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Is it fair, are they shaping and is it over?  
19 November 2003 Volume 5 - Issue 18   

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I acknowledge that it is a strange title for a season review but rather than repeat much that I have already said before I want to look at three issues:

  • Is the new point scoring system fair?

  • Which teams have made progress relative to the field in 2003.

  • Will Michael Schumacher still give 110% or is he ready to retire?

I am the first to admit that I said that the new rules and point scoring system would do nothing to add excitement to the season. I was wrong. It kept the season alive and added so many random factors that it was far from boring.

From a spectator point of view the new rules are good but are they fair?

Michael Schumacher won six races this year. Barrichello, Montoya and brother Ralf won two races each. Yet Michael won the drivers� championship by the skin of his teeth.

If Raikkonen had won the drivers� championship by winning in Suzuka (also assuming that Michael did not score any points) he would have won only two races against Michael�s six of the season. Raikkonen did not score any points in three races while Michael only failed to score points in one (but I acknowledge that it would have been two had he lost to Raikkonen).

If the Ferrari was unreliable one could understand it and there is no doubt that Bridgestone introduced some inconsistency but the bottom line is that Michael would have won six out of the sixteen races against two for Raikkonen. It is a bit inconceivable that the point scoring system could favour Raikkonen.

If it was only Raikkonen that was that close, one could claim that he did so by consistently coming second but the fact is that he shared second places with many other drivers, mostly Montoya who very late in the season could still also have won the drivers� championship. They shared second place consistently and still did well enough to threaten Michael!

As it is Michael won the drivers� championship for the sixth time, establishing himself as the greatest driver ever on record.

The only record that Michael has not smashed is total number of pole positions which realistically can now not be broken as rules for qualifying have changed dramatically. Getting pole positions now just does not mean the same thing any more.

Now there is another point. The rule that forces teams to qualify in race starting trim and fuel load makes a huge part of the race a total crapshoot. We all know that each team has its own strategy and that the pole car may not be the fastest of the day, but I am not to sure that we enjoy complete confusion for most of the race and only know who is winning when the fat lady sings.

This shambles and confusion has its spectator appeal but many of us go to the races to see the top drivers fight it out. How many times have we felt frustration that one of them were caught up behind a slower car for half of the race for no other reason than a loss in the gamble for qualifying fuel load.

I, for one, do not enjoy a race until all first pit stops are over. Only then can I start guessing what the individual strategies are. Only then can I see a pattern emerge. Even then the strategy is often frustrated by a driver in a much slower car only because his team has decided that leading 10% of a race by going out with a dismally small fuel load and then finishing in the back of the field is better than starting and staying in the back of the field. Futile for us but good for their sponsors.

I often wonder if Formula One is not at risk to become an orchestrated sport like wrestling is in the U.S.

This year we saw Williams and McLaren close the gap to Ferrari. McLaren did it despite the fact that they could not get their new car on the circuit.

Admittedly some of this was due to tyres. Ferrari struggled with their Bridgestone tyres for most of the season.

I graphed (see below) the top 4 teams point gain over the 16 races of the season.

Ferrari had two major hiccups which cost them dearly. Early in the season Ferrari scored no points in Brazil but then recovered well until Monaco where it was obvious that they were not able to compete on slow circuits that require good mechanical grip but their biggest problem was Germany and Hungary where they scored almost no points. Somehow Bridgestone and Ferrari came to the party for the last three races winning both championships.

Because of the intense competition between Ferrari, Williams and McLaren is is a little difficult to make any observations on comparisons of the individual team development. Williams after a slow start did very well, very consistently, from the 7th to the 14th race and then faltered in the last two races. To a large extent we have to look for the reasons for this in their drivers. Ralf had given up by then and Montoya wasted his chances.

McLaren struggled in Canada and the European Grand Prix possibly because they expect to race the new car for the remainder of the season. When they failed the crash test with the new car and abandoned trying to get it to race this season the effort that went into making last year�s car compete for the rest of this season must have been enormous and they almost pulled it off! It may have been the 2002 car but it was fast enough to come second in the last race of the season.

The Renault graph shows very consistent growth in points accumulation over the year. They are particularly good on slower circuits (they have the mechanical grip that Ferrari lacks) but did not capitalise on this as much as I believed that they could in Hungary.

Nevertheless they finished strong after gradually closing the gap to the leading teams. Renault could be worth watching next year when they get their new motor. If this is reliable and gives them the power they need they will be even closer to the lead.

I didn't chart the rest of the teams as so few points were scored so erratically that it is impossible to see any reliable pattern. It interesting to note that both Jaguar and Toyota only scored points towards the second half of the season. It may not prove that they are getting better but it certainly proves that they are not going backwards.

Before I get scores of protests from the die-hard Michael Schumacher supporters what follows is not a criticism of Michael. How can one criticise him after he has just established himself as the greatest driver ever?

I have never seen Michael scramble like he did at Suzuka this season. His impatience was showing, he seemed desperate and he made several mistakes that were very contrary to the driving style we are accustomed to.

He made it into the points (his only objective) by as much luck as skill, probably more.

His whole season was a little like that. We are used to seeing Schumacher defend his place on the circuit with determination and aggression which often did result in a short trip through the kitty litter when there was not enough track to be on and, more rarely, a retirement.

This year however, it was a regular event. In Australia he had to pit after a get together with Raikkonen, in Malaysia it was Trulli. In Brazil he lost it in the wet. When last did he do that? In Germany he stayed out on a set of tyres for too long in my opinion and although his car was not up to it in Hungary I felt that he drove with no enthusiasm at all. I have never seen that in Michael.

He did win six races and he did win the drivers� championship.

I wonder if he should not retire while at the very top. We have seen so many drivers tarnish their images by hanging on too long. It would be sad if Michael makes the same mistake.

If I am wrong and he is still as determined and prepared to push as hard as ever I would love to see him race in 2004. If he feels that there is nothing left to prove and has lost that hunger to win it would be better to retire now when he is admired as the best ever. People have short memories. One bad season can knock him off his pedestal and that would be a shame.

Agree or disagree ?
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