Michael Schumacher won the World Championship once more but this was a far more competitive season than before. Eight drivers from five different teams won races and new McLaren superstar Kimi Raikkonen challenged for the title race until the final weekend.
The new Ferrari F2003-GA was only deemed reliable enough to race from the Spanish Grand Prix and Schumacher promptly won the next three races. However, any thoughts of another runaway success were soon dashed. When Schumacher’s Bridgestone-shod Ferrari finished a lapped eighth in Hungary, the title momentum seemed to be with Michelin’s McLaren-Mercedes, Williams-BMW and Renault teams.
That was something of a wakeup call and the German’s cause was helped by an FIA ruling that forced Michelin to change its tyre construction before the Italian GP. Schumacher duly won the next two races and clinched the title by just two points at the Japanese finale. Rubens Barrichello stepped out of Schumacher’s shadow to win from pole position at Silverstone (on the day that Father Neil Horan’s one-man track invasion threw the race into chaos) and in Japan.
The radical new McLaren MP4/18 never raced but David Coulthard and Kimi Raikkonen won the opening two rounds in Australia and Malaysia with an updated 2002 car. Neither stood on the top step of the podium again but seven second place finishes, and a new points system that rewarded consistency rather than victories, kept Raikkonen in the hunt all season. The taciturn Finn eventually finished as championship runner-up in just his third F1 season.
The Williams FW25-BMW was ready for the start of the season although the team was unable to take full advantage of their rival’s delays. Both Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher won twice but the former lost possible further victories with a couple of errors and a drive through penalty in America while the German was just too inconsistent. They were classified in a disappointing third and fifth positions respectively.
In Fernando Alonso, Renault discovered a true world class star. The highlight was his dominant lights-to-flag victory in Hungary that made him the youngest F1 winner so far – replacing Bruce McLaren in the record books almost 44 years after the New Zealander’s maiden win.
Jordan’s Giancarlo Fisichella scored a bizarre first victory despite retiring from the wet Brazilian GP just as Alonso crashed into Mark Webber’s stricken Jaguar. With the race abandoned, Fisichella was only announced as the winner two weeks later, belatedly receiving his trophy on the Imola startline.
Jenson Button outperformed Jacques Villeneuve at BAR-Honda. The Englishman led the United States GP at Indianapolis and seemed set for a first podium finish before retiring. The mayhem that was the British GP even allowed the cash-rich but underwhelming Toyota team run 1-2 for a time. They qualified well in Japan but neither Olivier Panis nor debutant Cristiano da Matta could finish better than fifth during the campaign.
New single-car qualifying rules were introduced to ensure on-track action throughout the hour. Drivers ran on their own to set their qualifying time with cars then held in parc ferme until the race. That meant drivers qualified with their car fuelled for its first race stint. It was an initiative that brought some welcome unpredictability and strategy to the weekend. New rules banning electronic driver aides were due at the British GP but did not materialise.