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Focus - the Ferrari F2003-GA versus its rivals 04 Nov 2003

Michael Schumacher (GER) BMW Williams FW25 won the race.
United States Grand Prix, Indianapolis, USA, 28 September 2003

The F2003-GA propelled Michael Schumacher to a record sixth drivers' championship in 2003 and also gave Ferrari a fifth consecutive constructors' crown. But was the car really the class of the field, or was the Williams FW25 or the McLaren MP4-17D ultimately the better machine?

Introduced at the fifth round of the season in Spain, the F2003-GA won on its debut and went on to take a total of seven victories. A beautiful car, initially perceived by many as perfect, the new Ferrari was described by designers Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne as the best car they had ever penned. It built on the already excellent aerodynamics of its predecessor, the F2002, and gained even more horsepower. Most crucially, however, it lost none of its legendary reliability.

But despite being an excellent all-round race package, the F2003-GA went off the boil mid season because its Bridgestone tyre performance didn't match that of the Michelins. A lack of harmony between chassis and tyre led to debilitating understeer which blunted the car's performance. Barrichello coped with it better than Schumacher, who prefers edgy oversteer, hence the Brazilian started to close the gap to his team mate.

The F2003-GA's closest rival was the Williams FW25, an ugly duckling of a car that turned into a swan. With an initially less-than-satisfactory aerodynamics package, the team struggled to find the downforce necessary to extract the best from their Michelin tyres. But, by Hungary a revised aero department had raised downforce by 10 per cent and the race engineers, boosted by the return of Frank Dernie, were finally getting on top of the set-up. The payoff was obvious and only an engine failure robbed Montoya of a genuine chance of victory at the Hungaroring.

The Colombian won at the following round in Monaco and between then and Monza he averaged an impressive eight points per race. The car was reliable, increasingly easy to set up, used its Michelin tyres well and proved suited to all kinds of circuits. However, it was ultimately too little too late to make up for the FW25's initial weaknesses. They, combined with the car's less-than-perfect reliability (relative to the F2003-GA), meant Williams could not quite stay ahead of Ferrari.

The only other car to win more than once in 2003 was the McLaren MP4-17D, a development of the 17C with which the team finished their 2002 campaign. In the opening races, its already sorted set-up, plus its excellent use of its Michelin tyres, made it the car to beat. It won in Australia and Malaysia, and Coulthard also looked set for victory in Brazil before the race was prematurely halted. However, once Ferrari and Williams hit their stride, McLaren found themselves playing catch-up most of the time. The notable exception was at the Nurburgring, where Raikkonen was in a class of his own, running away with the race until his engine failed.

The McLaren's biggest weakness was also its most obvious - it was fundamentally a 2002 car, with its concept actually dating back to 2001. Its aerodynamics were dramatically altered, but you only had to look at the newer (but never raced) MP4-18A to see where the 17D was deemed less than optimal. Nevertheless, it remained remarkably competitive throughout the season, though the car invariably raced better than it qualified, meaning that Raikkonen and Coulthard were often left with rather a lot to do come Sunday afternoon. And, like the Williams, it never came close to matching the reliability of Ferrari's F2003-GA.

(The above is an edited extract from a much longer feature on the strengths and weaknesses of Ferrari, Williams and McLaren in 2003. It is available exclusively in the November issue of Formula 1 Magazine.)