A Car So Good it Shocked Ferrari : The Story of the F2004
Ferrari's fastest car ever...
2003 was not what Ferrari had expected.
They had crushed everyone in 2002 with Michael Schumacher taking his fifth world title, equalling the great Juan Manuel Fangio, and the Scuderia had their 4th consecutive Constructor's Championship.
The following year however did not go to plan. Mclaren and Williams were serious threats, and a rule change to do with tyres really hampered Ferrari's advantage. They didn't win until the fourth round of the season, with Schumacher at Imola, and Barrichello only managed a solitary win at the final race in Suzuka.
Raikkonen lost the title by an excruciating 2 points, and had his Mclaren been a little more reliable, Kimi would have won that year. Williams and Mclaren finished 14 and 16 points off Ferrari respectively, and it seemed at long last that maybe their dominance was coming to an end... Maybe Alonso, Montoya or Raikkonen could win a title? Would it be Williams' first constructors championship since 1997? Or maybe the Mclaren-Ferrari rivalry of the late 1990s would be rekindled?
Ferrari went hard at work to avoid this at all costs.
And if you could describe what they came up with in response, it would be 'merciless'.
To understand where this beast of a car came from, you have to go back to 2002; the season Ferrari had dominated. Designers Aldo Costa, Rory Byrne and Ross Brawn continued to develop that car's philosophy. Byrne was the big-thinker in developing this car, whilst Aldo Costa (who recently left Mercedes after helping them to dominance) was tasked with fine tuning Rory's ideas.
The principles were the same but many elements had been improved, and that led to this:
Some people regard the F2004 as the most beautiful car ever; and it's certainly up there with the greats...
Weight distribution, chassis and rear grip were some of Ferrari's main focuses; a new and lighter chassis with an improved structure was implemented while the bodywork, exhausts and the rear end was completely redesigned to boost aerodynamics and make the car more streamlined. Airflow to the rear of the vehicle was increased and this took away some oversteer while adding rear downforce. The exhausts were mounted closer to the centreline of the car, and this made it more stable. The centre of gravity was lowered by resiting parts such as the radiators and hydraulics, all helping driveability.
The front and rear suspension had been revised to not only get the most out of the aerodynamics, but also the tyres. A weakness of the F2003GA was that it punished its tyres too much, so Ferrari with their close cooperation with Bridgestone came up with an improved suspension that gave better handling, grip and wear. They used new materials for the transmission and engine, making the car even lighter and better around the corners.
Ferrari also stress tested these components over and over again, and as a consequence the F2004 didn't see a mechanical failure once throughout the whole season. The only retirements came through crashes with another car; something which happened twice in 18 races.
Ferrari meanwhile, had no idea it would be anywhere near as good as it turned out to be. The simulations told them it'd be around half a second faster than its predecessor, but once they took it to Imola to test it back to back it became clear it was way, way more capable than that!
Schumacher was already lapping *2 SECONDS* faster than the F2003GA... and Ferrari were convinced something was wrong.
It must be underweight, they thought. Surely the mechanics had forgotten to put the ballast in? So they checked.
The ballast was fine.
Ok, so there's not enough fuel right? So they checked
There was more than enough fuel.
Once Ferrari had assured themselves that the weight was actually ok, they launched a full, 12 hour investigation into how the hell the F2004 was so quick. Despite all this Schumacher was absolutely adamant nothing was wrong; Ferrari simply outdid themselves.
The investigation found nothing.
They then travelled to Mugello where Barrichello tried the car himself for the first time. He remembers the team still trying to figure out what had gone 'wrong', and that the car was the only one that ever let him take the ferocious Arrabiata corners flat out.
It was revealed on longer runs that the car was even faster than on one lap pace; those new suspensions apparently working very well on the Bridgestones.
This time Ferrari thought that the timing equipment wasn't working properly.
And as before, they were wrong.
Time for the 2004 championship.
Inevitably, the F2004 enjoyed unprecedented success.
Schumacher won TWELVE of the first THIRTEEN races, the only one he didn't win in that stretch was Monaco, a race he crashed out of, and gave Trulli his first and only win. Those 13 Grand Prix consisted of a 7 race winning streak, from the Nurburgring to Hungary.
Ultimately Ferrari won 15/18 races; 13 with Schumacher (a record for a single season) and 2 with Barrichello, set fastest laps in 14/18 races and was on pole for 13 of them. The fact it won more races than it got pole positions proved that the huge effort Ferrari put in that year to better use and understand its tyres paid off. The highlight of the season probably came when Schumacher beat Alonso at Magny-Cours on a colossal 4 stop strategy. The F2004, together with Michael, were fast enough to pull out the gaps for each stint while on the limit with fresh rubber. Just enough to secure an unlikely win on a very left-field strategy.
Schumi's iconic celebration - and his iconic car
Both titles were of course wrapped up early, earning Michael his fifth drivers title in a row, and his last of 7 in total. Ferrari meanwhile broke the record (at the time) for the most constructors championships in a row at six.
Unfortunately for them they have never been quite the same; a rule change for 2005 that stated you could no longer make a pit stop during a race caught Ferrari and Bridgestone out. They only won one race that year in the chaos of the United States Grand Prix in which just six cars started. In 2006 Schumacher came close to a title, and after retired, as Alonso with Renault enjoyed two years of success.
2007 and 2008 came with one drivers championship and two constructors; Lewis Hamilton snatching the crown away from Felipe Massa in those infamous final laps at Sao Paulo for 2008.
Ferrari haven't produced a car like it since, such was its dominance and ingenuity. It was a beautiful, elegant and powerful machine that represented what Ferrari is all about: winning. The F2004 is synonymous with their history and will forever be remembered as the apex of truly golden era for the Scuderia.