The 2012 Formula 1 season was always going to be one of the most exciting seasons in recent times. What with the field packed with six former world champions including seven time winner Michael Schumacher, who would be driving in his last season in the sport before retiring for good, and also 2007 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen making his comeback after a two year hiatus from the sport, the season was never going to be a dull one.
The pre-season testing had made one thing pretty clear that it was going to be yet another straight fight between McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull for the title. Sebastian Vettel, who was looking to seal his third straight Driver’s title, was definitely not going to have as easy a time as he had last year.
The season kicked off at the scenic Albert Park circuit in Melbourne, Australia. And fans of the sport could not have asked for a better season opener than the one that was seen in Melbourne. Jenson Button of McLaren roared home to what was a fine victory for the 2009 World Champion as defending champion Vettel finished behind him in second place. Another highlight of the race was Raikkonen’s storming comeback from 18th on the grid to finish eighth. What was clear from the first race was that the season was going to be more closely contested than previously expected. Heading in to the next couple of races, McLaren and Jenson Button failed to build on their early momentum and slipped back in the title fight as Alonso for Ferrari and Vettel for Red Bull took fine victories to give us three different winners from three races. Steady drives by Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber kept them well within reach of the top three.
Heading into the next few races and one of the most surprising results of the season came in the Spanish Grand Prix as Williams took a surprise win thanks to a brilliant drive by Pastor Maldonado from pole to give them their first win in quite a while. Nico Rosberg too managed to find some unknown levels of determination to grind out a fine result for Mercedes who took their first win in the sport since parting from McLaren a year back. But if one thought this was where some sense of normality would set in, one was wrong. Hamilton and Webber too took great wins to give us, for the first time in nearly 75 years, seven different winners from the opening seven races of the season. Nobody in their wildest dreams would have thought of such a close start to the season, especially after the way Vettel and Red Bull had dominated the early part of the season to effectively kill the contest after the first few races, last year. Despite all of the topsy-turvy nature of the season, Alonso for Ferrari had taken a surprise lead in the championship in a car that was looking well off the pace as compared to a McLaren or a Red Bull. But Alonso underlined his title credentials and proved that he was a force to contend with and not just a one race wonder, as he took resounding wins in Europe and Germany to pull clear of the pack.
The races though were not just contested fiercely at the front of the grid. Each race was throwing up a fantastic midfield battle between the Force India’s, the Torro Rosso’s and the fast receding into the background after fine starts to the season, Williams’ and Mercedes’. All these teams were mainly beginning to suffer from lack of heat generation in the early part of the races, thus not allowing them to keep up with the pack. And another great battle brewing was at the tail end of the grid as the Caterham’s, the HRT’s, and the Marussia’s battled to avoid finishing bottom of the table. A major setback for Marussia and HRT proved to be the lack of cash as they failed to bring any noticeable upgrades to their cars and languished at the bottom. Caterham was just never able to fully exploit their resources and just were never able to find the right balance in the car as they failed to find any real pace.
The surprise of the season though definitely came from Lotus, which was actually the old Renault team which, after having being taken over by the Lotus Group, was now renamed Lotus F1 Racing. Last season Lotus had a dismal season as they struggled with pace and reliability issues and just could not get up to the front of the grid. Even this season, a complete lack of pace during qualifying hurt them, but a race pace, considered by many to be second only to the Ferrari’s race pace, had seen them shoot up to the third in the Constructors’ Championship ahead of McLaren who struggled with reliability issues and had to suffer frequent retirements, especially from Jenson Button’s side. As the season neared the mid season break, McLaren and Red Bull managed to hit another gear altogether to win the last few races; but the drivers of both teams kept cutting into each other’s points, effectively letting Alonso open up nearly a twenty five point gap as they headed into the mid-season break.
Against all expectations, Vettel was really struggling and was lying a lowly fifth by recent standards while his teammate was the closest challenger to Alonso’s title bid. Of the two McLarens, Lewis Hamilton lay third while Jenson Button’s problems had compounded to keep him stuck in seventh and all but out of the title race. Kimi Raikkonen for Lotus was in great form, displaying great consistency to be fourth while his teammate Romain Grosjean had surprised one and all by lying sixth in the Drivers Championship. One would expect Ferrari to have been top of the Constructors’ table as well, owing to the form that Alonso had displayed, but his teammate Felipe Massa was finding the going especially tough. With just one top four finish throughout the first half of the season, he was way down in eighth and slowly rumours were beginning to surface that this could well be the last season for the driver in Ferrari and could be replaced by rookie Sergio Perez in the Sauber, who had been in scintillating form and had almost upstaged Alonso in the second race of the season, had it not been for the fact that the lack of grip in his tyres forced him to run wide and gift the lead to Alonso. Perez still managed to finish a credible second in only the second race of his career.
A three day mid season testing session was organized at the Catalunya Circuit in Barcelona as teams tried out their new upgrades that had been developed over the three week break before the resumption of the season at the iconic Spa-Francorchamps Circuit in Belgium.
McLaren had entered the season break with a fine win for Hamilton at Hungary and they resumed the season in style with a brilliant drive by Button giving him another victory and his first ever at the circuit and making it very clear that a lot of effort had gone in to the car and they were ready to mount a serious title challenge. Vettel took second place in the Red Bull as Red Bull too showed of the increase in pace with a fine performance. Raikkonen rounded off the podium with a well judged drive, but the wait for their first win as a team was prolonged for Lotus. Unfortunately for Ferrari, in one of the biggest surprises of the race, and one which would have serious repercussions for the team in their title bid, Alonso was forced to retire as Grosjean made a terrible first corner mistake to take out both Alonso and even Hamilton in a pile up and was eventually handed a one race ban by the race stewards for causing a collision and dangerous driving.
The next race at the high speed Monza circuit in Italy was dominated by Hamilton who won the race to come back in contention for the title. But from here on, it was time for the Red Bull show. Sebastian Vettel won four consecutive races, starting under the lights in Singapore and ultimately ending in India, to regain the lead in spectacular fashion from Alonso in the standings. Alonso who had led Vettel by thirty nine points at the break, suffered another setback as this time the other Lotus driver Raikkonen shunted him out at the first corner at Suzuka in Japan, a race won by Vettel, to put him under massive pressure. Steady drives by Hamilton and Raikkonen had kept them in third and fourth places respectively in the standings but had left them with only a mathematical chance of winning the title. Around this time, the news came that Hamilton would finally be ending his long standing relationship with McLaren and was heading for greener pastures as he replaced Schumacher at Mercedes next season. Hot property Perez was confirmed by McLaren as a replacement driver for Hamilton and Perez’s seat at Sauber would in turn be filled up by Nico Hulkenberg from Force India, who had also given a great account of himself.
The season now headed into the final three races of the season with Vettel leading Alonso by thirteen points. The major belief in the paddock was that owing to the superior pace of the Red Bull when compared to that of the Ferrari, Vettel was expected to have it easy in the fag end of the season as Alonso would struggle to mount any serious challenge on the Red Bull driver.
But as was the trend throughout the season, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix had more twists and turns in store. Vettel once again out-qualified Alonso by qualifying second and Alonso was to start sixth. But Red Bull had not complied with post qualifying rules by not having the standard one litre fuel in the car that has to be given to the stewards for inspection and having only 800 ml. Owing to this, Vettel was handed a penalty which saw him start from the pit lane whereas he should have been alongside pole sitter Hamilton. All of a sudden, Alonso had been gifted a golden opportunity to turn around the thirteen point gap and regain top spot.
Once again though, fate intervened; and not only for Alonso and Vettel, but also for Raikkonen. Race leader Hamilton retired after completing only a third of the race due to a power failure in his McLaren. This catapulted Raikkonen into the race lead and a great chance to win his first race in his first season since making his return. Behind him, Alonso had moved up into second spot but Vettel himself was on a charge from the back of the grid. Red Bull managed to get their strategy for Vettel bang on and he looked set to finish in the points when his teammate Webber, who was having a dismal second half of the season except two podium finishes, crashed out thanks to Grosjean whom he had a branded a ‘first corner nutcase’ because of the fact that Grosjean had been involved in six first corner accidents over the course of the season, two of which had also claimed Webber. This accident though brought out a Safety Car, which helped Vettel close in on the top pack and on fresh tyres mounted a charge which saw him finish third behind Alonso; a true champion’s drive which saw his lead only cut by three points to ten whereas things could have gone worse than they did. But the man who stole his thunder was undoubtedly Kimi Raikkonen, and in more ways than one. Not only did he seal a brilliant win, he also provided us with a very funny moment during a team radio conversation, which has fast become one of the most legendary conversations ever, by telling his team to leave him alone as he knew what he was doing.
Nonetheless after the high drama at Abu Dhabi, the action shifted to the newly laid down track at Austin, Texas for the United States Grand Prix. Vettel qualified on pole but it was Hamilton who took the win as a cautious Vettel did not resist as Hamilton passed him but still finished second ahead of Alonso, who drove another trademark solid drive to come from seventh to finish third and head into the final race thirteen points behind, and with a glimmer of hope to win his third world title.
Interlagos in Sao Paulo, Brazil then, would once again be the setting for the climax of the Drivers championship. Alonso and Ferrari knew that on the back of recent results, only a miracle could help them win the title. The qualifying too reassured this belief as once again Vettel qualified ahead of Alonso, as he qualified fourth while Alonso was seventh. But the forecast of rain must have inspired a small amount of confidence in the Ferrari team.
As the cars lined up, the excitement and tension had reached breaking point, but then the first corner gave us an unbelievable spectacle. A poor start from Vettel saw him slip back and then Bruno Senna, son of the legendary Ayrton Senna, hit Vettel causing him to spin. The damage was termed unrepairable by the team and to compound matters for Vettel, he was losing speed on the straights and had lost connection with his pit wall. Up ahead, Alonso was third and would have been believing that the miracle he had wished for had happened, but just as in Abu Dhabi in the rain, Vettel drove a fantastic race under pressure to finish sixth. Alonso finished second after brilliant teamwork by Massa, who had a great second half of the season to resurrect his career, gifted him second place; but in the end second place proved to be to less for Alonso as he lost the title by a mere three points to once again suffer a disappointing loss to Vettel for the second time in three years in the Drivers World Championship.
The race also marked the end of Hamilton’s career at McLaren as he was forced to retire despite leading the race, thanks to an over-zealous Hulkenberg who himself finished fifth and missed a great chance to give Force India their first ever win. Michael Schumacher in the last race of his career finished a credible seventh to end what was a disappointing season for him and Mercedes in general, except for the one win in the season. Looking at the other midfield teams, Sauber would feel that they had the best of seasons, thanks to some good qualifying performances. Force India who finished behind them did well, thanks to some great straight line speed which helped them find good race pace. Williams will be disappointed with how this season panned out despite a fantastic result in Spain where they won. At the tail end of the order, the Caterham Team will be mighty pleased to have finished tenth ahead of the Marussia Team, but it was a terrible season for HRT who have been put on sale by their cash strapped owners due to a recession in Spain, as they finished bottom in what could well be their last season in F1.
A congratulatory message has to go to the Pirelli Tyre Manufacturers, whose bold choices in tyre making and high degradation rate made this season as exciting as it was.
It was in the end poetic justice, a change of guards of sorts as a German, Sebastian Vettel, carried forward another German, Michael Schumacher’s legacy, by winning his third straight title in Schumacher’s last race.
A season which nobody expected to be as exciting as it turned out to be has left the fans wanting more, but they are going to have to wait a long time, 110 days to be exact, before the action restarts when (hopefully) all twenty four cars line up in Melbourne for the first race of the 2013 F1 season. Till then all they can do is bide their time and catch their breath after one of the greatest seasons in F1 in modern times.