20 years ago: Amidst tragedy, Michael Schumacher returns to top spot at San Marino

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This is part of a recurring series looking back 20 years at one of the more eventful seasons in recent Formula 1 history. Amidst the dominant run of Michael Schumacher and Ferrari, 2003 stood out not just as the one season of his five straight titles where Schumacher was seriously challenged all season, but as a marker for several trends that shaped Formula 1 into what it is today.

After the chaos of Brazil, the championship was almost begging to have a relatively normal race, and at least coming out of qualifying at Imola the familiar sight of Michael Schumacher atop the Saturday timesheets had returned, with brother Ralf alongside in his Williams. A pall would be cast upon the race weekend, however, upon news of the passing of the Schumachers’ mother. The brothers raced in her honor, and it would be Ralf that would take the lead in the early going.

Further back, both Jaguars had start troubles, and while Antonio Pizzonia’s stall at the back of the grid didn’t cause any trouble with the others, Mark Webber’s near-stall from 5th jumbled the lower points finishes around in the early going, with championship leader Kimi Raikkonen immediately moving up from 6th into 5th, Olivier Panis jumping from 10th to 6th, and Webber and 7th-starting Jacques Villeneuve dropping all the way to 11th and 13th respectively.

Equilibrium set in until the first pit stops, and there the younger Schumacher’s fortunes turned as Williams repeatedly ran into trouble–at the start of a three-stop strategy–and Michael’s Ferrari took the lead after Raikkonen–who had moved up to the lead with David Coulthard as McLaren ran a two-stop strategy–finally came in on lap 22. Rubens Barrichello moved up into third, while Ralf Schumacher came back in 10 laps later.

The typically machine-like Ferrari operation kept Michael Schumacher in the lead nearly the rest of the way, only giving up the lead when he pitted on lap 49–to Barrichello, who then pitted the following lap. Barrichello had an atypically long stop, however, which put him back out on the track behind Raikkonen. Having started 6th and 12th, the McLaren strategy had almost worked to perfection, with Raikkonen finishing 2nd and Coulthard finishing 5th, allowing the championship leader to extend his lead over his second-placed teammate, and for the team to extend their lead in the constructors’ standings.

But where previously the trailing drivers were Fernando Alonso and Renault, now it was Michael Schumacher and Ferrari–a combination that, clearly, was hard to keep behind for very long…

Photo credit: Scuderia Ferrari