F1 Season Review Part 4: Late Resurgence Gives Vettel Improbable Title


The European season had been good to Mark Webber. In April, he left China 42 points behind championship leader Jenson Button, but with his two wins in Barcelona and Monaco he had risen to the top of the standings. Lewis Hamilton took the lead off him a couple of times, but Webber flew to Singapore having won four of the nine European rounds, and had a five point advantage over the 2008 champion.

Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel were lagging behind in the championship race, but they were about to raise their game and get the kind of results that they needed to take the fight to Hamilton and Webber.

Alonso came to Singapore two weeks after taking pole and the win in Monza. The momentum propelled the Spaniard to a second-consecutive pole position, whilst Vettel had to settle for second on the grid. This allowed the German to joke in the press conference that “Anything can happen [in the race]. Two years ago Fernando started fifteenth and won” – in reference to the Crash-gate scandal from 2008. Apparently Alonso, who was also in the room, didn't know where to look after this remark.

Vettel did challenge Alonso for the victory, but couldn't unsettle the Spaniard, and finished second. Webber finished a distant third and Button was fourth. Hamilton recorded a second successive retirement after being tagged whilst attempting a rather optimistic overtaking manoeuvre on Webber. Hamilton threw his steering wheel out of the car after he had pulled off the track, his frustration obvious for the world to see.

Michael Schumacher had a shocking race in Singapore, despite insisting that he was enjoying his first experience of the night race. He tangled with both Sauber drivers, and had a hand in the retirement of Nick Heidfeld. Schumacher's compatriot, who had been test driver for both Mercedes and Pirelli over the course of 2010, had been drafted into the Sauber team to replace Pedro de la Rosa for the final five races of the season. Needless to say, that wasn't the debut that he wanted.

Singapore also saw the return of another familiar face: Christian Klien. The Austrian, who had at one time driven for Red Bull, was one of the four drivers that Hispania had on their books. Sakon Yamamoto had replaced Bruno Senna at Silverstone, and then took Karun Chandhok's seat in the sister car. However, the Japanese driver was reported to have food poisoning that weekend, and so Klien replaced him for the night race. He also deputised for Yamamoto at the final two grand prix.

Well, at least it's not a hydraulic failure. Heikki Kovalainen fights his burning Lotus in Singapore

Speaking of the new teams, Lotus had been steadily narrowing the gap between themselves and the lower-ranking established teams all season, and the T127 was becoming more reliable as the season progressed.

However, Singapore was not the best result for Lotus: Jarno Trulli retired after 27 laps with a hydraulics problem and Heikki Kovalainen, although classified as finishing, retired three laps short of the full race distance after his car caught fire. He drove nearly a third of a lap with flames coming out of the back of his car – the odorous smell of the burning carbon fibre was particular intense as he drove past me at Turn 18. He eventually stopped on the pit straight as the fire began to really take hold, the Williams pit crew thoughtfully handed him a fire extinguisher, and the Finn set about dousing his own car in foam. Nobody was hurt, and the picture of Kovalainen attending to the inferno under the lights of Singapore is one of the most iconic images of 2010.

Back at the sharp end of the grid, Hamilton's DNF had caused him to slip behind Alonso in the drivers' standings for the first time since Turkey. Webber still led with 202 points but Alonso now had 191, and was closing in on the Aussie. Vettel had 181, but managed to add another 25 to his tally a fortnight later in Suzuka.

Sebastian Vettel took the pole and race win in Japan in 2009, and put in a repeat performance this year. Mark Webber completed another one-two for Red Bull, whilst Fernando Alonso took third. Vettel was 'on it' all weekend and even the rescheduling of qualifying to Sunday morning, after Saturday's session was a complete wash-out, didn't faze him.

Amid torrential rain, boat racing in the pitlane was as close as teams came to qualifying on Saturday

In contrast, Lewis Hamilton had his third difficult grand prix weekend in a row. The Brit crashed out of practice on the Friday, which lost him crucial preparation time. He was then penalised five-grid places for having his gear-box changed, and then suffered problems with that gear box during the race, and had to let his team-mate pass him in the closing stages. He finished the race fourth, one place behind Button.

Michael Schumacher responded to the criticism he received in Singapore by comprehensively out-performing team-mate Nico Rosberg in Suzuka – a track where he has won six times. The German finished best-of-the-rest in sixth place, just in front of home favourite Kamui Kobayashi who was undoubtedly one of the drivers of the day. The 24-year-old pulled off several overtaking brave overtaking manoeuvres. Nick Heidfeld finished eighth to give Sauber their best result of the season.

The double points score at Suzuka was the high point of tough season for Sauber

Lotus took advantage of the high attrition rate in this race to finish twelfth and thirteenth, all but guaranteeing that they would end the season tenth in the constructors' championship, ahead of Hispania and Virgin.

Despite failing to win any of the four previous races, Mark Webber still had a reasonably comfortable lead over Vettel and Alonso in the championship race (they were level on points in second place, and 14 behind the Aussie) and was apparently 'mathematically destined' for the title.  However, Formula 1 was now heading into the unknown, and Webber was about to make the mistake that cost him the championship.

There had been doubts over whether the inaugural Korean Grand Prix would actually take place. In Singapore, Bernie Ecclestone voiced concerns about whether the circuit would be ready in time, and the final FIA safety inspection took place later than originally planned. Luckily, Korean officials managed to get the circuit and facilities into a satisfactory state, thanks in part to workers putting seats into the grandstands overnight as the teams prepared their cars for practice and qualifying.

The weekend started well for Red Bull, with Sebastian Vettel taking his ninth pole position of the season, and Mark Webber qualifying alongside him on the front row. Alonso was third, Hamilton was fourth, but Button could only manage seventh.

Mark Webber's Red Bull tells of disappointment (and rain) after Korea

Race day was a completely different to qualifying on Saturday, in terms of both Red Bull's fortunes, and the Korean weather. Heavy rain meant that the race was suspended after just three laps, and restarted an hour later behind the safety car. The pace vehicle finally came in at the end of Lap 17, and the racing began.

However, Webber brought the safety car back out again after only two laps when he put a wheel out of place on exiting a corner, spun himself round, hit the wall on the other side of the track, and then slid back on to the tarmac, collecting Nico Rosberg. Both drivers were out of the race, and Webber lost a large amount of points an event he could potentially have won.

On Lap 46, Red Bull's day went from bad to worse when Vettel, who was comfortably leading the race, had an engine failure. This gifted the victory to Fernando Alonso, with Lewis Hamilton inheriting second place. As night fell over Korea, the fifteen survivors of the inaugural Korean Grand Prix completed their final laps, and Alonso had gone from being 14 points behind Webber to being 11 points in front of the Australian. He was now leading the championship charge with just two more races to go.

Alonso celebrates his Korean victory that put him in pole position of the title challengers

With five drivers still in contention for the title – admittedly, Button would have required a minor miracle to win it, as he was trailing Alonso by 42 points – the F1 circus headed to South America for the Brazilian Grand Prix, pausing only to wish Bernie Ecclestone a happy eightieth birthday.

The was no rain during qualifying at Interlagos, but the track was still drying from an earlier downpour, making intermediate tyres a necessity as the session got underway. It was thought that the battle for pole position would be between the two Red Bull drivers and Fernando Alonso, so it came as a great surprise when Nico Hulkenberg put his Williams at the front of the grid by setting a lap that was over a second faster than the best lap second-placed man Sebastian Vettel could manage.

Webber lets off some 'steam' from a fire extinguisher afer Red Bull clinch the Constructor's title

Hulkenberg was only eighth in the race, which ended with another one-two finish for Red Bull.  Sebastian Vettel took the win, Alonso kept his championship lead by finishing third, and Lewis Hamilton stayed in contention – but 24 points behind his former team-mate – by taking fourth.

One point of intrigue during the race was about what Red Bull would do with their drivers. Even by coming first in Brazil, Vettel was still 15 points behind Alonso in the title race. If the team had swapped their drivers', Webber would have gone to Abu Dhabi just one point behind Alonso – as it was the Aussie had an eight point deficit to overcome.

But Red Bull didn't give any order. They let events unfold naturally, without interference. Of course, they were fully exonerated by events in Abu Dhabi, but it may have been tempting to throw all of their eggs in one basket – the one labelled Mark Webber.

This fair treatment, which contrasted markedly with the approach favoured by Ferrari in Germany, signalled that both Vettel and Webber were morally more deserving of the title than Alonso.

In any case, Red Bull were now constructors' champions, something that the team celebrated loudly as they packed up all the equipment in Brazil, ready for it to make the long journey to Abu Dhabi, and the drivers' championship showdown that would take place the following weekend.

Both Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel knew that they had to rely on problems befalling both Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber if they were going to have any chance of taking the title in Abu Dhabi and so decided to go for the race win, and then just hope that the rest would fall into place.

In qualifying, Vettel took his tenth pole position of the season, and Hamilton took second. Alonso was third, Button fourth, and Webber fifth – his claim to the title now faltering.

As the race got underway, Alonso was overtaken by Button off the line, but that was just the beginning of his troubles. When Webber made an early stop for new tyres, Ferrari decided that Alonso should cover his closest title rival, and brought him in for his mandatory pit stop soon afterwards. Alonso remained ahead of Webber but, with the two drivers now languishing outside the top ten, it was Vettel who was in prime position to take the title.

The back of Vitaly Petrov's Renault - Fernando Alonso can draw this from memory

It was unfortunate for Alonso that Vitaly Petrov had made an early stop as well, and was ahead of him on the track. The Russian had had a mixed season for Renault – some flashes of talent mixed with a few too many mistakes – but drove fantastically well at Yas Marina that mid-November Sunday, keeping Alonso behind him for the entire race.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing of course, but it is clear that Alonso should have stayed out, and pitted at the same time as the front-runners. This would probably have still seen him finish ahead of Webber, and close enough to the front to prevent Vettel from taking the title.

Vettel finished the season as world champion – four points ahead of Alonso. With the top three in Abu Dhabi being Vettel, Hamilton and Button, we had a podium made up entirely of world championship – only the twelfth time that this has happened in Formula 1 history.

The three most recent champions on the historic Abu Dhabi podium

So was Vettel a deserving champion? It is hard to argue that he wasn't. He won five races – the same number as Alonso, although the Ferrari driver had to rely on Massa for one of those wins. Vettel would have won in Korea, Bahrain and probably Australia if it wasn't for technical problems. He also missed out on points in Turkey, Belgium and Hungary thanks to his own mistakes. Put simply, if Vettel had better luck with reliability, and less of a tendency to make errors, he could have won this title before F1 had left Europe.

Alonso's lean spell between Bahrain and Germany meant that he spent most of the season playing catch-up, but it looked after Brazil that he had done enough. Had he won though, he wouldn't have been a popular champion – apart from in Spain and Italy, obviously – as the result from Germany and those seven extra points continued to hang over him. To illustrate this fact, one of the contributors to this site, who is normally completely objective and impartial, tweeted throughout the season finale with the hash tag #anyonebutalonso.

Webber didn't win the title because he just wasn't fast enough in the final stages of the season. His team-mate, with the same equipment, would have won the last four races of the season if it wasn't for the engine failure in Korea, and the Aussie just couldn't compete with him. This may well have been Webber's best chance to win the championship, but that mistake in Korea leaves him to wonder what might have been.

As for Hamilton and Button, they can look back at some key races this season where they lost points, but the Red Bull was the fastest car for virtually the entire season. McLaren looked as though they could compete will their rivals on pace in Turkey and Canada, but most of their victories – including the one in Turkey – relied heavily on the Red Bull pair making mistakes or suffering with reliability. As the season wore on, the Ferrari developed more quickly than the McLaren did, and the MP4-25 was only the third-fastest car in the latter stages. However, with a decent race in Abu Dhabi, the Woking-based team should be optimistic of producing a better car in 2011.

McLaren did finish second in the constructors' championship though, easily ahead of Ferrari in third. This does not necessarily reflect the relative speeds of the two cars throughout the season, more the lack of good performances from Felipe Massa. The Brazilian looked a different driver this season from his near miss in the 2008 championship race, but will hopefully find some better form next year.

Mercedes finished the season fourth, with Nico Rosberg scoring seventy points more than seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher, which will have done Rosberg's reputation no harm at all. Schumacher's return was definitely a disappointment, but with much improved performances from Japan onwards (apart from the spin in Abu Dhabi, which resulted in a collision with Tonio Liuzzi that could have been very nasty), one hopes that next season will see a vast improvement from the German.

Michael Schumacher's comeback season was underwhelming as he struggled with the car for much of the year

Robert Kubica had a good season at Renault, out-performing his car on several occasions, helping his team to fifth place in the constructors' championship. Williams beat Force India to sixth place by just one point, with Nico Hulkenberg showing that he could compete with veteran team-mate Rubens Barrichello. Unfortunately for the German, he will not be at the team next season – GP2 champion Pastor Maldonado will take his place.

As for the new teams, Lotus Racing was easily the best. The team were constantly improving throughout the season and, with Renault engines and Red Bull gear boxes and hydraulics systems next season, the team based in Hingham, Norfolk will be worth watching – whatever name they end up with.

Virgin Racing had an embarrassing start to the season after they designed a car with a fuel tank that was too small, but they improved gradually over the season and it will be interesting to see if they can challenge the likes of Sauber and Toro Rosso next year.

Hispania, in contrast, don't seem quite as established as an F1 team. Their car saw little development during the course of the season, and the lack of consistency on the driver front suggested that money may have been tight. However, they do have a deal to use Williams gear boxes next year, so hopefully we should see some improvement, although it is difficult to predict that they will get off the back row in 2011.

In summary, the 2010 season definitely had its fair share of exciting races, stories, and controversy. It will be remembered as one of the best of recent times, and could mark the first championship of many for Vettel.

However, there is a lot to be excited about as we look ahead to next season. Pirelli replace Bridgestone, and a better Mercedes could give us another two cars that can compete for title glory. Red Bull will be looking to continue their winning streak, McLaren will be determined to produce a faster car, and Ferrari and Fernando Alonso will be angry about letting this year's title slip from their grasp.

Lights go out in Bahrain on Sunday 13th March 2011, but this site will have all the news from the off-season, including driver movements, winter testing reports, and all the build-up to the new season.

Number One: Sebastian Vettel 2010 Formula One World Champion