With less than 100 days to go until the 2013 F1 season, it is time to make sense on the extraordinary season that has just passed us by. The 2012 Formula One season will forever be remembered as the year that Sebastian Vettel made history by becoming the youngest triple world champion ever, whilst Red Bull became only the second team ever to win back to back to back constructors’ titles and drivers’ titles with the same driver (after Ferrari with Michael Schumacher a decade ago).
But with the dust only having just settled on a thrilling season-closing Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos, most Formula One fans are remembering the season not as yet another chapter in the Sebastian Vettel dominance era, but rather how it was, a breathtaking topsy-turvy season full of surprises. The history books may point to 2012 being no different to any other year so far this decade in terms of an overall winning team and driver combination, but the reality is that no one really knew who would be champion until the very last race in the longest season ever. This was thanks partly to a record-breaking seven winners from the first seven races scenario, and partly thanks to McLaren failing to capitalise on often having the fastest car whilst Fernando Alonso and Ferrari took opportunities despite having the third best car and managed to lead the drivers’ championship for much of the year.
Because Fernando Alonso came into the season closing Brazilian Grand Prix as the underdog (and of course the world loves an underdog) he was the fans’ favourite for the title. Since his back to back titles with Renault in 2005 and 2006, the Spaniard has had an up and down time of it, both in terms of points and popularity. For sure, he will always be loved in his home country of Spain, where he transformed the success of the sport, but for the neutral fan he has sometimes been a bit of a love to hate villain – 2012 changed all that. In 2007, his controversial and acrimonious season alongside Lewis Hamiton at McLaren often made him look a bit churlish, especially to the British fan and media when he ignored the team during the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend that year. In 2008, he managed to win the Singapore and Japanese Grands Prix in a struggling Renault (the team he returned to after falling out with Ron Dennis and McLaren the previous year) – only for it to come out a year later that his team mate Nelsinho Piquet had deliberately crashed at turn 15 in Singapore, prompting a safety car which enabled Alonso’s victory.
In 2010, he moved to Ferrari, the team he had always wanted to drive for, and was instantly loved by the team and the de facto number one driver over Felipe Massa, the Brazilian recovering from his life threatening accident at Budapest in 2009, when part of Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn GP car had come off and struck his helmet in a freak accident. 2010 was so near yet so far for Alonso – he managed to overturn a large mid season points deficit to his advantage and went into the final round at Abu Dhabi poised to take the title. All he had to do was finish ahead of Mark Webber, which he did, but Ferrari made a costly mistake in doing so. They brought their man in early to cover Mark Webber and made two false assumptions in the process. The first was that the new tyres would match the pace of those on the other compound (they didn’t) and the second was that the leaders ahead would also stop soon. As a result, Alonso ended up stuck behind Vitaly Petrov’s Renault for most of the race, languishing down in the bottom half of the top ten whilst Sebastian Vettel cruised to victory and his first world championship. Make no mistake, that strategy failure hurt the Scuderia badly. Indeed, at his annual Ferrari address following the 2011 season over twelve months later, Ferrari president Luca di Montezemelo spoke of the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix having psychological impacts on the team which prevented it succeeding in stopping the Red Bull/Sebastian Vettel domination of 2011.
And so to 2012. Just like 2010, Fernando came so close to his dream which meant so much to him of beating the late great Ayrton Senna becoming the youngest ever triple world champion – something he can now never achieve as Sebastian Vettel has beaten him to it. And yet Alonso described this season as his best, and few would disagree with that. The difference between now and in 2005/2006 is that Alonso valiantly fought with what was far from the best car to be within three points of the title at the final race.Who cares if in a normal season when Red Bull or McLaren ahd got their act together earlier and started dominating, Ferrari would have been well out of it? Formula One is about taking opportunities and making the best out of what you have got – pushing the limit of the tools available. That is what Fernando Alonso did, and that is why he is one of the all time greats of the sport.
The Ferrari F2012 was far from a bad car as such – the first four races of the year aside, it generally had the pace to challenge for podiums at most races. It was two seconds off the pace, according to Alonso, at the pre season test at Jerez and Ferrari did extremely well to salvage a victory in only the second race of the year. Alonso held off a great effort from Sauber’s rising star Sergio Perez (who joins Jenson Button at McLaren next season, replacing the Mercedes bound Lewis Hamilton) to win the Malaysian Grand Prix in torrid conditions. Had it been dry, Ferrari would have been nowhere, but it was a fantastic result for the team who had expected to struggle.
Despite winning the Malaysian Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso could only manage a fifth, a seventh and a ninth in the other races of the opening quartet of the season and the car struggled to reach the top ten. He really was extracting the maximum performance possible out of the machine. A good indicator of pace is to see which team set the outright fastest lap of a Grand Prix weekend and Ferrari managed that only once in 2012 at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in the third free practice session. Had conditions been dry, it is highly likely that Sebastian Vettel would have been faster than Alonso in that session anyway. In short, the Ferrari simply did not have the raw pace all year, making Alonso’s charge to being within three points of the title by the end of the season all the more remarkable.
It was a battle all season, really. Just to get the second place required to keep his championship hopes alive at the season-closing Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos was a long hard slog. After the first four races, Fernando was only ten points adrift of the championship lead and Ferrari’s upgrade package which ran from the Mugello test in the first week of May to the Canadian Grand Prix in mid-June seemed to do the job. The team’s “hang in there” approach never really went away though and it was only through gritty determination and consistency that Alonso rose to the top of the standings. Consistency was key during a record-breaking start to the season that saw seven different winners from seven different races, and the Spaniard was the most consistent driver during that time. His brilliant win from eleventh on the grid in the European Grand Prix at Valencia (albeit helped considerably by Vettel’s alternator failure whilst leading) set him up to have a 40 point lead in the championship at the midpoint of the year.
A second place at Silverstone followed by a victory from the front of the grid in Hockenheim at the German Grand Prix made him title favourite with half the season still to play out. But still, this was only due to inconsistency from Red Bull and McLaren, Alonso getting the best out of not the best car and a certain amount of luck. Just like race day in Kuala Lumpur at the Malaysian Grand Prix in March, had it not rained in qualifying at Silverstone and Hockenheim, Alonso would not have scored anything like as many points those weekends.
The second half of the year began with a renewed competitiveness from the Lotus team, who had threatened for victories all year but thus far not prevailed. Their pace meant that the Ferrari was now, at best, only the fourth quickest car out there. Alonso salvaged fifth at the Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest, but at that stage it looked like there was still an awful lot to be done if Ferrari were to claim their first drivers’ title since Kimi Raikkonen’s shock title run in in 2007.
At the Belgian Grand Prix at the end of August in the magnificent Ardennes forest at Spa Francorchamps, Romain Grosjean caused a first corner crash which would see him receive a one race ban. This came only a week after I had written a blog on this website declaring Romain as the best comeback driver of 2012, ahead of Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher! The title ramifications of that melee at the La Source corner were significant. Alonso was wiped out on the spot and in the next race in Italy he had rear anti-rollbar problems in qualifying. Ferrari’s new low-downforce package was strong, though, and Fernando rose to third in the race, maintaining a 37 point championship lead. The points lost in those two races, though, could have won him the championship in hindsight…
At this point, both McLaren and Red Bull, and indeed Lotus, only needed to hit form and start dominating and it was felt that Alonso’s lead could be eradicated fairly swiftly. McLaren had won three races on the trot in Hungary, Belgium and Italy, and Lewis Hamilton looked formidable as he cruised to a healthy lead in Singapore. His gearbox failure handed Vettel victory and this was to be the start of Alonso’s undoing. Ferrari had issues with rear end airflow and its DRS system, meaning the car would struggle in qualifying but be stronger in the race. Red Bull, however, were very strong in qualifying by this point in the season and as Sebastian Vettel proved, controlling a race from the front (as Alonso had at Hockenheim in late July) is much easier than fighting your way through from seventh or eighth on the grid.
Before Singapore, Vettel had only won one Grand Prix, in stark contrast to his dominant 2011 season. At that stage Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton had won three races each, Jenson Button and Mark Webber had won two each, and Nico Rosberg, Sebastian Vettel, Pastor Maldonado, had won one each. In the next four Grands Prix at Singapore, Japan, Korea and India, Vettel was victorious in all four, swiftly becoming the most winning driver of the season on five wins. Alonso did his best and finished on the podium in three of those races, but the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka in October was by far his worst weekend of the season. At the first corner, he squeezed Kimi Raikkonen and ended up crashing out in an incident that was only his fault. That day, the championship lead Alonso held over Vettel crashed down from 29 points to a measly four. Was the pressure getting to the Spaniard, now that Red Bull had found form and looked set to wipe away his lead? Or did he just react from a movement from Button alongside him? Either way, that mistake at Suzuka was surely the biggest turning point in this year’s championship.
It wasn’t over yet, though. Vettel was sent to the back of the grid in Abu Dhabi and Alonso managed to finish second to Kimi Raikkonen, who took his first win for the Lotus team. Vettel drove brilliantly to come through to third, however, and join Fernando on the podium. At the penultimate race of the season, the first ever American Grand Prix to be held in Austin, Ferrari cleverly (some would say sneakily and unsportingly) deliberately broke the seal on Felipe Massa’s gearbox, triggering a five place grid penalty for the Brazilian, allowing Alonso to jump ahead of his team mate on the grid onto the clean side of the grid. It was clear that being on the clean side of the track at Austin gave a huge advantage off the startline and this was actually a very clever move by Ferrari as it also meant that Massa would start on the clean side too. Ferrari were careful to wait until the very last minute to do this in case Red Bull reacted by pulling the same trick on Webber’s gearbox, which would have forced Alonso back onto the dirty side of the track. Whatever you think of these tactics by Ferrari, at least they were honest and did not patronise the fans by pretending there really was an issue with Massa’ gearbox. It all meant that the title would go down to the wire in Brazil – the longest season ever still wasn’t decided and a final race showdown at Interlagos was on…