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On this day in 2003: Chaos reigns in Brazilian classic

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The 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix was a perfect storm of factors that led to exhilarating racing.

Drivers spin out at turn three during the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix (Image Credit: @F1racing13 on X)
Drivers spin out at turn three during the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix (Image Credit: @F1racing13 on X)

For good reason, the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix is known as one of F1’s all-time classic races. Once in a blue moon, F1 sees races that turn the competitive order on its head. These races do not have an individual factor behind them, although adverse weather usually plays a part.

Three factors caused this fantastic race. The intense tyre war between Bridgestone and Michelin, a dominant theme of the era, added a layer of competition as fierce as the weather.

The tyre manufacturer had created a “shallow wet” tyre for 2003. Its tread depth lay between a full wet and intermediate tyre, whereas Bridgestone had the full wet and full intermediates available. But both manufacturers would suffer in Brazil.

The circuit itself provided the final factor in making Brazil a classic. Sao Paulo has always provided excellent racing, so adding large areas of standing water from the torrential rain meant drivers had to be vigilant. Even the best would be caught out in this race.

Brazil 2003 also stands out due to its winner. A high-speed accident at the finish caused confusion, which led to the stewards announcing the wrong victor. This was rectified a week later.

Lights out
The two McLarens leading the early stages of the race (Image Credit: Autosport)
The two McLarens leading the early stages of the race (Image Credit: Autosport)

Due to the deluge of rain, the race started behind the Safety Car. Giancarlo Fisichella’s Jordan dived into the pits to fuel. This decision would have massive ramifications later on.

After eight laps behind the Safety Car, the race got underway, with home hero Rubens Barrichello’s Ferrari slowing the pack slowly towards the start line.  The McLaren of David Coulthard waited to pounce in second place.

The Brazilian’s game of cat and mouse with Coulthard backfired. Barrichello’s attempt to drop the McLaren into the clutches of Mark Webber’s Jaguar gave Coulthard a chance to take the lead. Seizing his opportunity, Coulthard dived down the inside of the Ferrari into the first corner, deflating the home crowd.

Barrichello now had to defend from Webber and the second McLaren of Kimi Raikkonen. Webber attempted a move in the tight midsection, but the Ferrari held firm. Raikkonen passed Webber a few corners later before repeating the move his teammate pulled on Barrichello at the end of the lap. What was a Ferrari lead became a McLaren one-two in just one lap.

Further back, the first in a long list of drivers retired from the race. Nick Heidfeld’s Sauber pulled off at the end of the lap, smoke pouring from the back of his Ferrari engine.

Lead changes and an advancing Ferrari
Rubens Barrichello pushes forward in 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix (Image Credit: @CrystalRacing on X)
Rubens Barrichello pushes forward in the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix (Image Credit: @CrystalRacing on X)

Barrichello lost fourth to Juan Pablo Montoya’s Williams just a few metres later, as the Bridgestone wet tyres struggled for grip and temperature compared to the Michelin runners.

Raikkonen had searing pace once clear of his teammate, climbing all over the rear of teammate Coulthard. The battle allowed Montoya to close up on the pair of them, so Raikkonen pulled off an audacious move into the first corner. Montoya followed through before the next corner. McLaren and Williams were now locked in a battle for glory as the two young charges sprinted off into the distance.

Barrichello continued his slide downwards. He lost losing P4 Webber, with teammate Michael Schumacher demoting him to P6 by lap 11. Webber and Coulthard found a sudden burst of speed, with the McLaren closing to two-tenths behind Montoya, retaking second place on lap 14.

Webber was setting fastest sector times, closing the gap to P3, dragging Michael Schumacher with him. Schumacher disposed of Webber, then passed Montoya for P3 on the next lap.

Coulthard’s pace became an issue for Raikkonen, as the Scot took two seconds out of the Finn’s lead in just one lap. Both McLarens needed more pace as Schumacher’s Ferrari emerged on the horizon, closing in on the leading duo.

Justin Wilson fell foul of standing water at turn three, spinning out of the race. Ralph Firman’s Jordan suffered a front suspension failure at the end of the pit straight on lap 18, sending the British driver out of control. Hitting the Jordan of Jarno Trulli, both were eliminated on the spot. The incident bought out the Safety Car. The impromptu pit stops jumbled up the order.

Restart and another Safety Car
Michael Schumacher crashes out of the race (Image Credit: Motorsport Magazine)
Michael Schumacher crashes out of the race (Image Credit: Motorsport Magazine)

Raikkonen nailed the restart, pulling a small gap on Coutlthard, while Michael Schumacher slotted behind the Scot. Christiano Da Matta’s Toyota was a brilliant P4, though he had yet to stop. Losing out to a resurgent Barrichello, the Toyota now had to defend his position from Montoya.

Coulthard and Schumacher battled away hard. Both had a pit stop in hand over Raikkonen, who, although leading, would eventually have to pit for fuel.

The carnage at turn three that claimed many drivers picked up on lap 24. Montoya spun off and then hit the barrier, terminally damaging his Williams. Antonio Pizzonia’s Jaguar suffered an identical fate just second later, colliding with the stationary Williams.

Unbelievably, the rain master and eventual World Champion that year, Michael Schumacher, succumbed to turn three, retiring for the first time since Germany in 2001 after hitting the barrier. The Safety Car was bought out again to clear the track, providing a window for Raikkonen to pit.

This promoted Coulthard back into the lead, with home hero Barrichello now a fantastic second. His sights were set firmly on taking the win and breaking his Interlagos curse of never finishing a home race.

Crashes, restarts and heartbreak
Coulthard and Barrichello battle for the lead in Brazil (Image Credit: Autosport)
Coulthard and Barrichello battle for the lead in Brazil (Image Credit: Autosport)

The race restarted on lap 29, as Coulthard once again nailed his restart while Barrichello mirrored his race start. Losing second place to Ralf Schumacher’s Williams, the home hero once again saw his chances for victory slip away. But the Brazilian wanted this win and duly retook P2, setting off after Coulthard.

Coulthard managed the gap between himself and Barrichello, using his unusual line at the final corner to find additional grip for his Michelin shallow wet tyres. The Ferrari tried hard but could not close the gap.

Jos Verstappen became the next victim of the standing water at turn three, spinning out and retiring his Minardi.  Jenson Button joined Verstappen on the sidelines a few laps later, joining what was becoming a very expensive car park at turn three. Fuelled to the end of the race, it was a missed opportunity for the Briton and BAR. The severity of the crash meant another Safety Car.

The top two maintained their positions at the restart, allowing Barrichello another opportunity to attack for the lead. Following his pit stop, Raikkonen was advancing, taking P4 from Fernando Alonso’s Renault, then P3 from Ralf Schumacher in the space of just a few corners. Mark Webber fell victim to turn three but miraculously avoided the barrier and continued.

The top two continued their battle for lap after lap. The moment for Barrichello arrived at the start of lap 41. Coulthard ran wide into turn one, allowing the Ferrari to sneak through, sending the crowd into raptures. The Brazilian pulled away by over a second a lap and now looked untouchable.

But to everyone’s disappointment, Barrichello’s curse of Interlagos struck again on lap 47. The Ferrari slowed to a halt and pulled off the track with a fuel feed problem, exacerbated by a misfiring Ferrari V10. Unbelievably, it was the first double retirement for Ferrari since the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring in 1999.

An unbelievable finale
Giancarlo Fisichella navigates the aftermath of Mark Webber's high-speed crash (Image Credit: @F1FanShop on X)
Giancarlo Fisichella navigates the aftermath of Mark Webber’s high-speed crash (Image Credit: @F1FanShop on X)

With 24 laps left, Coulthard again found himself in the lead, comfortably ahead of Kimi Raikkonen, who had fought hard to move back into P2.

Coulthard pitted on lap 52, dropping to P4 behind Alonso’s Renault. But Giancarlo Fisichella’s Jordan came back into play following his stop behind the Safety Car. The team was on for a good result, and the Italian pushed hard.

Raikkonen had a flick of oversteer into the final corner on lap 53, and Fisichella took full advantage to take the lead of the Brazilian Grand Prix, instantly pulling away.

Mark Webber then had a terrifying high-speed crash on the straight leading to the start line. The front of his Jaguar was wrecked, but he walked away unhurt. The huge amount of debris led to another Safety Car confirmed by race control.  Fischella started lap 56 while Raikkonen dived into the pits.

However, after a drive-through penalty earlier in the race for ignoring yellow flags, Fernando Alonso opted to ignore this again. Hitting a detached tyre from the Jaguar, Alonso hit the barrier with more force than Webber, wrecking his Renault. The race was instantly red-flagged. All cars headed for the pits, where Fisichella’s Jordan started smoking from a Ford engine failure.

Who won?
Kimi Raikkonen handing the Brazilian Grand Prix winner's trophy to Giancarlo Fisichella at Imola (Image Credit: @CrystalRacing on X)
Kimi Raikkonen handing the Brazilian Grand Prix winner’s trophy to Giancarlo Fisichella at Imola (Image Credit: @CrystalRacing on X)

Initially, Fisichella was announced as the winner, sending Jordan into elation. Although its car was one of the worst on the grid in 2003, its victory was the first in over 100 races.

But the stewards quickly rewarded Raikkonen with victory, giving McLaren three race wins in a row. The solemn faces of Eddie Jordan, Fisichella, and the Jordan team spoke volumes. Coulthard, meanwhile, pondered what might have been if he had not stopped on lap 52.

But all was not lost. The stewards investigated the race results long after F1 had packed up and departed Brazil. Race Director Charlie Whiting wanted clarity and discovered an error.

Race regulations state that when a race is stopped after three-quarters distance, the final result is taken two laps before the red flag is waved. Fisichella had passed Raikkonen on lap 53, so the win belonged to him. At a ceremony in San Marino, Raikkonen handed over the trophy to the Italians and Jordan. This was Ford’s final victory to date.

Brazil 2003 is the kind of race F1 wants to replicate to become normality. This can never happen, nor should it. This race is so special thanks to the track and weather impacting the tyres of Michelin and Bridgestone. We remember special races for a reason, as they are so unique, and we will still be fondly remembering this race in another twenty years. But there will never be a race like Brazil 2003, nor should we try to make one.


Feature Image Credit: BBC


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