The 2003 Formula One season was one jam packed full of drama, from competiveness up and the down the field, to controversy with tyres and politics amongst the teams throughout the season. One race which epitomised this was the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix, held at the Interlagos circuit in Sao Paulo.
The race weekend had experienced torrential rain, leaving the Bridgestone teams concerned as the only wet weather tyre available to them were the intermediates; tyres which were deemed unsuitable in these conditions. This was due to a cost cutting that was introduced that year which stated that the tyre manufacturers – Bridgestone and Michelin – could only bring one tread of wet weather tyre to each Grand Prix. Even though the home favourite Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari) qualified on pole, the Michelin runners had an advantage.
The safety car leads the pack at the start of the race
Image Source: F1 madness
After the start was delayed, the cars started behind the safety car and when it was deemed safe to race, they were released and David Coulthard’s McLaren immediately took advantage of the Brazilian’s slow start to take the lead into turn one.
In the early stages of the races, it was clear that the track was waterlogged, so much that a small lake developed at turn 3; but more on that in a while.
As the drivers began to come to terms with the conditions, the drivers were beginning get comfortable whilst others struggled. Nick Heidfeld (Sauber) retired on lap 8 with an engine failure whilst former teammate Kimi Raikkonen passed Coulthard on Lap 11 with a brave move into turn 1 to take the lead.
Shortly after, the first major incident of the race occurred, when on lap 18, the front suspension of Ralph Firman (Jordan) broke under braking at turn 1, narrowly avoiding his teammate Giancarlo Fisichella and collecting Olivier Panis (Toyota) in the process. This resulted in the first safety car of the day and signalled a number of pit stops.
Ralph Firman checks to see if Olivier Panis is okay after their collison at Turn 1
Image Source: Pitpass
After the cars was released, utter disarray occurred as Juan Pablo Montoya (Williams), Antonio Pizzonia (Jaguar) and even the rainmeister Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) would all fall victim to the lake ensuing at turn 3, joining Justin Wilson (Minardi) who spun out there on lap 16.
Cue another appearance from the safety car and a couple more pit stops. At this point, it was clear that this race would be a case of which driver can keep the car on the island the longest.
The race restarted at the end of Lap 29, with Coulthard leading, whilst Ralf Schumacher (Williams) overtook Barrichello around the outside of turn 1 for second place, followed by Mark Webber (Jaguar), Jenson Button (B.A.R.), Fernando Alonso (Renault), Jos Verstappen (Minardi) and Giancarlo Fisichella.
The littered cars parked at Turn 3
Image Source: BBC Sport website
However, by Lap 33 both Verstappen and Button would be the latest victims of turn 3, the latter who had a massive shunt into the barrier and the safety car was deployed once again.
Three laps later, they were off again, with Raikkonen charging through the field from an earlier stop smoothly overtaking Alonso – who would shortly receive a drive through penalty for speeding in the pit lane – into turn 1 for fourth place.
Then the Brazilian crowd got what they’d waiting for on lap 45, as Coulthard ran wide at turn 1 and allowed Barrichello to take the lead of the race, resulting in pandemonium in the stands.
At the end of the lap, he set the fastest lap of the race but at the exit of turn 5, Rubens drastically slowed to a halt as his engine suffered a hydraulics issue. ‘Rubinho’ was out, and the hearts of a nation sunk in unison.
A distraught Rubens Barrichello after retiring from the lead of his home Grand Prix
Image Source: Dailymotion (ITV)
After 51 laps, Coulthard was leading, with teammate Raikkonen 18.4 seconds behind, followed by Fisichella, Alonso, Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Sauber), who had yet to make a pit stop; Jarno Trulli (Renault) in sixth whilst Jacques Villeneuve (B.A.R.) and Mark Webber rounding out the top eight. At this point, the leader pitted and re-joined in fourth, whilst Fisichella took advantage of Raikkonen’s mistake on the exit of turn 11 to take the lead.
Then dramatically, Mark Webber lost control of his car on the approach to turn 14 and slammed into the tyre wall, leaving one wheel attached to his car; his race was done. As a result, the tyre wall poured onto the race track and led to the safety car being deployed once again.
In spite of the yellow flags being waved by the marshals, Alonso approached the scene of the incident at full speed, leading him to collect a wheel and plummeting into another tyre wall on the opposite side and the race had to be stopped. As a result of this, Alonso gingerly climbed out of his car and into the ambulance for check ups.
The aftermath of Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso’s incidents which brought the race to an erupt end
Image Source: Fox Sports website
Meanwhile, back in the pit lane, confusion reigned as Raikkonen’s McLaren waited at the lights with a fresh set of tyres whilst Fisichella’s Jordan pulled up into Parc Ferme and with the car on fire.
When the race was declared finished, the Jordan team celebrated their first win in three and half years; Giancarlo’s first in Formula One. Or so they thought.
After much discussion, Kimi Raikkonen was announced as the winner to give McLaren their third win in as many races, with Fisichella second and Alonso third.
Giancarlo Fisichella and Kimi Raikkonen on the podium in Brazil; albeit in the wrong positions
Image Source: crash.net
This was due article 154 of the FIA regulations at the time, which stated if 75% of the race distance – in this case 71 laps – has been completed, the race was “deemed to have finished when the leading car crossed the line at the end of the lap two laps prior to that lap during which the signal to stop was given”.
Fisichella had completed 54 laps of the race distance when the race was stopped, 76% of the original race distance, leading to this decision.
However, after review a couple of days later, it was revealed that a timekeepers’ error meant they’d missed that Fisichella had started his 56 lap when the race was stopped. This lead to a court case in Paris, which righty awarded the race win to Fisichella and Jordan.
McLaren didn’t appeal the decision and an unofficial ceremony was held to awarded the winning drivers’ and constructors’ trophies to the rightful recipients.
Giancarlo accepts his winners trophy from Kimi in Imola.
Image Source: mclaren.com
As Alonso didn’t appear on the podium due to his incident, this was the first in Formula One history in which not one driver was stood in the correct place for the ceremony.
Without a doubt, this is one of my favourite Formula One races ever. It has all the ingredients for a classic: unpredictablity, changeable conditions, the underdog rising to the challenge and making a name for themselves.
This race had it all. And there haven’t been many races quite like it since.