The Formula One World Championship. Part Two.
In the winter of 2000 I decided to pack my bags and move to continental Europe. My flight was actually on Christmas Day and I could think of no better present to myself than to immigrate to the land of Formula 1 and practically non-existent alcohol consumption laws.
Michael Schumacher, the 32 year old German driver for Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro had just won the 2000 World Driver’s Championship, his first for Ferrari (career 3rd) and the first in 21 years for the Italian team. I unfortunately missed this because it was not broadcast in the states. Well things were about to change as March of 2001 was quickly approaching and I had landed an advertising job in Austria where they show every round of Friday’s practice, Saturday’s qualifying and Sunday’s race on national television, ORF, commercial free to boot. It was going to be heaven and it was also the debut that year of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen, two of Schumi’s future rivals not to mention the final season of ex-Ferrari driver Jean Alesi whose glorious 12 season career produced only 1 win, the 1995 Canadian Grand Prix.
Not him again.
The 2001 season proved to be a walk in the park for M. Schumacher and Ferarri as his 9 wins and 5 second place finishes out of 17 rounds nearly doubled his nearest rival, David Coulthard's point total. 2002 resulted in more of the same domination as Schumi nearly doubled his own teamate’s points while clinching the WDC in record fashion with still 6 rounds remaining in the season. Between Schumacher and his teammate Rubens Barichello, Ferrari accumulated more points than the rest of the teams put together. This was the pinnacle of Ferrari dominance not seen in Formula 1 since the era of Nikki Lauda in the mid to late 1970’s. In the 2003 season, to help make the competition tighter, the point system was changed to allow more points to be scored from 2nd through 8th place. That, combined with a more competitive Mercedes and BMW team, led to a very exciting season with Schumacher only winning the championship, his 4th consecutive with Ferrari, by 2 points over rival and future Ferrari driver Kimi Räikkönen. This is about the time that the critics became really annoyed with the sport calling the Schumacher dynasty a bore. Things wouldn’t change the following year has Schumacher and Barichello muscled their way to another 1-2 WDC and Constructor Championship. In times like this, as a fan of a team that dominates to everyone else’s displeasure, especially in Austria where they hate Germans (the whole micro/macro cultural envy thing), you just have sit back and enjoy as the day will come where your team will be a shell of its former glory and you will become the critic.
And with that I segue to 2005 when a young and cocky 24 year old Fernando Alonso and a surprisingly quick Renault F1 team managed to knock the record holding 7-time World Champion off his pace. Of course this was due to Bridgestone, Ferrari’s tire supplier being shit that year, but I won’t get into it. 2006 saw Alonso again retain the Championship as Schumi, although making it close, suffered from some season ending mechanical problems in the last two rounds. Now approaching 40 years old, shattering practically every Formula one record, his career seemed to be at its end. Appropriately on September 11th, 2006, Michael Schumacher confirmed his retirement from Formula 1.
One for the road.
One last ray of Italian sunshine came in 2007 as former Mercedes rival, now Ferrari front-man and personality of the decade, Kimi Räikkönen, somehow managed to snag the WDC away from a rookie Lewis Hamilton by a flipping point in the end of the last race. Kimi, seven points back from Hamilton going into the final round in Brazil, basically had to win the race and hope Hamilton could place no better than 6th to have a chance. On top of that Alonso, who was in between the two in the point standings could place no better than 3rd. This scenario seemed fairly impossible as Lewis Hamilton, on pace all weekend just lost out on pole to Felipe Massa, the second Ferrari driver, however still on the front grid. Amazingly, in perhaps the biggest sporting choke of the decade, Hamilton early in the race made a gear shift mistake that stalled the car which sent him back to 18th. The rest of the race was spent trying to catch the Ferrari’s to no avail. I was in a casino in Moscow to watch the last race and I nearly bet my entrance cover on a Räikkönen WDC for shits and giggles which was paying out at around 27/1. I still kick myself to this day. Fortunately I watched the race right next to a table of British McLaren fans whose face I happily rubbed a Ferrari victory in and the wife won enough money at blackjack to pay for the rest of our holiday.
The next 3 years were a struggle for Ferrari in the post Schumacher era to find a rhythm. There were some major organizational changes in the team between 2006 and 2010 with the departures of team bosses Jean Todt and Ross Brawn not to mention chief designer Rory Byrne and Michael all together known as the “Dream Team” in autosport. The signing of former 2-time World Champion Fernando Alonso for the 2010 season who had been struggling with the internal politics at Renault and McLaren, seemed to be a step in the right direction. Unfortunately through some team errors and a strong Red Bull team/car, Alonso missed out on his third Championship title in his debut season with Ferrari by a measly 4 points to a record breakingly young Sebastian Vettel (23).
March 25-27th sees the Formula One World Championship return for its 53rd incarnation. The opening race originally scheduled in Bahrain was canceled due to democracy which will now drop the season down to 19 hopefully action packed rounds. Next time on American Sports in Europe in Part Three, we will preview next weekend’s race, teams, drivers and the outlook on the 2011 season.