With 2002 and much of 2001 bereft of racing action the FIA implemented substantial rules changes for 2003. These included giving drivers a single lap to set their qualifying times, and sharing points out between the top eight finishing positions.
Controversially, this meant that a win would now be worth only two points more than second place. 12 years earlier the FIA had deliberates increased this points difference to achieve the same objective of improving the racing, but then by making a win more valuable.
The top three teams retain the same driver line-ups, while Fernando Alonso arrives at Renault in place of Jenson Button, who pairs up with Jacques Villeneuve at BAR. Eddie Irvine retired and was replaced by Mark Webber, who shone for Minardi in 2002.
Happily the season began in thrilling fashion with close racing in Australia and a new Grand Prix winner in Kimi Raikkonen in Malaysia. The Brazilian Grand Prix was similarly memorable – but not for the best reasons. Poor circuit drainage and a lack of proper wet weather tyres owing to the new tyre rules caused a string of major accidents. After Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso suffer serious accidents the race is stopped, and Raikkonen incorrectly hailed as the winner. Only at the next Grand Prix, at Imola, does Giancarlo Fisichella rightfully collect his first F1 race winner’s trophy.
Michael Schumacher picks up a trio of consecutive wins in spite of the death of his mother on the eve of the San Marino Grand Prix, and a pit lane fire in Austria. However the Michelin-shod teams begin to take hold of the season. The French company’s tyres work best in the searing heat of the hottest European summer for years. The title race develops into a thrilling four-way battle between Schumacher, Raikkonen, Juan-Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher.
Arguably the best race of the season comes at the British Grand Prix. A challenging, windy qualifying session mixed up the grid. The safety car is deployed when a man runs onto the circuit, further shuffling the pack. Forced to race for position there are overtaking moves up and down the field. Rubens Barrichello puts a pair of stunning moves on Raikkonen to take his best career win to date.
The German Grand Prix was another suffocatingly hot race. Jaguar rookie Antonio Pizzonia was dropped and Minardi driver Justin Wilson is drafted in – but his contract wouldn’t last beyond the end of the season either. A first-corner shunt eliminates Raikkonen, Barrichello and Ralf Schumacher, and Montoya claims a full ten points to further tighten up the championship.
But after the Hungarian Grand Prix the thrilling chase for the championship is needlessly spoiled. Ferrari and Bridgestone protest the Michelin tyres on the grounds that they deform beyond the maximum tread width during the race, even though tread widths are only measured before the race. The FIA revises the rule with immediate effect, and forces Michelin to change the tyre construction they have been using since 2001.
The result is that Ferrari win all the remaining races of the season. Montoya pushes Schumacher hard in Italy, the two setting a new record for the fastest ever Grand Prix. Schumacher all-but wins the title in a wet USA Grand Prix. Raikkonen makes a masterful recovery drive to remain within sight of the title, but Montoya ‘s hoped are dashed after a questionable steward’s decision against him in a collision with Barrichello.
The title is decided at the final round, Suzuka, for the first time in five years. Schumacher drives a scrappy race, damaging his nose cone and nearly colliding with his brother. Raikkonen needs a win with Schumacher not scoring to take the title, but he can only manage second to Barrichello while Schumaches a point for eighth. It is his sixth driver’s championship, a new record.
Jacques Villeneuve’s career appeared to end on bad terms with BAR. Never happy with new team leader David Richard he stormed out before the Japanese race, leaving the seat to test driver Takuma Sato. His 1997 team-mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen left the sport for good, joining the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters series.