It has been drummed about for months this year: “the 2012 Formula One season has been the best one to date”. Of course, opinions vary, and there would be many opponents of such claims – especially those in age to remember races in the 60s and 70s. Nevertheless, there are numerous factors that have earned this season the title of “the greatest”. Let’s take a look at the most significant ones.
The talk about the most unpredictable season in years was gaining momentum from the first few races up until the summer break. The first seven Grands Prix produced seven different winners, and, contrary to a Vettel-dominated 2011, it was impossible to finger the most likely Champion of 2012.
The teams and drivers, most notably der Regenmeister, Michael Schumacher, argued that the tyres were to blame. Pirelli substituted Bridgestone as the single-tyre provider from 2011 onwards; the softer, less durable compound required some getting-used-to as the teams redesigned their pit-stop strategies in those first races of 2012. Pirelli fought off a lot of criticism, whilst the company’s motorsport director, Paul Hembery, argued in an interview for the Formula 1 website, that an unpredictable season is what the sport was needing:
“I think what people complained about last season, if there were any complaints at all, was that the season was dominated by one team… Of course Sebastian (Vettel) had a great year, but the fans would have liked to see more competition – and that’s what we have this year.”
As the season developed, the teams learned how to use their tyre strategies to gain precious grid positions – like in the case of Sauber’s Sergio Perez, whose one-stopper race finished in second place on the podium in Monza. Even Schuey benefited from a brilliant tyre strategy in Valencia which granted him his only podium of the season.
Several times this season we were brought the shocking and – surely for some – heartbreaking image: a car suddenly stopping on track, the driver walking off with their head down…
As the teams started getting the grip of the tyres, the engines sparked worry, with different issues affecting the cars. The biggest problem seemed to have struck Red Bull, whose Renault engines on both cars experienced an alternator failure in three different races, with the most dramatic retirement taking place in Valencia, where Vettel was in the lead for a much needed second win of the still young season, before his engine powered off. The team admitted the alternator failures were a concern prior to the last – deciding – race of the season, and on the last laps in Sao Paulo Vettel’s radio kept prompting him to take it easy.
Similar story happened to Lewis Hamilton, looking strong to finish a great weekend in Abu Dhabi on a high – until his McLaren stopped suddenly on lap 19 due to a fuel pick-up issue. And that during a race, which he had dedicated to his life-long team…
McLaren experienced other technical problems this season, with the example of a comical-yet-depressing finish to the Korean Grand Prix, where Hamilton gathered astroturf on his final laps; this added to his struggle for speed coming from – as it turned out after the race – an anti-roll bar failure that caused excessive tyre wear. And this on top of some shockingly disastrous pit-stops, among record breaking fast ones.
Outside the ‘engine and similar’ issues, there was one more shocking stop that raised the Championship temperature to maximum: Vettel’s sudden post-qualifying parking on the Yas Marina circuit. Insufficient fuel level sent the Red Bull driver to the back of the grid on Sunday – just for the young German to prove his worth, finishing the race in third place nevertheless.
The 2012 season would not have been as exciting without those young guns in very fast machines. Although no one has yet been able to beat Giancarlo Baghetti’s record who shot to victory in his début Grand Prix in Syracuse in 1961, Pastor Maldonado’s win in Barcelona in his second F1 year came as a huge surprise to everyone (slightly diminished by a fire in his Williams’ garage following the race). He wasn’t able to reproduce the achievement; in fact, he retired from the next race in Monaco on the first lap having ran into Pedro de la Rosa’s HRT – and that after receiving a ten-place grid penalty for colliding with Perez in P3 and a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change.
Romain Grosejan was a different story altogether; he worked well with 2007 Champion Kimi Raikkonen: both finishing on podium several times – together or separately – and earning Lotus precious points to establish them as a serious contender for the Constructors’ title. However, the young Frenchman was also the cause of a lot of chaos on the gird: after the Spa’s first-corner crash that sent him and three other drivers (Hamilton, Alonso and Perez) out of the race, he was handed a one-race ban – a penalty that had last been received by Schumacher in 1994. Later, after being taken out by Grosjean at the start of the Japanese GP, Mark Webber called for another penalty, referring to the Lotus driver as a “first lap nutcase”. With seven similar incidents this season, the Frenchman was feared on the grid, but for all the wrong reasons. However, he always found support in his team principal, Eric Boullier – as far as to keeping his Lotus seat for 2013.
Alongside the young and inexperienced, there have been many veterans and Champions of the sport competing in 2012, all of them winning Grands Prix – all but one.
All eyes were on Michael Schumacher this season – or at least at the start, until it got clear that there was not much left of the seven-time-Champion greatness in the 43 year old driver. The third place finish in Valencia sparked some hopes for a real comeback by which the most titled driver in Formula One history could add to his record-tally. Unfortunately, that was as far as he could get and with seven retirements this season it was probably the right decision to announce the end to his career later this year.
Mark Webber looked strong at the start of the season, as he was one of three drivers to have achieved more than one win before the summer break, and for once he delivered more promising drives than the standing Champion, Vettel. However, his form faltered after the season re-started and his chances for his first ever title quickly slipped away – into the hands of his team-mate.
Lewis Hamilton was at times seeing the light at the end of the tunnel leading to a repeat of his 2008 success; however, the reliability issues on the side of his team as well as a debilitating dose of bad luck (he retired five times of no fault of his own) consistently stripped him of any hopes, leaving him just outside the Championship podium at the end of it.
Kimi Raikkonen proved that his 2007 title was not gained by chance, as he finished the season third – and as the only driver with no retirements throughout the year. His run to victory in Abu Dhabi, albeit unexpected, crowned his 2012 efforts… as well as providing a comical relief through his radio conversations with the team.
Jenson Button might have been doing it just for fun (and the money, of course) by the end of the season, conscious that he had too many retirements against too few wins for the 2012 title. However, he started and finished the season on a high – with morale boosting wins in Australia and Brazil, as well as the slightly less impressive – due to the lack of major competitors (eliminated by Grosjean) – Belgian Grand Prix.
The whole Championship, however, eventually boiled down to two Champions, both fighting for their third career title: Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel…
The Final Battle
After the summer break, the driver standings became to clarify, as consistent Fernando Alonso claimed podium after podium (13 overall in 2012), collecting points that established him as a leader of the classification. He wasn’t winning any races, however – in fact, he only won the three Grands Prix in the first half of the season; despite running his Ferrari to perfection, the car was always too slow in qualifying to grant him a comfortable winning position on the grid.
On the other hand, the bleak looking Vettel started gaining exposure from September onwards, when he finished Spa in second – like the winner Button, unaffected by the first-lap crash. Whatever magic Red Bull had worked over the summer, it was all Vettel needed to return to his Champion form – and claim four consecutive victories in Asia. After the Korean GP he was already leading the standings and Alonso was left hopelessly trying to reclaim the position.
The dramatic finale in Sao Paulo summed up the entire season: there were tears of joy from a Ferrari-re-established Felipe Massa when he climbed the third podium step in his homeland; there was grief and disappointment in the McLaren garage, when Hamilton was once more eliminated from the race after a collision with Force India’s Hulkenberg; and there was the uncertainty until the finish line of who’d be crowned Champion. With a 13 point difference between the top two, it would have taken a win from Alonso and a fourth place finish for Vettel for the Spaniard to claim the title; but the Prancing Horse could only manage this much to finish second in which case Vettel’s sixth place finish was enough to grant him 2012.
The third career title was also a record hat-trick title – claimed by the youngest driver in history. In the face of such a double-victory of their biggest opponents Ferrari contested the race result, arguing that Vettel overtook Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne under yellow flag conditions during the Brazilian GP – a move that should be penalised. After the FIA announced that no breach of regulations had taken place, Ferrari only claimed they stood as guardians to the sport’s fair-play…
So, to recap: there was drama (lots of it!) spectacular crashes, unexpected podium finishes, uncertainty surrounding the season development and a battle for points to the very end. Formula One’s 2012 made us laugh out loud and shout out in disbelief, left us shocked and breathless…
What else can deliver such an array of experiences if not a truly great season?