Belgian Grand Prix
The first of the four sets of back-to-back races started at Spa-Francorchamps. With McLaren having won in Hungary, they were confident of making it two in a row and they did – albeit, with the other driver.
The two Friday practice sessions were rendered useless with heavy rain curtailing the running and instead allowing Marussia’s Charles Pic to top the timesheet in FP2!
Qualifying was dry and it was Button who took pole ahead of Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi. Hamilton struggled to 8th place and this is where the relationship between him and McLaren started turning sour. There was debate on which wings to use on both the cars and in the end it turned out that Button made the right choice. Frustrated at being beaten by his teammate, Hamilton committed a big mistake by tweeting confidential telemetry data – this would be one of the initial pillars of the failure of his relationship with the team.
The telemetry saga was soon overshadowed by what happened at the La Source hairpin on Lap 1. First of all, Maldonado got a jump start for which he was penalised later (it was applied for the next race as he was already out of the race before the stewards made their decision, and in turn had to incur another penalty for causing a collision). Grosjean, starting from 9th moved to the right, pushed Hamilton – who started 8th – onto the grass. As a result, their wheels interlocked and Grosjean hit Perez from behind and launched the Lotus above Alonso’s Ferrari and almost decapitated him in the process. That first corner shunt ended the races for Grosjean, Hamilton, Alonso and Perez while Kobayashi’s chances were severely hurt after having started on the front row. After that crash, it was all normal with Button taking a dominant win ahead of Vettel and Raikkonen with Hulkenburg achieving his career-best fourth place finish for Force India. Alonso scoring no points and Vettel coming 2nd resulted in the lead being slashed from 40 points to just 24.
Italian Grand Prix
Grosjean’s ban provided Lotus reserve driver Jerome d’ Ambrosio with a drive alongside Kimi Raikkonen. As expected, the tifosi were out in full force and their dreams of seeing a Ferrari win were looking likely until the final pole position shootout in qualifying. Meanwhile, Eddie Jordan sparked a row of discussions and debates by announcing that Hamilton was to join Mercedes for 2013.
The Ferraris looked strong all weekend and matched McLaren’s pace while Red Bull seemed to be on the backfoot because of their lack of straightline speed. There was nothing to choose between Hamilton and Alonso for pole position in Q1 and Q2. But in Q3, luck again deserted the Ferrari driver in a very unusual way. Alonso’s broken rear anti-roll bar was noticed at the start of Q3 and as there was no time to repair it, he went out on track and qualified in 10th while Hamilton took pole, having no serious challenger to his pace. Massa put in his best qualifying performance yet by lining up 3rd on the grid behind the two McLarens. The Red Bulls were a distant 6th and 11th though.
At the start, Massa got the better of Button and tried a move on Hamilton at the Rettifilo chicane but couldn’t make it stick. From then onwards, Hamilton ran a lonely race and won it quite comfortably. On the other hand, Alonso charged through the field to finish 3rd, although that could have been higher had his car not suffered serious damage in the incident with Vettel at Curva Grande. After taking a deep look into the incident, the stewards handed a drive-through penalty to Vettel, although that proved inconsequential as he retired with an alternator failure for the second time this season. Sergio Perez made another single-pitstop gamble stick to rack up an unexpected podium. Red Bull’s day turned from bad into worse when Webber spun on the exit of the Ascari chicane and had to retire due to large vibrations. With Vettel retiring, Alonso was again able to increase the lead at the top of the championship to 37 points.
The post-race celebrations and Hamilton’s mood indicated that his association with McLaren was coming to a fast end.
Singapore Grand Prix
The Hamilton-to-Mercedes saga continued in full flow as the paddock got ready for the only night race of the season. At Lotus, Grosjean got his drive back.
The gossip of Hamilton leaving McLaren took backstage when he got pole position ahead of Williams’ Pastor Maldonado. Behind them, Vettel, Button and Alonso lined up in 3rd, 4th and 5th respectively. Red Bull brought some major upgrades which resulted in Vettel being able to match Hamilton’s blistering pace, with one of them being the double DRS, but neither the media nor the other teams were able to notice it. Ferrari again seemed to have fallen back in the development race and that hit them really hard on an area where the car is still weak – low speed traction.
Maldonado being one of the crash-kids of 2012, the eyes were set firmly upon him at the start to see if he could mix it up among the championship contenders. But the start was a peaceful one with Hamilton leading ahead of Vettel. The drama started when Hamilton had to retire from the lead on Lap 23 due to a gearbox failure. Later, Singapore lived up to its billing of having a safety car each race since the track’s inception in 2008 when Karthikeyan crashed at Turn 18. As the safety car came in and Vettel tried to bunch up the field, he and Button almost collided. The safety car came out again very soon when Schumacher hit Vergne from behind due to under braking. Taking advantage of these safety car periods as many cars dived into the pits, Paul di Resta moved up into 4th place and although he looked to have the pace to get past Alonso, the track’s close barriers prevented him from trying something too ambitious. Felipe Massa caused a spectacular moment when he overtook Bruno Senna, after it seemed he had lost control of the car but was able to catch the rear at the right time. Vettel’s win coupled with Alonso’s 3rd place meant a 29 point gap between the two, with Raikkonen in 3rd without having won a single race till now.
Japanese Grand Prix
Vettel looked all set to decrease the gap of 29 points as he took a dominant pole position ahead of his teammate Webber – this being Red Bull’s first front row lockout of the season. The end to Q3 was a sort of an anti-climax as Raikkonen spun at the entry into Spoon and brought out the yellow flags which caught out many drivers on their final Q3 lap – the most crucial being Alonso and this incident had its repercussions on Sunday too. Hamilton looked off the pace and so it now looked to be a straight fight between Vettel, Alonso and Raikkonen for the championship. Kobayashi, on the other hand, was summoned by the stewards for allegedly not having slowed down enough in the yellow flag region, but was not handed any penalty after his team showed evidence of him having slowed down just enough. Another event under investigation was Vettel’s impeding of Alonso in Q3 where again no penalty for the driver, but a reprimand was handed.
Vettel got a good start but behind him there were some major incidents that would turn the championship on its head – all those would be beneficial for him though. Raikkonen’s front wing clipped Alonso’s left rear and thus sent him into a spin and out of the race with a puncture. Elsewhere, Grosjean was again involved in a first-lap incident, this time with Webber, which led him to be labelled as a ‘first-lap nutcase’ by the Red Bull driver. The other RB8 won the race in domineering fashion and Vettel was able to cut down Alonso’s lead to a mere 4 points. In the other Ferrari, Massa scored his first podium since the 2010 Korean Grand Prix and joining him was home-hero Kobayashi, who held off a stern challenge from Button
In the week between the races in Japan and Korea, McLaren announced Perez beside Button for 2013 and subsequently, Hamilton and Mercedes made their 2013 partnership public.
Korean Grand Prix
It was Gangnam style at the Yeongam International Circuit! And all the talk was mainly about the moves made by Perez and Hamilton. Having had very few options after being pushed out of Mercedes, Schumacher announced his retirement from the sport and this time it seemed he had said goodbye for ever.
All the off-track driver talks gave way to serious on-track action as the battle for the championship resumed just 5 days after the chequered flag was waved at Suzuka. Red Bull’s supreme form continued with them again locking out the front row but with Webber on pole this time around. Ricciardo’s driveshaft problem at the end of Q2 again meant some drivers being at a disadvantage, one of them being Button who missed out on Q3. Hamilton was left to take the fight to the Red Bulls and he did what was the best possible – 3rd, given the 2011-style dominance of the Milton Keynes outfit. Alonso put in a superb lap to line up 4th ahead of Raikkonen and Massa.
Webber’s history of poor starts continued as he ceded the lead to Vettel at Turn 1 itself and then had to fight hard to keep Alonso behind him into Turn 3, who himself had got the better of Hamilton. Behind them, Kobayashi was involved in an incident with Button and Rosberg, sending both the McLaren and Mercedes out of the race. Vettel and Webber ran comfortably at the front with Massa very close behind Alonso. Even though Massa’s pace was better than Alonso mid-race, Ferrari ordered him to keep a safe distance from the championship leader. The midfield had some action though with Grosjean and Hulkenburg fighting it out for a major part of the race and Hamilton’s woes with a rear anti-roll bar failure turned his two-pitstop strategy into a 3-pitstop one. For the final few laps, Red Bull were extremely worried with the state of Vettel’s front right but he was able to make it to the end safely, thus becoming the first hat-trick winner of 2012 and more importantly snatching the lead of the championship from Alonso.
A few days after the race, the final piece of puzzle was completed when Massa was confirmed at Ferrari for 2013 and thus ended the merry-go-round for the seats at the top teams.
With four races to go and only 6 points between the top 2 in the championship, it’s anything but certain who will achieve his 3rd championship first. In the constructors championship though, Red Bull seem to have it in the bag with a 77-point lead over Ferrari, which looks improbable to be overhauled in such a short amount of time; but one should never say never in Formula 1. The form book might again be turned on its head and we might have a few more surprises waiting for us before the chequered flag falls in Brazil on November 25.