What an epic season it has been thus far! We have had all sorts of ups and downs through the 16 races so far with McLaren being the fastest in the beginning, Red Bull putting in a few dominant performances at Sakhir and Valencia, then Ferrari finding a bit of a rhythm in the middle part of the season and McLaren again bringing in major developments, to become the class of the field for four races in a row, until Lewis Hamilton‘s unfortunate retirement, which gave way to Red Bull achieving 2011-style dominance with Sebastian Vettel, who became the first back-to-back winner of the season at Suzuka. Whether the Adrian Newey-penned RB8 remains unbeatable to the end of the season and gives Vettel and Red Bull their third consecutive world titles or are Alonso and Ferrari able to do anything about it remains to be seen. Whatever the standings are at the end of the race in Brazil, this season will stand out in the history of Formula 1 as one of the closest and most competitive seasons ever. The biggest proof of that being a new record of 7 different winners in the first 7 races beating the previous of 5 in 5 which was achieved way back in 1983.
As we look forward to the second installment of the Airtel Indian Grand Prix and what it holds in store for us regarding the championship, let us have a recap of all the races thus far:
Australian Grand Prix
McLaren locked out the front row, while a stellar lap from returnee Romain Grosjean put him 3rd on the grid. Mercedes looked to be on the pace with their new Double-DRS system being the talk of the paddock, while Red Bull looked to be on the back-foot, after the ban on the exhaust-blown diffusers were enforced after the end of the 2011 end season. Further down, it all looked another year of no-championship contention with neither Ferraris reaching Q3. On the other hand, Williams seemed to have recovered from their worst season ever to enter into Q3.
As the five red lights went out, Button got the better of Hamilton into Turn 1 and that move turned out to be crucial as he was never headed thereafter. Vettel got the better of Hamilton at the pitstops as Red Bull seemed to have much better race pace as compared to their one-lap pace. Behind McLaren and Red Bull, Alonso compensated his mistake in Q2 with a solid damage-limitation drive to 5th place holding off the charging Maldonado until the Williams driver spun on his own on the penultimate lap. Elsewhere, Mercedes’ race pace was nowhere near their qualifying pace and this was where Grosjean’s run of first lap crashes started.
Malaysian Grand Prix
Another front row lockout by McLaren sent ominous signs to the whole paddock. Michael Schumacher put in another solid qualifying performance to line-up behind them, with the Red Bulls and the Lotuses behind him. Ferrari again looked off the pace with Alonso somehow launching the F2012 into 8th place (after Kimi Raikkonen‘s penalty).
It all looked set for another dominant Sunday for McLaren until the weather intervened. Grosjean was involved in his second opening-lap crash with Schumacher. Torrential rain caused the race to be suspended on lap 9 with the McLarens still heading the field with Narain Karthikeyan surprisingly up to 10th place, after starting the race on full wets. Soon after the restart, Button had a collision with Karthikeyan and thus his race was ruined. In between all the this, Alonso and Perez moved to the head of the field after fitting in the intermediate tyres at the perfect time. Later, Vettel also had a collision with Karthikeyan whom he later labelled as ‘cucumber’. Towards the end Perez seemed to have the pace to overhaul Alonso but a mistake from him at Turn 14 guaranteed Ferrari’s first win of the season. As a result, against all odds, Alonso left Malaysia leading the drivers championship.
Chinese Grand Prix
The long straight combined with the DDRS helped Mercedes take their first pole position of 2012 with Nico Rosberg. Hamilton slotted in between the two Mercedes cars but had to incur a gearbox penalty. Other than that, Kobayashi provided the second shock of the session by lining up 4th; the first shock being reigning world champion Vettel’s elimination in Q2.
Rosberg got a great start and controlled the race till the end winning by a huge margin of 20 seconds. Mercedes had a bitter-sweet day as their dream of a 1-2 with Schumacher’s early retirement due to a loose wheelnut. Button and Hamilton drove strong races to finish on the podium for McLaren while the Red Bulls crossed the chequered flag behind them. It was all looking good for a first podium for Kimi Raikkonen since his comeback until his tyres ‘fell off the cliff’ and he ended up 13th after being 2nd with a few laps to go till the end. Three consecutive third place finishes helped Hamilton to top the standings going into the next race in Bahrain.
Bahrain Grand Prix
Even before the F1 circus landed in Bahrain, the media focus was firmly on the ongoing violence and protests against the government, with prospects of the race being called off at the very last moment very much on the cards. The F1 fraternity got a taste of the violence when a firebomb fell right beside a car carrying a few members of the Force India team, on Thursday night. This led to the team deciding not to participate in FP2 so that their employees can safely reach the hotel before dark.
In between all the political turmoil, Bernie Ecclestone cofirmed that the race would take place. Thus after low-key free practice sessions, it was time for the all-important qualifying session. For the first time this season, Red Bull looked to be having the fastest car in qualifying and Vettel duly took pole ahead of Hamilton and Webber. Ricciardo qualified a surprise 6th while a strategy error from Lotus cost Raikkonen a place in Q3.
On Sunday, like Rosberg in the previous race, Vettel opened up a big gap – as was customary in 2011 – and barring a mid-race challenge from Raikkonen, he was never forced to look in his mirrors. The heat of Bahrain worked wonders for Lotus as both their drivers stood on the podium for the first time in 2012. After a first-row grid slot, Hamilton moved backwards and finished behind even Alonso’s Ferrari. McLaren strategically retired the other McLaren with 2 laps to go so that they wouldn’t have to incur a penalty for changing engine/gearbox for the next race. Bahrain marked the first points-scoring finish for Massa but he was 51 points behind new championship leader Vettel.
Thus ended the first round of flyaway races and before starting the European season in Spain, the Mugello test provided the best opportunity for the teams to introduce some major upgrades on their car which Ferrari used to their advantage……