About this season
The only slight discrepancy is that Michael hasn’t actually won the race. On this Sunday in Suzuka, he has secured a ’mere’ eighth position. However, in one of the most dramatic title battles of his career, this eighth place gives him precisely the right number of points to secure the championship. He can now claim the record for number of world championship titles.
At this moment, however, statistics are of little interest to either Michael or his ecstatic mechanics. They carry him shoulder-high through the crowd, bounce him up in the air and spray him mercilessly with more and more champagne. Almost three hours after the race has finished, Michael joins his mechanics and engineers in leaping over the pit wall, taking the home straight by storm and celebrating their triumph in front of a grandstand still packed with spectators.
A triumph they have had to work hard for during the 2003 season. The dominance of the previous two years has waned. New regulations and a new points system have been introduced to make the championship more open and keep the excitement going longer. And in any case, Michael’s campaign hardly gets off to the best of starts. Fourth in Australia, sixth in Malaysia and a flyer in the chaotically wet conditions of Sao Paulo. This is the first time since Hockenheim 2001 that Michael fails to finish a race. His main rivals are Kimi Räikkönen and BMW-Williams driver Juan Pablo Montoya, both of whom are using Michelin tyres, a factor that will play a decisive role in the way the season pans out.
In Imola, the ’Red Goddess’ (the immensely successful F2002 model) makes her F1 curtain call and Michael duly records his first win of the season, a triumph that is somewhat overshadowed by the death of his mother Elisabeth. Two weeks later comes the debut of the new F2003-GA, named after the late Gianni Agnelli; however, it’s not long before the ventilation ’gills’ lead to it being nicknamed the ’Red Shark’. On his first outing in the new Ferrari, Michael takes top podium spot and repeats this triumph in the Austrian GP, where even flames shooting from the vehicle during his pit stop cannot prevent his victory march.
After coming third in Monaco, Michael is four points behind Räikkönen. Following his next victory in Canada, there is a setback at the Nürburgring. A duel with Montoya leaves Michael stuck in the gravel bed. The marshals push him back onto the track, but the best he can now muster is fifth place; even so, the points are to come in handy later on when the title race begins to narrow. P3 in France and P4 in England contribute a few more points to his tally, though the German result is less useful: a damaged tyre means the best he can manage is seventh.
Then comes the low point of the season: in Budapest, Michael is lapped by Fernando Alonso who wins his first GP race to release a wave of F1 euphoria in his Spanish homeland, just as Michael had once done in Germany. Michael manages some damage limitation with eighth position, which leaves him one point ahead of Montoya and two ahead of Räikkönen.
In the build-up to the Italian GP, the tyre war reaches its climax. It is claimed that the tread of the Michelin has not conformed with every aspect of the regulations, so the FIA implement new, more stringent specifications. And Michael chooses Monza, the home race for Ferrari, to turn the title race around. He records his first victory since Canada and goes on to win the US Grand Prix in Indianapolis as well. As Montoya drops out of contention, Michael goes into the final race of the season in Japan with a nine-point lead. He needs just a single point to secure his sixth title; eighth place would be enough for him to break the record.
Easy as it sounds, it proves to be an elusive target. The rain-soaked qualifying session itself is a thriller. Räikkönen manages to book eighth place on the grid with Michael way back on 14th. The race gets off to an inauspicious start: as he moves off, Michael collides with Takuma Sato. Following an emergency pit stop to get a new front wing fitted, he emerges onto the track in last place. Once again, it’s a game of catch-up. Leading the field is team-mate Barrichello just ahead of Räikkönen: a single error or technical fault could hand the race victory and the world championship to the Finn. “So I had to try any way I could to get that eighth position.”
By the 40th lap, Michael has managed to claim the all-important 8th spot that would provide him with the single point he requires. But the race and the excitement are far from over. As Michael is trying to avoid the Toyota of Cristiano da Matta going into the chicane, his brother Ralf clouts him from behind and both cars skid across the grass. Fortunately the Ferrari is still drivable. “However, the skid had left a bald patch on the tyre,” Michael recalls. “It felt as though I was driving over cobble stones. I could barely see where I was going after that.”
His sixth title ends up as one of the most spectacular and hardest fought of all. “I’m very happy but I’m also totally drained and exhausted,” he says afterwards. “At the moment, I haven’t got any feelings about the title, only for my team. I’m proud of everything we’ve achieved together.” The celebration party turns out to be a suitably exuberant affair in which a forklift truck plays a featuring role.
Courtesy by motorsport-magazin.com
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