Now that there has been time for the dust to settle (or should that be for the rain to stop?), it seems like it is a good time to look back at the 2012 Formula One season in detail. This year we saw Formula One like never before – the statistics say it alone.
Eight different winners, seven from the first seven races for five different teams – a record breaking start. There were numerous more new faces visiting the podium for the first time, or making a return after a long absence.
We had one legend of the sport returning and looking like he’d never been away, whilst another tried desperately to rekindle the glory days one last time. Youngsters showed their inexperience at times, one in particular came dangerously close to causing a very serious accident. Elsewhere, the sport made as many headlines for its controversial decision to race at Bahrain as it did for the fantastic racing – but on the whole, fortunately, it was a mainly controversy-free season.
But where to start on this look back at the year?
Pre-season testing gave us more questions than answers. Most people agreed that McLaren looked the fastest, but what had happened to Red Bull? Were they sand-bagging, or had they lost pace? What about Lotus and Mercedes? Could they be championship contenders? Certainly their time-topping performances were eye-catching, but then as everyone agreed, you couldn’t read anything into pre-season testing.
But what about Ferrari? Everyone agreed that the oldest and most prestigious team on the grid were struggling. Not only was their car slow, but it was unreliable too, making some people to suggest they’d struggle to get either car into the points at Melbourne. The Prancing Horse had appeared to have gone lame, and already the Italian press were demanding an inquiry. There was talk of high ranking staff even being sacked.
How surprising it was then, a week after the Australian Grand Prix where Fernando Alonso had been one and a half seconds off pole position for the Spaniard to win the race in Malaysia. As expected, the McLarens and Red Bulls were the cars to beat at Australia with Jenson Button claiming victory (“Welcome to 2009″ he proclaimed over the team radio), with the Lotus and Mercedes cars having enough pace in qualifying at least to cause them some worry.
Granted, Malaysia was rain affected – but still, given how everyone had written their chances off, nobody, probably not even Ferrari’s most loyal supporters, could have predicted this. Even less predictable was who had been chasing Alonso for the whole race, and had it not been for a small error only a few laps from the checkered flag, probably should have won.
Sergio Perez was brilliant – an early switch to intermediate tyres paying dividends and from that point on he was a contender for victory. His shock result immediately got the rumour mill going into overdrive – Massa had retired from Melbourne and finished over a minute behind Alonso in Malaysia and appeared to be struggling. The press linked Perez, a Ferrari backed driver, to Massa’s seat possibly before the season was over, even though it had just begun.
The championship moved on to China, and the next big surprise of the year. For the first time in three seasons, Mercedes were genuinely competitive, leading Nico Rosberg to claim the first pole of his career. He took a dominant victory, whilst behind there was a clear example of the challenges that the Pirelli tyres were creating for teams.
With only a few laps to go, Kimi Raikkonen had been in second place, having made one less pit stop than anyone else. But his tyres dropped off ‘the cliff’, and just like that, he was down to fourteenth. Fans couldn’t believe what they were watching.
Things would then take a rather more sinister turn for Formula One. During the Chinese Grand Prix, it was confirmed that the sport would indeed return to Bahrain, despite the race having been cancelled due to unrest in the country a year earlier, and nothing seemingly having changed in twelve months.
Formula One’s morals and ethics were questioned like never before as it made headline news around the world. Politicians and human rights organisations condemned F1 for its decision, and the sport was perilously close to being turned into a game of political ping-pong.
Bernie Ecclestone remained defiant, and thankfully for him, the weekend passed without any major incidents. On track, reigning double champion Sebastian Vettel held off Kimi Raikkonen for his first win of the year – but afterwards fans, the media and team members alike were left asking one question: was it worth it?
The sport returned to its natural home ground of Europe for the next race in Spain, and yet another surprise. After Hamilton was sent to the back of the grid for a fuel irregularity (relevant for what was to come) Pastor Maldonado took a shock pole position for Williams. Maldonado had only scored one point last year, and was now looking for his first win.
Despite losing the lead to home favourite Alonso at the start and coming under huge pressure from him again towards the end of the race, Maldonado took a shock victory – Williams’ first in eight years. People questioned what they were seeing – surely this had to be scripted, didn’t it?
The unlikely celebration was cut short though. An explosion and then a huge fire began in Williams’ garage, which lead to incredible scenes as every team on the grid pitched in to tackle the scary scene, with little regard for their own safety. Pictures emerged of camera men even helping mechanics away from the flames, whilst the victor had his cousin on his shoulders (his foot in a cast) leading him away through the acrid smoke. After the unpleasant media attention F1 had been given over Bahrain, this was a perfect answer. This was what Formula One was really about.
On to Monaco, and the jewel in the crown of the World Championship. What lay in wait here?
Michael Schumacher’s response to his critics. At Barcelona he’d clumsily rear-ended Bruno Senna, giving people to once more ask whether he was “too old” and “past it”. Schumacher responded in the only way he knows: a pole position.
For many people, it didn’t matter that he had a grid penalty from the Senna collision – people were delighted to see the master showing what he could do once more. And it wasn’t totally unexpected – he’d qualified strongly in Australia, Malaysia and China, and on all three occasions had his race ruined by a car failure or someone running into him.
But Monaco would come to sum up Schumacher’s whole come back – a question of what if. If he hadn’t hit Senna at Barcelona, he wouldn’t have had a grid penalty, and given the lack of overtaking chances at Monaco, could quite possibly have won the race. As it was he started sixth, was hit on the first lap, and retired later on because of another mechanical problem.
Mark Webber capitalised on Schumacher’s penalty to take pole, and duly claimed his second win on the streets of Monaco, despite having Rosberg, Alonso, Vettel, Hamilton and Massa right behind him, with rain beginning to fall in the last few laps. The result also meant a new record – six different winners in the first six races was unprecedented in F1, and people wondered who could be next.
Answer: Lewis Hamilton.
The Brit has always gone well at Montreal – it was where he won his very first F1 race back in 2007. But he has the difficult record of either winning or crashing out at the circuit, and after doing exactly that in 2011, was determined to win again.
An inspired strategy call and some brilliant racing by Lewis meant he became the seventh different winner in a race where he never looked like he’d be beaten. The rest of the podium was less certain however, with Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez completing an all-GP2 graduates podium for the first time ever.
Surely this run of winners wouldn’t continue, and so it proved to be at Valencia in one of the best races of an incident packed year.
From eleventh on the grid, Fernando Alonso caused yet another surprise as he claimed his second victory of the year in circumstances that looked impossible before the weekend began.
It was a race packed with incident – race win candidates Vettel and Grosjean retiring through alternator failure – Maldonado and Hamilton clashing whilst fighting over third place – resulting in Schumacher’s first podium since his comeback with three champions (Alonso, Raikkonen and Schumacher) completing the top three. And that’s before you talk about the frantic and somewhat chaotic action further down the pack!
And so, Alonso took the championship lead, something he would retain for most the year. How unlikely that seemed at pre-season testing…it was almost a Brawn like scenario all over again.
The British Grand Prix resulted with the second double winner of the year – but it was so nearly the first triple winner.
The vast majority of the weekend was affected by rain – which caused its own logistical problems off-track for the organisers. Fans were turned away on Saturday as car parks turned into mud baths, but on circuit we were treated to a thrilling qualifying session that was interrupted by a lengthy red flag due to the conditions. After surviving a moment that almost saw him in the wall, Alonso claimed pole position with Webber second and Schumacher third.
Despite all the predictions, race day was dry – but thankfully the action wasn’t! Tyre strategy once again decided the outcome of the race, as Ferrari and Red Bull went separate ways. Alonso lead for most the race, but was overcome by Webber only a few laps from the end for the Australian to take his second win of the year, and his second at the British Grand Prix, with Vettel in third.
Rain during qualifying for the German Grand Prix meant Alonso and Ferrari were once again able to show why they were the strongest wet weather partnership of the year and claimed another pole, with Vettel second and Webber third.
The rain stayed away for the race again however, and despite many believing the Ferrari was still not the best car, Alonso was able to cling on to victory in a chess match of a Grand Prix. Button and Vettel constantly shadowed Alonso, but could never get quite close enough to challenge. There was controversy at the end of the race, as Vettel attempted to pass Button for second, and completed the overtake off track.
The stewards would penalise Vettel after the race, demoting him to fifth, and Raikkonen being promoted to third. Was that a potential championship changing penalty? With Alonso now more than forty points in the lead with ten races gone, it looked like it.
Alonso had three victories, with Webber on two and Vettel just the one. What had happened to the wunderkid after his all-conquering season in 2011? The truth was, he was still adapting the Red Bull RB8 to his liking, and would only truly hit his stride in the second half of the year.