A year to remember for Michael Schumacher

Michael Schumacher during the press conference at Suzuka, after securing a record sixth drivers' championship. — Pic. AFP-

Michael Schumacher's record-breaking sixth title was no epic front-of-the-pack assault, but rather a measured drive to a modest eighth place in the season-ender at Suzuka, writes SANJAY RAJAN.

WHILE the rule changes in the 2003 Formula One season saw both championship — drivers' as well as constructors' — battles go down to the wire, it ended with familiar names at the top.

However, Michael Schumacher's record-breaking sixth title was no epic front-of-the-pack assault, but rather a measured drive to a modest eighth place in the season-ender at Suzuka, the very minimum he could do to prevent rival Kimi Raikkonen from pipping him at the post.

The German now stands alone in the summit of Grand Prix racing, eclipsing Juan Manuel Fangio's record that stood unchallenged for 46 long years. He also became the first man since the Argentine, in 1957, to win the championship four years in succession. It was a historic year for Ferrari, too, with the Reds becoming the first team to win the constructors' title for the fifth consecutive time.

That Schumacher had to jostle his way to the title was in complete contrast to his comprehensive domination in the previous season. But then, this was precisely why the rule changes were effected: to make it interesting after Ferrari had made 2002 predictable with its supremacy.

Kimi Raikkonen celebrates his maiden Grand Prix title at Sepang on March 23, 2003. The Finn gave Schumacher a run for his money with a string of podium finishes. -- Pic. AP-

These measures included one-shot qualifying, mixing up of starting grids and a new scoring system with points on offer for the top eight rather than six. Eight points were available for the second place rather than six previously, narrowing the advantage of winning.

And this was precisely why Schumacher, even after securing six victories to Raikkonen's solitary success in the second GP of the 16-race season in Malaysia, could only beat the Finn by two points. Raikkonen had kept himself in contention with a string of podium finishes, and, at five days ahead of his 24th birthday would have become the youngest World champion in history had he won the season-ender in Japan. Just nine points had separated the two at the start of the final race. Schumacher's team-mate, Reubens Barrichello, scored his seventh career victory here, by 11 seconds from Raikkonen whose McLaren teammate, David Coulthard, finished third. Schumacher, 14th on grid, had a scare when he dropped to the last place after colliding with BAR's Japanese driver Takuma Sato at the chicane. In the closing stages, he had to fight off the challenge from brother Ralf, who tried to squeeze past.

"It has been a tough year, a tough late stage of the season and a tough race, probably one of the toughest. It is very strange. Most of my championships I've won with a victory, but here... I'm empty and exhausted, but proud for the team," said Schumacher.

The German surmounted the stiff odds with his unmatchable race-craft and aggressiveness, proving that even after more than a decade in F-1 he has retained the competitive edge. At 34, he is the best in the business and it could well take a while for the pretenders to muscle their way to the top.

Some feel that Schumacher and Ferrari's success has been achieved at the expense of popularity, since winning is the all-consuming ethic of the team.

Rivals continue to express the view that Ferrari's apparent arrogance is encouraged by the tacit support of the sport's governing body. A case in point would be the elimination of Williams' Juan Pablo Montoya in the penultimate race, at Indianapolis, thanks in part, to FIA stewards.

Juan Pablo Montoya was given a drive through for causing a collision with Barrichello in Indianapolis. Probably, this dashed the Colombian's chance of winning the title. -- Pic. REUTERS-

Montoya was given a drivethrough penalty for causing a collision with Barrichello. "That was a fairly aggressive move," said Patrick Head, technical-director of Williams-BMW, referring to Montoya's challenge. "But without that penalty Juan probably would have come to Suzuka still in a position to compete in the championship, so it was a championship-excluding decision. Of course, I'm in a position of believing it to be an unnecessarily harsh penalty, but I'm still flabbergasted when recalling what happened between Schumacher and Fernando Alonso at Silverstone when he (Schumacher) literally crossed from one side of the track to the other and pushed Alonso completely off on to the grass at 200 mph - and that was considered perfectly OK." Williams finished second in the constructors' standings, 14 points behind Ferrari.

Meanwhile Ferrari's technical director Ross Brawn said, "it is common comment that the FIA supports Ferrari and it is a clear example where there was a raft of rule changes which were not in the interests of Ferrari whatsoever."

And while the F-1 world, vis-�-vis the watching public, is preoccupied with labels — Is Schumacher the greatest driver ever? — this is what he had to say about the comparisons between Fangio and him: "That man is greater than I see myself. You can't take a personality like Fangio and compare him with what has happened today - there is not even the slightest comparison. What he did stands for itself and what we do today is unique in another way."