Three drivers that would make an enormous impact on the future of Formula 1 all made their debuts in 2001. Spanish driver Fernando Alonso, who had enjoyed modest success in Formula 3000, joined Minardi.
A British Formula Renault driver called Kimi Raikkonen was picked up by Sauber, who had a hard time convincing the FIA that the Finn deserved the necessary superlicence. And Williams angered the British press by replacing Jenson Button with former CART champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya.
The tyre war resumed in 2001 with Michelin returning to the sport and supplying several teams including Williams.
But the top two teams kept the same line-ups – Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard spending their sixth season together at McLaren, Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello remaining at Ferrari.
The season began under a cloud in Melbourne. Jacques Villeneuve’s BAR hit the back of Ralf Schumacher’s Williams and took off. A piece of debris struck track marshal Graham Beveridge and killed him, but as at Monza the year before the race continued behind the safety car. The elder Schumacher won.
In 2000 Ferrari had finally produced a car that was the equal of McLaren’s. In 2001 they seized the initiative and were invariably the team to beat. Despite some earlier resistance from Coulthard, Schumacher cruised to the title and had it wrapped up by the Hungarian Grand Prix.
He didn’t have it all his own way. At Interlagos Montoya displayed his exceptional skill in timing rolling restarts to perfection, and lunged past Schumacher at the first corner. He was all set to take his first ever victory until a lapped Jos Verstappen clumsily took him out of the race. Coulthard won after a late rain storm.
At Imola the Ferraris were strangely off-song and Ralf Schumacher gave Williams more cheer by scoring his maiden win and giving them their first triumph since 1998.
Schumacher had a longer and more controversial encounter with Montoya at the A1-Ring. Michelin had nailed the one-lap performance of their tyres for qualifying, but in the races rear tyre wear was a problem, particularly for the Williams with its prodigiously powerful BMW engine. Montoya had a string of cars behind him and defended his position from Schumacher very thoroughly. Both ended up going off and Coulthard won, with Barrichello letting Schumacher past to take second on the final lap.
Disaster befell Schumacher in Germany. A gearbox problem meant he got away slowly and Luciano Burti’s Prost hammered into the back of the Ferrari, flying through the air and showering the track with debris. The race was stopped and re-started.
Burti caused a second red flag at the Belgian Grand Prix after tangling with Eddie Irvine’s Jaguar and burying his car in a tyre wall. The Brazilian escaped injury, but it was the end of his F1 career.
When the terrorist attacks in America that September sent shockwaves around the world, Formula 1 attracted a mixture of criticism and appreciation for carrying on. The Italian Grand Prix at Monza was held the weekend after the atrocity, though several cars removed sponsors’ logos and ran with American flags on the side. Ferrari stripped their cars of branding entirely and ran with black nose cones. Montoya took his first win.
Two weeks later F1 was racing in America at Indianapolis and a fired-up Hakkinen took his final win before heading into retirement – although at the time it was expected that the Finn would take a one-year sabbatical. His replacement at McLaren would be Raikkonen, which angered his Sauber team mate Nick Heidfeld, who had been supported by McLaren earlier in his career.
At the final round of the season the third of the stars of the future, Alonso, drove an exceptional race around the demanding Suzuka circuit. He qualified 18th, beating a Prost and both the Arrows cars, and raced to 11th in his under-powered Minardi, finishing ahead of Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s Prost and Olivier Panis’s BAR. He had already bagged a Renault test role for 2002.
Schumacher’s fourth title put him level with Alain Prost on championships and he had taken the Frenchman’s place as the driver with the most Grand Prix victories. He was on his way to a place among the greats. Next stop – Juan Manuel Fangio’s record five world championships.