Vettel crowned champion amid chaos in Brazil

When all was said and done at the end of the race in Brazil it was Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel who was crowned the youngest triple world drivers’ champion in Formula 1 history after a chaotic and action packed race. Vettel wasn’t the only winner in Interlagos, though. It’s easy to forget that it was Jenson Button who won the race, but that was almost immaterial as Ferrari beat McLaren to second in the world constructors’ championship, with Caterham finishing ahead of Marussia in the constructors’ championship battle between the ‘new’ teams.

Sebatian Vettel, Red Bull RB8
Bahrain, 22 April 2012
By Ryan Bayona, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s start with Vettel and Fernando Alonso and the battle for the glory of becoming the youngest triple world champion in the history of the sport. After qualifying on Saturday, Vettel was in the better position of the two going into the race. On top of this 13 point championship lead, he had out-qualified the Ferrari driver yet again. It certainly wasn’t a classic qualifying performance from Vettel, but he would have been quietly satisfied that he was fourth on the grid, compared to just seventh (following a 10 place grid penalty for Pastor Maldonado) for his Spanish rival.

Vettel’s starting advantage didn’t even last a lap, though. As we’ve seen so often this season, Alonso got off the line brilliantly and was ahead of Vettel once the cars emerged from turn one. Things went from bad to worse for Vettel, as he fell back into the midfield and then collided with Bruno Senna at the end of the back straight. The Williams was out of the race and it looked for all the world that Vettel would be too, as he rolled backwards while the rest of the field streamed past him.

Vettel was able to continue, though, despite some damage to the rear of the Red Bull. On lap two Alonso was third, while Vettel was 22nd, with lots of work to do to save his championship. The German proved himself up to the task. Despite a clearly damaged car he was soon carving his way through the field and into the points. By lap 9, Vettel was up to seventh while Alonso had slipped out of the podium positions to fourth. Amazingly, Vettel was back in control of the championship.

Despite the chaos of changeable weather and two safety car periods, Vettel remained in control of his own destiny throughout the rest of the race. Despite the damage to his car, he was able to lap consistently and competitively, and despite some nervousness his Renault alternator didn’t fail him at Interlagos. That’s not to say that Alonso was giving up, though. By the end of the race the 2005 and 2006 world drivers’ champion had negotiated his way into second place, albeit aided by his team-mate Felipe Massa, who eased off the throttle down the back straight to let Alonso through on lap 62.

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari F2012
Sepang, Malaysia, 24 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Alonso’s cause was also aided by the lap 54 collision between then leader Lewis Hamilton and second placed driver Nico Hulkenberg. The Force India driver had driven brilliantly to lead the race, before almost spinning on lap 49 to let McLaren’s Hamilton, in his last race with the Woking based team, through into the lead. Hamilton led Hulkenberg for five laps before the Force India driver attempted to repass the Englishman as the McLaren was held up by traffic. The pass went badly wrong as Hulkenberg spun into Hamilton at turn one. Hulkenberg was able to continue, but received a drive-through penalty for the incident, but Hamilton was out of the race. A sad end to an illustrious career at McLaren for Hamilton and a real shame for Sauber-bound Hulkenberg who was in a position to be able to challenge for a first Formula 1 victory. The young German did, though, go on to finish a creditable fifth.

Although Alonso benefitted, it was never enough to put him in position to take his third world drivers’ championship. It was, though, enough to hand Ferrari second in the world constructors’ championship. With Hamilton leading and Button in third place, there was a very real chance that McLaren would overhaul their Italian rivals in the constructors’ championship. With Hamilton shunted out of the race Button went on to win, but with Alonso and Massa joining him on the podium Ferrari managed to outscore McLaren by eight points in Brazil and claim hand on to second in the constructors’ championship. An amazing achievement considering that the Ferrari F2012 has been far from the best car, while the McLaren MP4-27 has probably been the fastest. Reliability and operational issues have cost McLaren dearly in 2012.

Vitaly Petrov, Caterham CT01
Australia, 16 March 2012
By parepinvr4, via Wikimedia Commons

While Ferrari proved able to hang on to their constructors’ championship position, the same could not be said of Marussia. The Anglo-Russian team were in pole position to claim 10th in the world constructors championship ahead of Caterham thanks to Timo Glock’s 12th place finish in Singapore, but the chaotic final race of the season threw a spanner in the works for them and handed a lifeline to Caterham. Amid the increasingly adverse weather conditions, Caterham’s Vitaly Petrov – likely to be out of a Formula 1 drive next season – passed Marussia’s Charles Pic – ironically on his way to Caterham in 2013 – for 12th place on lap 67. This would have been enough to give Caterham tenth in the constructors’ championship, but things got even better for them as Force India’s Paul di Resta crashed out on the penultimate lap, triggering the safety car and moving Petrov up to 11th.

While Petrov couldn’t quite take that elusive first point for Caterham, one driver that did manage to score points was the retiring Michael Schumacher. The German seven time world drivers’ champion crossed the line in seventh place for Mercedes, scoring six points and ending a barren run of results for the Blackley based team in the process. While such a result would have been a huge disappointment for Schumacher in the first part of his Formula 1 career, it must have brought a smile of satisfaction to his face in the last of his 308 race in the premier class.

The man with the biggest smile on his face at the end of the race was Sebastian Vettel, though. He survived some post-race controversy when TV replays appeared to show him passing under yellow flags and although there was no sixth race victory of the season for the 25-year-old German, I’m sure that he was more than happy with sixth position instead, and with it a third world drivers’ championship.

It’s certainly been a thrilling 2012 season, and a long way from the 2011 cakewalk for Vettel. 2013 has a lot to live up to. Let’s hope it lives up to the challenge.

Stellar Lewis stars in the States

So, after all the hype the big question mark on Sunday was whether Formula 1’s return to the United States after a five-year absence would live up to the huge expectations. A brand new track in the Circuit of the Americas, the penultimate race of the season, the final two championship contenders separated by just 10 points, championship leader Sebastian Vettel’s 100th race, some pre-race controversy – it certainly had all the ingredients, but who could have predicted that the race in Austin, Texas would deliver quite so spectacularly?

After 56 action packed laps it was McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton who came out on top, crossing the line less than a second ahead of pole sitter Vettel, with Fernando Alonso well over half a minute behind the top two. It was the first time that arguably the best three drivers in Formula 1 had ever been on the podium together and it was a result that has kept the world drivers’ championship alive going into the final race. After qualifying, though, it was a result that few would have predicted.

Sebatian Vettel, Red Bull RB8
Bahrain, 22 April 2012
By Ryan Bayona, via Wikimedia Commons

Having dominated free practice on Friday and Saturday it was no surprise to see Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel take pole position. Although it wouldn’t have been a huge surprise for Vettel to see McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton take the other front row grid slot, the fact that he was only a tenth faster than the Englishman might have been a cause for some concern ahead of the race. Indeed, when you take the time to look back at the times in the three free practice sessions, you can see Hamilton making inroads on the German in every session.

Vettel was fast out of the box in Texas, finishing FP1 a huge 1.4 seconds ahead of his nearest rival, Hamilton. Although Hamilton was only fourth in FP2, the gap to Vettel was reduced to one second, with the gap in FP3 shrinking further to just a quarter of a second. Given that Hamilton was out of the championship running, Vettel wouldn’t have been too concerned, though, especially as Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso – the only man who can prevent the Red Bull driver from taking a third consecutive world drivers’ championship – couldn’t manage the same progression as Hamilton over Friday and Saturday, having started the weekend 2.2 seconds behind his rival in FP1 and finishing qualifying still 1.7 seconds in arrears.

Indeed, the ninth place qualifying position for Alonso looked disastrous, especially given that he had been out-qualified, for only the second time this season, by his Brazilian team-mate Felipe Massa, who qualified in seventh position. Matters were made even worse for Alonso when Lotus were forced to change the gearbox on Romain Grosjean’s car. The Frenchman had qualified an excellent fourth, but dropped to ninth after the five place grid penalty for the gearbox change. Ordinarily this would have been a good thing from Alonso’s perspective seeing as it promoted him to eighth on the grid, but not so at the Circuit of the Americas.

The Texas track is brand new and the unusually smooth surface, coupled with a conservative tyre selection by Pirelli meant that off-line, i.e. on the even-numbered grid positions, the track was very dirty and not at all rubbered in. Indeed, so dirty was the inside of the grid that Red Bull predicted ahead of the race that drivers starting on that side could lose several positions off the line. What could Alonso do, though? He just had to make the best of a bad situation on Sunday, surely.

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari F2012
Sepang, Malaysia, 24 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

If the Spaniard had been driving for any other team, that would certainly have been the situation, but he’s driving for Ferrari. Rumours were circulating on social networking sites ahead of the race that Ferrari were going to change Felipe Massa’s gearbox, meaning that the Brazilian would receive a five place grid penalty and promote his team-mate to seventh on the grid, crucially onto the racing line and the clean side of the track. Rumour became fact ahead of the race, in what turned out to be a stroke of genius by Ferrari which might just win their driver the championship at the end of the season. Alonso got a brilliant start on race day and was fourth going into turn one, a position that set him up perfectly to take yet another podium finish – his 12th of the season – aided by Mark Webber’s 18th lap retirement with yet another Renault alternator failure.

It was the most that Alonso could have hoped for given Vettel dominance in Austin, but things got even better for the Ferrari driver 14 laps from the end when Lewis Hamilton, who had driven brilliantly and refused to let Vettel break free at the front, cruised past the German using DRS to take the lead, which he never relinquished. Hamilton had to start from the dirty side of the grid and was expecting to lose positions at the start of the race, but in the end lost only one to Mark Webber who started third. This proved to be a temporary setback for the Stevenage born driver, though. He soon re-passed the Australian and set off in pursuit of Vettel, but although he managed to get within range of the world drivers’ championship leader in the opening stint, he fell back again by the time he stopped for fresh tyres on lap 20.

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-27
Albert Park, Australia, 16 March 2012
By parepinvr4, via Wikimedia Commons

Hamilton drove brilliantly in the second stint, but couldn’t quite get close enough to Vettel’s Red Bull to try to overtake. He got his only chance on lap 42, though. Vettel caught Narain Kathikeyan’s HRT at the wrong moment and was unable to pass the slower car easily, allowing Hamilton to close in and storm ahead of the Red Bull down the back straight. The move brought jubilation on the McLaren pit-wall and must have brought a smile to the face of a certain Spaniard driving a red car, too.

It meant that, unbelievably, and despite looking off the pace all weekend, Alonso finished the race just one place behind his championship rival. The championship deficit going into Brazil next week is just 13 points – within reach for Alonso, especially if the weather provides a helping hand at Interlagos. As the Spaniard said after the race, “This weekend it is like a victory for us. Losing just three points was something no one thought yesterday night or Friday night after practice”.

Even though the result means that Red Bull Racing won the world constructors’ championship for the third season in a row, it was very much Lewis Hamilton’s day. A fourth win of the season for the McLaren driver means that he moves into fourth in the world drivers’ championship and is now guaranteed to finish ahead of his team-mate in his final season with the Woking-based team.

Even though Hamilton crossed the line first and Red Bull won the constructors’ championship, the real winners in Austin were the fans. The track delivered probably the best race of the season, with overtaking and great racing throughout. Let’s hope that Interlagos is similarly enthralling…

The battle at the back

While Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso battle it out for wins, points and the glory of taking the 2012 world drivers’ championship, it’s easy to forget the battles further down the grid. I’m not talking about the battle between Mark Webber, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button for a distant fourth in the drivers’ world championship or even the contest between Mercedes and Sauber for fifth in the constructors’ world championship. I’m looking even further back than that, at the battle to finish a race in 11th place and, who knows, maybe even score a single world championship point for a 10th place finish. There are two races left to run and three teams battling to finish 10th in the world constructors’ championship. Will it be Marussia, Caterham or HRT?

All three of the teams battling away at the back of the grid entered the sport in 2010 and in each of their first two years in Formula 1 they have finished in the same positions in the world constructors championship: 10th for Caterham (previously Lotus Racing and Team Lotus), 11th for HRT and 12th for Marussia (previously Virgin Racing). At the start of the season, the only change to this pecking order that looked likely was Marussia finishing ahead of HRT. Few would have bet against Caterham being the best of the new teams yet again, and there was a fair degree of optimism that Tony Fernandes’s team would even score a point or two.

Heikki Kovalainen, Caterham CT01
Abu Dhabi, 4 November 2012
via CaterhamF1.com

Caterham seemed to be moving forward. Their dispute over the use of the Lotus name was now behind them and they had signed a deal to use Renault engines; seen as a step forward from the Cosworth power units that the three new teams had all used in their first two seasons, and which Marussia and HRT continue to use in 2012. Not only were Caterham benefitting from the same engine used by world constructors champions Red Bull Racing, but they also were the only one of the ‘new’ teams to race with the KERS power boost system on their cars in 2012 (HRT also tried the system in Australia, but having failed to qualify for the race they soon removed it from their cars). Although the value of KERS varies depending on the circuit, over the course of the season this should be a great advantage for Caterham over their immediate competitors.

With 18 out of 20 races in the 2012 Formula 1 world championship having now been run, however, things don’t seem to be turning out as we, and perhaps Caterham, might have expected. While it’s true that Caterham have clearly been the pick of the bottom three teams in qualifying, with Heikki Kovalainen the only driver competing for the those teams who has managed to make it out of the first part of qualifying in 2012. Indeed, Kovalainen has not only managed this once, but seven times, even managing to qualify in 16th position on three occasions: the races in Bahrain, Valencia and Germany. Given that the best that any of the four Marussia and HRT drivers have managed in qualifying is a single 18th place start for Timo Glock at the Japanese grand prix, it is perhaps even more surprising that Caterham are not in tenth place in the championship.

Narain Karthikeyan, HRT F112
Singapore, 23 September 2012
By suran2007, via Wikiemedia Commons

As we’re frequently reminded, though, there are no points for qualifying in Formula 1. If there were, perhaps things would look very different for Caterham, and maybe others, in the championship. What counts in Formula 1 are performances on Sundays, in race conditions. Even on Sundays, though, Caterham have consistently come out on top against their main rivals. The team have finished 13th on three separate occasions in 2012, twice for Kovalainen (in Monaco and at the last race in Abu Dhabi) and once for his team-mate Vitaly Petrov (in the European grand prix at Valencia). In comparison, HRT have managed their best result of 15th in just once race this season; the European grand prix, through Narain Kathikeyan. The Indian’s team-mate at HRT, Pedro de la Rosa, has a best result of 17th.

Despite finishing just behind Caterham in the constructors championship in 2010 and 2011, it is not HRT that are Caterham’s main rivals for 10th place in the constructors’ championship in 2012, however. In 2012 it’s Marussia that are making the biggest challenge and, indeed, hold the advantage with just two races to go. Despite Caterham usually managing better results than Marussia, it’s the Anglo-Russian team that currently sits in 10th position in the constructors’ championship thanks to the single 12th placed finish achieved by their experienced German driver, Timo Glock, in Singapore.

That 12th place finish, in the Singapore GP, bettered the team’s previous best of 14th place, which Glock has managed on three occasions this season (his French team-mate Charles Pic has a best result of 15th, which he’s managed twice), and could potentially provide a prize money boost for Marussia at the end of the season. It looked possible that Caterham and Kovalainen might have equalled that result at last weekend’s Abu Dhabi grand prix. The Finn was running in 12th place at certain stages of the race, but eventually finished in 13th place, just under 13 seconds behind Torro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne.

Despite, as expected at the start of the season, looking like the fastest of the three new teams, Caterham find themselves needing at least a 12th place finish in the last two races of the season to finish ahead of Marussia in the 2012 world constructors’ championship. With the funding – through the prize money boost that finishing 10th in the constructors’ championship in each of the last two seasons brought – and technical advantages that a Renault engine and KERS would have brought them, Caterham will be extremely disappointed if they do not finish ahead of Marussia come the end of the season.

Timo Glock, Marussia MR01
Sepang, Malaysia, 23 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Certainly, Marussia are taking nothing for granted. Team Principal John Booth said last week that “We have to continue closing that gap and find the momentum to get ahead of them [Caterham] on track. We’ve come very close in recent races, despite their KERS advantage, and we’ll remain in dogged pursuit of this objective right up until the chequered flag in Brazil”. However, as Booth himself acknowledged, for the teams at the back of the grid their destiny is not completely in their own hands. Referring to the last race Booth said “Abu Dhabi had us on the edge of our pitwall seats at various points, as it reminded us that to hold on to 10th in the Constructors’ Championship, we cannot control what happens further up the field”.

Indeed, a race of high attrition in Austin or Interlagos could prove to be the deciding factor in the race for 10th in the world constructors’ championship. It’s a shame that, three seasons into their Formula 1 journey, none of the new teams are yet in a position to compete with the more established teams in terms of outright speed.

Maybe that will come next year, but for now they’re all relying largely on outside factors to enable them to move forward in races. What is clear, however, is that despite moving forward in terms of the gap to the frontrunners, HRT are falling further behind their immediate rivals in terms of their performances on the track. Outside factors are one thing, but it’s going to need divine intervention for HRT to finish anything other than last in this years’ constructors’ championship. It’s looking like a straight fight between Marussia and Caterham for 10th place in 2012.

Iceman Kimi stays cool to Finn-ish first in Abu Dhabi

Well, it was certainly a dramatic and incident packed Abu Dhabi grand prix. When all was said and done after 55 laps of racing it was Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen who came out on top to take his first win since his return to Formula 1 at the start of this season, becoming the eighth different winner in an exciting and unpredictable season. Against all the odds, the podium positions were filled by the top three in the world drivers’ championship, albeit in reverse order. Few would have predicted that outcome at the outset, so how did the race unfold?

Lewis Hamilton, McLaren MP4-27
Albert Park, Australia, 16 March 2012
By parepinvr4, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m making a bit of a habit of starting my race analyses with a look back at Lewis Hamilton’s race, but I feel that I need to do so again. Things looked to be unfolding as we might have expected at the start of the race. Hamilton got a great start from pole position and looked well set to repeat his dominant performance of qualifying. Other than a mistake on the opening laps, which allowed Kimi Raikkonen – who had made a brilliant start to leap from fourth on the grid into second place – to close right up on him, Hamilton drove faultlessly.

Even when the race was interrupted by a safety car on lap eight, following a truly horrendous crash between Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg and HRT’s Narain Karthikeyan (underlining the case for some sort of cockpit protection in F1), Hamilton looked to be in complete control of the race. Following the end of the safety car period, he quickly re-established a lead of around three seconds to Raikkonen and it would have been a brave person who would have bet against him taking his fourth win of the season at that stage.

As it was, though, just five laps after the safety car returned to the pits on lap 15, Hamilton ground to a halt. McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh revealed after the race that it was a fuel pump issue that put the Englishman out of the race, and did little to help the team’s pursuit of Ferrari and Red Bull Racing in the world constructors’ championship.

Jenson Button’s fourth place will have been of scant consolation to the team who actually managed to lose ground to both of the teams ahead of them in the constructors’ championship. Sebastian Vettel passed Button for third in the closing stage of the race to take 15 points for Red Bull and Ferrari scored 24 points with second place for Alonso and seventh for his team-mate Felipe Massa. Button’s haul of 12 points for McLaren was simply not good enough.

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull RB8
Sepang, Malaysia, 23 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

Vettel, though, unlucky to have to start from the pit-lane after a fuel infringement on Saturday resulted in his exclusion from qualifying, had a complete turnaround in fortune in the race. Despite being involved in a few incidents in the race, notably damaging his front wing twice – once after hitting Romain Grosjean’s Lotus, then nearly hitting Torro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo under the first safety car period – Vettel benefitted massively from the misfortune of others in the race to finish in third place.

Hamilton’s retirement, was just the first such stroke of luck for Vettel. The German also benefitted from a spin by Felipe Massa while the Brazilian was racing Vettel’s team-mate Mark Webber, and the incident that caused the second safety car period. That incident, for which Sauber’s Sergio Perez received a 10 second stop and go penalty, not only removed the Mexican from serious contention, but also took Romain Grosjean and Mark Webber out of the race completely. More importantly for Vettel, though, it closed the field up again, and allowed him to make full use of his fresher tyres to make further inroads at the restart, eventually passing Jenson Button for the final podium position, nine laps after the safety car returned to the pits.

Fernando Alonso, Ferrari F2012
Bahrain, 22 April 2012
By Ryan Bayona, via Wikimedia Commons

The German somehow managed to limit the damage to his championship lead to finish just one place behind the man who is now mathematically his only rival for the world drivers’ championship: Fernando Alonso. The Ferrari driver managed to work miracles again in his Ferrari, moving neatly into fourth place on the opening lap from his sixth place starting position, and moving steadily forward in the race, to close to just 0.8 seconds behind winner Raikkonen as the pair crossed the line.

As a result, the Spaniard now sits 10 points behind Vettel in the championship with two races left to run. While Alonso was keen to present the reduced deficit to the Red Bull driver in a positive light after the race, you can’t help but feel that the championship is heading Vettel’s way. It would surely take a huge turnaround in fortunes, and competitiveness, for Alonso to take a third drivers championship in 2012.

Kimi Raikkonen, Lotus E20
Sepang, Malaysia, 23 March 2012
By Morio, via Wikimedia Commons

One man who is now out of the championship running is Kimi Raikkonen. Despite delivering the win that had eluded him on his return to the sport at the start of the 2012 season, the Finn now finds himself 57 points behind championship leader Vettel, with only 50 points left on the table. Nevertheless, Raikkonen’s return to Formula 1 is now a triumphant one. The Lotus driver drove a brilliantly controlled race to make the most of Lewis Hamilton’s misfortune and take victory. Raikkonen started brilliantly, leapfrogging both Pastor Maldonado and Mark Webber off the line, and somehow managed to keep his head during the safety car periods, stay out of trouble during the race, and resist the intense pressure from Fernando Alonso in the closing laps.

Not only that, but the Finn managed not to let his irritation with his own team affect him too badly, while also providing further examples of the personality that makes him such a unique character. Twice we heard team radio from Raikkonen during the race where he dismissed the instructions of his engineers. The first, on lap 24, came as his team advised him that he was five seconds ahead of the pursuing Alonso, to which the Finn replied “Leave me alone I know what I’m doing!”. The second, under the second safety car period, came as his engineer advised him to go through tyre warming procedures to get ready for the restart – Raikkonen abruptly cut him off saying “Yes, yes, yes, yes. I’m doing all of that. You don’t have to remind me every single time”.

Despite the fact that Raikkonen crossed the line first, though, I can’t help but feel that the real winner in Abu Dhabi was Sebastian Vettel. His championship lead might be slightly diminished, but he has the fastest car and, seemingly, lady luck on his side.