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The best Formula One season since… 1986? 04 Sep 2003

(L to R): Podium finishers Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) McLaren 2nd, Juan Pablo Montoya (COL) Williams 1st and Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari 3rd.
Formula One World Championship, Rd7, Monaco Grand Prix, Race Day, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, 1 June 2003

With only three rounds of the 2003 season remaining the world championship is balanced on a knife edge. Just two points separate the top three drivers and another four men are mathematically in with a shot at the title.

The contrast with last season could not be greater. In 2002 Michael Schumacher finished his campaign a mammoth 67 points clear of nearest rival and team mate Rubens Barrichello, having wrapped up his fifth world title before the end of July.

So how far back do we have to go to find a season as competitive as 2003? Eight drivers have so far won races this year. The last time this happened was in 1985, the men in question being Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Elio de Angelis, Michele Alboreto, Keke Rosberg, Nelson Piquet, Niki Lauda and Nigel Mansell.

However, in terms of the tightest championship battle, 1986 is the closer comparison. With three rounds of that season remaining Mansell was leading on 61 points, ahead of Williams team mate Piquet on 56, and McLaren's Prost on 53. And Senna wasn't out of the running either.

The story of the year had been the intense rivalry between Mansell and Piquet. Together they would take nine wins out of sixteen races, Mansell edging the Brazilian five to four.

However, while the Williams duo was slogging it out for team supremacy, Prost was quietly racking up the points too, winning in San Marino, Monaco and Austria. At the 14th round in Portugal he finished second behind Mansell to move within a point of Piquet in the standings.

At the 15th and penultimate round in Mexico, Mansell's ten-point advantage over Piquet meant he had the chance to secure the title with a race to spare. However, after qualifying third, a disastrous start by the Englishman meant he spent much of his afternoon fighting through the pack and he could only finish fifth.

Piquet faired little better, coming home fourth, a crucial two places behind Prost. The race was won by the fifth different victor of the season, Benetton's Gerhard Berger. The Austrian gambled on staying out on his hard-wearing Pirelli tyres and the payback was his first Formula One triumph.

The unexpected Mexican result ensured a dramatic three-way show down for the title at the season finale in Australia. Hot favourite was Mansell, who needed only to finish fourth to be champion, even if Prost or Piquet won the race.

In qualifying everything went to plan for the moustachioed one as he safely secured pole, with his Williams team mate sat ominously alongside him. The outsider Prost was behind Piquet on the second row, with Senna splitting the title contenders in third.

Another poor start for Mansell saw Senna charge into the lead by Turn two, with Piquet and Rosberg also slipping past the British driver. But as Senna's Lotus faded, first Piquet and then Rosberg took control at the front, with Prost also getting ahead of Mansell.

There was no let up in the drama as first Piquet spun and then Prost had to pit with a puncture. However, both men fought back to close on Mansell and at just over half distance Piquet stole second place from his team mate. Then, when Rosberg retired on lap 63 the three title contenders suddenly found themselves battling for the lead.

With Mansell looking assured of at least third place, the title was all but his. But disaster struck just a lap after Rosberg's demise when his Williams' left-rear tyre exploded at around 300 kph on the main straight. He somehow wrestled the car safely to a halt, but his chance of the championship was gone.

Unsure as to the cause of Mansell's tyre failure, Williams called Piquet in for a precautionary change, allowing Prost into the lead. Piquet chased hard, taking over ten seconds out of the Frenchman's advantage, but it wasn't enough. Prost took the chequered flag, and with it his second successive title.

Whether this year's finale in Japan proves quite so spectacular remains to be seen. But with just two points separating Schumacher, Montoya and Raikkonen, chances are high that they will still be fighting over the title when the lights go out at Suzuka next month.