Monsoon weather, incidents and a court case to decide the winner made the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix one of the most dramatic in F1 history.
Formula 1 arrived in Brazil for the Grand Prix with two races of the season already run. Kimi Räikkönen lead the title after taking his maiden win in Malaysia. Michael Schumacher, who enjoyed a 100% podium success rate in his dominant 2002 season, was yet to finish in the top three.
Many drivers were still getting used to the new two session one-lap qualifying format. The early pace was set by Jaguar’s Mark Webber. His lap on a drying track after rain would see him be the man to beat on Saturday. An uncharacteristic mistake by Schumacher in the second session would only see him 7th. The second Ferrari of hometown hero Rubens Barrichello stormed to pole with a time unable to be beaten by Webber. He would qualify 3rd behind David Coulthard’s McLaren.
Sunday would bring heavy rainfall in true Brazilian style, causing deluges on parts of the circuit. Race Director, Charlie Whiting, delayed the start of the Grand Prix in order to clear the standing water. Whiting also ordered a rolling start behind the Safety Car. It would run under Safety Car conditions for eight laps before the race proper got underway.
Barrichello’s tactic of bunching-up the pack at the top of the hill before the start-finish straight backfired, being passed by Coulthard at turn 1. The local boy would fall behind Raikkonen a lap later and would soon be down to sixth behind Juan Pablo Montoya, Webber and Schumacher. The order would change frequently behind the leaders before the Safety Car would reappear on lap 18 after the Jordan of Ralph Firman collided with Olivier Panis’ Toyota.
The river of nightmares
Racing would resume four laps later and despite the track drying out, water was failing to drain at turn three. The standing water would cause six cars to aquaplane into the barriers. Montoya, Antonio Pizzonia and Schumacher were the first three to fall victim to the conditions. The chaotic scene started to resemble a demolition derby, and the Safety Car would be required for a third time. Barely a handful of laps later, the other to crash at the corner would prompt its fourth depth deployment.
The race then began to have a semblance of order and rhythm, and it looked as if the partisan crowd would get their wish. On lap 45, Coulthard, nursing old tyres, ran wide at the Senna S, letting Barrichello through into the lead. But alas, it was not to be. Two laps later, the Ferrari pulled over to the side of the track with a fuel issue. It was Barrichello’s ninth consecutive retirement on home soil.
The chance of a lifetime
Coulthard pitted on lap 52, leaving Raikkonen in the lead, but he would lose it two laps later. Jordan’s Giancarlo Fisichella, who qualified 8th and stayed largely out of trouble, capitalized on Raikkonen’s own lack of grip to sail through. Webber’s race ended spectacularly with a huge crash on the kink before the start-finish straight, leaving debris across the track. With the leaders pitting for tyres, Fernando Alonso failed to negotiate his Renault past Webber’s wreckage. Hitting a wheel, the Spaniard speared into the barrier, bounced and span across the track into the opposite wall. The crash brought out the red flag, and the end of the race.
To compound the dramatic nature of the race, Fisichella’s car caught fire in parc fermé, with confusion reigning as to who the winner of the Grand Prix was. The regulations stated that in the event of a red flag, the winner would be determined by who had been leading two laps prior to the red flag. A timekeeping error stated that Fisichella had yet to begin the lap on which he led. This gave Raikkonen victory, halting premature celebrations in the Jordan team. Alonso was classified third, but was absent from the podium due to receiving hospital treatment after his accident.
Whiting launched an investigation into the error by TAG Heuer, the official timekeepers. And at an official FIA court hearing one week later, Fisichella was awarded the win. Raikkonen and McLaren presented Fisichella and team boss Eddie Jordan their Drivers’ and Constructors’ trophies respectively prior to the next round at Imola.