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The Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paulo three weeks ago was a perfect denouement to a Formula 1 season that will go down in history as a classic. Changing weather conditions throughout the race with the drivers' championship hanging in the balance made for edge of the seat action for the better part of two hours, and at the end of this final skirmish it was the favourite, Red Bull Racing's blue eyed boy Sebastian Vettel, who came out victorious. Weltmeister - three times over and the toast of Germany and the world at large.
The underdog in the storyline, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, the samurai in red, came heartbreakingly close in the end to lose out by a miniscule three points. In a sport where margins between cars are measured in terms of tens, hundredths, sometimes thousandths of a second, perhaps it was fitting that the best drivers in the world were separated by so tiny a gap. The Spaniard, though, held his head high on the podium that afternoon in Interlagos, assured in the knowledge that 2012 was his best year yet, and many would agree with that assessment.
That final act was but chapter 20 of an epic season. Over 9 months the traveling circus criss-crossed the globe and at every stop the sub-plots of the story developed toward that climax in Brazil. A season that was to have 6 world champions on the grid for the first time - Vettel, Alonso, teammates Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button at McLaren, veteran Michael Schumacher at Mercedes and the returning monosyllabic Finn Kimi Raikkonen at Lotus - was already full of promise before proceedings began in Melbourne back in March.
Clearly the field was brimming with talent, but in Formula 1 the pecking order is decided largely by the performance of the cars and how quickly teams develop their machines. However, this year with the regulations wiping out the advantage of exhaust-blown diffusers, the must-have technology of the past two seasons, the playing field was leveled out to an extent at the outset.
McLaren were the team to beat in Australia - Button getting the better of Hamilton in a straight fight in a dry race for the first time in their time together. The Woking squad stuck their cars on the front row in Malaysia a week later as well, but it then unraveled for the team as they found the car did not have performance on the wet tyres on race day. Alonso put together a giant-killing show in torrential conditions on the day, under pressure from Sauber newbie Sergio Perez to take an unlikely win in a car that was 6 tenths off the pace just a week prior.
The buzzword at this point was 'Pirelli'. The sole tyre supplier's new compounds were to be the X-factor for much of the first half as teams struggled to make them work in the optimum 'operating window' in changing conditions. A team would turn up and suddenly find itself competitive in the right conditions for the car, as Nico Rosberg did in China to take a maiden victory and a first also for the modern Mercedes team. In politically troubled Bahrain the track was suited to the Red Bull, with Vettel finally getting the top step ahead of a hard charging Raikkonen. The musical chairs continued in Barcelona for arguably the shock of the season - Pastor Maldonado holding off Alonso to notch up Williams' first victory in 8 years.
And so it was 5 different teams winning the first 5 races, a streak brought to an end by the other Red Bull of Mark Webber in Monaco, the Australian leading from start to finish for his second win in the principality. It could easily have been Schumacher's day however, as he was denied pole position only by a 5 place penalty incurred in Spain. That almost-pole was the highlight of the maestro's return from retirement. Onward to Canada and it was a 7th driver in 7 races to win - Hamilton comfortably winning in the McLaren in a race where Alonso dropped points due to erroneous strategy.
The season settled down a bit on its return to Europe - Red Bull and Ferrari it seemed had got on top of the tyres while McLaren were in a slump. Alonso was a popular victor in Valencia coming from 11th on the grid, capitalizing on reliability issues for Vettel and Romain Grosjean in the Lotus. Webber pounced on Alonso as his tyres fell away in the final laps in Silverstone for his second win, while the Spaniard had no such problems in Hockenheim where he held off Vettel for win number three of the year.
McLaren then had a resurgence either side of the summer break, winning in Hungary, Belgium and Italy with the fastest car - Hamilton coming out on top in Hungary and Monza, and Button in Spa.
The winds then changed direction and Red Bull found their sails full, aided by chief designer Adrian Newey unlocking the full potential of the RB8. This period was crucial for Vettel clinching the championship with four wins on the trot in Singapore, Japan, Korea and India, with Alonso not scoring at Suzuka.
Misfortune in Abu Dhabi saw Vettel start from the back of the grid while Lotus, the 'bridesmaids' of the year, found some luck to win at the hands of Raikkonen. A popular debut race at Austin in the United States witnessed an absorbing battle between Hamilton and Vettel for the win, with the McLaren man emerging on top to ensure the title went to the decider in Brazil.
If statistics were to mirror the story of 2012, the tale is best captured in this bit of data - Alonso finished second (5 times) and third (5 times) the most of anybody in the season, while he was beaten in the wins department only by Vettel (5) and Hamilton (4). In a car that was never outright quickest throughout the year, Alonso was consistently on the podium. Vettel's run of 4 wins clearly won him the title, while Hamilton was knocked out of the running by too many reliability and pit-stop operational errors at McLaren.
Red Bull Racing with two strong drivers were never threatened in the constructors' championship and retained it for the third year running.
And so after all the thrills and spills that Formula 1 provided us this season, there's more of the same to look forward to next season as the regulations largely remain the same, and Pirelli bring in another new range of tyres. Bring on 2013!
File Photograph Copyright: Red Bull Racing
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