Formula One this season was pretty darn good, wasn't it? Eight different winners, the championship battle went down to the wire and, prior to the US GP - the penultimate race of the season, three drivers were still in with a shot of securing the 2003 F1 drivers' championship.

Yeah, Michael Schumacher still emerged on top, but the manner in which he did so was way, way different to 2002, when, lets face it, for most of us, F1 was pretty much a bore.

This year was very different and to review it, we sat down with Mark Blundell, ex-F1 driver for McLaren, Williams and Tyrrell - to mention a few - and grilled him about the season. I'm sure you'll agree it makes interesting reading and the best thing about it is that this is only part one - there are two more to follow, so look out for them!

Q:
Mark, the F1 season finished back in October, what did you make of it?

Mark Blundell:
I think it was a great season. The new rules helped the situation of better racing on a Sunday afternoon, although there is still possibly some stuff to be looked at to improve the show even more. But, when you look back over 2003 and what went on, and the fact we had eight different winners, then you have got to be saying that you know it was certainly a step in the right direction.

Q:
What did you think of the all the rules changes, and to what extent were they responsible for the making F1 more exciting than in 2002?

MB:
The qualifying system gave a mixed-up grid on several occasions, partly due to the fact that people were put under pressure during one-lap qualifying. And I think, overall, the way the races were carried out on a Sunday afternoon stemmed from the beginning of the weekend. It played into a lot of people's hands in many respects, and some of the more established guys found it slightly more difficult to cope with. You know, the point situation also played itself out in a way that made things go down to the wire. So, all in all, I think the changes were beneficial.

Q:
Looking at the year as a whole, what for you was the single biggest disappointment and what was the best thing?

MB:
The best thing for me was Silverstone, after so much bad feeling was pointed towards the venue as a grand prix circuit. For it then to hold what, I thought, was the best grand prix of the year in terms of racing was a major plus. And the amount of work that has gone on there has certainly paid off.

The biggest disappointment... [pause] ...tough one that. For me, it was probably the lack of quality through the teams now. It just feels like the bottom couple of teams are starting to really fade away. I felt that the rules were brought in to try and help those smaller teams get on a more even level with the big boys, but that doesn't seem to have happened.

Q:
If you had to pick out your top eight drivers, who would they be and why?

MB:
Well, Michael Schumacher, first and foremost. He yet again just stamps his authority, puts a record in the books that is probably going to be there for several decades. And don't forget that he hasn't given up and put his helmet and gloves on the side yet. There is a lot more to come from him.

Kimi Raikkonen second, for being a young guy who has just taken to Formula One like a duck to water - and has an incredibly old head on young shoulders. Fireworks aplenty for him in the future - he showed what he can do and, given the right car and equipment, could have taken the title even closer than it finished up.

Juan Pablo Montoya is third. He is an incredible character, still for me probably number one in terms of car control. I think it was a very mature season from him in many ways - he showed a lot more maturity - but he still made a few errors which ultimately cost him grand prix wins and a stab at the championship in an even bigger way.

Fernando Alonso next up. He took an incredible win at Hungary, and pole position at Malaysia with a car that seemed to be significantly underpowered, although probably had one of the best chassis on the grid. He definitely didn't have the horsepower consideration of many others, but showed he's got the ability and head to take the pressure and lead a grand prix - and lap all the way up to the podium positions. Another star in the making.

Rubens Barrichello was solid too - so fifth for him. I can't take anything away from him, he did an outstanding job and, at some points, was the best combination throughout a grand prix weekend.

Jenson Button, I think, did a very good job, and definitely progressed as the season went on.. He still has a podium which eludes him, but must surely come his way sooner rather than later. I think he showed maturity enough that the team feel strong enough to put him in a leading position and, you know, he's now going to show another level of his character. It would be good to see him get a podium early in 2004 and go on from there.

Ralf Schumacher had some strong performances where he was outstanding, then slightly tailed off. He was a little bit up and down but, without doubt, a quality grand prix driver. For me, seventh.

Mark Webber completes my top eight, simply for extracting the most out of what was available to him. A great character, I would still like to see a very strong team-mate up against him, just to see where his levels are. He is doing an excellent job - and everything that was asked of him at Jaguar.

Q:
Of all the drivers, who do you think let themselves down most?

MB:
Let me see... [pause]... I think I would have expected more from Jarno Trulli, but to say he was the 'biggest let down' is probably unfair. I think there were a number of guys out there of whom my expectations were much higher. But F1 is a funny old game - and it's bad to condemn someone when they've done a pretty good job. So, no-one who was a huge disappointment but, then, people like Trulli, who was slightly weak at some stages of the season, and the guy in at Minardi, Nicolas Kiesa, who I think was slightly out of his depth. It was probably still a bit much for him, for what was going on around him. But, again, not knowing the situation and all the circumstances, it's very difficult to pick holes in people.

Q:
Looking at the F1 rookies - Cristiano da Matta, Justin Wilson, Ralph Firman, Nicolas Kiesa, Zsolt Baumgartner and Antonio Pizzonia - how do you feel they got on?

MB:
Cristiano da Matta was 'my rookie of the year' to be honest, considering he did a good job up against team-mate Olivier Panis and didn't know a lot of the circuits. There was quite a bit of pressure on his shoulders. But, you know, there were times when he looked extremely quick and I think that, given the right car again, Toyota and that combination will be quite significant in the future.

Q:
...and the others?

MB:
I think Wilson and Firman suffered for the packages they had under them. Wilson didn't have enough time to get up to speed and struggled slightly with mechanical failures. Ralph had a tough year coming in, took a few knocks and bruises and then never really got the bit between his teeth to make an impact. As good as a driver he is, I think, at points, he found it a bit difficult. Most of time when I looked at him, it seemed as though he was overdriving the car and, although this showed 100 per cent commitment, just maybe he needed to knock back a bit and let things come at him a little bit more naturally. But, you know, it is a tough deal when you are in your rookie season - you have got to deliver and, if you don't, for whatever reason, the tide turns against you. That's just the nature of the game.

Q:
What did you make of Jacques Villeneuve's exit? Will he return? And how did you rate Takuma Sato's race debut with BAR?
MB:
I think Takuma Sato did a good job of what was asked of him - home race, pressure on him, I think he delivered. It was probably his best grand prix, especially compared to the season he had before with Jordan. I think he made a very worthy contribution to the weekend. Over the course of the new season, we will get to see what he is made of, and we can analyse that.

Jacques Villeneuve going has some sadness attached to it for me, because he is a great character and you certainly knew where you stood when the guy spoke. I think Formula One needs characters and losing an ex-world champion is a shame. Whatever the reasons are for him leaving, only Jacques and a few other parties concerned know. If he gets back into play, it will be interesting to see. But the problem is that, when you are out of the game for a period of time, things go by, new faces appear and when you are left with a string of results that don't look to appetising on paper, it's a job to manoeuvre yourself back into the programme. But, if anyone has got the credentials to do it, JV has. We will have to wait and see.

Q:
Focusing entirely on your fellow countryman, who was best of the Brits?

MB:
I think probably, overall, Button did a very good job, then DC, Wilson and Ralph, in that order. DC had a tough time - he has done an extremely good job but, at the same point, I think he lost himself a bit in qualifying, which held him back in terms of grid position and where he could have been result wise on raceday. He did a solid job, no doubt, but the pressure is on him for next year, which I'm sure he will be thinking about as Christmas looms and the season of testing begins heavily. The other ones, I touched on earlier.

Q:
How do you feel about Wilson losing his Jaguar drive? Justified? Tough decision?

MB:
It's a sign of times I'm afraid - nothing new. A grand prix team needs funding and, unfortunately, Justin can't deliver any more than he has already brought. It's just one of those things. I'm sure he knew the scenario was going to be there at some point. If Justin had pulled Webber's pants down and given him a good spanking on the circuit, and done something spectacular, things might look different. But, sometimes, circumstances don't allow you to get the best out and, all of a sudden, it's the end of the road. Let hope he stays in grands prix, but it is one thing getting there, another staying there.

Coming soon: Blundell's view: 2003 F1 season review - Pt 2.

 

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