If there was one thing that the Formula 1 paddock was sick of come the end of the 2004 season, it was Ferrari cleaning up championship after championship.
Five consecutive Drivers’ Championships secured by Michael Schumacher and six Constructors’ Championships going back to 1999.
All periods of dominance must end at some point and, with sweeping rule changes being brought in for 2005, there was a belief that this could be the year, and indeed it was, but there’s one team, and one driver, who must feel it should have been them to do it.
This is 2005: McLaren’s missed opportunity.
The major rule changes being brought in for the 2005 season gave other teams a sense of quiet optimism that this could be their year. Engines now had to last two race weekends rather than one, the size and position of the front and rear wings were changed but perhaps the most influential change revolved around pit stops.
Teams could no longer change tyres during a pit stop unless for a change in weather or a puncture. Bear in mind this change occurred when there wasn’t a monopoly on tyres as both Michelin and Bridgestone supplied teams. This gave the tyre manufacturers an unenviable task of striking a balance between performance and the necessary durability to finish a race.
A change in the tyre requirement was always likely to produce a situation where one of them would find this balance and the other wouldn’t. As it happened, Bridgestone could not develop a competitive tyre and it seriously hampered the progress of Jordan, Minardi and,, most importantly Ferrari.
So which of the Michelin teams would step up to the plate? Expectation at Renault was high, an encouraging pre-season testing plus 23-year-old Fernando Alonso held a lot of promise but that expectation was shared at McLaren.
In Ferrari’s five years of dominance, no one had got closer to beating them than Kimi Raikkonen, finishing just two points away in 2003. Add in the acquisition of 4-time race winner Juan Pablo Montoya, there was plenty for McLaren fans to get excited about.
That excitement soon transformed to frustration though, as nothing seemed to go McLaren’s way, with the stars seemingly aligning for Renault instead.
The French team proved their pre-season form was no fluke as Fisichella converted pole position at the season opener in Melbourne before Alonso did the same in Malaysia. By comparison, McLaren could not even claim a position in the top half of the championship after two races, languishing in P6 with no podiums to their name.
There were few bright sparks from the first two races of the season but McLaren could at least take heart from new boy Montoya scoring in both races, including P4 in Malaysia.
So, Montoya would build on that in the next few races as he gradually adjusted to the car? Not exactly. He wouldn’t build on that in the following two races, as McLaren were dealt some further bad news in the form of one of the most bizarre and puzzling injuries in F1 history. Montoya was sidelined for the races in Bahrain and San Marino thanks to a ‘tennis-related shoulder injury’.
Let’s say that many have doubted the legitimacy of this story, with some speculating Montoya’s love for MotoCross might have caused the injury instead but we won’t dwell on what did and didn’t happen. The fact of the matter is he lost two races at a time where he was still getting adjusted to the car. It halted any kind of momentum and could have been a factor in Montoya’s inconsistency throughout the year. Something crucial to McLaren’s missed opportunity.
Alexander Wurz was the man expected to fill the vacancy for the Bahrain GP, however it was Spaniard Pedro de la Rosa who was called upon instead after McLaren could not adjust the car to fit Wurz in time, unsurprisingly a six-foot-one Alex Wurz was not overly compatible with five-foot-five Montoya.
De la Rosa deputised well as he came home in P5 and, although Alonso walked away with another comfortable win, Kimi Raikkonen at least secured the team’s first podium of the year with P3.
Three races in and Renault were having things all their own way. Three wins and three poles, but Raikkonen, now joined by Wurz turned up in San Marino ready to turn the tables. And he was quick.
Kimi broke Renault’s pole position streak and looked set to do the same to the win streak, too, before a driveshaft problem ended his race whilst leading. That would not be the end of McLaren’s reliability woes.
The end of the Grand Prix saw a thrilling finale with a resurgent Michael Schumacher chasing the Renault of Alonso to the line, the latter claiming victory by just two tenths of a second.
Attention now turned to Ferrari, were they back? Was their stranglehold on F1’s major prizes not yet over? Ultimately, this was a false omen. There would be no Ferrari comeback.
However, for the time being, that’s where the attention was and not with McLaren who had just proven they had the pace to win.
Now it was about whether that could be repeated at other tracks. The lightning start from Renault meant Raikkonen and McLaren had a lot of catching up to do but there was at least a glimmer of hope.
Alonso’s home Grand Prix was up next with the home hero coming in hot having claimed the last three race wins.
Despite having the home crowd roaring him on, Alonso once again couldn’t cope with the speed of Raikkonen in qualifying, nor at the beginning of the race, solidifying the hope that the pace in San Marino was not a one-off. Where McLaren faltered in San Marino, they held firm in Spain as Raikkonen shattered Renault’s unbeaten start, winning the race by 27 seconds.
Renault’s concerns only increased at the next race in Monaco as Raikkonen again completed the pole position, comfortable win combination, only this time Alonso did not finish on the podium, the first time in 2005 this had happened. The swing in momentum was evident, Raikkonen now up to second in the championship and McLaren just 12 points behind in the Constructors’.
It’s difficult to pick one moment as ‘the defining moment of the 2005 season’ but to describe the European Grand Pix as anything but pivotal would be a lie. Alonso and Renault on the back foot for the first time; Raikkonen and McLaren looking for another routine victory. The scene was set for both championships to fall even closer into McLaren’s grasp, particularly with Raikkonen once again set to start on the front row with Alonso only P6.
Kimi again worked his way to the lead, holding a comfortable advantage over his rival Alonso in P2 but this is where one of the 2005 rule changes came into play. Raikkonen, suffering from severe tyre degradation did not come into the pits to fit on a new set of boots and instead attempted to coast home.
It nearly worked, nearly being the most important word in that sentence. Going into turn 1 on the final lap, Raikkonen’s suspension broke causing him to fly into the barriers and retire from the race. Alonso gladly picked up the scraps for a much needed victory.
Those last four races really typified McLaren and Raikkonen’s season. Had the pace to win all four but only converted two of them. Consistency is everything in a championship fight and, to be quite blunt, McLaren did not have that throughout 2005.
It’s not only that these unfortunate events happened throughout the year, it was their timing and how it crushed any sort of momentum the team were gathering. Take the next race in Canada as an example. Alonso’s 100% finishing record came to an end as he retired from the Grand Prix and Raikkonen stepped in to win his third race of the season.
Yet all that momentum was halted at the next race in the USA. Even though there was no change in the points gap after the race, it was Raikkonen who had momentum quashed.
With 10 races to go, the points difference between Alonso and Raikkonen stood at 22 points. Significant but not unbeatable, however, Alonso then proceeded to put together three crucial races that turned a tricky job into an almost impossible one.
French Grand Prix: Alonso wins in front of Renault’s home crowd. Raikkonen receives a ten place grid penalty for an engine failure in practice, he does make a great recovery to P2 but still loses two points to Fernando.
British Grand Prix: Alonso finishes second, Raikkonen again receives a ten-place grid penalty and again makes a great recovery, this time to P3.
And perhaps the killer blow: The German Grand Prix. Raikkonen finally doesn’t have a grid penalty to contend with and claims pole position. Looks set for victory before hydraulics issue ends his race and no surprise as to who picks up the scraps.
Three races where Kimi has to deal with two grid penalties and a retirement from the lead. Three races where Alonso beats Raikkonen. A 22 points advantage with 10 races to go, was now a 36 point advantage with seven to go.
It’s difficult to overstate how important these races were as they gave Alonso a comfortable buffer, meaning winning races wasn’t even necessary now, all he needed were consistent podium finishes to see him home, and ultimately that’s what happened. Alonso only won one of the last seven races but consistent podiums were more than enough to see him to a first championship victory.
All Raikkonen could do was look back at a series of what ifs. Reverse those three retirements from the lead and it might well have been a different name lifting the trophy for the first time – but as we know Formula 1 is not a sport built on what ifs.
Whilst Kimi’s title aspirations were over, our attention now goes back to the Constructors’ hampionship and it was still very much ‘game on’ when it came to this trophy. Two reasons led to this championship fight continuing on further than the Drivers’ Championship:
Firstly, whilst Alonso was enjoying a brilliant season, team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella could not say the same thing. His win in Australia was still the only one he had notched up. In fact, that was the only podium he had obtained heading out of the German Grand Prix.
Secondly, Juan Pablo Montoya was starting to find some form. The British Grand Prix where Alonso finished second and Raikkonen finished third? It was Montoya that beat them both on that occasion for his first win and podium of the year. And he had recovered from 19th on the grid in Hockenheim to finish P2.
A car that was clearly quick enough plus two quality, in-form drivers, the recipe was there for McLaren to snatch the title away from Renault although they would have to overcome a 22-point deficit following the German GP.
The duo of Montoya and Raikkonen put together an unbelievable spell as they secured victory after victory to slowly eat into that lead. Raikkonen’s win in Hungary reduced the gap to 12 points. Another Raikkonen victory, this time in Turkey, lowered it to just nine. It went down to eight after Montoya’s win at Monza and then to just six with Raikkonen’s win in Belgium.
The Brazilian Grand Prix is best known as the destination where Alonso wrapped up the Drivers’ Championship but it’s also the weekend McLaren took the lead in the Constructors’ thanks to their fifth win in a row and their first one-two finish in over five years. With just two races to go, McLaren were in a position to claim their first title in seven years, leading by two points.
The penultimate race took place at Suzuka in Japan. A race of epic proportions that is fondly remembered by many F1 fans. It was another win for McLaren but a far from conventional one as Raikkonen stormed through the field from P17 on the grid to win.
It was a sensational drive with Raikkonen securing the win on the final lap but in all, not a good race for the team. Whilst Raikkonen did take the race win, it was the two Renault drivers who completed the podium. Montoya did not take away any points away for McLaren as he retired due to contact earlier in the race with Villeneuve.
So in spite of an amazing win, Renault actually resumed the lead heading into the final race in China, albeit a slender one of just two points.
Fittingly, the Chinese Grand Prix saw a battle between Raikkonen and Alonso for the win but whilst Raikkonen needed a seventh straight victory for the team, this time it wouldn’t go in their favour.
Alonso came home to win his first race since Germany by just four seconds. With Fisichella scoring points and Montoya again retiring from the race, this time after driving over a loose drain cover, Renault completed the sweep of titles, leaving McLaren disappointingly empty handed.
And so ended McLaren’s season of disappointment.
An incredibly quick driver, an incredibly quick car and absolutely nothing to show for it. The season demonstrated, if nothing else, that F1 is so much more than raw pace. It’s consistency, timing, reliability and McLaren did not have a combination of those to take the win away from Renault.
Raikkonen himself would find a championship victory just two years later, albeit at Ferrari rather than McLaren.
But 15 years after the events described, McLaren are still waiting for a first Constructors’ title since 1998…
This article is brought to you by the good folks at Late Braking. You can check them out in the following places: