Photo: SPEED TV
The 2012 Formula 1 season started off with unprecedented parity, seven different drivers winning the first seven races. From Fernando Alonso’s (Ferrari) late June victory at the European Grand Prix, however, Ferrari, Red Bull, and McLaren reintroduced their stranglehold at the top, Kimi Raikkonen’s (Lotus) win in Abu Dhabi at the start of the month marking the only exception to their hegemony.
Red Bull locked up the constructor’s championship last week at the US Grand Prix in Austin, Tex. But the driver’s duel between Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) and Alonso carried into this final weekend of the year. Qualifying proved challenging for both drivers. McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button locked down the front row, with Vettel’s Red Bull teammate Mark Webber taking P3 and the German chasing his third consecutive crown from P4. Even so, this put him well up on Alonso, who lined up eighth on the grid with 13 points to make up and a podium finish required to do it.
A 60% chance of rain is in the forecast. And it’s the final race of Michael Schumacher’s (Mercedes) storied career.
As the formation lap began a slight drizzle fell over the course, with the entire field on dry tires but Mercedes using a wet suspension set up. The Ferraris had a fantastic start, with Felipe Massa launching immediately into P2 and Vettel falling back. Vettel was caught up in a mid-pack collision which damaged his rear diffuser. Hamilton took P2 a few turns later. Webber moved to pass Massa as Lap 2 began, but both were overtaken by Alonso, setting the initial running order Button, Hamilton, Nico Hulkenberg (Force India), Alonso, and Webber.
Rain intensified during Lap 4, prompting race control to disable DRS. Romain Grosjean (Lotus) left the track during Lap 7, with Webber spinning in a separate incident. Hamilton took the race lead from Button under braking as Massa moved into P5. By Lap 10, Vettel had risen to P6, retaking the championship lead in the process. The leaders started coming in for intermediate tires during Lap 11. Alonso came out P12 and Vettel P17. Button stayed out and retained the race lead, followed by Hulkenberg, Hamilton, Massa, and Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso), with Alonso in P6 as of Lap 14.
Massa came in for intermediates on Lap 16, with Hulkenburg getting his nose inside Button early during Lap 17 and taking the lead as the two crossed the start-finish line at the end of Lap 18, the first lead of the German’s F1 career. Hamilton and Alonso both pitted to take dry tires during Lap 19. Vettel came in for drys one lap later, even while Hamilton struggled with the hard compound on track.
Hulkenberg and Button ran 47 sec ahead of Hamilton in P3 during Lap 21, with Hulkenberg setting fast lap. The safety car came out during Lap 23 so the track could be cleared of debris deposited as a result of a blown right rear tire on Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes, rebunching the field but allowing the two leaders to pit and return to the track with their places intact. Hamilton, Alonso, and Vettel rounded out the Top 5.
During the safety car word came from race officials that they were investigating Vettel for a Lap 8 pass of Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber) under a local yellow, with the Red Bull team also concerned about damage to the bodywork surrounding the left exhaust outlets on Vettel’s Red Bull. Webber tried passing Vettel on the Lap 30 restart, with Kobayashi passing Vettel instead as Webber went off track.
Hamilton took P2 from Button during Lap 31 even as Hulkenberg stretched his lead to 2.4 sec. Kobayashi took P4 from Alonso one lap later, with Alonso retaking the spot during Lap 33 as Hulkenberg reset fast lap. At the race’s halfway mark, Vettel retained a 7-point championship lead on Alonso despite having been passed by Massa to drop into P7. Massa took P5 from Kobayashi one lap later.
By Lap 42 the top 3 runners were pulling away from Alonso, taking his championship hopes with them, but the return of rain on Lap 47 (of 71) raised the possibility of teams pitting at least once more to changes to intermediates. Hulkenberg spun, allowing Hamilton to take P1. Vettel pitted on Lap 53 but put on medium-compound drys instead of intermediates.
Hulkenberg tried to take the lead from Hamilton during Lap 55 as the two were closing on a lapped Caterham machine. The two cars collided, retiring Hamilton and earning Hulkenberg a drive-through penalty. Vettel came in on Lap 56 to change to intermediates, with Alonso holding a 2-point championship lead on drys. The German’s crew was not ready, having lost radio communications. Alonso came in for his own set of intermediates on Lap 57, returning a 3-point provisional lead to Vettel. The Top 5 as of Lap 58: Button, Massa, Alonso, Hulkenberg, Webber.
The rain turned into a downpour during Lap 61, with Alonso needing to pass Massa to have a shot at the championship (Vettel running P7) and doing so during Lap 63. Vettel passed Schumacher for P6 during Lap 65, retightening his grip on the title. Paul di Resta (Force India) spun his car during Lap 70, bringing out the safety car to finish the race.
Jenson Button won his third race of the year, followed by Alonso, Massa, Webber, Hulkenberg, and Vettel. Vettel’s P6 gave him a 3-point championship victory over Alonso, making him only the third F1 driver to win three straight titles (Juan Manuel Fangio and Schumacher). At 25 years-old he is also by far the youngest to do so. As Vettel climbed out of his cockpit, Schumacher, who finished seventh, was waiting to congratulate him; a passing of the torch from the greatest ever (and Vettel’s boyhood hero) to the man and countryman who might supplant him.
Driver standings - Top 10
281 - Sebastian Vettel (Germany) - RBR-Renault
278 - Fernando Alonso (Spain) – Ferrari
207 – Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) – Lotus-Renault
190 - Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
188 - Jenson Button (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
179 - Mark Webber (Australia) - RBR-Renault
122 – Felipe Massa (Brazil) - Ferrari
96 – Romain Grosjean (France) – Lotus-Renault
93 - Nico Rosberg (Germany) – Mercedes
66 – Sergio Perez (Mexico) – Sauber-Ferrari
Constructor standings - Teams scoring points
460 - RBR-Renault - Vettel, Webber
400 - Ferrari - Alonso, Massa
378 - McLaren-Mercedes - Hamilton, Button
303 – Lotus-Renault – Raikkonen, Grosjean
142 - Mercedes – Rosberg ,Michael Schumacher
126 - Sauber-Ferrari – Perez, Kamui Kobayashi
109 – Force India-Mercedes – Paul di Resta, Nico Hulkenberg
76 - Williams-Renault – Pastor Maldonado, Bruno Senna
26 – STR-Ferrari – Daniel Ricciardo, Jean-Eric Vergne
Next event: Australian Grand Prix – Melbourne – Mar. 15-17, 2013