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The 2000s: the best F1 decade ever?
The various eras of F1, best expressed under the names of their most commanding driver, rarely fit neatly within the framework of the six decades since F1 came in to the world. There is overlap. The ‘70s for example: is that the end of the Stewart era or the heart of the Lauda era? And how can the latter be so when Niki was still beating Alain Prost to the title (just) in 1984? The ‘90s, as we learned last week, was dominated not by a driver but a designer.
However the ‘noughties’ - F1’s double-O era - are different. They were absolutely dominated by one driver more so than at any other time in the sport’s history. What’s more, the history of the first four years of the ‘noughties’ point to something of a pattern that’s beginning to repeat itself for better or for worse.
Michael Schumacher won the first race of the 2000 F1 season in Australia. He would go on to win five, straight world championships - back-to-back. Nobody before had ever done that; enough, we think, to make the ‘00s categorically the Schumacher era. And it closes neatly too; guess who won the last race of the 2009 season? Yeah. You got it, that other German multi-champ.
Between Schumacher’s win and Vettel’s we witnessed a period of unprecedented dominance, a period we are now seeing all over again. It might have been dull to witness as Michael notched up pole after fastest lap after win - frankly the only fun was in watching the statistics notch up - but it was unquestionably remarkable. Driver working with car working with engineer working within local context. The 00-04 Schumacher-Ferrari years established the model for how to win in F1 in the modern era, with all the obsessive focus that implies. Clearly, to look at Vettel’s record there are many teams who have still to learn.
Michael Schumacher had left Benetton after his second and its first world championship to join Ferrari in 1996. His salary was reported to be $60million for the first two years and that was said to be more than any other sportsman at the time. That fact alone says more about the ‘00s and its legacy than anything. The reasons why Ferrari were willing to dig so deep were apparent right from the start; in ‘96 Schumacher had won three races (more than Ferrari had managed in the previous five years); in ‘97 he lost the championship in the final race; in ‘98 he managed six wins, and in 1999 only a broken leg - and six missed races - would stop him beating Mika Häkkinen to his first title for Ferrari.
From 2000 to 2004 however there would be no excuses culminating in the 2004 championship season where Schumacher would win 13 of the season’s 18 races. Clearly something had to be done to improve the spectacle, and rule changes for 2005 (which prohibited tyre changes) were most certainly aimed at clipping Ferrari’s and Schumacher’s wings. His last two years - 2006 and 2007 - were as quiet as Schumacher had seen in years, although in what was thought at the time to be a final race, he showed the genius had not dimmed in any way.
Curiously, Schumacher did appear to be awed by Fernando Alonso who would win both titles once the wheels had come off (stayed on?) the Ferrari campaign. Schumacher had taken the key engineering talent from Benetton to Ferrari with him and it had taken the team (now known as Renault) the thick end of a decade to rebuild, though once again it had done so around a prodigious talent as teams moved quickly to cover the Ferrari model. The time elapsed between Red Bull’s takeover of Jaguar F1 and Vettel’s dominance showing that talent and money alone isn’t enough. It takes time to build a superteam, so don’t expect to be seeing that finger retracted any time soon.
With the Schumacher and Ferrari axis broken, F1 got interesting again. Ferrari itself replaced Schumacher with Räikkonen (who would win one title in 2007 before apparently losing interest) and then replaced Räikkonen with Alonso. Next year it will have them both as it continues to search for its 00-04 form, which I suggest is some kind of compliment to Schumacher.
McLaren meanwhile had nurtured its own talent, and had been doing so for years in a still unprecedented vote of confidence in the talent of Lewis Hamilton. Hamilton would set the world on fire from the first corner of his first race in Australia in 2007 and would go on to lose to Räikkonen by just one point - in his debut season. In the following year, on all but the last corner of the last race, Hamilton would win the title by a similar margin. It was to prove the high watermark for McLaren in the modern era as the team slowly began to unwind, losing its edge, its excellence and eventually its superstar.
In 2008 Ross Brawn, who’d been key to all seven of Michael Schumacher’s championships at both Benetton and Ferrari and now part of the diaspora created by the Ferrari/Schumacher split had a good idea. The free-form regulations that had inspired the other-worldly aerodynamics of Hamilton’s winning McLaren has been tidied up and apparently allowed little opportunity for the aerodynamicist’s imaginations - not even Adrian Newey’s. Only nobody told Ross Brawn.
As the clock ran down to the start of the first race of 2009, Brawn had acquired the assets of Honda’s F1 team. Few expected the team and its drivers Jenson Button and Rubens Barichello to make it to Australia, but at the very end of the pre-season test Brawn’s un-backed challenger duly appeared… and flew. And continued to fly in the races, winning six of the first seven races of the season and handing Button, who had scored just one win in nine seasons of F1 to date, the title.
Behind him however Sebastian Vettel was already showing that Red Bull had figured the Ferrari/Schumacher model. You know what happened next. Was Brawn’s double-diffuser the last hurrah for advantage won through engineering innovation? Those looking for a rapid way to get ahead of Vettel in the remaining years of this decade will hope not.