And so an exceptional year of F1 came to an end with an appropriately thrilling conclusion.
I said at the start of the 2012 season that with six world champions in the field whoever won the title would deserve it. That view was underlined after the first seven races were won by seven different drivers and the final round just confirmed it.
This season was a pleasure to cover; light(ish) on politics, strong on racing and on characters. I liked the ebb and flow of the year, the fact that different teams had a chance to shine, with Williams winning in Spain, Lotus in Abu Dhabi, Sauber challenging for the win in Malaysia and Force India leading in Brazil. It was a season, which showed that the cast of characters in F1 is deeper than just the leading two or three teams.
You had to feel for Fernando Alonso; he has given his all like a gladiator, but just one with a smaller sword than his opponent. Alonso was on a higher level this year than at any other time in his career. He slipped a little in qualifying later in the season, eclipsed by Felipe Massa and giving himself a lot of work to do on race day in the final few rounds.
But his starts and his race management were exceptional all year. It would be wrong to say that Ferrari didn’t develop their car, after all it was over a second off the pace in Melbourne. But they didn’t develop it enough and that began to tell in the final third of the season.
But that’s not the only reason why Alonso lost the title. He lost it because of his two non-finishes in Spa and Suzuka, where he tangled with a Lotus driver. One of these was not his fault, the other he risked a lot and lost out. Such are the fine margins.
Sebastian Vettel also had his non-finishes this year, but these were due more to reliability. Yes he had a tangle with a backmarker in Malaysia, which meant he didn’t score any points there, but his alternator failures robbed him of a win in Valencia and points in Monza, so it evens out in the end.
The Red Bull was the fastest car at times this season, notably the Asian races in October, but not the fastest car of the season. That honour goes to McLaren, it’s just that they were unable to exploit it. Lewis Hamilton should have won the 2012 world championship. His driving this year was of the highest standard, gone were the errors and anger of 2011, to be replaced by some sublime speed.
The McLaren was the fastest car at the start and end of the season and in the middle too. It was eclipsed by the Red Bull in early summer and in October, but apart from that it was the car of the year. However operational errors and reliability failings in the Autumn cost Hamilton over 100 points and his shot at the title.
Take nothing away from Sebastian Vettel’s success, he deserved it and put in several performances of which his detractors thought him incapable. I was particularly impressed with his drive in Brazil. After tangling with Bruno Senna on the opening lap (see photo at top), losing his radio and suffering confusions among his four pit stops, he still managed to hold his nerve and get the result he needed to win the title. It’s hard to overstate how tough that is mentally. He had a lot to lose on that final day of the season. It helped that Alonso didn’t have the pace to challenge for the win, but it was still a lot for Vettel to deal with and he proved himself a worthy champion.
Other talking points from the season were the crashes involving Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado. Grosjean was at it again in Brazil, trying to force his was past Pedro de la Rosa when both were on a hot lap in qualifying. Already on a final warning after his ban for the Spa pile up, he was fortunate not to be penalised by stewards for that.
He crashed on race day; a violent 9g impact, summing up his season. Kimi Raikkonen has carried the Lotus team, scoring in excess of 200 points and with a more consistent performer in the other car, Lotus might have been able to challenge Ferrari and Lotus for second and third places in the table.
Maldonado, like Grosjean, wowed us with his speed in qualifying at times this year but his race performances were also inconsistent. The Williams was one of the best cars of the year and for the team to end up down in eighth place in the standings with it is a bitter disappointment.
Perhaps in recognition of this, both Maldonado and Grosjean were still waiting for confirmation of their seats for 2013 as the F1 circus left Sao Paulo.
For 2013, with no major rule change from this year, I expect the McLarens to start and continue strongly, but I wonder if the drivers will be able to qualify strongly enough and consistently enough to mount a title challenge.
Red Bull must be favourites again with Vettel, but with the effort they put in takes a lot out of the race team, especially the mechanics, who were exhausted after another punishing year of late nights. Adrian Newey cars are very fast, but also complex to work on and the risk for Red Bull is motivation and fatigue. This is what Christian Horner and his management group must guard against.
Meanwhile Ferrari and Alonso should challenge again, but cannot afford to produce another car, which misses the mark. Motivation is high at Ferrari, but the inspiration is lacking and this will be a very high-pressure winter in the technical department at Maranello.
And what of Lotus and Mercedes? Lotus built a good car in 2012 and Kimi Raikkonen did a wonderful job with it, can they raise their game to win consistently? Team boss Eric Boullier signed off yesterday saying that Lotus goal in 2013 is “fighting for podiums”, nothing more.
And can Mercedes produce a car for Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg to get regular wins? All the pieces are in place now, but the worrying lack of progress on fundamental issues like tyre wear in 2012 raise doubts. The engineers know that with Hamilton in the car they will be shown up if they don’t come up with something special.
Winter is coming on, but Like Maranello, the technical department in Brackley will be feeling the heat.
* The season may be over but we will have a steady stream of great new content throughout the winter, to prevent you from getting withdrawal symptoms.
And don’t forget to order your copy of our book, looking back on the 2012 season – JA on F1 2012 – The Year of Living Dangerously is published on December 7th priced at £10.99; its a 256 page large format paperback with stunning Darren Heath images and signed copies are available to order by clicking this link http://shop.jamesallenonf1.com/Info/Book.html