Of Michael Schumacher’s five wins at Monza at the wheel of a Ferrari, the one in 2003 was probably one of the most important in the fight for that year’s title. Michael arrived in Italy for the third from last round of the season still leading the championship, but he was out of breath: he only took three points from Germany for seventh place and Hungary where he was lapped on the way to eighth. Montoya was just one point down and Raikkonen was a further point behind. Furthermore the Ferrari-Bridgestone combo seemed to be in a downward spiral when compared to its main rivals, McLaren and Williams who were both running Michelins. In fact, the Scuderia had lost the lead in the Constructors’ to Williams.
The week prior to the Grand Prix had seen the usual test session at Monza, when the dust was flying over the Michelin business and the clarification then issued by the FIA: after the Hungarian Grand Prix it emerged that the Michelin tyre footprint exceeded the limit laid down in the regulations. Thanks to the work carried out at the test, the car, which was dedicated to the memory of Gianni Agnelli was very competitive right from Friday. In qualifying, Michael managed to come out on top by a whisker (just 51 thousandths) from Montoya, with Rubens Barrichello covering his back in third place ahead of the other title contender, Raikkonen. Clearly, Saturday’s performance had set the Ferrari fans’ hearts aflutter, as can be understood by reading the words of Jean Todt, a man not given to strong displays of emotion, after the session. “It was a great and very exciting qualifying, given that everything came down to a single lap. Having Michael on pole and Rubens third is a result that gets the heart pounding, for us and our fans.”
All the signs pointed to an exciting race and so it turned out. At the start, Schumacher managed to keep the lead, while Barrichello dropped to fourth behind Trulli in the Renault, who had made a great start, while Raikkonen was only fifth. The first kilometres were very exciting: Michael came under attack from Montoya at the second chicane, but managed to fend off the Colombian, then Trulli tried to make the most of the duel between the two leaders, but had to stop at the side of the track because of a technical problem, leaving Barrichello in third. In the opening laps, Michael gradually built up a small lead over Montoya, which got to almost 5 seconds on lap 14. On this lap, Rubens, third just over a second off the Williams, made his first pit stop. One lap later and it was Michael’s turn, with Montoya coming in on lap 16. In the second part of the race, Montoya gradually closed on Michael, also pulling away from Rubens: on lap 28 the gap between him and the reigning world champion was less than a second, while the gap to the Brazilian was over 5 seconds. It would all come down to the second run of pit stops. The first of the three leaders to come in was once again Rubens on lap 31, followed next time round by Montoya with Michael stopping on lap 34. The positions remained unaltered after the stops, although the gap to Rubens had now gone out to 11 seconds, the Brazilian busy fending off Raikkonen. In the final stint, Michael mounted the decisive attack, gradually increasing his lead over Montoya, so that it reached 7.7s by lap 50. In the closing laps, the German was thus able to control the situation, slowing down a bit, crossing the line five seconds ahead of the Colombian. For his part, Rubens made sure Raikkonen couldn’t get by, to bring home an important third place.
This was Michael’s fiftieth win as a Ferrari driver and it came courtesy of his determination and a car-tyre package that was back on form. It meant his lead over Montoya was now 3 points, while Raikkonen trailed by 7.
Two weeks later, Schumacher took another great victory in Indianapolis, where Montoya had to retire, putting him out of the title fight. Raikkonen was still in the running, but 9 points down with just the Japanese Grand Prix to go. It could have been the type of race to sail through, but Suzuka is not the sort of place where one can enjoy a quiet weekend, as events would prove. Fortunately, it had a happy ending, but the men in red were aware that this further double championship triumph, won that afternoon in Japan, owed a lot to the masterful performance in Monza.