
Formula One World Championship, Rd13, Hungarian Grand Prix, Race Day, Hungaroring, Hungary, 24 August 2003

Hungary, August 24
Winner Fernando Alonso, 2nd Kimi Raikkonen, 3rd Juan Pablo Montoya
Pole position Fernando Alonso
Fastest lap Juan Pablo Montoya


No one doubted the nimble Renault R23 would be well suited to the tight confines of the Hungaroring, but few predicted it taking victory. Alonso became the youngest-ever Grand Prix winner, as well as the eighth different driver to triumph in 2003 - the last time that had happened was back in 1985.

Though dry, track conditions seemed to vary minute by minute on Saturday, with several drivers falling prey to the dusty Hungaroring surface in qualifying. Alonso wasn't one of them, the Spaniard out-pacing Ralf Schumacher for pole, with Webber securing another excellent third for Jaguar. Most puzzled man of the afternoon was Michael Schumacher, who, having topped the warm-up session little over an hour earlier, could only qualify eighth, despite no apparent mistakes.

The key mover off the start line was Webber, who, on the 'clean' side of the track, leapt into second, and as Alonso pulled away up front the Australian effectively dictated the (slower) pace of the chasing pack. When Raikkonen finally got past the Jaguar on lap 14 it was already too late. Alonso was away and such was his speed that he went on to lap everyone up to seventh, including Michael Schumacher, who came away from a miserable weekend for Ferrari with just one point. Team mate Barrichello crashed out from a likely third place with a rare suspension failure.

Williams managed to capitalise on Ferrari's misfortune, despite a far from perfect race in which both Montoya and Ralf Schumacher survived spins. Their third and fourth places meant the team seized the lead in the constructors' championship, while in the drivers' standings just two points split the top three. Jordan gave Hungarian Zsolt Baumgartner his Grand Prix debut after Firman was sidelined following a practice crash.

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Italy, September 14
Winner Michael Schumacher, 2nd Juan Pablo Montoya, 3rd Rubens Barrichello
Pole position Michael Schumacher
Fastest lap Michael Schumacher


The Monza test ahead of the Italian Grand Prix saw some of the most frenetic
development activity of the season, especially from Ferrari, who knew it was effectively their last chance to find an advantage over Williams. The build-up to the race was also surrounded in controversy regarding Michelin's front tyres, which, it was alleged, became illegally wide once used. There were no official protests or penalties, but Michelin did choose to play safe and hurriedly introduced a slightly narrower tyre.

The top three teams all looked strong in qualifying, but Ferrari's intensive testing looked to have paid off, with Schumacher taking pole ahead of Montoya, Barrichello and Raikkonen. Marc Gene, standing in for Ralf Schumacher who was still suffering the after effects of a testing shunt, made a superb Grand Prix return, qualifying fifth.

The top five on the grid finished the race in the same order. In a dramatic opening lap Montoya came close to passing Schumacher, but couldn't quite make it. Despite staying in touch with the Ferrari to the flag, the Colombian never got another overtaking opportunity. He too was put under pressure at the start by Trulli, who blasted his way to third from P6 on the grid only to retire with mechanical problems before the end of lap one.

Schumacher's win, his 50th for Ferrari, was vital for both his and the team's championship hopes. He extended his still narrow lead over Montoya to three points, while Ferrari closed again to within four points of Williams. Meanwhile, Raikkonen's fourth place was enough to keep him firmly in the hunt.

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USA, September 28
Winner Michael Schumacher, 2nd Kimi Raikkonen, 3rd Heinz-Harald Frentzen
Pole position Kimi Raikkonen
Fastest lap Michael Schumacher


Qualifying at Indianapolis threw up a perfect grid for the ultimate championship showdown. Raikkonen, the title outsider, took a superb pole ahead of Barrichello and an impressive Panis; Montoya, arguably the odds-on favourite, qualified fourth, while Michael Schumacher languished in seventh behind brother Ralf and Alonso, leaving him a lot of work to do on Sunday.

In the end the weather proved more critical than grid positions. Michael Schumacher's excellent start put him third by the end of lap one, then as the rain grew heavier so his Bridgestone wet-weather tyres came into their own. For 17 laps mid race the German was 2003 World Champion, until early leader Raikkonen, who had dropped to fourth place, calmly clawed his way back to second as the track dried again to keep his slim title hopes alive.

However, Montoya's championship aspirations effectively ended on lap three when he collided with Barrichello, putting the Brazilian out of the race, and dropping him to eighth. That was compounded by a drive-through penalty after the stewards deemed the Colombian responsible for an avoidable collision. He eventually finished sixth.

Sauber, like Schumacher, made the most of their Bridgestones. The team led a Grand Prix for the first time, with Frentzen finishing on the podium in third and Heidfeld fifth behind Trulli. The result rocketed them from ninth to fifth in the constructors' standings. At Jaguar, Wilson took eighth place for his first ever point.

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Japan, October 12
Winner Rubens Barrichello, 2nd Kimi Raikkonen, 3rd David Coulthard
Pole position Rubens Barrichello
Fastest lap Ralf Schumacher


On the surface Michael Schumacher had little to worry about heading to Suzuka. A single point or Raikkonen failing to win would be enough to secure him a record sixth drivers' title. But the German knew there was still a risk - especially with his rival having nothing to lose (McLaren were already out of contention for the constructors' championship). And of course he had the team to consider - Williams were only three points behind Ferrari.

Just when he needed it least, the weather dealt Schumacher a bad hand in qualifying, leaving him down in 14th place. Raikkonen, running that little bit earlier in the session, was less affected and managed eighth. Schumacher and Ferrari at least had an insurance policy though - Barrichello on pole. Montoya took the other front row slot, ahead of the two Toyota's, who had a dream session in front of the team's home crowd. Williams team mate Ralf Schumacher was less fortunate, spinning off as conditions became untenable at the end of the hour. Last man out Trulli didn't even bother starting his flying lap.

More Japanese interest was added to proceedings by the unexpectedly early BAR debut of Takuma Sato, who qualified 13th. It followed the departure from the team of Jacques Villeneuve, the former champion electing to miss the season finale after learning he was to be replaced for 2004.

Come the race and Montoya seized an early lead from Barrichello only for his BMW engine to expire on lap nine. Alonso then pressured the Ferrari until his Renault V10 went the same way just eight laps later. Raikkonen took up the chase but in the end had no answer to Barrichello and had to settle for second.

Further back Michael Schumacher was having a somewhat scrappy race. Twice the champion elect made contact with other cars and twice he survived. First a failed passing attempt on Sato saw him nudge the rear of the BAR. Later he locked up as he tried to pass da Matta and brother Ralf ran into his rear. In the end he came through it all to take eighth place and that prized sixth world crown.

Ferrari also took a record fifth successive constructors' title after Williams' failure to score. A haul of eight points for BAR (Button was fourth, Sato sixth) gave them the closely-fought fifth place in the standings over Sauber, who saw Nick Heidfeld narrowly miss out on a point in ninth.

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Summary
Ferrari had expected Hungary to be a difficult Grand Prix, but not even they could have predicted such a disastrous result, with Barrichello failing to finish and Schumacher taking just a single point - Bridgestone's only one of the race. As Renault and Alonso delighted in victory, and Williams moved eight points clear in the constructors' standings, Ferrari knew the week of testing ahead of Monza was their only hope - they had to find something big, and find it fast.

And that is exactly what they did - it may not have been enough to truly eclipse their rivals, but it did make them competitive again, the performance gain sufficient for Schumacher's superior driving prowess to steer the F2003-GA to that crucial Italian Grand Prix win.

Not everyone expected the team to maintain that momentum though, insisting that Monza, with its emphasis on power rather than handling, was always going to suit Ferrari anyway. However, with the changeable weather playing into his hands, Schumacher did it again at Indianapolis. And with his chief rival Montoya falling by the wayside, suddenly that sixth title was firmly within his grasp. He was left needing just a single point from Suzuka, the circuit at which he was the acknowledged master.

Only Kimi Raikkonen stood in Schumacher's way. And while some had labelled Montoya's Indianapolis driver impetuous and immature, no such accusations could be levelled at Raikkonen at Suzuka. The Finn lived up to his 'Iceman' nickname, with an impeccable drive to second. But with Barrichello uncatchable ahead and Schumacher finishing eighth, he was ultimately left two points shy of the new, six-times champion.

Ferrari were champions again too, for a record fifth time in succession. Their car proved more reliable than that of their rivals; the team's strategy was usually spot on; and their drivers made fewer errors. The fact that the F2003-GA was not on many occasions the fastest car helped make for a gripping season and Schumacher's narrowest title triumph since his maiden crown back in 1994. And with Williams, McLaren and Renault so close on performance, and with the likes of Raikkonen, Montoya and Alonso growing in maturity and pace with every race, next season could be even tighter.

Final standings - 2003 drivers' championship
1. Michael Schumacher, Ferrari - 93
2. Kimi Raikkonen, McLaren - 91
3. Juan Pablo Montoya, Williams - 82
4. Rubens Barrichello, Ferrari - 65
5. Ralf Schumacher, Williams - 58
6. Fernando Alonso, Renault - 55
7. David Coulthard, McLaren - 51
8. Jarno Trulli, Renault - 33
9. Jenson Button, BAR - 17
10. Mark Webber, Jaguar - 17
11. Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Sauber - 13
12. Giancarlo Fisichella, Jordan - 12
13. Cristiano da Matta, Toyota - 10
14. Nick Heidfeld, Sauber - 6
15. Olivier Panis, Toyota - 6
16. Jacques Villeneuve, BAR - 6
17. Marc Gene, Williams - 4
18. Takuma Sato, BAR - 3
19. Ralph Firman, Jordan - 1
20. Justin Wilson, Jaguar - 1

Final standings - 2003 constructors' championship
1. Ferrari - 158
2. Williams - 144
3. McLaren - 142
4. Renault - 88
5. BAR - 26
6. Sauber - 19
7. Jaguar - 18
8. Toyota - 16
9. Jordan - 13
10. Minardi - 0

See also: 2003 season review (1) - Australia to San Marino
See also: 2003 season review (2) - Spain to Canada
See also: 2003 season review (3) - Europe to Germany