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For the first time since joining Ferrari, Michael Schumacher was armed with the best car in the field during 2001. The result was a year in which he broke Alain Prost’s long-standing record for grand prix wins and clinched a fourth World Championship in August. He also broke records for Grand Prix points scored during a season and over a career. Only Ayrton Senna’s 65 pole positions and Juan Manuel Fangio’s five world titles now prevented Schumacher from holding every significant Formula 1 record.
David Coulthard led McLaren-Mercedes’ effort by winning in Brazil and Austria, but the combination was increasingly unable to match Ferrari as the year progressed. Mika Hakkinen also won twice later in the season but he seemed strangely off the pace. He announced that he would take a year off in 2002 and Hakkinen did not return to F1.
A second challenge to Ferrari came from the increasingly competitive Williams-BMW team. Ralf Schumacher scored the first of three victories at Imola, the team’s first win since 1997. New team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya announced his arrival by passing Michael Schumacher in Brazil. Although he took time to adapt to F1, Montoya was increasingly the team’s quicker driver as the year ended and he demonstrated his championship potential by winning at Monza.
Williams loaned Jenson Button to Benetton to make way for the highly rated Montoya but the change proved disastrous for the young Englishman. The team struggled while developing a revolutionary new Renault engine and while Giancarlo Fisichella got the most out of the car, Button generally could not match his team-mate’s pace. This was Benetton’s final season in F1, with new owners Renault set to take over in 2002.
It was a good year for newcomers to F1. Not only did Montoya win in his first season, but Minardi’s Fernando Alonso and Sauber’s Kimi Raikkonen both showed great promise. Raikkonen and Nick Heidfeld gave Sauber their best year in the category and the young Finn signed to replace Hakkinen at McLaren at the end of the season.
Honda supplied both BAR and Jordan with works engines, prompting a battle for supremacy between the teams. Jordan eventually emerged as the winner two weeks after the season ended when Jarno Trulli, who had previously been disqualified for a technical infringement, was confirmed as finishing fourth at Indianapolis. Jordan had replaced a disappointing Heinz-Harald Frentzen with Jean Alesi mid-season, but the Frenchman retired from F1 after he failed to earn a contract extension for 2002.
The dangers of the sport were brought sharply into focus by three accidents. Australian GP marshal Graham Beveridge was killed by debris from Villeneuve’s car in an accident with Ralf Schumacher and Prost’s Luciano Burti was fortunate to survive frightening crashes at both Hockenheim and Spa-Francorchamps.