December 6, 2012 6:31 pm

A season of giants

©AFP

German F1 racer Sebastian Vettel

If football is a game of two halves, then the 2012 Formula One World Championship was two seasons rolled into one.

Seven different drivers won the first seven races – the first time this has happened in the 62-year history of the sport – as teams struggled to get to grips with the new Pirelli tyres. By the second half, the leading teams and drivers had reestablished their grip and were winning races.

Yet the shock results of the early part of the year will be the lingering memory of Williams F1 winning in Spain, Mercedes in China and Lotus in Abu Dhabi; Sauber challenging for the win in Malaysia; and Force India leading in Brazil. It was a season that showed that the cast of characters in F1 is deeper than just the leading three teams. The season was also unique in featuring six world champions in the field – the first time that has ever happened. With the retirement of Michael Schumacher, this will drop to five for next season.

The season ended in spectacular fashion at the final round in Brazil, with Sebastian Vettel recovering from a first lap spin, which dropped him to 17th place, to claim his third consecutive championship.

In a sense, this rollercoaster race summed up his season. Vettel started out the year on the back foot after aerodynamic rule changes took away one of Red Bull Racing’s most powerful weapons from 2011, the so-called exhaust blown diffuser, and the story of his year was how he fought back from that to win the title.

It was hard not to feel sympathy for Fernando Alonso, the championship runner-up. While he gave his all, the Spaniard’s Ferrari was never the fastest car on the track. Yet Alonso still won three races, scored 13 podiums and led the championship for much of the year. He was on a higher level this year than at any other time in his career.

It would be wrong to say that Ferrari did not develop their car – remember they were more than a second off the pace at the first Grand Prix of the season in Melbourne. But they did not develop it enough, and that began to tell in the final third of the season as Red Bull won four races in succession in September and October.

Yet while Vettel’s Red Bull was the fastest car on the track during the Asian leg of the season in September and October, it was not the fastest car of the season. That honour goes to McLaren. It is just that they were unable to exploit it.

Their driver Lewis Hamilton should have won this season’s championship – the Englishman’s driving this year was of the highest standard. However, operational errors and reliability failings during autumn cost Hamilton more than 100 points and his shot at the title.

Other talking points from the season were the series of crashes involving Lotus F1’s Romain Grosjean and Williams’ Pastor Maldonado. Grosjean was given a one-race ban for causing the pile up at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix, the only driver this year to face such a sanction.

Teammate Kimi Räikkönen carried the Lotus team, scoring in excess of 200 points on his comeback after two years in rallying. He scored seven podiums, including his Abu Dhabi victory.

The off-track story of the season was the decision by Hamilton to leave McLaren to drive for Mercedes in 2013. It is a gamble, as Mercedes fell back after its Grand Prix win in China, and it is hard to say whether they will be able to challenge next year.

Hamilton’s move did open the door for Sauber’s Sergio Pérez to step up to the big time with a move to McLaren to drive alongside Jenson Button.

The trio of McLaren, Ferrari and Red Bull will again fight it out for the title when the new season begins in Australia in March.

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