2000s

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Schumacher and Ferrari domination gives way to a new generation of hotshoes, all set against a backdrop of political strife
By Adam Cooper

It would probably be fair to describe the 2000s as a decade of two halves, at least in terms of results.

The first was utterly dominated by Michael Schumacher and Scuderia Ferrari, who made up for the frustrations of the previous four years. The German won five World Championships and dominated to such a degree that those with a stake in the sport began to search for ways to close up the field and create some entertainment.

The second half produced some of the most competitive racing we’ve ever seen, certainly in terms of the spread of qualifying times down the grid. It says a lot that from 2006 to 2009 the World Championship was won by four different drivers from four different teams, repeating a feat that had occurred previously only in 1960-63 and 1978-81. What all three eras perhaps have in common was that no single driver had yet emerged as the dominant force of the time.

Schumacher was beaten in 2006, but he was absent from the scene for the next three years, and the diversity in the list of winners reflected the battle for supremacy among the generation that followed. By the turn of the decade the consensus was that we were entering an exciting era with at least three supremely talented drivers – Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel – who had the potential to one day be considered, like Michael, among the best of all time.

And then, just a week from the end of 2009, came the confirmation that Schumacher himself was coming back to take them all on. The man ended the decade as he had started it, hogging the headlines.

Although he had a strong case, it would have been hard to justify naming Schumacher as the greatest F1 driver of the ’90s, not least because Senna, Prost and Mansell were still competing and winning at the start of the decade. Michael won two titles, but Adelaide ’94 and Jerez ’97 stood as black marks against him, and he was beaten by Mika Häkkinen in 1998 and ’99.

However, he was unquestionably the man of the 2000s, and by the time of his ‘first retirement’ he had done more than enough to secure his place among the greats. By any statistical measure he was the most successful driver, but comparing the stars of different eras is a fruitless task, and Michael’s numbers have been skewed by the length of his career. The likes of Clark and Senna could have achieved so much more.

The five titles Schumacher won with Ferrari represented a crushing display of superiority. In 2001 the championship was secured in Hungary in August, and the following year as early as Magny-Cours in July. Yet it wasn’t always so easy. Häkkinen was still a contender in 2000 before retirement beckoned, and for a couple of years Juan Pablo Montoya was sometimes able to take on Michael in a straight fight. But for the odd mechanical failure, Kimi Räikkönen would have won for McLaren in 2003.

But for much of that period Michael was challenged only by his team-mate, Rubens Barrichello. There were some great drives and masterful wet-weather performances, but the abiding memory is of two red cars droning round at the front – and occasionally swapping places in controversial fashion.

There was still the odd chink in the Schumacher armour. At Monaco in 2006 the FIA stewards bravely decreed that he had deliberately parked his car at Rascasse to spoil the final qualifying laps of his rivals – the grid penalty he received that day arguably cost him an eighth title.

It wasn’t just about Michael. Under the direction of Jean Todt and Ross Brawn, Ferrari was honed into a potent fighting force. The team’s special relationship with Bridgestone provided an extra edge and forced frustrated rivals to defect to Michelin, which ultimately only made the Maranello package stronger.

The one glitch came in 2005, when the FIA introduced a short-lived rule that ensured the same set of tyres for the whole race. Essentially a measure to cut speeds by forcing the suppliers to be more conservative, it caught out Bridgestone and Ferrari. That year Michael won only at Indianapolis, ironically on a day when Michelin was forced to withdraw, and F1 faced humiliation.

The season turned into a fight among the Michelin runners. Once again Räikkönen was robbed by Mercedes problems, and the title went to Alonso and Renault. The following year the Spaniard won again, this time after a tense battle with Schumacher. Michael had announced his retirement at Monza, and even his critics were sorry to see him come so close to going out as World Champion.

It’s hard to put the careers of the current stars into perspective while they are still racing, but Schumacher aside, Alonso is perhaps the key figure of the era. A protégé of Flavio Briatore, he single-handedly turned F1 into a headline sport in Spain, just as Schumacher had done in Germany a decade earlier. Barcelona had long been one of the quietest events of the year, but it became a sell-out, and the country earned a second race in Valencia.

On the track Alonso is a formidable competitor, and off it he’s an accomplished political operator. But things didn’t always go his way, and he would have had three titles to his name had Lewis Hamilton not burst onto the scene as his McLaren team-mate in 2007.

In a tense season that was dominated by the ‘spy-gate’ scandal, McLaren managed to lose to Räikkönen and Ferrari at the last hurdle.

Hamilton enjoyed an extraordinary first year, and put everything he learned into winning the title in 2008, McLaren’s sole success of the decade. Current World Champion Jenson Button is one of only three drivers to race throughout the decade and still feature on the grid in 2010, the others being Barrichello and Jarno Trulli. Only recently turned 30, the Brit was the first of a new breed of youngsters, fast-tracked into the top level of the sport by a canny management. The gap between junior karting and the F1 grid shrinks all the time.

Aside from the drivers, the most significant individual of the decade was former FIA president Max Mosley. The controversy in his private life in 2008 made him a household name for all the wrong reasons. But the fact that he still survived to the end of his term the following year says everything you need to know about his political instincts. He used them to the full when trying to bend the teams to his will, constantly imposing or threatening major rule changes, so that an air of conflict pervaded much of the decade.

His biggest beef was with the manufacturers. As early as 2001 there were suggestions from the car companies that, come the end of the then-current Concorde Agreement in 2007, they would set up their own championship, under the name GPWC.

The plan was in large part encouraged by the FIA’s sale of 100 years of F1’s commercial rights to Bernie Ecclestone’s SLEC concern for the bargain price of £220 million. Ecclestone in turn sold the F1 business to Kirch, and when the German media group went bust, the banks took control.

Veteran team bosses who had never begrudged Bernie his share of the cake didn’t feel the same way about this new arrangement, and the manufacturers did not understand the maths involved as huge sums seemed to flow out of the sport.

The conflict was to rumble on until reaching a head last summer, when the teams – now under the FOTA umbrella – came tantalisingly close to breaking away and setting up their own series. In the end Bernie sorted it out, as he always does, and outwardly little seemed to have changed. In October Mosley stepped down, to be replaced by Jean Todt, who promised to be his own man.

The decade was neatly bookended by the arrival of the manufacturers and their equally abrupt departure. By the end of the ’90s Ferrari, Mercedes, Peugeot and Ford were involved in the sport, but 2000 was a turning point as Stewart was rebranded as Jaguar, BMW joined Williams, and Honda returned with BAR. In March that year Renault announced it had bought Benetton, and in June Toyota secured its place on the 2002 grid, having first announced an F1 project in January 1999. The only company to buck the trend was Peugeot, which disappeared at the end of 2000.

This influx of famous names – with their big budgets – seemed to be a huge boost at a time when teams were urgently seeking ways to replace tobacco funding. But even in 2001 there was a financial squeeze, exacerbated by the events of 9/11, after which all companies reviewed their expenditure.

Teams without works backing struggled to fund their engine bills, Prost didn’t make the start of 2002, and Arrows failed in the middle of the year. That year Mosley proposed customer cars as an economic way of filling grids, but the established teams did not want to know about cost-cutting. The likes of Eddie Jordan and Minardi boss Paul Stoddart were regarded as scaremongers or whingers.

The economy did pick up, and the manufacturers demonstrated their increasing commitment as BMW bought Sauber, Honda took over BAR and Mercedes acquired 40 per cent of McLaren. Like Peugeot, Ford couldn’t keep up with this arms race, and Jaguar Racing was sold to Red Bull at the end of 2004.

It’s an established principle of motor sport that manufacturers come and manufacturers go. Not a big problem if they are only supplying engines, but if they own the show, it’s a major issue. As the credit crunch hit and recession deepened at the end of 2008, Honda’s board decided to pull out. The loss of a company so steeped in motor racing lore was a major shock, and it added an extra edge to last year’s battle between FOTA, Ecclestone and the FIA.

Trying to force the issue of cost-cutting, Mosley insisted that other manufacturers – the very people he was fighting with – would soon be out. He was right. BMW pulled the plug in July and Toyota in November. Honda and BMW did at least find a way for their teams to survive in a new form, but Toyota refused to allow its Formula 1 project to continue as a going concern. The recent attempt to sell its stillborn 2010 car – without an entry – was a sad postscript.

The grid of 2010 is much changed from that of 2000. Only Ferrari, McLaren and Williams have survived in largely unaltered form, and even the last two have had revised shareholdings. In addition, Sauber is now back in the hands of its founder.

Every other team has undergone some form of transformation, with BAR becoming Honda, Brawn and finally Mercedes as bemused team members just got on with the job and wore whatever shirt they were handed by the marketing people.

Mercedes left McLaren to buy Brawn, while Renault has – against all expectations – survived, despite the extra pressures created by the ‘crash-gate’ scandal of last year. It has fresh management, and the ambitious Gerard Lopez is part of a new wave of investors in the sport who have little in common with the wealthy patrons of the past. Several have come in with this year’s wave of new ‘kit car’ Cosworth teams.

Red Bull’s Dietrich Mateschitz was the pioneer, buying two teams at the height of the manufacturer boom, and now we have Dr Vijay Mallya at Force India, Tony Fernandes at Lotus, Richard Branson at Virgin and Jose Ramon Carabante at HRT. After refusing all offers for more than three decades Frank Williams has sold a stake in his team to an Austrian entrepreneur.

Some of these people have their own brands to promote, others have more complex ideas about how the F1 business should work commercially. But none of them got rich by wasting their own money, so it will be interesting to see how things pan out.

The penultimate race of the 1990s provided us with a clue to a key theme of the following decade, namely F1’s ongoing expansion into new territories. The 1999 Malaysian Grand Prix was the sport’s first visit to a ‘Tilkedrome’, the disparaging nickname given to a series of venues designed and built by architect Hermann Tilke, and which were invariably financed by local or central governments.

Sepang was a massively impressive venue, built on previously unused land close to Kuala Lumpur’s airport. Drivers generally liked the circuit, and Tilke received a stamp of approval from Bernie Ecclestone that has seemingly guaranteed he is the designer of choice for any aspiring race promoter who knocks on the door of number six Princes Gate.

Malaysia was followed in quick succession by spectacular new venues in Bahrain and China (both 2004), Istanbul (2005), Valencia (2008) and most recently the extraordinary facility that is Abu Dhabi (2009). Tilke also rebuilt Fuji Speedway for the 2007 Japanese GP (paid for this time by Toyota), and oversaw redesigns at Hockenheim and the Nürburgring. Critics bemoaned the homogeneity of his track layouts, although there was no denying that they were all spectacular feats of engineering.

Two venues he didn’t have a hand in were Singapore, site of the spectacular introduction of night racing in 2008, and Indianapolis, where a road circuit was constructed for the return of the US GP in 2000. The Speedway road course was always going to be a compromise, but taking F1 to the home of racing in the USA seemed like a good idea at the time.

The race attracted massive crowds, from overseas as well as all parts of the States, although the fans often looked lost in the huge Indy grandstands. F1 insiders, especially those entertaining corporate guests, were not enamoured with the sleepy Midwest location. Far better to be in Florida, California or even Las Vegas was the general view – and of course Ecclestone has looked at all those places both before and since we went to Indy.

After 2007 the race was consigned to history, like so many others, for financial reasons. With no government support, Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss Tony George could not make F1 work.

He was not alone, and several European venues struggled to make the sums add up as promoters faced ever-escalating fees and increasing competition from new venues that were backed by governments. There was also massive pressure from Ecclestone to upgrade traditional venues with new pits complexes and so on. Not only did most of the new tracks enjoy huge subsidies, they were built by labourers on low wages. It just wasn’t possible to replicate it in Europe.

Austria’s A1-Ring fell by the wayside after 2003, we haven’t been to Imola since 2006, while the French GP of 2008 proved to be a last hurrah for Magny-Cours. Toyota ran only two Japanese GPs at Fuji before giving up and handing the race back to Honda and Suzuka. The Nürburgring and Hockenheim knew that they would face an even tighter economic squeeze when Schumacher retired, so they agreed to alternate a single German event. The joke was that they would now make a loss every other year…

A personal favourite of Ecclestone, Spa dropped off the schedule in 2003 and ’06, only to bounce back each time. Montréal was absent last year, but returns this season. In both cases only local government intervention has guaranteed their places on the schedule.

Such backing was notoriously lacking in the case of the longest running soap opera in the F1 calendar saga. Silverstone had enjoyed a rocky relationship with Ecclestone even before the infamous British GP of April 2000. The logistical challenges faced that soggy Easter weekend pushed Bernie’s patience to the limit, and for the rest of the decade he was embroiled in a seemingly constant battle of wits with the BRDC.

Finally Ecclestone played his trump card and handed the 2010 event to Donington Park. Promoter Simon Gillett proceeded to demonstrate to everyone just how much Silverstone had achieved by failing totally to deliver on his promises. Late last year the BRDC confirmed a new 17-year deal with Ecclestone, finally giving the venue the security it needed to bring the place into the 21st century. Now there can be no excuses.

Given all this turbulence it’s surprising to note that the 2010 schedule includes 12 of the 17 circuits that were used in 2000. This year’s record total of 19 races includes 10 long haul flyaways – and one of the ‘European’ events is Turkey, a nightmare for the teams to get to.

New this year is an event in South Korea, held far from any population centre, while India looms on the horizon. It’s hard not to admire Ecclestone’s ability to make these new events happen, but the ongoing problem is that in many cases there are empty grandstand seats and minimal local interest.

Even Mosley’s fiercest critics had to concede that he was the motivating force behind the huge steps forward made in terms of safety. The impetus was of course Imola 1994, but the push has continued, thanks largely to the efforts of Professor Sid Watkins and Charlie Whiting, and the teams themselves.

Crash test standards became increasingly strict, and the importance of wheel tethers was sadly demonstrated by the deaths of track officials at Monza in 2000 and Melbourne the following year.

Perhaps the biggest advance was the HANS device, which became compulsory in 2004. It was followed a year later by the FIA’s ‘8860’ standard, which mandated lighter and stronger composite helmets. There was a huge initial expense for the manufacturers, but by the end of the decade the helmets had trickled down to other categories.

There was no more public display of the progress made than Robert Kubica’s violent accident in the 2007 Canadian GP, during which all the car and driver safety systems did their job. The decade passed with no really serious incidents involving drivers until Felipe Massa was struck by an errant suspension spring in qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian GP. It was a freak, one-in-a-million impact, and the 8860 helmet may well have saved his life.

We’ve just started what promises to be an extraordinary season. There is much new to observe, but there are also welcome echoes of the past as the Lotus, Mercedes and Senna names return to the grid. Who will still be there when we celebrate the 70th anniversary in 2020?

That was the decade that was

2000 Celebrations for the millennium take place across the globe, Vladimir Putin becomes the President of Russia, the price of oil soars and France scores a golden goal against Italy to win Euro 2000. Schumacher dominates the Formula 1 season and Ferrari wins its first title since 1979. It is the start of a period of total domination by the German and the Italian team.

2001 Two planes crash into the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11, destroying the buildings. A third plane crashes into the Pentagon, a fourth into a field in Pennsylvania. Almost 3000 people are killed and America vows to exact revenge. China joins the World Trade Organisation and Wikipedia is launched. Schumacher and Ferrari walk away with the championship.

2002 United Nations arms inspectors search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, President George Bush calls Iraq the “axis of evil”, the Queen Mother dies and United Airlines files for bankruptcy. Schumacher continues to dominate F1, winning another title. In Austria there is outcry when his team-mate Rubens Barrichello is ordered to let the German past to win.

2003 America and allies invade Iraq, Saddam Hussein is captured, the World Health Organisation issues a global alert on SARS, space shuttle Columbia explodes in flames on re-entry and England wins the Rugby World Cup. Yet again, Schumacher and Ferrari win both F1 titles, as the red cars fend off McLaren and Williams at the front of the field.

2004 A huge tsunami devastates parts of Asia on Boxing Day, the USA confirms it has found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, 10 new member states are added to the European Union and Facebook is launched. The Schumacher and Ferrari steamroller continues, but Jenson Button comes third for BAR-Honda and Renault improves.

2005 Fifty-six people die when Islamic terrorists bomb London on July 7, the IRA says it will end its campaign of violence and London wins the bid to host the 2012 Olympics. Fernando Alonso wins the F1 title in a Renault, ending five years of Ferrari domination, while Schumacher trails in third. Michelin withdraws its tyres from the US GP, leaving Ferrari, Jordan and Minardi to race alone on Bridgestones.

2006 Saddam Hussein is convicted of crimes against humanity, Iran successfully enriches uranium in defiance of the UN Security Council, and the Blu-ray Disc format and the Wii are released. Alonso and Renault win the World Championship again, Schumacher announces his retirement at Monza, and Michelin exits the sport, leaving Bridgestone as the sole tyre supplier.

2007 Bulgaria and Romania join the EU, Nicolas Sarkozy wins the French presidential election and the Live Earth concerts are held in nine major cities worldwide. Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen snatches the title by a point after tension between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso sends McLaren into disarray. The team is then fined $100m by the FIA over the ‘spy-gate’ affair.

2008 Barack Obama is elected the first black President of America, the British government introduces emergency legislation to nationalise Northern Rock and swimmer Michael Phelps wins eight gold medals at the Olympics. Lewis Hamilton wins the drivers’ title on the last lap of the season in Brazil, Ferrari takes the constructors’ prize. A more open season, with winners from five teams.

2009 The world is in deep economic recession, there’s panic over swine flu and singer Michael Jackson dies. New rules, KERS and cost-cutting dominate F1. Jenson Button wins the title and ex-Honda team Brawn the constructors’ cup. Nelson Piquet Jr admits to crashing deliberately at Singapore ’08. Renault’s Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds get F1 bans for their part in the controversy.