In the list of classic Grand Prix seasons, 2004 probably won’t feature all that high on the list. The championship was decided long before the final race with one team and driver proving utterly dominant sometimes you have look past the lack of nail-biting drama and appreciate a true sporting powerhouse at its brilliant best.
Michael Schumacher and Ferrari were under pressure after fighting tooth and nail for the 2003 title, securing it in a frantic finale at Suzuka and with McLaren and Williams both producing radical challengers for 2004, some were already speculating that Maranello’s golden era may be at an end. The late unveiling of the F2004 only served to add fuel to the fire but as soon as they arrived in Melbourne, the Scuderia poured cold water all over it.
Albert Park had been a happy hunting ground for Ferrari in previous years but never had they brought the field to its knees quite like this. Only Fernando Alonso was remotely capable of keeping them in sight while Williams drivers Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya were barely on the same lap as the men in red. McLaren’s worst fears were also realised as their MP4-19 proved slow and unreliable, yielding just a solitary point for a lapped David Coulthard and a blown engine for Kimi Raikkonen.
In many ways, 2004 was a story of redemption for the title-winning dream team after a turbulent summer in 2003, especially as far as Bridgestone were concerned. While Michael was busy romping to five wins out of five early on, the Japanese company were rebuilding their reputation and victory in the sweltering heat of Malaysia, traditionally a Michelin-banker, was a graphic illustration of their progress.
Significant strides forward were also being made elsewhere with B.A.R Honda emerging as a legitimate threat to the big boys. Many saw their record pace in testing as a flash in the pan but Jenson Button’s maiden podium at Sepang suggested otherwise. With the monkey off his back, Jenson repeated the feat on F1’s first visit to Bahrain before converting a first-ever pole position into a career-best second at Imola.
The first quarter of the season was painted red though and with victories coming at the greatest of ease, concerns started to grow that Schumacher and Ferrari could even complete a clean sweep. The first record in Michael’s sights was a sixth straight win from the start of the season with Monaco the destination. One of his great rivals ensured his winning streak would stop at five as Juan Pablo Montoya, running a lap down, punted him off in the tunnel during a safety car period. The race was neutralised twice with Takuma Sato’s flaming B.A.R triggering a pile-up at Tabac while Fernando Alonso also came to grief in the tunnel while attempting to lap Ralf Schumacher. Through it all came polesitter Jarno Trulli who ended his 119 race wait for a first Grand Prix victory, holding off a fast-closing Button. Sadly for the Italian, relations between he and Flavio Briatore soured as Spring turned to Summer and his place with the team would evaporate before season’s end, opening the door for Jacques Villeneuve’s shock return in China.
You’d be forgiven for thinking the crushing disappointment of Monte Carlo would knock Schumi off his stride but the German responded as true champions do. Michael returned to winning ways immediately at the Nurburgring and set about a seven-race winning run that would take him to the brink of the title by the end of the summer. Ferrari were even finding different ways to win their races, producing a cunning four-stop strategy to outfox Renault in France.
Fittingly, Michael’s date with destiny came at the circuit where he made his name in Formula One, Spa-Francorchamps. Needing to outscore teammate Rubens Barrichello by two points, the task was reasonably simple but numerous accidents and three safety car periods complicated matters. Thankfully for Schumacher, he was second out of nine finishers and a record seventh title was secured.
The year belonged to Ferrari’s finest but that particular day saw the rebirth of McLaren as Kimi Raikkonen led them to a first victory in eighteen months. The first half of 2004 had been nothing short of painful for the previous year’s runner-up but the mid-season introduction of a B-Spec McLaren paid dividends. Pole position at Silverstone was a warning for the rest that the Woking squad were back on track and Kimi’s brilliance at Formula One’s toughest venue confirmed their revival.
With the title in the bag, Schumacher went into something of a slump by his standards with a spin on lap one banishing any hopes of victory at Monza. Shanghai got their first sight of Schumacher in September but what they saw was one of his worst ever weekends with spins and prangs galore consigning him to twelfth. Ferrari could still count on their trusty number two though as Rubens Barrichello bagged back-to-back victories to clinch the runner-up spot in the championship. Michael redeemed himself at Suzuka on a weekend where a typhoon delayed qualifying until the Sunday but even he had to play second fiddle in Brazil as his two great challengers took centre stage.
In their final race before becoming McLaren teammates, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen threw everything at each other in their struggle for supremacy but the Colombian prevailed in the end, handing BMW Williams their only victory in a turbulent season. A heavy crash at Indianapolis had sidelined Ralf Schumacher for six races with a fractured spine and Juan’s win proved scant consolation in the end. Little did we know, they wouldn’t win again for over seven years.
It was a sign of Formula One’s changing of the guard that Williams and McLaren ended the year fourth and fifth despite a late victory apiece. The fight for runner-up behind Ferrari would be settled in B.A.R’s favour, thanks partly to Trulli’s collapse and subsequent sacking by Renault, but largely due to Jenson Button’s emergence as a member of Formula One’s elite. Ten podiums spoke volumes for his personal progress and a sensational drive from thirteenth to second at Hockenheim was a particular highlight.
But in truth, 2004 was a one prancing horse race. The numbers really tell the story better than any words could. Ten fastest laps, eight pole positions, thirteen wins (a record matched last year by Sebastian Vettel) and a championship clinched with four races to spare. Some would say the world champions weren’t pushed in 2004 and they’d be right for a very good reason. Bridgestone, Ferrari and Michael Schumacher were just way too good.
Given his current situation, the challenges faced on his way to a seventh world title pale into insignificance. The future remains uncertain for Michael Schumacher but his record as a racing driver is without question. Statistically, he is the greatest driver Formula One has ever seen and if you want an idea of what made him so great, look no further than F1 2004.