The drivers' championship may have been wrapped up back in Part 4 of this review, as Sebastian Vettel took third place in the Japanese Grand Prix and collected enough points to take a second consecutive title, but there were still things to be settled in the final four races of 2011.
There was still a constructors' championship to award – Red Bull led that particular race after Japan, with 518 points compared to the 388 of McLaren – and there were some drivers and teams with unfinished business as well.
For example, whilst Vettel had collected nine race wins by this point, Webber had not won a single race in what was essentially the same car – he needed a victory by the end of the year. Moreover, nobody apart from the two Red Bull drivers had taken a pole position this season – would anybody manage to beat the team in qualifying before the end of the year?
That question was answered at the next race in Korea, which took place just a week after the events in Japan. Lewis Hamilton topped the timesheets during Friday practice in Yeongam, and Jenson Button was fastest on Saturday morning. Regardless of the McLaren pace during those sessions, pundits were wary of predicting pole position for anybody other than Vettel. However, Hamilton did take pole position, and it was with a lap over two tenths of a second faster than anything Vettel could manage.
On race day, Vettel got past Hamilton into Turn 3 of the first lap, and then scampered off into the distance in his trademark style. Hamilton held off Mark Webber during the closing stages of the race to take second. First and third place was enough for Red Bull to secure the constructors' championship.
After F1 left Korea, the world of motorsport was rocked by two tragedies in quick succession. Hours after Vettel had taken victory in Korea, Dan Wheldon was killed in a 15-car crash at the Indy Car Series race in Las Vegas. Then, one week later, MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli was fatally injured in a horrific accident in Malaysia. Many within the F1 community knew one of both of these popular drivers, and there was a sombre mood within the paddock as the teams arrived in India for the next grand prix.
The inaugural Indian Grand Prix was a race that everybody was excited about. After their first laps of the track on the Friday, drivers were more or less unanimous in their praise of the circuit, describing it as the best of all the Hermann Tilke designs. Visiting India seemed like a bit of a culture shock for most of the F1 community, but all seemed to enjoy their first experience of the country.
There were some teething problems however. There was an early red flag in the Friday morning practice session, just after Karun Chandhok had completed the first timed lap of the new Buddh International Circuit, when a dog came onto the track. After that session, Lewis Hamilton was summoned to the stewards once again. This time he was found guilty of speeding under yellow flags, and was given a three-place grid penalty for the race.
Vettel took pole position (the most typed four words in 2011?) on the Saturday and, after a perfect start on race day, cruised to victory. Hamilton and Massa crashed (the second most-typed four-word phrase of 2011?) during the race. Massa was deemed to be the responsible party this time round, and was given the drive-through penalty. This might have been some consolation to Hamilton, but the McLaren driver still needed a trip through the pitlane to replace his nose, which was damaged in the incident. He eventually finished seventh.
Hamilton seemed in a much better mood when F1 arrived at the penultimate race of the season in Abu Dhabi. He topped the timesheets in FP2, FP3, Q1 and Q2 and looked on course for pole position. However, Vettel pulled another superb lap out of the bag right at the end of Q3, and snatched it from Hamilton by less than two tenths of a second. Interestingly, Vettel and Hamilton are the only drivers to ever start an F1 race at the Yas Marina circuit from the front row of the grid.
On race day, Vettel's luck finally ran out. After starting from the front row and finishing on the podium in all but one race so far in 2011, his Abu Dhabi Grand Prix lasted just one lap. After getting a good start, and beating Hamilton into the first corner, a sudden puncture spun the German off track into Turn 2. He managed to get his car back round to the pits, but the damage caused by the flailing tyre carcass was terminal. It was Vettel's first retirement since the 2010 Korean Grand Prix.
Retirement for Vettel allowed Hamilton to take a well-deserved third victory of the season. Finally, for what seemed like the first time in months, a smile spread across his face as he got out of the car, and this was much more like the Hamilton of old. His mother, who he had flown to Abu Dhabi for a birthday treat, seemed to inspire Hamilton to victory that weekend.
Jenson Button took a hard-fought third place after suffering with intermittent KERS throughout the evening. That result guaranteed that he would finish ahead of Hamilton in the drivers' standings – and become the first team-mate to ever beat the 2008 champion over the course of a season.
The teams then stayed on in Abu Dhabi for the Young Driver Test, which happened in the week following the grand prix. Jean-Eric Vergne topped the timesheets for Red Bull on each of the three days, but it remains to be seen whether he has convinced the team to find him a race seat for 2012.
With the slight feeling of fatigue in the air, Formula 1 headed to Brazil for the final race of the season. With the start of December just days away, round 19 got underway in Interlagos. Sebastian Vettel set a new record for the number of pole positions in a season as he took number fifteen at the season finale – one more than Nigel Mansell managed back in 1992.
The final race of the season was a punishing event for gearboxes. Vettel had to relinquish the lead of the grand prix to team-mate Mark Webber on Lap 30 after his team were frantically encouraging him to slow down and short-shift through certain gears. The double world champion continued to lap at a competitive pace though, and never looked like succumbing to Jenson Button, who secured second place in the drivers' championship by finishing the race third.
Lewis Hamilton was forced to retire when his gearbox gave up. He made an effort to go and see Felipe Massa once the race had finished, and the two patched up what had become a strained relationship over the course of the season.
Although the checkered flag in Brazil marked the end of the Brazilian Grand Prix, there were still announcements to come during the following week. In fact, the first came just hours after the final grand prix, with Virgin Racing revealing that French rookie Charles Pic would replace Jerome D'Ambrosio next season.
Just a couple of days later came some even bigger news: 2007 world champion Kimi RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen was returning with Renault, which means that there will be six world champions on the grid at the first race in Australia next season. Later that week Williams confirmed that Pastor Maldonado would remain at the team for 2012. Renault have also announced that Romain Grosjean will return to Formula 1 with the team to partner RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen.
Looking back on 2011, it is difficult to rate exactly how good a season it was. Sebastian Vettel clearly dominated, taking fifteen pole positions, eleven race wins, and finishing 122 points – the equivalent of nearly five victories – ahead of any other driver. Normally, domination on this scale would be considered a bad thing, but a lot of the races were entertaining from start to finish, in spite of the ease in which Vettel won.
The ability of the season to continue to throw up exciting races, even when the eventual winner was so predictable, is some feat. Therefore, although 2011 was considerably different to 2010 – a vintage season in the opinion of a lot of observers – it still rates pretty highly.
Vettel was undoubtedly driver of the season. True, he had the best car, but so did Mark Webber. Vettel was fast from the outset, not bothered by the differences between Bridgestone and Pirelli, or the additional challenges that KERS (or lack of the system, as he experienced in the first few races) and DRS provided. At no stage of the season were there any stupid mistakes, tantrums, or unnecessary fights with other drivers.
Webber was, to be honest, fairly anonymous for most of the season. He benefitted from Vettel's gearbox problem in the final race of the season to take a singly victory but really, with the car he had, he should probably feel that ten podium finishes when his team-mate had seventeen is a bit of an underachievement.
Two drivers really did impress this season: Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso. The former out-performed team-mate Hamilton in seven of the final nine races of 2011 – an impressive feat, and he looks very comfortable at McLaren. Alonso performed impeccably in a car that appeared, by some distance at a few races, to be slower than those of Red Bull and McLaren. He took ten podium finishes in the end, and finished only one point behind Webber in the title race. It will be interesting to see if Ferrari can produce a car worthy of their double world champion next season.
Mercedes showed steady improvements over the course of the season, and will hope to be competing for victories in 2012. Michael Schumacher was much closer to Nico Rosberg this season, and impressed on occasions with his race craft. There is no doubt that Rosberg is a good qualifier, but there were only three occasions this season when he finished a race in a higher position than where he started. He is, of course, still chasing that elusive first win, and it will be interesting to see how he fares against Schumacher next season if the car is competing for podium positions.
Renault, in contrast to Mercedes, got worse and worse as the season went on. They will be known as Lotus next season – will this and the appearance of Kimi RÃ¤ikkÃ¶nen galvanise the team, and help them to keep up with the development race?
Force India achieved their target of finishing sixth in the constructors' table, and their driver Paul di Resta, on paper and in the eyes of many pundits, was the rookie of the season in 2011. With Nico Hulkenberg rumoured to be joining the Scot at the team next season, they will have two fast drivers which should, along with the investment from Sahara, help the team push further up the grid in 2012.
Toro Rosso also punched above their weight this season and it was thought that Sebastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari had probably done enough merit another season at the team. However, it was announced on Wednesday of this week that Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne will be driving for the team next season. These are two promising rookies who could go onto great things, and it will be interesting to see what they can do in 2012.
Sauber had some decent results in 2011, especially the fifth place for Kamui Kobayashi in Monaco, and scored points at thirteen of the nineteen races. Sergio Perez impressed, and will have another season at the team to prove he can succeed at this level.
The less said about Williams' season the better! Five points for a team that, fifteen years ago, had drivers fighting amongst themselves for championships, is embarrassing. A shake-up of their technical department and a healthy supply of Venezuelan state oil money should help them turn things around next season, but it looks to be a long time before they are battling for race wins again.
It looks as though 2011 could be the final season for Rubens Barrichello though. He looks unlikely to retain his seat at Williams next season, and other available seats are quickly filling up. By all accounts, the Brazilian is one of the nicest of all the drivers in F1, and has achieved a lot in his nineteen seasons but, unfortunately, it looks as though his time in the sport has come to end.
The three new teams did not appear to trouble the established teams too much this season, although there were a few races where the Team Lotus drivers could finish ahead of the likes of Sauber, Williams and Renault and, even in qualifying, the pace of their cars did get some of the slower midfield teams concerned. The team have since changed their name to Caterham, and will be hoping that, in their third season of competition, they can be in with a fighting chance of scoring points in 2012.
Virgin Racing become Marussia next season and, along with HRT, are promising great things for 2012 and beyond. Both say they have decent funding; both will have at least one experienced driver now that Pedro de la Rosa has been announced at HRT and Timo Glock remains at Virgin. It remains to be seen how they fare, but it seems unlikely that either team will make a huge improvement over the winter break that will propel them into the midfield.
Pirelli are promising to up the stakes with tyres again next season, supplying softer and less resilient compounds. The Italian tyre company have been a breath of fresh air this season, and largely responsible for the dramatic races we have witnessed.
KERS is here to stay, and with the new teams using the system as well next year, the sport will be fairer. It is important that Formula 1 is seen to be developing useful technology, and KERS is something that should be relevant to road cars in the future.
DRS messes around with the racing too much, and has an air of artificiality about it. In some races, the system did absolutely nothing; in others, it made overtaking far too easy. In Abu Dhabi, use of the system was farcical: with two DRS zones, drivers would be overtaken in the first, and then regain the position a few corners later when it was them that had the use of an open rear-wing. DRS will still be around next season, and hopefully the FIA will have a better idea of how long to make activation zones to provide drivers with just the right amount of help.
Over the course of five articles and more than 10,000 words, that was 2011. It was a long season, with plenty happening throughout. On the 18th March – less than 100 days from now – the 2012 season begins and, if every race remains on the calendar, there will be 20 rounds to look forward to (although one of those will be in Valencia).
Have a good Christmas, and see you in Melbourne!
- There will be news of driver movements and other stories from Formula 1 throughout the winter here on TheCheckeredFlag.co.uk and, of course, full coverage of the 2012 season as it happens.
- Thanks go to the following for their help with covering F1 news on this site at various stages during the season: Peter Allen, Bethany Andrews, James Broomhead, Joe Finnerty and Louis Suddaby.