by Rob Wilkins

Formula One this season was a darn sight more exciting than in 2004 and not only was there a new champion at the end of it - in the shape of Fernando Alonso, but Michael Schumacher was never in contention and didn't even win a race - unless of course you count the US Grand Prix and lets be honest, most don't!

The battle was between Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen and to a lesser extent, Juan Montoya and Giancarlo Fisichella. How things change in the space of a year...

Here Crash.net columnist, Mark Blundell casts his critical eye over the season and the former McLaren, Williams and Ligier driver reveals who he thinks was the best driver.

Alonso? Raikkonen? Montoya?

Read on to find out...

Q:
Mark, I think it is fair to say the 2005 F1 season was a breath of fresh air wasn't it?

Mark Blundell:
I think it was. You had a lot of excitement during the year, we turned up at another new circuit on the calendar and we saw a new champion and we saw some other stars coming through. So I think 2005 was very much a year full of intrigue and excitement.

Q:
How important was it for the sport to have a new world champion after seeing Michael Schumacher and Ferrari dominate for so long?

MB:
It was important point blank - new world champion, new constructor winning the title, just a whole new combination. I think that just shows that F1 is a situation where you have to put a lot of hard work in and once you get the right package and the right people and the right entities together you can get to the top of the tree and start performing. We've seen that with Renault, it has taken them a couple of seasons to get themselves in shape, but eventually they have got there.

We have also seen on the other side, Ferrari have actually gone backwards. What the issues and the problems are there is difficult to understand, but it happens, such is the pace of F1, people are constantly progressing at all moments.

Q:
The battle between Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen was a real plus - it was almost a case that they both deserved to win the title didn't they?

MB:
Well I think from a drivers' point of view, you have to say, that yeah, Kimi and Alonso were pretty evenly matched in many ways. You'd probably say that Alonso was a little bit more calculated in collecting his points and you'd say that Raikkonen was probably the fastest man on the circuit at any one point. And yeah you would like to see maybe two crowns given out.

But at the end of day that's not possible and the reason why the Renault-Alonso situation worked slightly better is because of reliability. That's a key element - and that was the key at the beginning of the season. McLaren couldn't perform early on - didn't have the durability in their package and didn't collect those early points and Renault and Alonso did. Championships are made on consistency not always on outright wins.

Q:
Now Renault and McLaren both produced a brilliant car, but which was better in your view - the R25 which won the constructors', or the MP4-20, which was probably quicker and won more races [10 Vs 8], but which was also more fragile?

MB:
I think it reflects exactly again like the drivers'. You have got that situation where Renault put a car out which was weekend in, weekend out undeniably bullet proof in many ways. It was superbly fast and very consistent. But then if you took the McLaren, you would have to say, their car was ultimately the fastest car on the race circuit. However as you said it was very fragile and it took them too long before they got the thing to stick together and make sure the driver had what was needed for the duration of a grand prix. That's what cost them overall.

As far as the title goes I think the two guys at Renault were a little bit more consistent overall especially with Alonso in wrapping up the points for the constructors' title and it was a tough situation also having Montoya out of the loop for a while, while he was trying to gather momentum at McLaren. So it went down to the wire in some respects in the constructors' but at the end of the day, I think McLaren had the ultimate machine in terms of pace but Renault had the ultimate machine in terms of durability.

Q:
Toyota showed massive improvement this season - and although they just lost out to Ferrari, in terms of taking third place in the constructors' - they came on in leaps and bounds didn't they to take their first top-three finishes (5 in total)?

MB:
They improved as we expected them to improve in many ways. I mean Toyota is one of the biggest motor manufacturers' in the world and you would say that the resources are there and the amount of people they have got on board now on the programme, with the calibre of people of they have got, to see that programme stepping forward. This year in particular was the stepping stone for them. They all understand now how difficult it was for them to get to that stage. They also know what the targets are to get further up for next season. Already we know their car is going to be out very early on the circuit in comparison to the other teams. That is something they obviously put in their plans maybe two years ago to make sure they were up and running early. That is going to give them a good indication of what they have got pace and durability wise.

Hopefully they will go out there and look at those early races to put some heavy points in. But I think the expectations are there from everybody that Toyota at some point will be a consistent podium scorer and need to get at some stage as well, and 2006 has to be the year for that, when they pull off a win.

Q:
Ferrari only won one race, the 'unique' US GP, was it inevitable there run would end?

MB:
Well all good things come to an end as we know. Ferrari were probably in some ways one where we wouldn't expect that to happen, because such was the strength of their previous seasons. It was a bit of a shock, when everyone came out of the gates at the beginning of the season just to see Ferrari slightly off the pace. Maybe at that point we felt, ok this is just a one-off, but it quickly developed into something far deeper as the season progressed. There is an element for me, maybe of a slight tinge of complacency what got set in and that just got highlighted. They had a re-focus halfway to the end of the season and they were not happy with not being able to win races.

Certainly from Michael Schumacher's point you could see an element of frustration in his driving coming out, especially at the end of the year. In the off season when they all get recharged they will focus on where it went wrong. There partners will come and step up to plate a bit more too, from Bridgestone's point of view especially. You would expect the 'Red cars' to be a lot more forceful in 2006.

Q:
Focusing specifically on the drivers now... if you had to pick out your top 6 drivers' of 2005, who would they be and why?

MB:
Kimi Raikkonen for me would have to be number 1. I would put him in front of Alonso purely on the basis of his outright confidence and commitment, in terms of where he sits in the cock pit of a F1 car. You know that there is 100 per cent being given and 100 per cent excitement when he gets behind the wheel. It would be just a hair between him and Alonso for number 1 spot but that is who I would give number 1 to.

Alonso would be number 2 and as I say, only a little bit behind Raikkonen. He is world champion. I think he did an incredible job, old head young shoulders, super impressive, 'Mr consistent'. He turned it on when he needed to and withstood the pressure. He just didn't quite have that, sort of, dynamic pace, in some ways that Raikkonen could produce but then again they were sitting in different machinery. But clearly a number 2 spot and again if we had a situation in which we could have a joint number 1 I would give it that way.

Third I would probably have to give to [Juan Pablo] Montoya. Even though his start to season was weak and then he had his tennis incident or his accident, which somewhere along the line took the wind out of his sails. But you have to say he came back and came back strong and proved a point. He definitely produced some great results.

Difficult to go again after the top three. I'm trying to think who stands out as being impressive... [long pause]

I would still put Michael Schumacher - I would put him fourth because he still had that drive. He didn't give up, I know there was an element of frustration at the end, but I'd still give him 10 out of 10 for keeping on top of what was going on. Look at his consistency, even though the car was underperforming to where he needed it to be, he was still putting in some strong and consistent results, hence he collected a very sensible place in the drivers' championship [third overall].

Fifth would be Jarno Trulli. He did an incredible job in qualifying. Also in a lot of the races he was a lot better in terms of his outright pace. At some stages in previous seasons we have seen him qualify well and then drop off. I think he was a lot more stable in that area. Definitely he produced a good solid grounding to lead the Toyota team.

Number 6 I'd give to David Coulthard. I think the guy came out of McLaren and went into Red Bull and has had a completely new lease of life in himself. He is driving with some confidence and relaxation - and some enjoyment. He is leading the team, definitely steering them in the right way and giving good insight to where they need to be going next and who they should have around them to build a bigger and more successful platform. I think he just produced some good results with something which was not a great car by any means. It was a middle of the road package and he put it in places where we didn't expect it to be. It was a pleasure to watch him at work again with a smile on his face.

Q:
Focusing on the Brits, do you think then that David Coulthard outshone Jenson Button this year?

MB:
I would say that DC outshone Jenson in some respects. Jenson was in a difficult situation, they had done so well last year and he had done so well last year, that peoples expectations and perceptions were very high. Unfortunately for him the BAR didn't have the pace that it had last season - it was struggling and consequently Jenson couldn't do anything with it. You have got to go on what you feel was achievable and the expectations didn't get fulfilled as much by BAR - and also our expectations were probably much lower with DC and Red Bull and they exceeded them. I would, say he just slightly edged him out overall.

Q:
Of all the established drivers' which one or ones needed a good kick come the end of the year? Fisichella? Sato? Villeneuve?

MB:
Sato was in a situation, where he was under an immense amount of pressure. At times he delivered some very inspiration laps but at the same point his mistakes were quite costly to him. I'm sure that he has had a readdress, a re-focus and review over what went on over the season.

The Villeneuve scenario - Jacques definitely at the beginning of the season was not where he wanted to be, I'm sure of that - and not where we all expected him to be. But he came on a bit stronger in the mid to latter part of year. Next year he really needs to turn it on to prove his credentials and show he deserves to be around in 2007.

Fisichella had a very good solid season, but at times there was an element of: 'why did it quite happen in that way' and 'why was he suffering in that situation'. But also he had some reliability issues.

So I think probably Sato and Villeneuve were probably the guys who maybe have to have a look at the inside more than expected.

Q:
Looking at this season's rookies - we had Vitantonio Liuzzi, the Jordan/Midland drivers [Tiago Monteiro and Narain Karthikeyan] and the Minardi drivers - who was your rookie of the year?

MB:
I'd give it to Monterio. He drove with a maturity and consistency. When you finish every race bar one, I mean that for me is a good achievement. If you are in you're first year of grand prix and you are with a team, such as the Jordan-Midland operation, which wasn't a great organisation in terms of what they had to offer pace wise and reliability wise and you can finish that level of grand prix over the course of the season that is a very good achievement. You would expect a rookie to make more mistakes, he didn't. He got let down in a coupe of areas and made the odd one or two errors in himself, but overall he was very, very consistent and had a good level of maturity about him. As a first timer in a F1 team and for a first championship that was a very, very solid performance.

Coming next week: The second part of Mark Blundell's F1 season review.

 

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