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A simply stunning season. Fernando Alonso spent 20 races scaling sheer cliff edges in his F2012, and it was an effort that so nearly took him to the high peak of the world title, a title which surely have gone into history as just about the most impressive and unlikely ever.
But, fortunately, championships aren't everything and this is a year wherein Alonso surely made the decisive, and most likely irreversible, stride from being an excellent contemporary performer into being an all-time great. It's certainly genuinely difficult to cite more impressive seasons of driving from F1's history by anyone. If you don't believe me just ask yourself this: has anyone ever come so close to winning the world championship in a car that wasn't the quickest in any round? I don't believe anyone has.
Despite having a car that over the year was no better than third best, in 2012 Alonso was always fighting, always on form, always sharp and aggressive in the overtake as well as in defence; even after 20 races it's hard to point out an off-day of his. Race performances that beggared belief roll off the tongue: somehow hauling the difficult machine to fifth in Melbourne, the quick and flawless win under pressure in Malaysia, the astonishing rise to grab a home win in Valencia, the masterful controlling of the Germany race ahead of quicker cars on his tail, the implausible and imperturbable splitting of the Red Bulls and hunting down of Vettel in India, to name just a few. And the F2012 was a machine that gave him much to do on a Sunday (if it didn't rain). Only once did Alonso start on the front row after a dry qualifying session (Spain) and even then only thanks to Lewis Hamilton getting a grid drop. Only in Canada and Italy did a fight for the front row look even possible. Yet, watching Alonso make up lost ground in the opening laps of race after race was extraordinary, and galling demonstration of what a top-level driver at the top of his game looks like.
Further, even though he was almost always at the outer edges of adhesion there were almost no errors either. The closest he came to one was at the start in Japan, when the tiniest tickle from Kimi Raikkonnen's front wing on his rear tyre put him out, but even there the driving was slightly imprudent rather than egregious. And the extent that some sought to pounce on it only underlined its rarity.
Fernando Alonso's equilibrium at Ferrari is a clear contributory factor to his mighty driving, though the Scuderia would be well advised not to test his patience waiting for a competitive car yet further. But the team can be content though that it doesn't have to worry about its driver; if it provides Alonso with a machine that's half as good as he deserves it to be then championships will follow. He demonstrated as much this year.
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Were you to judge purely from the points standings, Lewis Hamilton's season looks little better than his annus horribilis of 2011: fourth in the table and close to 100 points shy of the summit. But you know what they say about lies, damned lies and statistics.
This year we witnessed a supreme bouncing back of Lewis to his formidable best. For the first time since his stellar debut season he put together a campaign to match it, perhaps even to surpass it, in terms of consistent quality and decisive racing.
Lewis retained his status and F1's quickest, most exciting and instinctively talented performer this year. But the frequent ill-judgement of the last campaign, along with the discontented figure out of the car, was shorn. After a 2011 year where he, in his own words, had a loyalty card with the stewards, Lewis didn't so much as receive a reprimand from the stewards this year. The overtaking was crisp, aggressive and still frequent, but always clean. Lewis also managed to show suitable intelligence and restraint to manage a race on the limited-resource Pirellis (underlined by him driving close to half the Barcelona race on a single set, and was still quick). And what we ended up with was a mighty and complete F1 driver.
No one took more pole positions than Lewis in 2012, only Lewis reached the final part of qualifying in every round. Everywhere it seemed he was at the sharp end, many races he led. But then...always it seemed something through no fault of his would either impede him or stop him altogether. Whether it was botched pitstops (of which there were plenty), the gearbox penalty in China, being dropped to the back of the grid in Spain when someone forget to put enough fuel in his car (on a weekend wherein he looked untouchable), the puncture in Germany, being wiped out by a flying Romain Grosjean in Spa, canters to wins halted early by unreliability in Singapore and Abu Dhabi, the variety of impediments at Korea, having Hulkenberg slide into him while leading in Brazil, the list seems endless. Analyses had these costing Lewis far upwards of 100 points, more than enough to swing the championship in his favour. And it would have been very hard to begrudge him such success.
But in between the setbacks Lewis's towering talent was on show just about permanently, there were four impressive wins and in all of which he was fast, smart and flawless. And rather like Alonso the quality was just about always there: in Australia Lewis was plain beaten by his team mate, in Germany his radio calls indicated that he was minded to give up, while his drive in Japan, perhaps not coincidentally his first drive after confirming he'd be leaving McLaren at the year's end, was rather subdued. But elsewhere the breathtaking performances were maintained.
Next year Lewis rolls the dice, fleeing the McLaren nest for Mercedes. Career calls hardly get more audacious. One can only hope that, for all of our sakes, Lewis knows what he's doing on this one. His talent is such that I don't care to see it languishing in the midfield.
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I accept that third place in these standings seems harsh on Sebastian Vettel. But as is the case in F1 someone's got to come first and last, no matter how competitive things are, and Seb's placing reflects the quality of the top two rather than any omissions from him (and it was a very close call with Lewis Hamilton for second). It was a fine season from Seb, one wherein he had to demonstrate that he is much more than a gazelle, content only to run clear on his own, one that he ended with his reputation enhanced even on before. And, oh yeah, it was one in which he claimed his third world title on the spin.
It's easy to forget given the season's latter part, but for the first two-thirds of the year Seb's RB8 machine was by no means the class of the field, certainly not as it was in 2011. The restriction of exhaust blown diffusers impeded the Red Bull disproportionately and suddenly Seb didn't have the handling that he benefited from last year, especially not in qualifying. To take a couple of extreme examples, in China Seb missed out on the top 10 for no other reason than the pace not being there, while in Monaco he scraped in but then concluded that he was better off saving tyres for race day in the final session. Therefore, Seb had much to do on race day and had to fight in the pack; and for the most part he did so magnificently.
Seb, almost under the radar, stayed in championship contention with a number of gritty drives to maximise the race results: in Australia, China (in which he might have finished second but for late tyre drop-off), Spain (despite a penalty), Monaco and Spa the impressive swim against the tide was the same. And clean decisive overtakes form Seb were a regular feature (in a car that was often one of the slowest through speed traps). And while team mate Webber often was ahead in qualifying still usually Seb was the better on race day. In Valencia and to a lesser extent in Bahrain as well as in Canada's qualifying Seb looked a lot like his imperious self of last year, but they were false dawns.
But whatever the case, Seb was able to do enough when the car wasn't good to be within striking distance when the car got good later. These points won him the title just as much as the later run of victories. And of course late in the season, when the Red Bull got good, Seb was on a pedestal. The qualifying laps were stunning and Seb invariably had the opposition of its knees within a few corners of the races. And he surpassed himself when in Abu Dhabi and in Brazil after delays he came through the field in what seemed the blink of an eye. In Brazil he rose from 22nd place to sixth in just seven laps. It was the sort of performance that led you to doubt your own senses.
Seb as a driver is about as complete these days as can be reasonably expected. Hard-working, good technically, has a close and productive relationship with his team, decisive in the overtake, and most important of all extremely quick. And, most sobering for his rivals, if history is any sort of guide he's nowhere near his peak even now. Just watch him go from here.
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There were many things that made the 2012 F1 season special. And Kimi Raikkonen's return to the sport's sharp end, with all of the star quality that comes with it, has to be among the very best of them.
It's easy to forget the doubts that surrounded Kimi's comeback to the sport prior to the season's start. Michael Schumacher's struggles on his return were fresh in the memory, and what exactly had changed for Kimi, given he'd left the sport exasperated two years previously and not given much outward indication of a desire to return since? Well, it goes to show that no one's ever going to get rich second guessing the Finn, as his season was an excellent one.
In many ways Kimi was a very different animal to the one we'd got used in his 'first' F1 career. Perhaps the very outer edges of pace witnessed at Ferrari and, especially, at McLaren weren't there (especially in qualifying wherein team mate Grosjean often found pace that Kimi couldn't), but what was there was an astonishing consistency and ability to bring the car home. Kimi finished everywhere, and scored in 19 of the 20 rounds, both feats that no one else managed. You could even make a strong case for Lotus having got more out of him than Ferrari or McLaren ever did.
The Enstone squad was impressed by Kimi from an early stage of their relationship and, unlike the stern McLaren and intense Ferrari, gave Kimi space to get on with it. And Kimi responded to the favourable environment. It all added up to third place in the title standings, an overdue win, but one achieved like he'd never been away, in Abu Dhabi, and for much of the year he even retained the status of dark horse for F1's ultimate prize. Indeed, had Lotus not entered the technical blind alley of the rear wing 'device', covering several races at a vital part of the season, who knows where Kimi could have ended up in the championship table?
As for criticisms, Kimi often seemed a bit more timid than necessary when in traffic, and this possibly cost him better results. Then again, it might equally have been rewarded with a DNF, and in any case it became less of a problem as the season progressed (indeed, in the end he was responsible for some of the season's best overtakes). There was also a period at around the second quarter of the year wherein Grosjean got the upper hand consistently, and Kimi's weekend in Monaco bordered on the pathetic. But nevertheless it seems rather carping to draw too much attention to these.
It was a magnificent comeback all told, and next year with the driver-team relationship one year on he again seems a good outside bet for title honours. Such a prediction would have sounded fanciful last March. It doesn't sound at all so now.
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Jenson Button won the opening round in Australia in a smooth and imperious style reminiscent of his magnificent 2011 canvas. And he finished the year atop the podium too, after a restrained yet quick drive in changeable conditions in Brazil, the like of which we've grown used to from him. It was between times that things went wrong.
The record books will state that Jenson finished the season but two points shy of his team mate Lewis Hamilton in the drivers' standings. But in all honesty that closeness is illusory. Jenson's campaign was in large part shop soiled by an extended technical and performance trough starting in Barcelona in May and not ending until a series of upgrades was added to the car at Hockenheim in July. In this time anything more than small helpings of points helped by attrition looked beyond him, and pained cries from him over the radio of understeer and lacking grip and balance became common. The frustration showed in his driving too on occasion, most obviously at Monaco. And, most worryingly of all, the cause of the struggle seemed to baffle Jenson as much as anyone else. Whatever the case, it was a reminder that for all of Jenson's virtues he doesn't possess the same ability to drive around problems in the way that, say, Hamilton or Alonso do. And by the time the cloud had passed the title fight was but a distant speck on the horizon.
It was all a pity, as that spell aside Jenson did a solid job in 2012. Lewis's return to form meant he was usually the McLaren pace-setter, but that in itself is no disgrace, and Jenson invariably displayed the classy, controlled and rapid drives, spliced with neat overtakes, that are his trademark. Aside from the two wins outlined above, at Spa Jenson was in a class on one in both qualifying and the race, while his efforts at China (where he might have challenged for a win without a dud pitstop), Germany, Monza, Singapore and Abu Dhabi were also impressive.
And next year for Jenson will be a fascinating one. McLaren ended 2012 looking like it had the quickest car out there and that most of the operational problems that dogged the year were sorted. And of course the Lewis Hamilton circus will have left town, presumably resulting in Jenson being de facto team leader. Will he ever have a better opportunity to claim drivers' title number two for himself?
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Silverstone in July must seem a long time ago for Mark Webber. There he claimed his second win of the season in fine style, in a year wherein he'd been a model of consistency up until that point. He was some 16 points clear of his team mate Vettel in the standings, and it looked like he was all set to lead the hunt of Fernando Alonso at the table summit. Indeed, it appeared rather like 2010 all over again for the popular Australian.
Things never were so good for Webber again, however. At the next round in Germany he got a five-place grid drop for a gearbox change, and things unravelled from there. Poor qualifying and starts left him in the pack, performances became more edgy and frustration showed on occasion, in and out of the car. By the time he threatened to get out of his rut the season was almost over, and the championship effectively out of reach. It's a legitimate criticism of Webber, that poor results can follow poor results in a fashion unthinkable from a Vettel or an Alonso. Then again, at least part of the story was that the development of the RB8 in the latter part of the year, perhaps understandably, was very much done with Vettel's driving style in mind, a style that Webber has never mastered.
As mentioned though it was a season of two halves for Webber. In the early part of the year, with the regulation changes suddenly making the Red Bull a bit more mainstream, not requiring of counter-intuitive throttle applications, Webber gave Vettel a good run for his money, particularly in qualifying. Webber was also arguably slightly the better at staying out of trouble and brought home points in all races apart from one in that period. His Monaco win was classic pacing yourself at the front needed around the principality, while his Silverstone win was that of a fighter. Coming through the pack to finish fourth in Valencia relied a bit on luck but was also impressive.
But, to be brutal, this year underlined once more exactly where Webber is in the scheme of things at Red Bull. He has another year there, secured in the aftermath of Silverstone, but with Red Bull making little secret that it's been waiting for a young driver from its conveyor belt to make a compelling case to replace Webber (and now António Félix da Costa features on the horizon) you wonder if it's all merely a stay of execution. But then again we thought exactly the same 12 months ago.
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Is seventh position in this countdown a bit high for Felipe Massa? Possibly. It to some extent reflects a drop off between the top six and the rest. But equally it reflects that 2012 witnessed a season of impressive progress from Felipe, wherein he often circulated at a much closer pace to Alonso, in both qualifying and races, than many gave credit for. And he ended it appearing to have more in common with the guy who once upon a time came within about 30 seconds of a world drivers' title than he has at any point since his 2009 Hungaroring accident.
The year could hardly have started in worse fashion for Massa. In Australia and Malaysia he was hardly in the same stratosphere as his team mate, and worse for him not only did Alonso win the latter of those two races, Ferrari protegee Sergio Perez came a close second there with a drive that looked for all the world to be his 'star is born' moment. It seemed then only a matter of time until Massa got his jotters at Maranello, which some had happening even before the year was out.
Massa though didn't crumble, and ran much closer to Alonso in China and Bahrain, finishing only five and seven seconds adrift respectively in the two races. But the real breakthrough came in Monaco, when set up changes clearly gave Felipe more confidence. He ran with the leading train throughout, and was only unlucky to be the guy at the back of it in the final shakeout. His drives at Silverstone and Monza were perfect number two stuff, while he was perhaps unfortunate not to claim better results in Valencia and Hungary. And a further breakthrough awaited Felipe in Japan, when his confident and quick run won him second place for his first podium finish in close to two years.
From that point on Felipe was almost always a contender at the sharp end. And his growing equilibrium and confidence was further underlined in Austin wherein, notoriously, he had to face a gearbox penalty on the grid to the end of assisting Alonso. But rather than be destroyed by this Felipe drew strength from it, and proceeded to put in possibly his best drive of the season there to come fourth. In the latter part of the campaign Felipe was becoming the ideal team player at Ferrari: quick enough to get into the mix yet humble enough to accept the role. It's no wonder that the Scuderia has held onto him for next year.
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OK, I'll admit it. I haven't always rated Nico Hulkenberg. I didn't see much in his debut year in F1 to understand what all the fuss was about (I did see rather a lot of accidents though) and suspected that, just perhaps, his lofty reputation was based excessively on his pole position in Brazil in 2010.
Well, it just goes to show what I know. This year Nico Hulkenberg underlined exactly what that fuss was about. More and more as the season progressed he provided evidence that he is made of The Right Stuff. Many reckon that McLaren would have been better served selecting him, rather than Sergio Perez, to replace Lewis Hamilton next year; Ferrari is also thought to be sniffing around. It is not at all outlandish to suggest that no star rose further in 2012 than that of the Hulk.
The year was a little bit of a slow burner for Hulkenberg though. In the early rounds his team mate Paul Di Resta had the upper hand generally, but come the European season the Hulk began to get on terms and beat him with increasing regularity as the summer progressed. In the year's latter part the Hulk was winning admirers left, right and centre, as well as points hauls with the same regularity, and Di Resta having been the future himself once was left floundering.
Of the midfield pack Hulkenberg, arguably more than any other in there, ticks all of the boxes. He's quick, consistent, no respecter of reputation as well as is very racy. He can run with leaders like he absolutely belongs there, seen in Spa, Suzuka and elsewhere, he's always willing to go wheel to wheel and his overtaking is sharp, which was seen most gaudily in his double-pass on Hamilton and Grosjean in Korea as well as his opportunistic pass of Raikkonen in Monaco. And his year's efforts were all topped off by his stellar run in Brazil, where he looked pacy and confident, especially at the points when the rain fell, and led just like someone who does so habitually. That it was spoiled by an later error when seeking to pass Hamilton didn't take much of the gloss off.
The Hulk goes to Sauber next year; one suspects that won't be the final stop off of his F1 career.
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There of course was a lot wrong with Romain Grosjean's season. There were too many mistakes and accidents, particularly early in races. He had the ignominy of being the first F1 driver in 18 years to serve a race ban, and his year ended with a rather ham-fisted weekend in Brazil. Yet, sight should not be lost of the fact that there was a lot good about Grosjean's season too.
Some counted as many as nine early-race contacts involving Grosjean this year from 20 races, and while analysis demonstrates that they were by no means all his fault, it also stretches credulity to say that their regularity was mere coincidence either. Spatial awareness and an ability to smell danger and avoid distraction in the opening corners are clear things for him to work on. And yet, so long as he survived the race's opening, Grosjean tended to put in very good performances on Sundays this year, particularly prior to the summer break. He might even have won in Canada and Valencia had one or two cards fallen the other way.
And let's not forget that for much of the year's first half Grosjean plain put the manners on his stable mate Kimi Raikkonen on pace, and did so with particular regularity in qualifying. No mean feat it has to be said. He left Kimi far behind in the two races I mentioned, and did similar in China having made better use of his tyres. Plus he finished just seven seconds shy of him at Silverstone despite pitting for a new nose after one lap, and also finished not far behind him in Austin despite an early spin.
However, following an egregious chop on Hamilton in Spa that ended up wiping out several cars in a terrifying smash, Grosjean picked up a race ban. And that seemed to have an negative impact on him and his driving. It got worse at Suzuka when he took out Webber at turn one, and the open season that followed (led by the Australian) seemed to destroy whatever fragile confidence of Grosjean's remained. Suddenly, the man distinguished by a ready smile looked haunted, and the driving became tentative and timid as well as, equally suddenly, usually not close to the pace set by Raikkonen. And it didn't help that, with his retention at Lotus next year still to be confirmed, in the final round he tangled with Pedro De La Rosa in qualifying in an clash wherein Grosjean showed poor judgement, and then he crashed out early in the race too.
But in my view it would be a travesty if Grosjean is discarded by Lotus for 2013. His problems have been well documented, but prior to his ban much of his pace on show was stunning. Knock off the rough edges and Lotus will have a very fine F1 driver on its books.
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It is reflective of ultra-competitive F1 in 2012 that a number of drivers had a good case to get the number 10 slot. In the end Nico Rosberg squeaked it, but it was a close call for a man who had comfortable place in the top 10 on this site in each of the previous two seasons.
And this is despite the fact that this season, finally, was witness to the end of Rosberg's long wait for his debut F1 race win. So, what happened the rest of the time? Well, the China race where Nico triumphed now seems rather incongruous with the rest of the year, both for Nico and for Mercedes in yet another campaign characterised by frustration for driver and team.
In Nico's defence, the W03 with its notorious tendency to chew rear tyres was no machine for him to show his skills; most races as a consequence were a matter of managing a slide down the order. And the Brackley squad gave up on the season long before its end, some weekends becoming effectively test sessions. Furthermore, for the most part Rosberg did about as much as could reasonably be expected in the circumstances, particularly after the summer break, and Nico's supporters will no doubt argue that the China pole and victory demonstrate that, given the opportunity, he can get the job done and imperiously. Yet, that in the previous two races he looked to have a genuine shot at pole and managed to fluff it both times tempers this suggestion a little, as does that in Nico's other opportunity for a race win, at Monaco, crucially he didn't beat Mark Webber's qualifying time as his team mate Michael Schumacher had managed (prior to his penalty).
And the one clear match up that Nico had, that with his team mate, was much less clear cut in Nico's favour compared with before. Nico spent most of 2010 and 2011 showing Schumi the way on a Saturday at least, but this year that gap disappeared, them being 10-10 on their qualifying head-to-head over the season. And on race day Schumi was often the more convincing of the two and regularly showed more stomach for the fight, particularly in the year's middle part (though in Bahrain Rosberg went too far in the opposite direction with some ugly blocking). Did this all represent an improvement by Schumi, or did Nico let things slip a little?
Perhaps given the regularity with which the Mercedes team has let him down Nico would be forgiven if he had let things slip. But whatever the case he'll need to summon up all of his energies for the 2013 campaign, facing as he does a very public comparison with none other than Lewis Hamilton.