Following on from last weeks post on why Vettel deserved to be 2012 F1 Champion
All week in the build up to the championship deciding Brazilian Grand Prix in Interlagos, the rain forecasts ebbed and flowed. It was going to be dry all weekend, then there was rain forecast at some point, then it was to be wet all day Saturday and dry Sunday, and then that prediction was reversed. It just served to add to the drama and tension in the run up to the weekend that would decide if Sebastien Vettel or Fernando Alonso would be crowned champion of one of the most unpredictable and thrilling seasons in years.
Vettel was the favourite, 13 points clear in the title race and with the fastest car. On a dry, straightforward day, he would surely sweep to his third straight crown, becoming the youngest triple world champion in history and completing a “triple double” for him and the Red Bull team in both championships, which only Michael Schumacher and Ferrari had done before. Should Alonso win, though, he would become the youngest ever triple world champion, something he wanted desperately, especially after a season in which he performed better than he did even in his title winning years. Alonso had a habit in 2012 of outperforming what the car seemed capable of, and his incredible underdog performance that somehow left him still in the title hunt after nineteen races made him the fans’ favourite, if not the bookies’ favourite.
Alonso’s chances suffered another blow in qualifying, when he ended up three places behind hid championship rival on the grid. All morning, the tension built even further as the engines were switched on and off in the garages and the samba drums beat from the Interlagos grandstands, the gladiatorial old school circuit the perfect venue for title showdowns. Still, the weather seemed unsure of what it was going to do, and the cars started the race on dry tyres. What was about to happen would be one of the most dramatic and enthralling Grands Prix of all time, with the pendulum swinging violently back and forth between the two contenders all afternoon…
There were many permutations as to how Alonso could win the championship, all fairly unlikely on an ordinary day. But this was no ordinary day. If Alonso finished in the top three, with Vettel outside the top nine, the Spaniard would be champion. Incredibly, it only took until the end of the first lap for him to get himself into this position. Whilst Lewis Hamilton led away, the two Red Bulls squeezed each other into turn on, and Vettel played it cautious so as not to risk losing his front wing, and lost out to Mark Webber, Alonso and Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India. Both Ferraris had made astonishing starts, Felipe Massa passing Jenson Button for second at the first corner, whilst Alonso passed Hulkenberg and went three abreast with the two Red Bulls. After the Senna “S” corners, the pack concertinad into turn four, and as Vettel braked, Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus speared off stage right in avoidance. Vettel turned into turn four and chopped across Paul di Resta’s Force India, not realising that Bruno Senna’s Williams was the other side of Paul. The pair collided and Senna was out on the spot, whilst Vettel was stuck facing backwards as the field streamed past him. He was lucky that nobody smashed into him except Sergio Perez in the Sauber, who clipped the Red Bull and was also out of the race. Vettel had to stay calm and pray the damage on his car was not terminal, although chances were it probably was, seeing as the two other cars involved were now retirees. The left hand rear bodywork around the exhaust had taken a mighty pummeling. Downforce was lost at the back and the damage could lead to the exhaust braking and the bodywork catching fire – instant retirement. The German was also plum last and the title seemed to be slipping through his fingers. Vettel was instructed to change the engine mapping, giving a richer mixture to minimise the exhaust temperatures.
Meanwhile, Button had crowded Massa and compromised his line, allowing Jenson to pass him at the next corner – a brilliant piece of driving from the Briton. Webber then tried to pass Massa down the main straight, only for the Brazilian to hold him out wide and let the slipstreaming Alonso through for third place. Unbelievably, Fernando was now on course to win the championship by two points from Vettel, now down in 20th, and it was only the end of lap one. Clearly, this was going to be a somewhat sensational afternoon, but it had only just begun.
Webber managed to get past Massa a couple of corners later but their squabbling allowed Hulkenberg through at Descida do Lago, the German’s car and driving abilities in cool, mildly damp conditions working together perfectly. Soon, the Hulk was all over Alonso for third, and threatened to give the crown back to Vettel. Conditions were tricky, claiming the second Williams of Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjean, whilst Vettel proved why he was a double world champion, surging from 22nd and last at the end of lap one, to 20th the next lap, 18th the next lap, 16th the next lap, and 13th the next. Fernando, meanwhile, did not have the pace to keep up with the McLarens running off in the distance. Button seemed to have a better mastery of the current conditions and was all over Lewis for the lead, as the drizzle began. At the start of lap five, Alonso ran wide when his front right tyre locked up, meaning his right rear tyre left the dry groove and that in turn locked up. He braked and steered alternately but ended up cutting across the run off at turn one, allowing Hulkenberg through for a crucial third. Vettel was now in position to win the championship by one point. Vettel technically was nearly always in position to take the title for the remainder of the race, but thanks to the conditions, ever changing running order of the pack, and doubts over whether his car would survive, it never felt secure in what Red Bull team boss Christian Horner later described as the most nerve wracking race of his career.
Webber was all over Alonso after his off, too, only for Massa to get mast Webber and provide Alonso his tail-gunner. Webber was hit by Kamui Kobayashi’s Sauber soon after and dropped back many places. The McLarens swapped positions three times up front, Jenson eventually prevailing in the slippy conditions. Button pulled away and turned down the instruction from the team to come in to change to intermediate tyres. Hamilton, who had lost a second to Button on the previous lap, did come in but was delayed in the pits by trouble with the right rear. Alonso and Vettel also pitted – apparently Red Bull were not simply covering whatever Ferrari did, although it seemed that way at the time. Button then called in to say that it had stopped raining and he was staying out, whilst Hulkenberg made the same call. They had a big lead over the drivers on inters and despite being three seconds a lap slower, initially, a dry line was soon re-emerging. The net lead was 20 seconds – Massa was the only other front runner not to have pitted, but his tyres had faded by now, and pitted after being passed by inters-shod Hamilton. Lewis was third ahead of Alonso, Kobayashi and Vettel, who had been allowed past by Webber after a team radio instruction to the Australian. Vettel then passed Kobayashi, but under yellow flags! Hence a whole lot of controvery post-race which could have swung the title back Alonso’s way, but in the end under closer inspection it was shown that Vettel had made the apss outside the yellow flag zone after all. There are YouTube videos explaining it in further detail if you are interested.
Hulkenberg was flying and cut down the three second gap to Button, before taking the lead on lap 19. Hamilton and Alonso pitted to lose the dry tyres at the end of lap 18, and the rest of the field followed suit the next lap. Hamilton, best of the rest, was now 45 seconds behind the leaders thanks to those two extra stops. Alonso cleverly radioed the team saying “there is a lot of debris out here on the track”, a message he knew would be received by race director Charlie Whiting. Alonso was hoping for a safety car which would wipe out the deficit to those ahead of him. The next lap, though, Rosberg got a puncture from the debris and the safety car was out. The two leaders pitted for fresh tyres and there lead was eradicated. At the restart, Hulkenberg got away beautifully whilst Kobayashi passed Vettel for sixth. The recovering Webber tried to make it three abreast but ran wide and dropped back again. Vettel’s car was clearly more compromised in the dry, whilst Button was struggling too with graining tyres. Hamilton got past but even he struggled to catch up with the flying Hulkenberg.
Massa had made progress due to the safety car, di Resta having an off, Vettel struggling and letting him by, and a nice move by the Brazilian on Kobayashi. He was now back behind Alonso as his rear gunner. The drizzle returned and leader Hulkenberg got a wheel on the white line and half spun, allowing Hamilton through into the lead. Vettel’s tyre degradation was bad by now and his team radio wasn’t working. He pitted and gambled on dry tyres, but the rain seemed to be getting heavier as he left the pits. Was it not to be his day after all?
Hulkenberg re-caught Hamilton and made a move going into turn one, whilst Heikki Kovaleinen and Timo Glock battled ahead. Hulkenberg’s right rear slipped on a wet patch, and he crashed into Hamilton, who had nowhere to go thanks to Kovaleinen’s Caterham in front. The Force India bounced into the air briefly and Hamilton was out of the race, in a sad but typically controversial end to his McLaren career. Button assumed the lead whilst the Hulk resumed in second but had to serve a drive through penalty for the incident. He would emerge fifth behind Alonso, Massa and the irrepressible Webber.
On lap 55, Vettel was struggling on dry tyres so pitted for inters. But the team had no idea he was coming in thanks to the pit radio failure, so the tyres were not ready. The stop took forever and he was briefly down to tenth, which was not enough for the title – this was swinging back Alonso’s way. Button, the Ferraris, Webber and Hulkenberg all had smooth stops, but Kobayashi in sixth spun on his in lap and found the wrong tyres waiting for him at his stop. Vettel was soon back up to seventh and on course for the title. Michael Schumacher’s final race saw him make good tyre calls and use his wet weather driving skills to pass Kimi Raikkonen and hold off a late charge from Kobayashi, who spun to ninth. Michael allowed Vettel through for sixth with eight laps to go. Massa had been driving fantastically well all day, looking much more like a 2008 spec Felipe. He pitted a lap before Alonso and ended up ahead, but graciously allowed his team mate through for second afterwards. It was properly wet and misty by now and all the drivers were challenged by the conditions, with both championship contenders making great saves. With two laps to go, Button nearly lost it and hit the wall but crucially recovered the slide and held on. Had he crashed, Alonso would have won the race and been champion, with Vettel in a not-good-enough fifth. It was that unpredictable all the way to the finish. Two laps later, di Resta hit the same puddle Button hit and ploughed into the barriers, meaning the longest ever season would finish behind the safety car. As Christian Horner shouted his congratulations to his triple champion over the radio he started to reel off the names he’d emulated: Fangio, Brabham, Stewart, Lauda, Piquet, Senna, Schumacher… “You forgot Prost,” said the ever-alert and keen student of the sport’s history. Horner of course couldn’t hear him thanks to the team radio failure.
And so to the whole point of this blog – why did Sebastien Vettel deserve to be champion this year? For the final third of the season, when Red Bull got its double DRS working nicely in the setup it had introduced at Valencia in June, Vettel was imperious in the best car. Alonso, meanwhile, made the best of a not so good car in a gritty campaign that led team bosses and fellow drivers to rate him as the best driver of the year. Lewis Hamilton was back to his best after the turmoils of his 2011 season and arguably deserved the title more than Vettel – he would surely have taken his second championship had the McLaren been more reliable.
But to take this viewpoint is to overlook the way that Vettel grabbed his opportunities and produced performances reminiscent of his record breaking dominant 2011 campaign. He was also calm and methodical under pressure and, let us remember, is still maturing into a wonderfully rounded and disciplined driver. Take the Brazilian race for example. Half a lap into the race he was right at the back of the field with a mountain to climb in a car that for all he knew could be terminally damaged. Did he let the pressure get to him? Absolutely not. He got past Charles Pic and Pedro de la Rosa on lap three, Timo Glock and Jean-Eric Vergne on lap four, and Heikki Kovalainen on lap five. Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher also pitted on that lap, so the German was already up to 13th.
Then on lap six he took Vitaly Petrov and passed the crashed Romain Grosjean to go 11th. On the next one he moved ahead of a spinning Mark Webber, and also took Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Rosberg. Vettel thus crossed the line at the end of the seventh lap in seventh place, and less than 13 seconds off the leader. Just in the way he had steadily taken each race as it came to win the title in 2010 against all odds, Seb was picking off the cars ahead with ruthless dedication and was back in position to be 2012 champion. He was also gaining overall on leader Hamilton at this stage, despite having to negotiate the cars he was passing. He also took di Resta before pitting for inters with Alonso, but perhaps should have stayed out like Button and Hulkenberg. Staying out should have been fine given his scintillating pace in the damp and would have left him clearly in third, but as it was he briefly dropped to 17th. Now he had to start passing again, getting by Webber and Raikkonen on lap 12, and Rosberg and de La Rosa on lap 13. Next time around Glock and Petrov pitted, and he slipped past Kovalainen to get into eighth, and solidly back in the points, and then on lap 15 Massa and Vergne came in and Seb jumped up to sixth. He then took Kamui Kobayashi to go fifth – putting himself behind Alonso.
So in the course of 16 laps Seb had gone 22nd to sixth to 17th to fifth, and there was plenty more to come… After the next round of stops Seb was still right behind Alonso. This was when the safety car came out and Kobayashi jumped Vettel at the restart. Massa also jumped him soon after, and whilst seventh place was good enough for the title with Alonso fourth, things were not going great for the German and the pressure was on. He kept his head despite losing pit radio and struggling with tyre degredation more than most. Seb surprised the team by coming in for dry tyres (hence the stop was slow) but of course this is when it began raining again and Vettel was tested even further. He was tenth and not on course for the tile, which had been fine if all had gone to plan and others further up the road had pitted too, but the weather gods had changed their minds again.
However the rain never got beyond light drizzle and the stop didn’t cost him a position, in fact he gained one from Hamilton’s simultaneous retirement, resuming in 10th. He then passed Kobayashi on lap 56, gained another spot when Vergne pitted on lap 57, and another when di Resta came in on lap 57. He was seventh and on course for the title. He showed enormous grit and determination to keep it on the road, a true champion’s drive. Schumacher let him through for sixth and Seb had brilliantly done all that was needed of him, getting himself back into position yet again! It had been exactly the same story two races earlier at Abu Dhabi, when he recovered from a pitlane start to finish third behind Alonso. On that day he displayed incredible optimism and opportunism. He had wanted the championship so badly, and after the longest of seasons he had earned it the hard way. In a season like this, you have to fight to be champion, and Vettel truly fought like a warrior.
It was a tweet from Sebastian Vettel’s systems engineer Tom Batch as he landed back at Heathrow on Tuesday that summed things up perfectly: “Back in the freeeeezing UK! Apparently Alonso deserved to win the WC. No one deserves it you have to go out and make it happen #workharder.” Red Bull went out there, came back from a difficult start to the campaign, and made it happen.
It might have warmed our hearts if Alonso the underdog had triumphed against the odds in Brazil, but were his efforts any more worthy than those of the Red Bull staff who turned the RB8 into a dominant machine? Did he drive any better than the way Vettel capitalised on opportunities to overhaul a 40-point deficit after the summer break? Were Alonso’s victories against the odds any greater than the way Vettel kept his head and came back from near disaster in Abu Dhabi and Brazil? Even after the Italian Grand Prix in mid September, Seb was the underdog by a long way. After Monza, Vettel was fourth in the world championship, 39 points behind Alonso with both Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton between him and the leader. This is not to take anything away from the great job that Alonso did this year – for he was sensational in 2012. But Vettel and Red Bull went out there and did it, and that is ultimately what it is all about.
Remarkably, Vettel is the first Formula 1 world champion whose title success doesn’t count at least one win in the European races: he won in Bahrain, and then, after the European rounds were over, in Singapore, Japan, Korea and India. There were errors along the way of course, but 2012 was very much about damage limitation and consistency in a year where we had no idea who the title contenders were until very late on. With hindsight therefore, it is fascinating to look back at days where points were gained and lost between Vettel and Alonso. In Monaco, for instance, Seb recovered from a poor qualifying to finish fourth and only lose three points to Fernando. Days like the Canadian Grand Prix now seem important, too. While Alonso stayed out as the tyres faded in the closing stages in Montreal, Vettel pitted and had the advantage of completing the last seven laps on fresh rubber. It was more than enough for him to get ahead of Alonso, passing him for fourth with two laps to go. On the day, it didn’t seem that significant, but in the context of the world championship fight, that decision equalled a four-point swing in Vettel’s favour over his title rival. Small decisions and determined drives like that make Vettel a worthy champion.