Formula 1 in the 2000s was truly an assault on the senses. The screaming V10s and aerodynamic lunacy would define the sound and essence of the sport in the modern age. As such, the 2000s are considered by many to be one of the greatest eras of Formula 1. It would be an understatement to describe some of the defining cars of that decade as iconic. The 2000s saw periods of dominance from some of the sport’s most prominent manufacturers, but also saw the rise of some new constructors that changed the face of Formula 1 as a whole.
Compared to today, Formula 1 cars of the 2000s catered to the fanfare expected of the greatest racing series on Earth. While the technical advances that have crept into the Formula 1 cars of the turbo-hybrid era were developed during that decade, including KERS, there was a driving purity that seems to be lost in the current day. As F1 approached a less visceral era, early 2000s F1 cars hold a special place in many fans’ hearts.
In this article, we’ll cover some of the most iconic and period-defining Formula 1 cars of the 2000s. These cars were picked not only for their dominance in their respective seasons, but also for the technical innovations that they introduced to the sport and, for some, the unlikelihood of their success.
Formula 1 At The Turn Of The Decade
If the 2000s were a white-knuckle era for Formula 1, then the 1990s were truly fear-inducing. The 1990s marked a shift in the sport away from speed at any cost towards a more even balance between speed and safety. The 1980s and 1990s saw the deaths of multiple of the greatest drivers of all time. The death of three-time Formula 1 World Champion Ayrton Senna was an eye-opening moment for the Formula 1 world. Even in the mid-90s, safety was nowhere near where it should have been. Towards the end of the 1990s, safety measures like wider run-off areas and wheel tethers became mandatory.
There were also fundamental changes made to the cars from the tail end of the 1990s through to the 2000s. F1 technology in the 1990s was steamrolling ahead, introducing an array of driver aids and aerodynamic feats which made the cars increasingly faster with few safety considerations. As a result, the FIA banned many of these aids, including active suspension, traction control, and massive rear diffusers in an effort to slow the cars down.
From 1994 to the end of the decade, the FIA changed the rules countless times to reduce aerodynamic efficiency and make F1 cars safer to drive. One of the biggest changes that would influence Formula 1 car design in the early 2000s came in 1998. Cars were reduced in width from 2 meters to 1.8 meters, and grooved tires were introduced to decrease grip. Those two changes ultimately shuffled the field order and set the tone for the start of the century.
Best Formula 1 Cars of the 2000s – Renault R25
Constructors Championship Position: 1
Drivers: Fernando Alonso (2005 World Champion) Giancarlo Fisichella
Engine: Renault RS25 3.0L V10 (800-900 horsepower)
Renault reentered Formula 1 again as a works team 2002 after purchasing the Benetton Formula team two years prior. Renault had been a strong team in the past, introducing turbochargers to the sport for the first time in 1977. They were also an engine supplier in the years leading up to their works team entry. The Renault Formula 1 team used the 2002 – 2004 seasons to regain their bearings again, finding moderate success. While the Renault R202, Renault R23, and Renault R24 showed promise, the Renault R25 proved to be one of the best Formula 1 cars of the 2000s.
The Renault R25 was introduced at the tail end of the V10 era. Formula 1 switched to V8 powerplants the year after. As such, 2005 marked a year when most teams were on top of their game, especially from an engine perspective. Prior to 2005, Ferrari had been an unstoppable force, with Michael Schumacher winning every Drivers Championship between 2000 and 2004. Many believe that the Renault R25 is truly special for its ability to dethrone the behemoths in Maranello.
Designed by Bob Bell, the Renault R25 got everything right. Its rear-wheel weight bias gave it a traction advantage under acceleration. It was also aerodynamically sound, with the Renault team adapting well to the new aerodynamic mandates for 2005. Finally, it suited Fernando Alonso’s aggressive turn-in driving style. All of those factors culminated in a fantastic all-around car that would go on to win the 2005 Constructors’ Championship and give Fernando Alonso his first World Driver’s Championship.
2005 McLaren MP4-20
Constructors Championship Position: 2
Drivers: Kimi Raikkonen, Juan Pablo Montoya
Engine: Mercedes Benz FO110R 3.0L V10 (930 horsepower)
We’re keeping with the 2005 Formula 1 season for the next entry. The 2005 World Championship was an upset, as the McLaren MP4-20 in the hands of Kimi Raikkonen was arguably the best car on the grid that season. Following the poor performance of the McLaren MP4-18 and MP4-19 in the years prior and a massive FIA-mandated rule change for the 2005 season, the MP4-20 was a largely blank-sheet design. The MP4-20 was penned by Adrian Newey, arguably the greatest racing car designer in history.
With such a large change in the aerodynamic regulations for 2005, Adrian Newey had massive hurdles to overcome. The 2005 cars were required to have higher noses, a repositioned rear wing, and a smaller diffuser. As a result, Newey had to find creative ways to claw back the downforce lost in the regulation changes. One of the MP4-20’s most iconic design features, its dual airbox mounted wings, helped funnel air over the rear wing to increase downforce.
Everything was seemingly set in place for McLaren to seal both the Drivers and Constructors Championships in 2005. The Mercedes V10 was the most powerful on the grid, the chassis was a masterpiece in an aerodynamic sense, and Kimi Raikkonen was in his absolute prime. However, the MP4-20 had a significant issue, reliability. While the 2005 Mercedes V10 was extremely powerful, it let the team, especially Kimi, down on multiple occasions. Even with poor reliability, the MP4-20 won 10 of the season’s 18 races. Ultimately, the MP4-20’s reliability issues cost the team the Constructors Championship and Kimi the Drivers Championship.
Regardless, the MP4-20 will go down in history as one of McLaren’s best designs in the modern era.
Best Formula 1 Cars of the 2000s – Ferrari F2002
Constructors Championship Position: 1
Drivers: Michael Schumacher (2002 World Champion), Rubens Barrichello
Engine: Ferrari Tipo 051/B/C 3.0L V10 (930 horsepower)
There can’t be a list of the best Formula 1 cars of the 2000s without mentioning the Scuderia. As the most successful Formula 1 team of all time, Ferrari doesn’t need to prove their worth to anybody. But, in the early 2000s, they felt the need to thoroughly embarrass their competitors. While Ferrari’s period of success began in 2000, the F2002 took the term “dominant” to a whole new level.
Ferrari’s success could be largely attributed to having the right personnel on payroll. Between chassis designer Rory Byrne, engine developer Paolo Martinelli, technical director Ross Brawn, and, last but not even close to least, driver Michael Schumacher, Ferrari was bound to succeed from the get-go. That was certainly the case, as the F2002 was so good that Michael Schumacher won the 2002 Formula 1 World Driver’s Championship with 6 races left in the season.
While it is unquestionable that Michael played a big part in Ferrari’s success that year, the F2002 was a fantastic car in nearly every way. The Ferrari F2002 was powered by a Ferrari Tipo 051/B/C 3.0L V10 which benefitted the team not through raw power but through fantastic reliability. In the hands of Schumacher, the F2002 didn’t retire from a single race in the 2002 season. The F2002 was also the most aerodynamically advanced car on the grid, largely due to a compact clutchless gearbox which allowed the rear aerodynamic structures to be tightly packaged.
The Ferrari F2002 is widely considered to be one of the best Formula 1 cars of all time, ranking with the McLaren MP4-4 and Williams FW14B.
2003 Williams FW25
Constructors Championship Position: 2
Drivers: Juan Pablo Montoya, Ralph Schumacher
Engine: BMW P83 3.0L V10 (940 horsepower)
2003 was a good year for the BMW/Williams team. In the previous two years, the FW22 and FW23 were largely hampered by their chassis design. BMW had been supplying race-winning engines with the BMW E41 V10 and BMW P80 V10. But, Williams’s chassis design was falling short. However, many of the issues that the previous cars faced were remedied with the FW25.
For starters, Williams BMW sacked their previous aerodynamicist in favor of Antonia Terzi. Terzi was an ex-Ferrari aerodynamicist who was able to get the team on track from a downforce perspective. With the FW25 chassis sorted, the team was able to make the most out of the BMW P83 engine. The BMW P83 itself is one of the most impressive V10 engines to ever run in Formula 1. With 940 horsepower on tap, it was the most powerful engine on the grid in 2003.
Juan Pablo Montoya, an Indycar champion and multiple Grand Prix winner, claims that the FW25 was one of the best cars that he’s ever driven. He says that the balance was unparalleled and the engine was a screamer. The FW25 really came alive following the introduction of wider Michelin tires before the Monaco Grand Prix, with the FW25 taking three back-to-back 1-2 finishes at the end of the season.
The FW25 finished second in the Constructors Championship behind Ferrari only three years after BMW and Williams joined forces. It was an impressive feat and was the last time that Williams was a front-running team in the modern era. Even without winning either championship, the FW25 is often considered one of the best Formula 1 cars of the 2000s.
Best Formula 1 Cars of the 2000s – Brawn BGP 001
Constructors Championship Position: 1
Drivers: Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello
Engine: Mercedes-Benz FO108W 2.4L V8 (750 horsepower)
To say that the dominance of the Brawn Formula 1 team on their debut in 2009 was a shock is an understatement. That is especially true considering the fact that the team inherited a car from the defunct Honda Formula 1 team in 2008 after they pulled out of the sport at the end of the season. The team was spearheaded by Ross Brawn, one of the greatest technical minds in Formula 1. Brawn was instrumental in Ferrari’s reign of dominance from 2000-2004 and wanted to channel his expertise into his own team. While Honda supplied them with a decent starting platform, the Brawn GP F1 team had a limited budget and only a small amount of time to get the car to a competitive state.
After securing a Mercedes power unit, Loic Bigois, the BGP 001’s designer, went to work on the rest of the chassis design. Overall, there were some glaring flaws in the Brawn GP car’s design. It was overweight and unoptimized in a few crucial areas. However, the team had a hidden aerodynamic trick up their sleeve in the form of the double diffuser. In essence, the double diffuser took advantage of a loophole in the rules for the 2009 Formula 1 season, using a hole in the car’s floor to direct supercharged air to pass over a unique rear diffuser design, providing far more downforce than their competitors. While contested by many teams, the FIA ruled the double diffuser legal for the season.
Despite its other shortcomings, the BGP 001 won both the 2009 Constructors’ Championship and Driver’s Championship for Jenson Button. It would be Brawn GP’s only season in F1 before being purchased by Mercedes.
Legacy and Importance of 2000s Formula 1 Cars
From Ferrari to Brawn, all of the cars on this list contributed to Formula 1 in a way that would go on to influence F1 car designs in the years to follow. While some of the best Formula 1 cars of the 2000s have a clear point of influence, others were just damn fast under the regulations that they had to abide by. A car like the Renault R25 was a defining car of the decade. But the reason that it was so good is hard to distinguish. While it used an innovative mass damper system which gave it a competitive edge, the car’s overall strength was its well-roundedness. That in combination with Fernando Alonso’s world-class abilities made the car iconic without being superior in one single area.
In contrast, the Brawn BGP 001 was a successful car for one primary engineering feat. Unlike the Renault R25 which was a good car in almost every aspect, the 001 wasn’t. It was an overweight and thrown-together entry for the 2009 season, yet the innovative double diffuser led to Brawn’s dominance. The same concept applies to the Ferrari F2002. With the implementation of the smaller clutchless gearbox, the Ferrari had a massive aerodynamic advantage. These are the types of cars that pushed the boundaries of Formula 1 and led to some of the biggest innovations that the sport has ever seen.