By 1998, Ferrari’s goal was nothing less than F1 supremacy. It was expected by everyone inside and outside the organization, and by fans around the world.
Michael Schumacher had also grasped the magnitude of the situation, comprehending how his new “home” was indeed different from its competition. “In a way,” he observed in Ferrari 1947-1997, “I wasn’t ready for the ‘Ferrari legend.’ I observed it from the outside, as a mere spectator, but I had no idea what it meant to be part of it….
“But on that first visit to Maranello [in 1995], I couldn’t stop at mere analytical considerations. I began to sense something, like goose pimples. I felt I was in a new atmosphere, which is not easy to define. It was an important moment; I understood that after two world titles at Benetton, I was now embarking on a new stage of my career and even my life.”
The final piece of this new reality, one that would shuffle in an era unprecedented in the history of Formula 1, fell into place in 1998, when the influence of two talented men came to the fore. Rory Byrne was a South African designer who had been in Formula 1 for 15 years. He had masterminded Schumacher’s two Benetton world championship cars. He joined Ferrari in late 1996, and his first car for the Scuderia was 1998’s F300.
Ross Brawn was Ferrari’s Technical Director, and he, like Byrne, had played an integral role in Schumacher’s Benetton titles. Not only would Brawn oversee the day-to-day development of the F300 and its successors, he proved a master racing strategist, able to work off preset plans or create them in the heat of battle.
And 1998 was a season-long battle between Ferrari and McLaren-Mercedes. Of the season’s first 12 races, McLaren-Mercedes’ Mika Hakkinen won six and Schumacher five. The Ferrari driver pulled even in wins with a victory in Italy, the 13th race of the 16-event schedule. But Hakkinen sealed the championship for himself and for McLaren-Mercedes with wins in the final two races.
Ferrari’s car for 1999 was the F399. The V-10 was moved forward in the chassis, and aerodynamics were enhanced with a new front wing, side pods, and air intake. Ferrari claimed more than 750 horsepower from 2997cc.
Once again Ferrari’s nemesis was McLaren-Mercedes. Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine won the first race, Hakkinen the second, Schumacher the third and fourth. And so the fight went until the midway point, the British Grand Prix, when Schumacher had a tremendous crash that sidelined him for the next six races with a broken leg.
Schumacher returned for the inaugural Malaysian Grand Prix, the season’s penultimate race, and was on his way to the win, but let Irvine take the checkered flag. Irvine had upped his game after Michael’s crash, with wins in Austria and Germany, and was in fact leading Hakkinen in the driver’s championship at the last race in Japan. But the tough Finn won the showdown and took the driver’s crown, 76 points to Irvine’s 74.
All was not lost for Ferrari, however. Irvine and Schumacher had accounted for six wins overall, helping Ferrari to its first F1 constructors championship since 1983. That wasn’t enough to satisfy Maranello, however.
“We’ve got a great team, both from a human and technical point of view,” Brawn said as he introduced the logically named F1-2000 and the team’s new No. 2 driver, Rubens Barrichello. “We deserve nothing less than both world titles this year.”
Though the F1-2000 looked similar to the F399, it was in design quite different. The first car developed in Ferrari’s new wind tunnel, its slimmer nose, reprofiled flanks, and superior undertray airflow improved aerodynamics by 10 percent, a huge number. The V-10 was lighter, produced around 800 horsepower, and its mounting location was adjustable. In all, the F1-2000 was so light that nearly 180 pounds of ballast was needed to bring it up to minimum weight requirements.
Schumacher won the first three races and appeared to be cruising to a championship. Then McLaren and Hakkinen returned to form. With four races left, Hakkinen led. But Schumacher closed the season with a string of victories to become Ferrari’s first F1 world champion since 1979. Ferrari also won the constructors crown in an equally hard-fought battle with McLaren-Mercedes.
The wind tunnel again played a key role in designing the F2001. Rule changes stipulated that the front wing be situated two inches higher than the previous year’s, so the F2001’s nose was lower than the F1-2000’s, and the wings curved upward to meet the regulations.
“Testing in the wind tunnel proved that for this car this configuration is best,” Byrne said of the team’s unique approach. “The first few races will show who was right in their design.”
And that they did, as the F2001 dominated the season. Ferrari scored a then-record 179 points for the constructors crown, and Schumacher’s 123 points on the way to his second-consecutive world driving championship were almost double those of second-place finisher, McLaren-Mercedes’ David Coulthard.
The F2002 sported new sidepods, revised rear suspension, and a lighter, shorter gearbox that delivered even faster shifts. Two-way telematics were now legal, so information and settings could travel between the car and pits.
All that spelled bad news for the competition. The F2002 won 15 of 17 races, with Schumacher taking 11 and Barrichello four. Ferrari set another constructor’s record with 221 points (runner-up Williams-BMW had 92) and Schumacher tied Juan Manuel Fangio’s record of five driver’s world championships.
Ferrari’s string of four consecutive F1 constructor championships and Shumacher’s run of three straight world titles was in jeopardy for much of 2003.
The team started the season with the F2002, and Schumacher didn’t set foot on the podium in the first three races. As the season neared the halfway point, leading in driver’s points was McLaren-Mercedes’ new hotshoe, Kimi Raikkonen, and his team was atop the constructors standings.
Then, in the fourth race, at San Marino, Ferrari unleashed its F2003-GA. (GA was a tribute to Fiat’s Gianni Agnelli, who died shortly before the car’s launch.) Versus the F2002, the GA had better aerodynamics and cooling, a two-inch-shorter wheelbase, and a V-10 that revved to a shrieking 19,000 rpm.
Schumacher won the F2003-GA’s debut race in Spain, and the following race in Austria. The season had morphed into an all-out brawl between Williams-BMW and Ferrari. A victory by Schumacher in Canada was sandwiched between Williams-BMW wins by Juan Pablo Montoya at Monoco and by Schumacher’s younger brother, Ralf, at Nurburgring. The BMW-powered rivals won again in France and with three races left, Williams-BMW was leading in constructors points. The driver’s championship, meanwhile, was a battle royale among Schumacher, Raikkonen, and Montoya.
In Italy, Schumacher fought off a pressuring Montoya for the win, and when the German won the next race, a rainy U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis, he was assured of the driver’s crown and a record sixth championship. Barrichello’s victory at the season finale, in Japan, secured Ferrari’s record fifth straight constructors title.
The F2004 may have looked like the F2003-GA, but as Rory Byrne pointed out at its introduction, “Every area of the car has been revised in order to make a further step forward in performance. So almost every component has been redesigned.” This included the engine, gearbox, chassis, and suspension.
It all led to what may have been the most dominant season ever in Formula 1. Schumacher won the first five races. An accident in the tunnel at Monaco halted the streak. Then he reeled off another seven wins in a row. He finished the season with a record 13 first-place finishes, bringing his record all-time victory total to 82. With Barrichello’s two victories, Ferrari won 15 of the season’s 17 contests.
Schumacher was World Champion for the seventh time (with a record 148 season points), and the Ferrari team set two more records -- a sixth-straight constructors title and 262 season points.