By Andrew Benson
Michael Schumacher's all-time record sixth Formula One drivers' title will go down in history as possibly his best ever.
Schumacher, Montoya and Raikkonen fought out the title while Alonso made his mark
Of the German's other five championships, only his thrilling battle with Mika Hakkinen in 2000 comes close - his first win in 1994 was too tarnished; and 1995, 2001 and 2002 were too easy.
In 2003, though, Schumacher needed all his undoubted genius to see off the challenge from two determined rivals.
That seemed only right - if Juan Manuel Fangio's record of five titles, set from 1951-57, was going to be broken, it was appropriate it should be done with some style.
Schumacher's achievements, great as they are, will forever be shaded by the peculiarities of his era in F1.
Chief among those are certain unsavoury aspects of his sporting personality - particularly his willingness to blur the lines of what is acceptable competitive behaviour - and the lack of a genuine challenge he has faced for much of his career.
But his record-breaking achievement was not soured by the first - if you discount Ferrari's controversial complaint about Michelin's tyres - while for the first time in three years, there was no question that Schumacher faced a fight.
Ferrari may still have had the best all-round car.
Schumacher's win in Canada was his best of the year
But its superiority was masked by the inferiority of its Bridgestone tyres compared to the Michelins used by chief rivals Williams and McLaren.
Schumacher's season was encapsulated in the Canadian Grand Prix, which he won when he had no right to.
In a Ferrari with dodgy brakes, he grabbed the lead from brother Ralf's demonstrably faster Williams-BMW at the first pit stops and held off the challenge from him and team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya to the end.
Nevertheless, Schumacher's season was not all we have come to expect from him, and in 2003 there was the definite sense of the beginning of the end of one era and the start of another.
That might sound trite at the end of a season in which Schumacher won six races when no-one else won more than two.
But the fact remains that Schumacher had to dig deeper - and was less convincing at times - than ever before.
OUR TOP 10 DRIVERS IN '03
1 Michael Schumacher
2 Fernando Alonso
3 Kimi Raikkonen
4 Juan Pablo Montoya
5 Mark Webber
6 Ralf Schumacher
7 Rubens Barrichello
8 Giancarlo Fisichella
9 Jenson Button
10 David Coulthard
The 34-year-old made a series of uncharacteristic mistakes in the first three races of the season, which prevented him from reaping the benefits of what at that time was clearly the fastest car on the grid.
Those lost points, coupled with a new points system that reduced the benefit for winning, meant it took Schumacher until the Canadian Grand Prix - the halfway point of the season - to move into the championship lead.
As it happened, that was the race at which it became clear Ferrari had lost their performance advantage, and from then on Schumacher fought a rearguard battle.
He was not helped by a mid-season slump that saw team-mate Rubens Barrichello outpace him for three consecutive races.
After Hungary, Schumacher had a long hard look at himself and came back for September's Italian race a changed man, producing another brilliant victory, his first since Canada in June.
After that, a bit of rain in Indianapolis was all he needed to put the title all but out of reach and an eventful eighth place in Japan was enough.
While Schumacher struggled, the three leading characters of the emerging new generation grabbed their chance to shine.
One of them, Juan Pablo Montoya, should have won the title, but struggled to find the right balance between aggression and conservatism.
As a result, he made too many driving errors and misjudgements. Combined with Williams' slow start to the season, that meant the chance slipped through his fingers.
Instead, McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen was the man to take the title battle to the final race, a fair reflection of an outstanding season.
His car was not generally a match on pace for the Williams, but he combined consistency, speed and aggression to impressive effect throughout the season.
McLaren - hampered by the fiasco over the new car that never raced - appeared at times to be hanging on to Williams and Ferrari by their fingernails.
But Raikkonen was always there or thereabouts.
Raikkonen kept himself in the title chase against the odds
He, too, made the odd mistake, particularly in one-lap qualifying, but he clearly has what it takes to follow in the footsteps of compatriot Hakkinen.
The third member of the new elite is perhaps the best of all potentially.
In only his second season, Renault's Fernando Alonso showed a blend of speed, relentlessness and consistency that won him comparisons with Schumacher.
Brilliant in the slippery opening laps of the first race of the season in Melbourne, he then took a superb third place in Malaysia and followed that with a stunning drive in Spain, keeping Schumacher on his toes for the entire distance.
Although he was outpaced by team-mate Jarno Trulli in qualifying more than he perhaps should have been - which may be a reflection of the Italian's long-recognised blinding pace over one lap - Alonso was very rarely less than superb on Sunday afternoons.
A measure of the impact he had made was that no-one was surprised when he took his first victory in Hungary.
Of the rest, Jaguar made perhaps the biggest impression, if only because of the quantum leap they made from the disaster of 2002.
Webber marked himself out as a star of the future in the improved Jaguar
Much of their progress was down to Michelin tyres and Mark Webber, who was a revelation - competitive, bright and very quick he is another man with a big future.
BAR probably had the best car outside the big four, although its quality was masked by the Bridgestone tyres.
Jenson Button shaded Jacques Villeneuve as BAR took a deserved fifth place overall, but not by as much as most would have you believe, and it seemed unfair that the 1997 world champion had to say his goodbyes to F1 at the end of the season.
Sauber had another anonymous season, but still managed to grab sixth place in the constructors' championship, thanks in large part to Heinz-Harald Frentzen's third place at the US Grand Prix.
Sauber thanked the veteran German by showing him the door, although you could hardly question their choice of Giancarlo Fisichella as lead driver in 2004.
The stylish Italian was utterly wasted in an abject season for Jordan - notwithstanding a well-worked but somewhat fortunate win in Brazil. The yellow cars were only kept off the back of the grid by hard-trying but achievement-light Minardi.