TOP TEN DRIVERS OF 2003
10 Giancarlo Fisichella
A freak win in Brazil apart, it may not seem that Fisichella has accomplished much this year, and the raw statistics certainly bear this out. He has had only one other points finish all season. This top ten however, is intended to be a ranking of the top ten drivers taking into consideration the equipment at their disposal. And frankly, this year's Jordan was a pig; underpowered, ill handling and stuck on what was generally the wrong make of tyre all season. Despite this, there were occasional flashes of inspiration from Fisichella, most noticeably in qualifying, as the Jordan rarely ran an entire race distance reliably this year. In Hungary, Bridgestones were clearly the wrong tyres to have, and yet Fisichella still lined up well in the middle of the pack in a car that his team mate struggled to outqualify a Minardi in.
At Malaysia, Monaco, Austria and Hockenheim he qualified the car far higher than it really had any right to be. Unfortunately, appalling Cosworth unreliability and the most disastrous fuel stops in the pitlane did for his chances in the races. Then, of course there was the Brazilian Grand Prix. Of course, he happened to be in the right place at the right time, but remember why that was. Schumacher and Montoya had spun off, not to mention Alonso, Webber, Button, Verstappen and Wilson. The conditions were incredibly difficult, especially in the early running, and then especially for anyone on Bridgestone tyres. When the conditions changed and the Bridgestones came into their own, it was Fisichella, rather than any of the other surviving Bridgestone runners, who was in the position to profit. And in the final analysis, he was able to force Raikkonen into a mistake and grab the lead. His one win was lucky, the fact that he has never been in a position to win regularly shows he has generally been very unlucky in F1.
9. Jarno Trulli
Jarno Trulli has always had a reputation for being incredibly quick in qualifying, only to prove erratic and inconsistent come race day. He didn't entirely manage to shed this image this year but there can be little doubting that he has emerged as a much more mature, all-round driver as the season has progressed. Unlike his new team mate Alonso, he failed to notch up either any wins or any pole positions, but he was generally at least Alonso's equal in qualifying this year. And remember, the young Spaniard is a man that people are talking as the new Senna and the new Schumacher rolled into one. If there were odd days when Trulli barely looked as though he was at the races at all (San Marino and Hungary spring to mind) then equally there were times when he really impressed. His Renault had no business being on the front row of the grid at Silverstone, yet there it was, and he led too, until the rain came down. At Monza too, he was incredible in qualifying in a car that was significantly down on power compared to the opposition, and it would have been interesting to see how he would have gone in the race had his Renault lasted beyond the first lap. There were other times too, where Alonso racked up the points while Trulli was struck by misfortune. In Malaysia he qualified on the front row, only to be punted off the road by Schumacher at the first corner. Similarly, the Renault looked like a good car to have at Barcelona, but Trulli never got to find out as he failed to make it beyond turn two. Undoubtedly he was bettered by his brilliant new Spanish team mate, but he showed himself to be a very capable number two for Renault, and one capable of occasionally stealing the show from his much feted new team mate.
8. Rubens Barrichello
At mid season, the veteran Brazilian appeared to be having the most miserable of seasons. It began with a silly mistake which caused his exit from the Australian Grand Prix. Two weeks later he was blown away by Raikkonen's McLaren in Malaysia. In his home country, it looked as though his luck was finally turning. He landed his 2002-spec Ferrari on pole and when the track began to dry out, it seemed that nobody could touch him. And then the Ferrari pit crew made a rare blunder and allowed him to run out of fuel. At the next few races, he could get nowhere near Michael Schumacher and rarely looked like the man who had on occasion, plain out-raced the now six-times world champion. The turning point was the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. It was his best race of the season, but more than that, it was probably the best single performance by anyone in 2003. The safety car chaos left him with an awful lot of overtaking to do, and while his team mate spent lap after lap stuck behind Villeneuve's BAR, he simply got on with it, twice passing Raikkonen's McLaren and winning his first and only race of the season. Thereafter, he seemed to get the upper hand on his team mate for a while. He outqualified him in Hockenheim, much to the chagrin of Schumacher's home fans, and looked to have the beating of him in Hungary too, before a rare mechanical failure pitched him off the road. At Monza, he couldn't live with Schumacher but performed well as his rear gunner, and might have done the same at Indianapolis, had he not fallen victim to a moment of madness for Montoya. At the final race, he wasn't so much Schumacher's rear gunner as the vanguard of the Ferrari title assault - and it would have been hard to find a more popular winner. It was, to steal an old footballing cliche, a game of two halves for Barrichello. Maybe next year he can string a whole season together.
7. Jenson Button
I assumed that 'spice boy' darling of the British tabloid media and boyfriend of the rich and tuneless would quickly be psychologically destroyed by Villeneuve, in much the same way as Frentzen and Zonta had been beforehand. That he wasn't was surprise enough, that he actually established a slight edge over Villeneuve this year came as a real surprise. He started the season on the right note, more or less matching his illustrious team mate at the first race and refusing to be drawn too deeply into the silly war of words that Villeneuve initially seemed keen to promote. His first points came a race later, when he kept his BAR on the road at Malaysia, tyres dropping off dramatically, to finish seventh. There were more points in San Marino, where he began to establish himself as a regular contender for 'best of the rest' behind the dominant Ferraris, McLarens, Williams and Renaults. His best result of the season though, came at Austria. Bridgestone, for once, got the tyres right, and Button didn't put a foot wrong to finish fourth, ahead of such as David Coulthard and Ralf Schumacher, not to mention the surviving Renault. For much of the season, second rate tyres kept him from serious contention, but he consistently took the fight to Villeneuve, and despite a huge accident at Monaco which might have broken a less confident driver, generally won as often as not. A late moment of glory came at Indianapolis where he took BAR into the lead of a Grand Prix for the first time, and might have finished second had his engine not expired shortly after half distance. Maybe not quite in the same league as such newcomers as Raikkonen and Alonso, Button is nonetheless maturing fast and is really rather a solid racing driver these days.
6. Ralf Schumacher
When he was good, he was very good. And when he was bad, he was absolutely bloody awful. Ralf Schumacher started the year a troubled man. The German tabloid press were obsessing over his supposed marital problems, the new Williams was a dog, and he was being destroyed by his team mate Juan Pablo Montoya. After a very unimpressive showing in the opening three Grands Prix in which he made a lot of mistakes, rarely looked remotely quick and was generally unbearable to be around, there was talk that he might be bundled out of the team mid-season and replaced by Fisichella. Then came San Marino. On the day his mother died, he took second on the grid, and then the day after he led from the start and put up a spirited defence against the predations of his elder brother before eventually dropping back as his later set of tyres wasn't so good. Suddenly, Schumacher Jr. seemed to be back on it again. In Spain and Austria, the lousy, early season Ralf reappeared and he in no way looked to be in the same league as Juan Montoya but then at Monaco, the Williams suddenly a competitive proposition at last, he scored his first pole position. And at a track he professed to hate with a passion, a real drivers track at that. Another pole came at Canada, though he threw away a race he really ought to have won when he allowed his brother to get past him at the first pit stops. Then followed his two wins - the first was lucky in that he inherited in when Raikkonen's McLaren expired, though he had comprehensively outpaced Montoya all weekend. The second was a crushing display of dominance at France. At that point, the title seemed his for the taking. And then, strangely, he didn't win again all year. The remainder of his season went to form. There were moments of sublime brilliance - including, at Hungaroring, the one thing I'd always thought him incapable of - a fighting drive through the field in which it seemed he overtook more cars than in the whole of the rest of his season - perhaps even his career.
Set against that, though, there was a moment of madness at Hockenheim which eliminated him, along with Raikkonen and Barrichello from the German Grand Prix. And remember too, that the reason he was fighting his way from the back at Hungary, was because he had spun at the first corner, after qualifying on the front row. He led in Indianapolis too, before spinning out of the lead as the weather worsened. While it is Montoya who has the reputation for inconsistency at Williams, it was actually Ralf who made the greater number of mistakes this year. He earns his place on this list though, because, when the Williams was really on it as at France and at the European Grand Prix, he had the edge over his feted team mate. Whether he will ever remain consistent enough over a whole season to launch a serious bid for the driver's title remains to be seen.
5. Mark Webber
I for one didn't really expect much from Webber at the beginning of the year. He had looked competent, rather than exceptional at Minardi in 2002 and was generally outpaced in F3000 by Tomas Enge and Justin Wilson. Against the form book, though he emerged as one of the real revelations of the year. After a difficult couple of opening races, he signalled his intent by qualifying his Jaguar third for the Brazilian Grand Prix. Third was not a place we expected a Jaguar to be in - in anyone's hands and it was all the more remarkable that he achieved this on normal fuel loads. As the season went on though, we got used to seeing Jaguars in places we would not expect them to be - always with Mark Webber at the wheel. He was fifth in Imola, sixth in Canada and a stunning third in Hungary. He was never as competitive in the races - the very thing which made the Jaguar quick in qualifying - the fact that it heated its tyres up quickly - meant the car usually fell back down the order pretty quickly on race day. Nonetheless, Webber picked up seven points finishes over the course of the year, finishing ahead of Michael Schumacher in Hungary and frequently bringing up the front of 'division 2', behind the McLarens, Ferraris, Williams and Renaults. Some say he was flattered by Michelins tyres and by team mates who were out of their depth - but the Pizzonia and Wilson were hardly Alex Yoong like paydrivers. Pizzonia had impressed immensely in testing with Williams, while Wilson had impressed in the Minardi and was a previous F3000 champion. All of which suggests that Webber might be something rather special. A prime candidate to move into one of the top teams when, as they surely must sooner or later, Barrichello, Coulthard and Schumacher edge into retirement.
4. Fernando Alonso
Anyone who has been with Renault a really long time - since 1984 when it was the Toleman team, and actually competing against the former incarnation of the works Renault team, might just have had the opportunity to work with the greatest drivers of three separate eras. Senna began his career there in 1984, while Schumacher started his second Grand Prix with the team when they were Benetton in 1991. Now perhaps, 2003 might mark the point at which Alonso announced his arrival as a potential successor. Of course, its too early for such hyperbole but the young Spaniard did more than enough to make the existing front runners sit up and pay attention. His performance in Malaysia was the point at which he really arrived in F1, after a promising if inconclusive season with Minardi back in 2001. On Saturday, he became the youngest driver and the first Spaniard ever to take a pole position. On Sunday, he followed it up with a determined drive to take a podium in spite of severe fever and a car that was a few cogs short of a gearbox for much of the race. In Spain he surprised many by keeping Schumacher honest on his way to second, splitting the two Ferraris on the debut of their new F2003 in front of his home crowd. A couple of races later, he came seemingly from nowhere to harry the leaders in the closing laps of the Canadian Grand Prix. He finished fourth, but he was only a couple of seconds away from the lead as the flag fell. He picked up another pole in Hungary, and this time he kept the lead throughout the race, helped it must be said by unwitting rear-gunner, Mark Webber, whose Jaguar held up the field in second while Alonso raced away into the distance to become the youngest ever Grand Prix winner. At the end of the year, he looked in with a shout of recording a second win before his engine expired in Japan.
There are those who suggest that, at various points in the season, Alonso went off the boil and allowed himself to be shaded by team mate Trulli. Leaving aside the fact that Trulli is a pretty handy peddler in his own right, the facts don't really bear this out. Trulli has always been incredibly quick over a single lap and in this area he could beat Alonso as often as otherwise (although it was always Alonso who was quicker when the Renaults were really quick). On the other hand, its hard to think of an occasion when Trulli really outpaced Alonso over a whole race distance. Silverstone perhaps, arguably Hockenheim, and thats about it really. The only serious black mark was a single act of monumental folly in the Brazilian Grand Prix where he ignored waved yellows even as everyone around him slowed off and ploughed straight into the wreck of Webber's Jaguar. Inexperienced or not, this was the kind of basic error that would not be tolerated from an occasional Sunday club racer, never mind an F1 driver. That he escaped without either serious injury or severe punishment was a matter of luck alone. To his credit, it was his only serious mistake this year, and if Renault can make another step upwards next year he might even stand a chance of becoming the youngest world champion ever.
3. Juan Pablo Montoya
Without doubt, Juan Pablo Montoya was the most exciting driver in 2003. The vast majority of the season's most spectacular passing manoeuvres seemed to be the handiwork of the mercurial Colombian. From his scything through the field in the first laps of the opening Grand Prix in Melbourne to his superb pass for the lead of the Japanese Grand Prix eight months later, no other driver seems to have quite the same kind of fearless inventiveness in the braking zone; nobody else could conjure passing opportunities where none seemed to exist. It was both his strongest hand, and, ultimately his undoing, at least as far as the world championship was concerned. When he picked up a ten second penalty for what proved to be a move too far on Barrichello in Indianapolis, he finally eliminated himself from a title race which, at the start of the year, it would have been hard to believe he would ever have been in at all.
He threw away a surprise victory when he spun in Australia, but he deserves as much credit for getting the unwieldy early-season Williams in a position to win in the first place as he does criticism for throwing it away in the end. It wasn't the only unforced spin of his year - he got away with one in the closing laps in Hungary, but probably threw away another potential win when he spun on the second lap of the Canadian Grand Prix. Its easy to suggest that this is simply another sign that Montoya is too error-prone and careless to really rank amongst the best drivers in the world. And perhaps thats true, but it should be remembered that the Williams seemed rather more of a handful than its principal rivals all year. Ralf Schumacher also seemed to lose the back end of his FW25 from time to time (Hungary, Australia and Japan spring to mind).
So, why don't I rate Montoya quite as highly as Schumacher and Raikkonen ? Well, its not so much his mistakes - Schumacher in particular, made plenty of those this year. Its more the fact that, when the car was really absolutely right, as at Magny Cours, Hungary and Nurburgring, he simply didn't quite seem to have it in him to beat his own team mate. There's no doubt that, driving a difficult car on instinct, Montoya is vastly better than Ralf Schumacher, but when the car is more or less there, and its up to the driver to extract the last percentage points of performance from it, Montoya seems to lack the application to get the job done. Perhaps his extrovert, larger than life personality simply isn't best suited to poring over pages of telemetry, or perhaps he finds it harder than some of his rivals to consciously adapt his driving style to the car - as Michael Schumacher talked of doing at Monza. Maybe though, he simply needs more time in an F1 car. He is after all only in his third season. Not the best driver this year, he was at least the most spectacular.
2. Michael Schumacher
What ? The six times champion not at number one ? Is this the sad, delusional list of some deluded Raikkonen fanboy. Didn't Schumacher win six races to Raikkonen's one ?
Well, I may be delusional, but I honestly think someone did a better job than Michael Schumacher this year. Thats not to criticise Michael overly, for he undoubtedly did a solid job this year, and in putting this list together, I agonised for most of the time it took me to walk the four miles home from work as to whether he deserved the number one slot (Get a life I hear you say ? Well, yeah, fair enough, but what else am I meant to do on the way home ?) On the plus column, there was his brilliant drive to record the final win for the all-conquering Ferrari F2002 in Imola, just hours after the sudden death of his mother; There was that qualifying lap in Austria when he appeared to lose it at turn two and yet still recovered to take pole; His win in Canada in car that was no match for the Williams that day was one of the best drives anyone put in all year; His fifth win of the year at Monza perhaps eclipsed even that drive. They were races that nobody else would have won. Of his six wins, only Indianapolis, where the weather eliminated all of his Michelin-shod rivals was lucky, the other five were all deserved, though perhaps at Austria and Barcelona the Ferrari had enough of an edge to make life reasonably easy for him.
On the other hand, Schumacher really did seem to make a lot of mistakes this year. He would have won in Australia (though he was one of three drivers who could say that) but he slid wide while running out front alone, damaging his barge boards and being forced to pit. At the next race in Malaysia, he allowed himself to be distracted by Coulthard at turn two and ploughed blithely on into Trulli, losing a lap in the process. His drive back to fifth was impressive, but had he not made that mistake, he would probably have won. At the next race, in Brazil, he ran well until spinning off under double waved yellows. Then of course, came the hat trick of wins which ultimately enabled him to carry off the world championship, but in the mid season he seemed to go off the boil. At the Nurburgring, he allowed himself to be outpsyched by Montoya and spun off trying to defend his second place. At Silverstone he was perhaps unlucky to end up where he was, though he really did make a meal of trying to pass midfield running BARs while his team mate made short work of such as Ralf Schumacher and Raikkonen further ahead. The low point of his season came at Hungary, where he was completely outpaced by Barrichello and finished a lapped eighth, behind, amongst others, Mark Webber's Jaguar. And then he turned it round - the brilliant Monza win, a lucky win in Indianapolis. It was perhaps his title clinching drive in Japan which best summed up his season - scrappy, chaotic, with flashes of inspiration, and ultimately, just enough to get the job done.
1. Kimi Raikkonen
Oh joy of joys, yet another great racing driver who is about as interesting as a wet Sunday afternoon in a Commons select committee once he climbs out of the car. God, we had to put up with monosyllabic Hakkinen for years, and now Finland gives us this ?
But this isn't about which racing driver would make the best company for an evening down the pub - you can be bloody sure I wouldn't have whinging Ralf Schumacher on the list if it was. Its about who did the best job in the car.....
His season started with a race he really should have won. In Australia, while Schumacher and Montoya threw away their chances with silly errors, Raikkonen was robbed by a fault on his pitlane speed limiter. In Malaysia, he did win, which strangely, remains the young Finn's only Grand Prix victory to date. Had the Brazilian Grand Prix been red-flagged fractionally later, he would have been declared winner of that most strange of races too. After the opening three races, the by now rather aged McLaren MP4/17 was rarely the match of the Williams and Ferraris, or even on occasions the Renaults. In San Marino, Raikkonen dragged a far from perfect McLaren home in second - a little noticed but very impressive drive. Another second place came against the odds in Austria, though only after he had been eliminated in a start line accident in Spain. The accident could hardly be said to be his fault, though for the sake of balance, it should be noted that it was only his error which resulted in his starting behind Pizzonia's Jaguar in the first place.
The European Grand Prix was dominated by Raikkonen from the start, but his only mechanical failure of the year removed him from what would have been his second win of the year. In France, nobody could touch the Williams duo, but once again Raikkonen was at the head of the chasing pack until his brakes fell away towards the end, allowing Michael Schumacher through into third.
There followed perhaps one of only two weak drives he recorded all year. At Silverstone he came home third, but it was an error prone performance. His mistake when under pressure from Barrichello for the lead was understandable - Barrichello was truly a force of nature that weekend. Falling off the road at Stowe and allowing Montoya into second on the other hand, well that was rather careless. The McLaren rarely allowed him to put a challenge up to Montoya and Schumacher in the remaining races - although had he not been eliminated by Ralf Schumacher on the opening lap of the German Grand Prix, he might still have done enough to become world champion. In Hungary he was far from the fastest man on the track that weekend, but by keeping his head he managed to run home second and keep himself in the title chase as the field headed to Monza. There he did what he could with the underpowered McLaren to finish fourth, chasing Barrichello hard, and that he followed up with a stellar performance at Indianapolis - a race he would surely have won had it stayed dry.
He finally lost the title at Japan, but to be honest it was the weakest performance of his season. He was, for once, not a match for Coulthard all weekend, crashing twice in practice and recording a second place only with the assistance of Coulthard and the elimination of Alonso and Montoya. It was a low key end to a great season. So he only won one race - he deserved at least three other wins, and while his season was not error-free (who, bar perhaps Prost, ever had error free years) he made fewer mistakes than any of his title rivals. Next year maybe.....
To return to racing lines.