June 8th, 2012 (F1plus / Chris Cameron-Dow).- 2012 promised to be a close season, with fairly stable regulations carried over from 2011 and perhaps the strongest field of racing drivers in history. So far, the season has delivered.
This is how it happened:
Australia – McLaren takes early initiative
After pre-season testing, no-one was quite sure what the order would be on a race weekend. That question was answered emphatically when McLaren locked out the front row in qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix. In the race, Button passed Hamilton off the line and went on to take a dominant victory. World Champion Sebstian Vettel came through from sixth on the grid to finish second, with Hamilton rounding out the podium.
A few themes emerged in Australia. McLaren were obviously the quickest team, with formidable qualifying pace in particular. Lotus and Mercedes had clearly made progress from last year, although Mercedes seemed to lack pace in race conditions. Ferrari were visibly off the pace, with Massa and Alonso struggling to keep the car on track throughout the weekend.
Malaysia – Rain changes everything
Malaysia looked like being a repeat of Australia, until the weather intervened. McLaren occupied the front row of the grid with Mercedes, Red Bull and Lotus in close company, but the order was turned on its head when heavy rain brought out the red flag.
After the restart, when the track started to dry out, Fernando Alonso emerged in the lead, holding on for an unlikely victory to go top of the championship standings. Sergio Perez finished a superb second for Sauber, and might have won the race if he hadn't run wide while harrying Alonso for the lead. Lewis Hamilton finished third for his second podium of the season. Nine constructors featured in the points, showing just how closely matched the cars are this year.
China – Rosberg makes history with Mercedes
Nico Rosberg took his first career pole position and first win to give the Silver Arrows their first success since Fangio won at Monza in 1955. And he did it in style.
Rosberg’s pole position, over half a second clear of the field, set the tone for the race, in which he sprinted into the lead and was never challenged. A loose wheel for Schumacher ended the possibility of a Mercedes one-two, but there was no stopping Rosberg as he finished 20 seconds clear of the Button’s McLaren. Lewis Hamilton in third found himself leading the championship despite not having won a race.
Throughout the field, the battles were close and entertaining. McLaren, Red Bull, Lotus and Williams were all in the mix, using DRS to good effect down the long back straight.
Bahrain – Vettel back on top
After the 2011 race was cancelled, Formula One returned to Bahrain amid fears for the safety of all involved in the race. Two Force India team members returned home after finding themselves uncomfortably close to a petrol bomb on the Thursday night.
Sebastian Vettel silenced his doubters by first taking pole position, and then leading almost the entire race to take his first victory of 2012, setting the fastest lap along the way to the championship lead.
Lotus continued their strong season with Raikkonen second after challenging Vettel at one point, and Grosjean an impressive third. McLaren had a miserable day, with pitstop errors limiting Hamilton to eighth place, and Button retiring with a cracked exhaust just a few laps from the end of the race.
Spain – Maldonado wins for Williams
Pastor Maldonado inherited his first pole position after Lewis Hamilton was excluded from qualifying, and then calmly drove on to his first victory, in the process ending the worst slump in the history of the Williams team. Only Fernando Alonso could challenge the Venezuelan in another race of tyre management. Kimi Raikkonen made a late charge to finish third, just a few tenths behind Alonso.
The drama on Sunday was off the track, however, as a massive fire erupted in the Williams garage 90 minutes after the race ended. In a weekend that also included the 70th birthday party of Sir Frank Williams, there really was a bit of everything.
Monaco – Webber reigns for Red Bull
Michael Schumacher grabbed the headlines on Saturday when he topped the times in qualifying for the first time since his comeback. However, a five-place grid penalty meant the seven-time champion started the race sixth.
Mark Webber took Red Bull's third successive Monaco win, leading Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso in a very close finish. Rain almost intervened to spice up the race, but it was ultimately a fairly processional affair. Red Bull became the first team to win two races in 2012, and extended their lead in the Constructors' Championship. Fernando Alonso came away from the weekend leading the Drivers' Championship.
With six different winners from six races, 2012 has now had the most open start to a season in Formula One history. The teams now head to Canada, where there could be a seventh winner. Alternatively, it could be time for a driver to stamp his authority on the championship. Either way, it looks like the excitement of a close season is set to continue.