The 2000s was a decade split into two. The first half utterly dominated by Ferrari and Michael Schumacher, breaking records as if for fun. The second half was the rise of Alonso, Hamilton and Button. But underneath it all it was an era of some incredible racing cars, wildly changing rules and screaming engines be them V10 or V8. These are the seven that we think stand proud from the others.
The seven best F1 cars of the 2000s
We wrote about the Ferrari F2004’s predecessor, the F2002, in our piece on the greatest Formula 1 cars of all time. There we said there was only a hair’s breadth between the two in terms of which car had the greater history. Having told the story of the 2002, we thought we’d take the opportunity here to tell the tale of the final car to win a championship with Michael Schumacher at the wheel.
The F2004 was based on the same principles as the F2002, but with a larger rear wing and a complete redesign for the rear suspension – after the F2003-GA suffered from excessive tyre wear. The engines now needed to be more resilient too, the demand from the FIA being to last a whole weekend, and gearboxes now had to last a lot longer as well. Launch control and the incredibly high-tech pretty-much full auto’ gearboxes that had been developed were also banned, handing more control back to the driver. It was an immediate success. Schumacher won the first five races of the season, and 12 of the first 13 – only a retirement in Monaco after a bizarre incident with Juan Pablo Montoya behind the safety car meant he couldn’t break Nigel Mansell’s record of most victories in a row from the start of the season. By the time 2004 came to an end it had won 15 of 18 races, including a legendary four-stop strategy win from Schumacher at Magny-Cours that will go down as one of his greatest.
The car that ended that mighty F1 Ferrari run (six World Constructor’s Championships for Ferrari, five Drivers’ crowns for Schumacher), the Renault R25 was a masterpiece of clever engineering. It was, in reality, slower than McLaren’s MP4-20 at many points, and in fact the McLaren would win more races. But with much better reliability and Fernando Alonso just stepping up to his status as one of the best all-round drivers of his generation, it was the Renault that would prevail.
While the R25 won as many races as its successor, the R26, and both won the Constructors’ and Drivers’ championships, it is the 25 that makes this list for breaking that Ferrari stranglehold, and for being just a tiny bit more dominant over its rivals. The R25 won the first four races of the 2005 season, one for Giancarlo Fisichella, and three for eventual champion Alonso. But it was a consistency of podium finishes that would win the title for the Spaniard. Excluding the controversial US Grand Prix that year, Alonso only failed to finish one race and finished on the podium 15 times out of 19 races. It also had some pretty stiff opposition, with both McLaren and Ferrari building potentially race winning cars in 2005 (McLaren’s 2006 season was a bit of a disaster) and therefore for us just sneaks onto this list ahead of its successor, oh and we didn’t have to talk about tuned mass dampers for half a season.
While many years in the first half of the 2000s were a relative stroll for the pairing of Schumacher and Ferrari, the first year of the decade was a bit more tough. Yes Ferrari and Schumacher eventually took the first of five championship doubles but with four races of the season left McLaren had won as many races as Ferrari and Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard were snapping at Schumacher’s heels.
But then it all came together. The car was a development of the F300 and F399 Ferrari had campaigned in 1998 and ’99, but now had a much better weight distribution thanks to a brand new engine. Through the seasons it also received a reasonably large overhaul – with the initially angular front wing replaced and much bigger bargeboards arriving in mid-season. Schumacher then won four races in a row, almost cruising to the title, although it actually went down to the penultimate race. The key to the F1-2000’s legend is that it that title was the first for Ferrari in 21 years.
McLaren won a title in the 2000s, but we’re not actually going to pick that car as its greatest star of the decade. Partly because its design was always a little bit tainted by the prolonged “Spygate” saga, but mostly because it wasn’t actually the fastest car on the grid that year (2008), and could easily have been beaten by Ferrari with some drivers on better form.
No, the car we choose is the one that ran the Renault R25 close in 2005. The McLaren MP4-20, as we have noted, won more races in that season than the eventual winning car.
So bad were the predecessors to the MP4-20 that the design was a pretty much ground up fresh start (McLaren had been forced to introduce a heavily-revised MP4-19B in the middle of the 2004 season after struggling to pick up any points). The completely new aero-concept adopted by the MP4-20’s designer Adrian Newey was a success. After some initial teething problems drivers Kimi Räikkönen and Juan Pablo Montoya would claim 20 victories between them and, but for a couple of retirements to end the season, McLaren could easily have won the Constructor’s Crown.
The story of the first half of the 2000s is just one of Ferrari and cars that took the fight to Ferrari. Five titles in a row sounds like no one else turned up, but such was the prowess of that Schumacher/Brawn/Todt/Byrne axis at Ferrari it didn’t seem to matter what the other teams threw at the game. That said, there were some gems in among the challengers. Chief among those taking the fight back to Ferrari were McLaren and Williams. McLaren would later build some brilliant machines for the latter 2000s, but for Williams it would turn out to be one last hurrah at the top (so far anyway).
The FW25 was powered by a BMW V10 at the very height of the company’s F1 powers. While the BMW/Williams relationship would sour, the engine side of the bargain was never found wanting. The P83 was easily the most powerful engine on the grid and with two drivers at the top of their games in Ralf Schumacher and that man Montoya again the FW25 had a good shot at glory. But Williams problems ran to more than just Ferrari being astonishingly good. Montoya was fast, but a bit prone to incident, and Schumacher suffered a first of two major injuries that saw him forced to miss races in the next two years.
More importantly there was a tyre issue. Michelin introduced an upgraded tyre for the Monaco round that unlocked the potential of the FW25. It won four of the next six races, finishing on the podium in all, and suddenly Williams was breathing down Ferrari’s neck. But then Bridgestone (which supplied the tyres for Ferrari) lodged a protest against the new tyres, Michelin reverted to the old spec, and Williams did not win another race for the rest of the season. With Ferrari winning all three and the title you have to wonder what might have been had the old tyres been allowed – indeed the FW25 was the last Williams to challenge for a title.
The Ferrari F2007 was the last car to win Ferrari a World Drivers’ Championship. But it was the F2008 that clinched the final Constructors’ win for the team from Maranello. Now racing without the in-house ECU the F2007 had been blessed with, other rule changes meant that the F2008 had fewer drivers aids and was generally a bit heavier. But the F2008 was still, arguably the fastest car on the grid in 2008, proven by a pretty hefty winning margin in the Constructors’ standings. But a series of misfortunes would mean it wouldn’t hand Ferrari a sixth title double of the 2000s.
It was partly down to unfortunate incidents – Kimi Räikkönen being taken out of the Canadian Grand Prix when Lewis Hamilton turned his McLaren into a Ferrari-seeking missile in the pitlane – partly down to team-based calamity – the team twice sent a car out of its pit box with the fuel hose still attached – and partly down to poor driving – Massa and Räikkönen both had numerous incidents throughout the season – that the F2008 would be robbed of a double crown. McLaren and Hamilton stood firm and pretty consistent (Canadian brain fade aside) to gain the title at the very last second. But had just a couple of rubs of the green gone differently it might have been a second title in a row for Ferrari.
Brawn BGP 001
Over an average of the whole season the Brawn BGP 001 was probably not the fastest car of 2009. But that was entirely due to the fact that the team had absolutely no money for the first half of the year and could not afford to put any real effort into developing the car. The remarkable thing is that, even in a basically unchanged car, Jenson Button won six of the first seven races.
The Brawn BGP 001’s fairy story isn’t quite all it seems though. Yes the team had no money, yes it was saved by a management buyout that nearly involved Ross Brawn mortgaging his house, yes they continued to have no real cash for most of the season. But the BGP 001 may have been one of the best-developed cars on the grid when the year began. Honda had abandoned its disastrous 2008 car early, choosing to put all its efforts into the 2009 car, which was to be developed to completely new rules. The result was easily the fastest car on the grid and a trick diffuser that caused controversy. That Button being unable to win another race after that sixth win in Turkey wasn’t enough to stop him winning the title, shows just how incredible the BGP 001 was at the start of 2009. It does make you wonder what it would have been like had it had Honda branding and a full development season.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
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