Monday, 26 November 2012

End of Season Review

It seems that almost as soon as the season began, it's over for another year. This 2012 F1 season was quite spectacular overall, and I think it's one of the seasons that will go down in history. Yesterday's title race in Brazil was one of the best races I've ever seen - although this was something that I had said after a fair few races this season!

At the start of the year, everyone was expecting Red Bull to continue their form from 2011 - a season which was utterly dominated by the team. However, while their car was still strong, it wasn't the fastest out there. That honour went to McLaren, with Button taking the early lead in the title hunt. Another team which looked to be struggling at the start of this year was Ferrari - almost a second behind the leaders in Australia.

As the season progressed however, Alonso looked as though he'd stepped up his (already exceptional) driving ability, and began to out-perform his disadvantaged car. He won in Malaysia from 9th on the grid, became the first double winner in Valencia, and by Silverstone had a 13 point lead over his nearest championship rival - Mark Webber. So, despite the bleak outlook in Australia, it seemed that Alonso was seeking his third championship title, six years after his last.

By stark contrast, the McLarens seemed to be dropping away from their early advantage. It wasn't until Canada that Hamilton finally got a win on the board, and they suffered from poor races towards the mid-season. Towards 'Silly Season' - the part of the year in which driver line-ups were confirmed - McLaren were dealt a surprise, with Hamilton announcing that he was going to Mercedes for 2013, leaving a team which had been his home since the start of his racing career. Although this could have been seen as a blow for the team, Hamilton showed towards the end of the year that he was still a key part of the team, winning in the US race. However, Hamilton still suffered from a large bout of bad luck, too often retiring from the race after taking pole position. Ultimately, these problems meant that the constructors' championship belonged to Red Bull, with Ferrari stealing second from the British team.

Red Bull too looked to be suffering from something which was almost non-existent in their previous years - reliability problems. Alternator failures meant that Vettel clocked up two retirements over the season, a loss of valuable points when looking for a third successive title. Over the first half of the season Red Bull were hardly dominant, with Vettel at one stage around 40 points behind in the drivers' championship. However, after the summer break and on to the Asian races, it looked as though Vettel and Red Bull had discovered some of their lost form, and Vettel took back to back victories from Singapore to India, putting him right back in the title fight, and sealing the constructors' championship for Red Bull in America.

Up until Abu Dhabi there were others still in the fight for the title. Kimi Raikkonen was notably in the hunt for the title, despite not winning a single race until Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi was (until recently) considered the greatest race of the season, full of F1's usual controversy and surprises. Vettel was disqualified from qualifying after stopping on track and not providing a fuel sample. Red Bull elected to start from the pit lane (rather than the back of the grid) to make set-up changes to Vettel's car. Even so, it seemed that Vettel's challenge to Alonso was dealt a serious blow, as this was a circuit which was not known for the chances to overtake, and it seemed unlikely that Vettel would get into the points. However, as the race got underway Vettel was steadily working his way up the field. After the first safety-car period he was forced to the very back again, yet once again came all the way through the field - perhaps now finally silencing those who felt he wasn't a real racer, and proving he could overtake just as well as any other driver. This champion's drive meant that he managed to finish in third, behind Alonso. The podiums for Alonso and Vettel at that race meant that mathematically, only these two drivers were in the running for the championship, and so we were set for an epic battle as the season came to a close.

The Abu Dhabi race gave us our eighth winner of the year - the first seven races giving us our first seven winners. This unpredictability was a feature of 2012, with the mid-field teams (Mercedes, Williams, Lotus) clinching wins and stepping up their performance almost unnoticed due to the action of the top three teams. As such, Brazil seemed to sum up 2012 with one of the greatest finales of F1.

Ferrari's achilles heel this year was qualifying, often being no higher than 7th or 8th. Brazil was no exception, and Alonso qualified well behind Massa, 8th to Massa's 5th. McLaren managed to lock-out the front row, with Hamilton first and Button second. The Red Bulls secured the third row of the grid, however it was Webber in front of Vettel. As such, quali set us up for a fantastic race with a title to be decided. For Vettel to be champion, he only had to come fourth overall, even if Alonso won. For Alonso to be champion, he had to get a podium finish with Vettel no higher than fifth if he won; no higher than 8th if Alonso was second; or 10th if Alonso was third.

The first lap of Brazil was perhaps the most dramatic of the year. Alonso made a fantastic start, pushing his way up to fourth place. It seemed as though Webber was slightly harsh on his team-mate, pushing him out of the way into turn one. As such, Vettel dropped behind towards the mid-field, and ultimately ended up in grief with Bruno Senna. This looked like a disaster - there was extensive damage to the Red Bull, and Vettel was once again at the back of the grid with a lot of work to do.

At the front of the grid, it was the McLarens leading 1-2, with Hamilton ahead of Button. Closely following behind however was not the sister Red Bull, or even Alonso's Ferrari. Rather, it was the Force India of Nico Hulkenberg - one of the overlooked mid-field teams. Alonso had gone wide, and allowed Hulkenberg to pass him for third position. As the rain began to fall in Brazil, the track became trickier, and Button - often a master in such conditions - managed to overtake his team-mate for the lead. Closely behind followed Hulkenberg, and by lap 19 he had taken the lead for Force India.

With Alonso out of the podium places, the championship was still Vettel's, even without scoring points. However, as he proved in Abu Dhabi, Vettel is not one to simply sit behind the other cars, and by lap 8 he had made his way through the field in a damaged car to get up to 7th position!

The weather meant that there was a lot of pitting for tyres, with all but Hulkenberg and Button taking on intermediates at the beginning of the race. During this phase of the race we saw a lot of people heading off the track - Alonso went wide, although managed to maintain his place. Webber and Grosjean also headed off track, however Grosjean's exploration off the circuit led to his retirement, while Webber was able to continue. Through the chaos, pit stops were abound, and the intermediate tyres lessened some of the spinning and sliding. As the rain stopped and the track began to dry up however, everyone swapped back on to the dry tyres.

As everything settled down, Alonso reported a lot of debris from the cars who suffered in the rain. As such, the safety car was called out while the track was cleared up - not before Nico Rosberg had suffered from a puncture. With time to breathe and regroup, the order was Hulkenberg, Button, Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel - meaning Vettel would still be in control of the championship.

 Once the safety car was pulled in on lap 30, Hulkenberg managed to retain his lead of the race. Webber and Kobayashi tried to overtake Vettel on the restart lap, however while the former went off the circuit again, Kobayashi succeeded and took fifth place from Vettel. Shortly after this, Kobayashi managed to overtake Alonso for fourth, however Alonso soon regained his place and began chasing Button - now in third place after being overtaken by Hamilton once again.

Massa also showed that he was continuing with his amazing form of this half of the season. He managed to overtake Vettel for sixth place, and began hunting down Kobayashi to act as a rear-gunner for Alonso once more. With things once again steady for a brief while, Interlagos showed us that nothing is steady forever, and the rain began once more.

Hamilton wasn't going to let rain stop him this time however, and shortly managed to overtake Hulkenberg for the lead. On lap 54 though, with drivers beginning to come in for intermediate tyres, Hulkenberg attempted to overtake Hamilton for the lead. The damp track however made it difficult, and Hulkenberg slid into Hamilton - ending the McLaren driver's last race for the team.

With all this happening at the front, Vettel had pitted for fresh tyres. The Red Bull driver's radio wasn't working, and so he couldn't report to the team about the track. The team went for option tyres, however these tyres were not suited for the damp surface, prompting Vettel to come back in for intermediate tyres. The team were not ready for Vettel - and so he waited what seemed like an age for the tyres to be made ready.

His championship rival, Alonso, meanwhile managed only just to keep his car on track after the rain. Luckily, he made it back to the pits for his intermediate tyres. After this round of stops, the race order was Button, Alonso, Massa, Webber, Hulkenberg (having taken a drive-through penalty for the collision with Hamilton), Schumacher and Vettel in seventh. In this position, Vettel would still be the champion - but only just. Alonso was still in the hunt for the win, in which case Vettel would have to be fourth. Luckily, Schumacher pulled out of the way of Vettel, giving him 6th position easily.

As the race drew to a close, Button had a 21 second lead, with Alonso seemingly unable to catch him. The last few laps were tense, and I was hoping that Vettel and Button could just bring it home. On the penultimate lap, we were given a last throw of the dice, when Paul Di Resta hit the wall, prompting the safety car to return for a second time - meaning the race ended with no more passes.

While Alonso drove an amazing race, finishing second, Vettel's 6th place meant that he was crowned the youngest ever triple world champion (6 years younger than Ayrton Senna, the previous record holder), and only the third driver in F1 history to win three titles back to back (Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio being the other two).

While Alonso was clearly disappointed at losing the title, he can be proud of his team for what they have achieved this year. Even though they had the slower car, Alonso managed to fight to the bitter end, such is his skill and prowess in an F1 car. Vettel undoubtedly had the drive of his career over 2012. While the car was significantly faster towards the end of the year, nobody can say that this championship was easy for him, and I think he's finally managed to prove that he is a worthy champion.

At the end of this year, we also say goodbye to Michael Schumacher once again - although it's beginning to look as though Vettel will soon become the next Schumi. Next year looks to be another storming season - driver changes left, right and centre will mean that the grid is perhaps more mixed than this year. However, regardless of what happens next year, 2012 will surely go down in F1 history for the most exciting, dramatic and unpredictable season of all. Only four months until battle resumes.