The 2012 Formula 1 season has seen the most competitive and closely contested F1 championship in recent times. It has been a breathless roller coaster thus far, with quite a lot of unprecedented events taking place. We’ve seen 7 different winners from the opening 7 rounds of the championship, and could very well have had 8 or 9 in all. We have seen qualifying times for the top 15 cars to be within 1 second of each other on multiple occasions and there have been lots of scraps going on, up and down the field, throughout the races. Different teams have responded to different conditions with varying results, and almost everyone has tried their own version of a strategy to cope with the much talked-about Pirelli tyres. This is probably a good time to take stock of the events that have unfolded thus far, and brace ourselves for what is still to come.
The introduction of the platypus-nosed designs throughout the field to adhere to new regulations [barring a couple of exceptions] was a much fancied chat topic in the pre season. They looked ugly and they looked “un-F1-ish”. McLaren chose to ignore the Platypus option and produced a car that didn’t just look elegant, but proved to be the best of the field in the opening race with Jenson Button taking a comfortable win. The much-hyped return of the “Iceman” Kimi Raikkonen got off to a reasonable start with a points finish in the first round after being out-qualified by his teammate, Romain Grosjean. The late-race scrap in the midfield with a strong showing from Williams and Mercedes was a sign of things to come, but a bigger warning sign was the lack of pace shown by Ferrari, and the way Fernando Alonso had willed it into a points position.
Round 2 led us to the rainy equatorial surprise that is Sepang, and rain it did! After a refrigerator fire in Raikkonen’s garage that melted his ice creams became headline stuff, expectations weren’t too high from the weekend as it was still a flyaway race; and McLaren’s Australia advantage seemed enough to carry them through. However, rain intervened, nullifying Ferrari’s disadvantage, and it was an unlikely Ferrari-Sauber battle between Fernando Alonso and Sergio Perez that livened things up. Perez had a real chance of passing Alonso for the win in the closing stages of the race, but a late mistake meant that he had to settle for 2nd, with Alonso becoming the 2nd race winner of the season.
Still a flyaway race, but teams were already starting to bring upgrades. By now it was clear that tyre wear was going to be a major issue for everyone, more so for the Mercedes team. Ferrari had conceded that their rear end design was not upto scratch and it could be a very uphill battle ahead. The race itself, though sprang another surprise. Nico Rosberg, in his 6th season of Formula 1, raced to his maiden Grand Prix victory and in the process, giving the Mercedes team their first win of the season. Given the tyre wear predictions, Rosberg’s win was a big surprise and viewed as Mercedes having turned the corner. Fernando Alonso had silently put in another strong performance to finish with a decent points haul and take the lead in the championship standings. Red Bull looked to be on the comeback trail with Webber successfully trying out new aerodynamic updates.
After much trials and tribulations, last year’s cancellation and amid civilian protests, the Bahrain Grand Prix was staged at Sakhir as round 4 of the 2012 season. Marked by multiple racing incidents involving Alonso, Rosberg and Hamilton, the usually processional Bahrain Grand Prix was a much more eventful race this season, with Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber demonstrating that the Red Bull was still a force to be reckoned with, and that the first three races might just have been a temporary glitch. Vettel, with the updates Webber had run in China, took pole. Raikkonen gave him a real scare midway through the race as he attempted to pass Vettel at turn 1, but Vettel held on, storming to the finish line, becoming the fourth different driver to win a grand prix this season, and jumping into the points lead.
The F1 circus headed to Spain for the first of the Europen rounds, at the Circuit de Catalunya. Ferrari were in the news for their rear end updates, hoping to do the ‘new rear end design the way it should have been’. Alonso promptly took pole in his home race, but the real surprise was the pace shown by Pastor Maldonado’s Williams, which earned him a front row slot. Maldonado seized his opportunity and grabbed the race lead, never to relinquish it. Kimi Raikkonen mounted an inspired late charge in his Lotus, but he ran out of time before being able to put himself in a position to really challenge for the lead. Maldonado, thus became the 5th driver to win a Grand Prix this season, in the 5th race of the season.
All of a sudden, the world was wide awake to the fact that it wan’t witnessing just a freak string of results. We were on the verge of history, and the definition of a closely contested F1 championship season was being rewritten. All teams were finding out that the Pirelli tyres were posing more interesting questions than anticipated, and it wasn’t just about raw horsepower, aerodynamic efficiency or fuel consumption. Tyre degradation was here to stay, as a major factor to consider while planning race strategies.