November 15th, 2012 (F1plus / Chris Cameron-Dow).-2012 had the most open and competitive start to a season in history. Seven different drivers won the first seven races for five different teams and three different engines. It seemed that no-one could establish ascendancy.
But inevitably an order emerged, and the final races of the season are now all about Red Bull and Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso.
This is how the season has unfolded:
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.
Canada – Superb Hamilton makes it seven
A race of tyre strategies saw Lewis Hamilton emerge victorious, after he made a crucial second stop with 20 laps to go. Fernando Alonso inherited the lead, but was far off the pace in the closing stages as his tyres fell off. Hamilton charged through the field to take victory with Romain Grosjean second and Sergio Perez third. Hamilton's win made it seven different winners in the opening seven races of the season.
The weekend was not without controversy as Red Bull's wheel hubs were found to be illegal, and the team was forced to make modifications ahead of the race.
Europe – Alonso wows home fans in Valencia
Qualifying on Saturday saw Vettel on pole ahead of Hamilton, with Alonso far back in 11th on the grid. On Sunday, the Spaniard surged through the field, running third before the safety car came out. On the restart, Alonso passed Romain Grosjean, and then inherited the lead when Vettel's alternator failed. Grosjean suffered the same fate as Vettel, leaving Alonso unchallenged for a win in front of his home crowd.
The European Grand Prix marked the return of Michael Schumacher to the podium, with third place his best result since returning to Formula One in 2010.
Great Britain – Webber trumps Alonso at Silverstone
The British Grand Prix weekend was one of the wettest in recent memory, culminating in qualifying being red-flagged when there was too much water on the track for safe competition. The race itself, however, was dry, and was won by a determined Mark Webber for Red Bull.
Fernando Alonso had taken pole position, and led from the start to the second round of pitstops. But Webber had always been not too far behind, and with fresher tyres in the last stint of the race easily caught and passed Alonso before calmly proceeding to the chequered flag for his second win of the season. Sebastian Vettel completed the podium in the other Red Bull. The race marked the continuing decline of McLaren, as Hamilton and Button finished eighth and tenth, and the continuing resurgence of Felipe Massa, who put in a strong drive to fourth place.
Germany – Alonso impervious to pressure
Fernando Alonso took pole position in pouring rain on the Saturday, and then proceeded to demonstrate why he is the form driver in Formula One as he took his third victory of the season, relinquishing the race lead only for a couple of laps in the first round of pitstops.
Alonso was pursued all the way by Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button, the latter in an upgraded and much-improved McLaren, but the Ferrari driver drove flawlessly despite the constant pressure from the chasing cars. Vettel had been ahead of Button until the McLaren driver passed him in the second round of stops. In the dying stages of the race, Vettel passed Button round the outside of the Spitzkehre hairpin, but ran off the track in the process. After the race, the World Champion was duly penalised for his illegal move, which pushed him back to fifth and elevated Kimi Raikkonen to the podium.
Hungary – Hamilton stays calm under pressure
A comedy of errors for Michael Schumacher, who lined up in the wrong grid box and then turned off his engine before the re-start. After being wheeled back into the pits, he shot off to the end of the pitlane and earned himself a drive-through penalty for speeding as a result – all before the race even started.
If there were questions about McLaren's form, they were answered in style by Lewis Hamilton, who took pole on Saturday, and then kept his cool to take victory on Sunday. Overtaking is extremely difficult in Budapest, as Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen discovered, each trying and failing to get past the 2008 World Champion. The finishing order was Hamilton, Raikkonen, Grosjean, with championship leader Alonso only managing fifth, just behind Sebastian Vettel and ahead of Button. Bruno Senna finally started to show what he can do in the Williams, finishing in a solid seventh place.
Belgium – Button wins, Grosjean banned
Jenson Button took his first McLaren pole position and became the first driver to lead every lap of a race in 2012 to record a dominant victory at Spa. Sebastian Vettel put in an impressive drive to finish second, with Kimi Raikkonen continuing his strong season with third place.
Romain Grosjean provided the drama by causing a first corner pile-up that saw himself, Lewis Hamilton, Fermando Alonso and Sergio Perez taken out of the race. Grosjean's car flew through the air and came perilously close to Alonso's helmet. Fortunately, no-one was injured, but the stewards decided it was time to clamp down on recklessly aggressive driving and banned Grosjean for the next race at Monza.
Italy – Sombre Hamilton leads home impressive Perez
In the run up to the Italian Grand Prix, the press was full of speculation over Lewis Hamilton's future, with rumours linking him to Mercedes for 2013. He refused to give any indication of his future plans, and instead got on with the business of racing. Based on his pole position and fairly comfortable victory, the media frenzy did not distract him at all, although he seemed less jubilant than usual on the podium.
The standout drive of the day, however, came from Sauber's Sergio Perez, who made good use of his hard tyres at the start of the race to run long in his first stint. That meant he had fresher, faster medium tyres towards the end of the race while most of the other cars were on hard tyres. He took advantage of his extra grip and scythed his way through the field, finishing second from 12th on the grid.
Singapore – Hamilton’s heartbreak, Vettel picks up the pieces
The weekend appeared to belong to Lewis Hamilton. He took pole position, led off the line and looked comfortable in the lead until the gearbox in his McLaren failed. Sebastian Vettel was on hand to take the lead, which he held until the end of the race. Jenson Button came home second with Fernando Alonso scoring yet another podium in third place to extend his championship lead yet again.
Before the race, Michael Schumacher had never scored a point under lights. He ensured the continuation of that record by smashing into the back of Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso when he misjudged the braking distance required for turn 14 on cold tyres and brakes after a safety car period. The seven-time World Champion accepted the blame for the incident and a 10-place grid penalty for the next race in Japan.
Japan – Vettel wins, Alonso spins out, Schumacher retires from F1
On Thursday, Michael Schumacher gave a press conference in which he announced his second, and final, retirement from Formula One as at the end of 2012. The seven-time World Champion thanked his family, friends and team for their support during his career.
The on-track action was all about Sebastian Vettel. On Saturday he took pole with Mark Webber second to complete the first Red Bull front row lockout of the season. On Sunday, Vettel romped to a comfortable victory, setting the fastest lap in the process. Felipe Massa returned to the podium for the first time in almost two years by finishing second, and Kamui Kobayashi came third in front of his home crowd for his first podium finish.
Fernando Alonso suffered a left-rear puncture at the start after contact with Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus, and spun out of the race in the first corner. Alonso's non-finish allowed Vettel to close the gap at the top of the championship to just four points.
With five races remaining, Alonso and Vettel are just about equal on points, although the Red Bull looks like the quicker car. Kimi Raikkonen and Lewis Hamilton are a bit further back, but cannot be counted out of the championship fight just yet. In a season that has been thoroughly unpredictable, it is still too early to make predictions about the title result, although Vettel is looking formidably fast at the moment.
Korea – Hat-trick puts Vettel on top
Sebastian Vettel continued his run of form by winning the Korean Grand Prix comfortably from team-mate Mark Webber, and thereby taking the lead of the World Championship. Webber had qualified on pole just ahead of his team-mate, but Vettel was first into turn one and never looked back. For Ferrari it was all about damage limitation as Fernando Alonso came home third but could not challenge the Red Bulls.
The race saw another first lap incident, this time caused by Kamui Kobayashi. The Japanese driver got his braking wrong for turn three and took himself, Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg out of the race. Lewis Hamilton's car needed no contact to damage itself, and he drove most of the race with a rear anti-roll bar failure. Nonetheless, the 2008 champion drove superbly to bring his car home tenth.
India – Vettel makes it four in a row
If there was any doubt about the superiority of the Red Bull / Sebastian Vettel combination, it was put to rest as the reigning World Champion took pole and then dominated the race to take his fourth successive victory. Championship rival Fernando Alonso managed to beat Mark Webber to second place, although he was helped by a KERS problem on Webber's car. It was a race of many punctures, as Schumacher, Perez and Maldonado all lost out through tyre damage from mild contact with other cars.
In the Drivers' Championship, Vettel extended his lead over Fernando Alonso to 13 points with three races remaining. Although Kimi Raikkonen, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton were all mathematically in with a chance of the title, it was already clear that Vettel and Alonso were the only realistic title contenders.
Abu Dhabi – Return of the Ice Man
Lotus and Kimi Raikkonen had looked close to winning all season, and they finally took victory with a stunning drive from the Finn in Abu Dhabi. Although the weekend had been dominated by Lewis Hamilton, Raikkonen put himself in an ideal position with a perfect start to second from fourth on the grid, and then calmly took over the lead when Hamilton's McLaren coasted to a halt. Although Fernando Alonso did everything he could to reel in the Lotus, he had to settle for second place in the end.
In a remarkable turn of events, Sebastian Vettel finished third after starting from the pitlane. Vettel had been excluded from qualifying for not providing an adequate fuel sample after the session, which meant he had to start from the back of the field. He benefited from two safety cars, which allowed him to make pitstops without losing too much time, but he nonetheless showed the enormous speed available in the Red Bull and minimised his loss of points to Alonso in the process.
With just two races to go, only Vettel and Alonso are in the title chase. There are ten points between them, which means the title will almost certainly go to the final race in Brazil. Next up is the inaugural race in Austin, Texas at the newly built and spectacular looking Circuit of the Americas.