After a summer holiday that seemed to go on for much longer than four weeks, in which Team Lotus boss Tony Fernandes brought a football team and Renault decided that Nick Heidfeld was not performing and replaced him with Bruno Senna, the F1 season finally got back underway with a trip to everyone's favourite circuit: Spa-Francorchamps.
It was a bit wet on Belgium Grand Prix weekend, but this did not dampen the celebrations for Michael Schumacher, who was marking an impressive 20 years since his debut in the sport. Mercedes were the only team to complete a lap on slick tyres before the rain came in FP1, allowing Schumacher to top the timesheets in that session.
The remaining practice sessions were heavily affected by rain that weekend, and drivers were also forced to begin the qualifying session on the intermediate Pirelli tyre. Schumacher had an eventful session, albeit a rather short one, when a rear wheel parted company from his Mercedes on its first outing from the pit lane. The seven-time world champion had to start from the back of the grid, meaning that his 20th anniversary race would begin from his lowest ever qualifying session.
Despite this disappointment, Schumacher had a party in the Mercedes garage that evening, inviting a few friends from up and down the paddock for a beer. The next day, he made up 19 places to finish fifth, ahead of team-mate Nico Rosberg, who had started from the third row of the grid. It was an impressive drive from the 41-year-old.
In other aspects, the season resumed more or less from where it had left off. Sebastian Vettel took pole position on the Saturday in Spa, whilst Hamilton crashed into people. His first collision of the weekend came during Q2 when Hamilton forcefully, yet legitimately, barged his way past Pastor Maldonado at the end of his final flying lap. The Venezuelan did not take too kindly to this however, and seemed to deliberately clip Hamilton's car as the pair started their in-laps. Maldonado received a five-place grid penalty for the collision, and was lucky to escape with that.
Jaime Alguersuari impressed during qualifying, taking sixth place on the Spa grid for Toro Rosso. Immediately behind him was Bruno Senna after an equally impressive qualifying performance by the Brazilian.
There was no rain on race day, but that did not prevent Senna from causing a first corner accident. He did brake heavily enough and hit Alguersuari, who was knocked out of the race with broken suspension. Fernando Alonso was also tagged as the effects of the accident rippled out through the field.
The fast starting Rosberg actually overtook leader Vettel coming out of Eau Rouge on the first lap, but was quickly re-passed once Vettel had DRS at his disposal. Webber and Button both made very early pit stops – Webber just to change from the tyres he had blistered during qualifying and for Button, it was to replace a nose that had been damaged on the opening lap. These early pit stops contributed to the duo finishing the race second and third respectively.
Webber pulled off arguably the greatest pass of that season that afternoon. He came up to the back of Alonso as the Spaniard exited the pits and pulled off an audacious move on the entrance to Eau Rouge.
Hamilton's second collision of the weekend came when he misjudged an overtaking manoeuvre on Kamui Kobayashi. The Brit did not leave enough room when moving across the Sauber, and the two collided. There was a heavy impact with a polystyrene advertising sign and then with a barrier for Hamilton as he recorded his second retirement of the season.
Pastor Maldonado got the last laugh after finishing tenth and taking his one and only point of the year. He will hope that next season, where he will also race for Williams, is a little more fruitful.
Whilst all behind him were jostling for position, Vettel was once again serene at the front. He bounced back from his winless summer to take a seventh win of the season in Spa, and extended his championship lead to 92 points. McLaren and Ferrari were closer to Red Bull than they had been when Vettel was winning everything at the beginning of the year, but it was becoming clear the German would successfully defend his title.
Italy, scene of Vettel's first win in Formula 1, was the venue for the final European race of the season. Despite having the slowest car through the speed traps at Monza during qualifying, Vettel still took pole position by nearly a half a second from Lewis Hamilton. He went on to win what was another eventful race.
Vitantonio Liuzzi caused a few problems at the first corner when he ventured onto the grass off the start line. There he lost control of his HRT and slid sideways into the first corner, ending not only his race, but that of Nico Rosberg and Vitaly Petrov, who were busy negotiating the first chicane, when hit side-on by the Italian. Fernando Alonso made a great start from fourth place to steal the early lead from Vettel, but the German quickly took the lead back, and then disappeared off into the distance.
Schumacher had another good race – after an opportune overtaking manoeuvre on Hamilton, the seven-time world champion then kept the McLaren driver for around half the race. At times, the German was treading a fine line when it came to acceptable racing etiquette with his defensive driving. Mercedes Team Principal Ross Brawn had to send his driver some less-than-subtle messages to remind him to play fair with Hamilton, but it was good to see more glimpses of the old Schumacher.
Button finished third, once again outshining his team-mate, and Alonso took a crowd-pleasing third place ahead of Hamilton. Jaime Alguersuari, for the fourth time in 2011, started the race from P18, and finished in the points. His seventh place in Monza equalled his best result of the season.
Although Vettel won in Italy, Red Bull did not leave Monza entirely satisfied. Mark Webber recorded the team's first DNF of the season. He made contact with Felipe Massa whilst attempting to overtake the Brazilian. On his way back to the pits, the damaged front wing got stuck underneath his RB7. This somewhat hampered his steering and braking, and he went straight on at Parabolica. A subsequent collision with the barriers brought the Australian's afternoon to an end.
Singapore was next on the calendar, and this was the first race in which Vettel could actually secure his championship victory. There were a few different scenarios in which he could take the title but, regardless of where Vettel finished, the finishing position of the other contenders would ultimately decide whether he took the title at the season's only night race.
In qualifying, Vettel took pole position – again – as Red Bull secured their fifth front-row lock-out of the season (by the end of 2011 they notched up seven). Webber had yet another rubbish start on race day though, and Button, who qualified third, was quickly up into second.
Vettel and Button were the class of the field on race day in Singapore, pulling out a huge gap to the rest of the field in the opening laps, and finishing the race nearly half a minute ahead of everyone else. Vettel took another pole-to-lights victory but, with Button finishing second, his championship celebrations had to be delayed.
Further down the field, Lewis Hamilton was in the wars again, and again it was with his favoured sparring partner, Felipe Massa. An impetuous move into Turn 7 – the corner where he crashed into Webber last season -resulted in a shredded rear tyre for Massa, and another drive-through penalty for Hamilton. It ruined the race for both drivers – Hamilton recovered to finish only fifth and Massa had to settle for ninth.
Understandably, Massa was a bit annoyed with Hamilton after this, the latest in a series of clashes with the Brit over the course of the season. The tension between the two drivers came to a head in the media pen after the race, where Massa interrupted one of Hamilton's television interviews. He tapped Hamilton on the shoulder and said, sarcastically, “Nice job”. Hamilton responded by turning around to say “Don't touch me”. Once again, Vettel's victory was pushed off the headlines by more tales of Hamilton's troubles.
The following weekend nobody got any sleep as The Checkered Flag went to the Britcar24 race at Silverstone. The week after that, Formula 1 headed for Japan. For this race, Vettel had much simpler requirements to fulfil to take the title: score just one point, or score no points and hope that Button does not win.
Whilst Hamilton was falling out with other drivers and walking around the paddock looking miserable, Button seemed to be on top form. Despite failing to finish in either the British or German Grand Prix, the 2009 world champion arrived in Japan 19 points ahead of his team-mate, and had just signed a new multi-year McLaren contract.
After the devastating earthquake and tsunami had caused thousands of deaths and massive amounts of damage in Japan back in March, F1 arrived in the country determined to put on a show for the Japanese people, and find ways of contributing to the victims of the disaster. Button, who feels a certain affinity with the country from his time at Honda and through girlfriend Jessica Michibata, said that Japan was really his second home race, and that he particularly wanted a victory in Suzuka.
Button started the weekend well, topping the timesheets in both Friday practice sessions, and doing the same thing on Saturday morning. We dared to dream that someone other than Red Bull would be on pole position that weekend but, of course, such hopes again proved foolish. Sebastian Vettel topped the Q3 timesheets by less than one-hundredth of a second from Button.
Hamilton was third in that session, but was left wondering what might have been as he got out of the car. He failed to set a second flying lap when, in the dying seconds of Q3, he was held up by Webber and Schumacher on his out-lap. He crossed the line to start his second attempt at pole position a second or so after the clock had hit zero. Such was the pace of McLaren that weekend; it would not have been fanciful to suggest that Hamilton would have taken pole position with that final lap.
Kamui Kobayashi delighted home crowds by getting his Sauber through into Q3 and eventually qualifying seventh.
There was a bit of controversy at the start of the race in Japan when, after Button got a better start than Vettel, the German robustly defended his lead by crossing the straight and effectively barging Button onto the grass. Button suggested via his team radio that Vettel deserved a penalty for that piece of petulant driving, but the stewards disagreed.
Some quick laps around his second stop gave Button the lead later in the race, and Vettel was also overtaken by Fernando Alonso at the next round of stops. The top three finished the race in these positions, and on the podium everybody seemed happy with their efforts – Button had achieved his goal of winning in Japan, Alonso had hauled a relatively uncompetitive Ferrari up into second place, and Vettel was world champion for the second consecutive year.
Further down the field, Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa had another coming together. This one was a little more innocuous than the collision in Singapore, with only minor body work damage to each car. The stewards investigated, but decided that this one was merely a racing incident.
Michael Schumacher had another good race at Suzuka, and actually led three laps for the first time since the Japanese Grand Prix in 2006. He eventually finished sixth.
The title race may have come to an end with four races remaining, but the F1 season still had nearly two months of entertainment up its sleeve. The constructors' championship was still up for grabs (although with Red Bull having a lead of 130 points after Japan, and with only 172 points up for grabs, this championship was pretty much sewn up too), and still to come was the inaugural Indian Grand Prix. What's more, Hamilton and Massa hadn't finished crashing into one another yetâ€¦