The 2010 Formula 1 season will be remembered as one of the most competitive and exciting in living memory. Six drivers led the championship at various stages in the season, but it was Sebastian Vettel who led it when it mattered – after the final race.
This is the first of four articles looking back over the season, telling the story of this extraordinary championship, recalling incidents up and down the grid, and recognising where it went right for Vettel, and so wrong for his competitors.
As a prologue to our story, think back to last winter. The off-season was producing some fascinating news, like the surprise story of world champion Jenson Button leaving Brawn GP and heading to McLaren to partner Lewis Hamilton. Mercedes brought Button's old team and got seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher to return from retirement and reunited with Ross Brawn and the German car giant that funded his early years of motorsport.
Coupled with these gems were stories about the new teams. USF1 were heading nowhere, Campos Meta's bid to join the grid was also faltering, but the team found new investment and were rebranded Hispania. The new Virgin Racing team was attempting to design and build a car without using a wind tunnel, instead relying on CFD. There was also the return of the Lotus name to Formula 1, albeit as a new Anglo-Asian team who had brought the rights to the evocative name. Peter Sauber brought his old team back from BMW, and Renault had new owners.
And there were new regulations. KERS had gone, as had refuelling. The much-loved Canadian Grand Prix was back on the calendar, and there was also a trip to Korea in late October to look forward to. Fernando Alonso was in a Ferrari, Bernie Ecclestone predicted that Vettel would become the youngest ever champion – and many observers agreed that he had an excellent chance. All in all, this season promised so much from the start but, as our story tells, it didn't exactly begin with a bang.
At the time of writing, late November snow is falling heavily outside the window and temperatures are barely creeping above freezing – conditions are about as far removed from the desert heat of Bahrain as they can get. However, at the Sakhir circuit in March, Formula 1 fans were left feeling cold as the season that promised so much got off to an inauspicious start in the Middle East.
The race, quite frankly, was processional. Playing it safe with these new regulations, all of the front-runners stopped around the same lap for their mandatory tyre change, and so there was no mixing up of the order, no chance for strategy to come into play, and little prospect of any overtaking.
People within F1 started to suggest changes to these new regulations after 'Boring Bahrain', with some advocating a second mandatory pit stop, and others argued that Bridgestone should produce a tyre that was less durable. Those that cautioned against knee-jerk reactions were shown to be correct, however, as the season continued to unfold. Looking back on the post-race reaction, it is difficult to understand what all the fuss was about.
And despite being branded dull and processional, this first race did set us up nicely for the rest of the season. Sebastian Vettel took pole position (the first of ten for Vettel during the season) and was on course for victory in the race before a spark plug failure slowed the German, allowing Fernando Alonso to pass him and win the race. Vettel eventually finished fourth, just behind Lewis Hamilton. Felipe Massa was second, giving Ferrari a one-two finish.
Even at this early stage, it was clear that Red Bull had the pace necessary to compete for title glory, but there were question marks surrounding the reliability of the RB6 and some feared Ferrari and Alonso were poised to run away with the title, as Schumacher did in 2002 and 2004. However, it would be over four months before Alonso would win again.
The other big story from Bahrain was the varying fortunes of the three new teams. Lotus Racing had a great Sunday, with both cars classified finishers, despite Jarno Trulli succumbing to a hydraulic problem three laps from the end. Lucas di Grassi managed only two laps before a similar fate befell him, whilst Virgin Racing team-mate Timo Glock lasted 16 laps before his gearbox failed. Hispania had missed all pre-season testing, and so the first chance Bruno Senna got to drive his car was Friday practice in Bahrain, whilst Karun Chandhok had to wait until qualifying to get behind the wheel for the first time. Unsurprisingly, neither driver completed the 49 laps on race-day.
Australia was where the season really got going. Red Bull showed their superior qualifying pace again, with Vettel taking a second pole and Mark Webber joining him on the front row. Lewis Hamilton had a disastrous qualifying though, failing to make it into Q3.
It was a difficult weekend for the 2008 world champion off the track as well. Hamilton was caught 'hooning' by the Melbourne police, doing burnouts as he left the Albert Park track. Tim Pallas, Australia's roads minister, had a very unfavourable view of the Brit after the incident: “OK, I will say it â€” he's a dickhead.”
Sunday in Australia saw rain fifteen minutes before the race began, and intermediate tyres had to be fitted on the grid. Vettel got away in the lead, but Alonso, who started third, was tagged by Jenson Button in the opening melee, and slipped down the order, as did Schumacher, who was trying to sneak around the spinning Ferrari.
As the track began to dry, Button made the inspired decision to switch to dry tyres before the rest of the field. He came out of the pits and went straight into the gravel at Turn 3, but then set the fastest lap of the race – by some distance. After everybody else had followed Button's lead, the 2009 champion was running second, behind only Vettel.
But Vettel's first win of 2010 would have to wait. A cheap spark plug cost him victory in Bahrain, and in Melbourne it was a simple wheel nut which left him beached in a gravel trap. Button took his first win as world champion and Robert Kubica took a great second place for Renault.
Team-mate Hamilton showed some supreme overtaking skill throughout, but an inexplicable second tyre stop – which he questioned over the team radio as the race unfolded – and a run-in with Mark Webber meant that the second McLaren came home sixth. Webber could only finish eighth.
Red Bull clearly had the fastest car on the grid – this was evident from the qualifying performances – but could not get the race victories. However, Vettel found a way round his failure to convert pole to victory a week later in Malaysia – he won the race after starting third. Webber took his first pole position of 2010 in a very wet qualifying session and Nico Rosberg joined him on the front row.
Other established names struggled in Sepang on the Saturday. Hamilton, Button and Alonso sat in the garage as Q1 got underway, waiting for a break in the weather that never came. When they eventually ventured out on track, the surface was too wet, and they could not put in a fast enough time. This allowed Heikki Kovalainen and Timo Glock into Q2 for Lotus and Virgin respectively.
More rain was expected on race day, but none came. Vettel overtook his team-mate off the start line and never looked back as he led a Red Bull one-two. Hamilton and Button recovered from their lowly grid positions to finish sixth and eighth, and Alonso failed to score any points after his Ferrari engine gave up two laps from home.
After three races, we had already seen two championship leaders. Massa, thanks to his two podiums in Bahrain and Melbourne, led the standings after Malaysia but, unfortunately for the Brazilian, his season had more or less reached its peak by this point.
The F1 circus then moved on to China. Free Practice 1 saw a bizarre accident for Sebastien Buemi, as both of his front wheels flew off his Toro Rosso as he came to the end of the long back straight in Shanghai.
Qualifying in China yielded a result that was by now becoming quite easy to predict. Sebastian Vettel took pole position, and Mark Webber joined him on the front row of the grid. However, one would have had great difficulty guessing how the race would unfold. It was, without a doubt, one of the best, and most eventful, of the season.
Conditions in Shanghai lurched abruptly between wet and dry, there were safety cars thrown into the mix, and we were treated to plenty of overtaking, especially from Lewis Hamilton. However, it was the excellent tyre calls from Jenson Button in the changeable conditions that made him the first driver to win two races in 2010, and gave him the lead of the drivers' championship. Button described it as “his best victory in Formula One.”
Hamilton took second behind his team-mate to complete the McLaren one-two and also – this is one of my favourite facts of the season – the first British one-two since Austria 1999.
We also saw an early indication of Alonso putting his foot down at Ferrari, and the first suggestion that maybe the Spaniard was not quite on championship-winning form. During the race, the Spaniard went through the pit lane five times, including once for a drive-through penalty given as punishment for jumping the start – an uncharacteristic mistake. He eventually recovered to finish fourth, partly thanks to an audacious move on his team-mate as the two Ferrari drivers entered the pits together in response to more rain falling – thus forcing Massa to queue behind him as he took on new tyres. However, Alonso insisted “for me it was a normal move and it definitely won't compromise our relationship”, although many later read it as a move to stamp his authority within the team.
The race was also regarded as one of the worst of Schumacher's comeback season (although either Hungary or Singapore will take that dubious honour). In China he was on the wrong end of several overtaking manoeuvres and eventually finished tenth. In the previous three races he had finished behind, and been out-qualified by, Nico Rosberg. This race continued that trend.
The one thing that the 2010 Chinese Grand Prix may be remembered for over everything else is not related to what happened on the track, but the chaos caused by Eyjafjallajoekull. The previously unheard of Icelandic volcano was spewing out clouds of ash over northern Europe, resulting in the closure of air space. Eddie Jordan failed to make it out to Shanghai for the BBC, but luckily the teams and the cars left for China before the eruption.
News from home left a bit of a cloud hanging over the teams because, as the race weekend progressed, the prospect of getting home soon afterwards quickly diminished. Bernie Ecclestone, when asked what would happen if the cars couldn't get back to Europe in time for Round 5 of the championship in Barcelona, joked that the Spanish Grand Prix would be held in Shanghai.
And so the waving of the chequered flag in China signalled the beginning of another race, the one back to Europe without the luxury of a direct flight. It was won, of course, by Ecclestone in his private jet. The F1 supremo thoughtfully gave Sebastian Vettel a lift as far as Istanbul, whilst Christian Horner and Mark Webber had their own 'five-stop strategy' for returning home. For the next few days, Twitter was awash with journalists and team personnel documenting their own escape strategies, which provided some amusing reading. For what it's worth, I went to Beijing for a couple of days sightseeing, and caught my scheduled flight back to Heathrow on the Thursday without any problems.
The first four races of 2010 provided us with some intriguing results, but it was still not clear who would be competing for the drivers' title. Jenson Button was leading after four races with 60 points, but Alonso and Hamilton were close behind with 49 and Vettel had 45 – about 40 less than he should have had, thanks to the reliability issues in the first two races. Webber was way behind with just 28 points, but was about to see an upturn in his fortunes as F1 began its European season.
Part two of this review continues with the next six races, where intense intra-team rivalry reared its ugly head, Webber and Hamilton got their first wins of 2010, and a Red Bull really did get its wings.