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Last Updated: Sunday, 24 October, 2004, 18:37 GMT 19:37 UK
Ferrari rule exposes cracks in F1
By Andrew Benson
Motorsport editor

Michael Schumacher and Ferrari were further ahead than ever before
Schumacher and Ferrari were further ahead than ever before
Formula One rode into this year on a wave of optimism after a thrillingly competitive title battle in 2003.

So the scale of Ferrari's superiority was met with an even greater sense of deflation than normal when it became apparent at the start of the season.

Michael Schumacher's mind-numbing domination provided the backdrop to a year of infighting over F1's future.

And reasons for optimism were thin on the ground as politics eclipsed what few thrills there were on the track.

The odd times that Ferrari faced genuine competition throughout the year underlined that there is little wrong with F1 at its best.

But that is a condition in which the sport was rarely seen in 2004 as Schumacher and Ferrari surpassed even their own standards of superiority of two years before.

OUR TOP 10 DRIVERS IN 2004
On his way to extending his all-time record of world titles to seven, Schumacher broke his own mark for wins in a season.

Ferrari's success is testament to the creation of a quite brilliant team that is totally focused on the best driver of the era.

But those insisting the sport needs to change would point out that Ferrari's achievements are simply a reflection of a wider ill.

Money, many believe, is too big a part of F1 on too many levels.

No-one doubts the qualities of the men who have led Ferrari to their current unprecedented success.

But the fact is that Ferrari are dominant largely because they have the biggest budget in F1 - with the possible exception of the inexperienced Toyota team.

Money buys resources, and more resources mean more computers, more time in the wind tunnel, more data and ultimately a faster racing car.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the grid, teams are facing a desperate struggle to survive.

Kimi Raikkonen celebrates winning the Belgian Grand Prix
McLaren completed a stunning comeback with victory in Belgium
After four years of poor results, Ford unsurprisingly decided to pull the plug on its Jaguar team.

More alarmingly, the US car giant put up for sale its Cosworth engine company, which also supplied backmarkers Jordan and Minardi.

That could yet result in three of the 10 teams dropping out of F1 over the winter.

And some believe Ford will not be the last of the major car companies to quit F1 as the realisation grows that not everyone can win, and that the vast expense cannot be justified otherwise.

Lavish new venues in Bahrain and China may give an impression that F1's growth will never stop.

But there remained a sense that F1 is grasping for as much money as possible while it can, and that its participants have neither a real sense of the genuine emergency afflicting the sport nor a desire to solve its more pressing problems.

Sensing a crisis, Max Mosley, president of governing body the FIA, introduced a package of rule changes in a bid to cut costs and improve safety.

Jenson Button celebrates second place in the Chinese Grand Prix
Button matured into a genuine front-rank contender
But these soon became the subject of bitter arguments among the teams, and months passed with no agreement.

The lack of competition on the track meant the spotlight on these rows was even harsher than usual.

Ferrari's struggle to hold on to its titles in 2003 had been optimistically read as a sign that the team's domination was beginning to slip.

In fact, it was a simple function of them being caught on the hop by a late change in technical regulations.

In 2004, with a car devoid of design compromises and some enormous progress from tyre supplier Bridgestone, Ferrari returned to their previously awesome level of competitiveness.

Schumacher had needed all his genius to win the title in a difficult car in 2003; this year, the best car in the field was at his disposal, and night follows day.

Ferrari's passage to yet another championship double was eased - as it has been since 2000 - by the failure of their rivals to match their level.

This was most dramatically the case with McLaren.

In the words of team boss Ron Dennis, the first half of McLaren's 2004 campaign was "far worse than dismal; appalling might do it".

But the team rescued the year in dramatic style by introducing a new car mid-season.

Juan Pablo Montoya in the Williams-BMW FW26
A radical nose could do nothing to lift the gloom at Williams
The MP4-19B was instantly competitive enough to take the fight to Ferrari and secure what had seemed a most unlikely comeback with a brilliant victory in Belgium.

Williams-BMW's year was even worse, although they bounced back to some extent with a late-season revival that culminated in Juan Pablo Montoya's win in Brazil.

Expected to challenge for the title, Williams' walrus-nosed FW26 proved a grave disappointment, and the team failed for a long time to significantly improve it.

The recalcitrant car rendered even a dramatic talent like Montoya virtually anonymous and prompted a major reshuffle of Williams' technical staff, the results of which were not initially convincing.

In the absence of Ferrari's usual competitors, new teams stepped into the limelight in the form of BAR-Honda and Renault.

BAR finally banished years of underachievement thanks to a strong car and a powerful new engine from Honda, which is finally beginning to look like the company that dominated F1 in the 1980s.

Their challenge was led by Jenson Button, who matured into a genuine front-rank contender and drove superbly all season.

Mark Webber in the Jaguar
Jaguar's pull-out heightened a sense of crisis in F1
His consistency was enough to see off the challenge of Renault for second place in the constructors' championship.

Renault started the season with a car many believed to be the best on the grid bar the Ferrari.

They joined McLaren and Williams as the only outfit to beat Ferrari in 2004, thanks to a beautifully judged victory in Monaco by Jarno Trulli.

But Renault's competitiveness slipped as the season progressed.

Trulli, who had already accepted the offer of a move to Toyota, was jettisoned with three races to go.

But Renault's decline was caused by their car, not their drivers. They will also need a more powerful engine if their progress is to continue in 2005.

Trulli's move was rooted in a belief that the Japanese giant's huge financial resources will make them a serious force in the near future, despite a poor season.

In what state F1 might be by the time that happens is an open question.




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