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The 2012 Season Review - the Golden Era continues 30 Nov 2012

Race winner Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing celebrates on the podium.
Formula One World Championship, Rd16, Korean Grand Prix, Race, Korea International Circuit, Yeongam, South Korea, Sunday, 14 October 2012 Red Bull Racing RB8 exhaust outlet and rear floor detail.
Formula One World Championship, Rd1, Australian Grand Prix, Practice, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Friday, 16 March 2012 Pirelli tyres.
Formula One World Championship, Rd16, Korean Grand Prix, Race, Korea International Circuit, Yeongam, South Korea, Sunday, 14 October 2012 Race winner Jenson Button (GBR) McLaren celebrates in parc ferme.
Formula One World Championship, Rd1, Australian Grand Prix, Race, Albert Park, Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, 18 March 2012 Race winner Pastor Maldonado (VEN) Williams FW34 celebrates with the team.
Formula One World Championship, Rd5, Spanish Grand Prix, Race Day, Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, 13 May 2012 Race winner Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari F2012 crosses the line.
Formula One World Championship, Rd 2, Malaysian Grand Prix, Race, Sepang, Malaysia, Sunday, 25  March 2012 Romain Grosjean (FRA) Lotus E20, Fernando Alonso (ESP) Ferrari F2012 and Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4-27 crash at the start of the race.
Formula One World Championship, Rd12, Belgian Grand Prix, Preparations, Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, Sunday, 2 Sept Race winner Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing celebrates in parc ferme.
Formula One World Championship, Rd14, Singapore Grand Prix, Race, Marina Bay Street Circuit, Singapore, Sunday, 23 September 2012 Race winner Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren MP4-27 crosses the line.
Formula One World Championship, Rd19 United States Grand Prix, Race, Austin, Texas, 18 November 2012 Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Lotus F1 on the podium.
Formula One World Championship, Rd18, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Race, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday, 4 November 2012 Race winner Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes AMG F1 W03 crosses the line.
Formula One World Championship, Rd3, Chinese Grand Prix, Shanghai, China, Sunday, 15 April 2012

Formula One racing’s golden era maintained its momentum in 2012. Six world champions slugged it out over 20 races, as eight drivers were winners - making history as the first seven events were won by different people - and six teams were triumphant.

In the end, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull did it yet again, scoring their third consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ world titles, but it was far from a foregone conclusion for much of the year.

DRS and KERS remained and continued to exert their influence, but new regulations designed to outlaw exhaust-blown diffusers reduced rear-end downforce, and it took several teams a long while to re-optimise their cars. That, however, did not stop the most adventurous, notably Red Bull, from pushing the regulations to their limits. Mercedes, meanwhile, developed a double DRS which Red Bull and Lotus also pursued, though the results were often inconclusive.

Pirelli went a lot further than they had in 2011, creating ‘made to degrade’ rubber that was the racing version of the old qualifying tyres of the Eighties. They pushed that to the limit with softer compounds than in 2011, but once they lost their efficiency, the driver would find his lap times dropping over a cliff. For much of the season, keeping the tyres alive was a major part of the driver’s art, and when somebody as silky smooth as Jenson Button started having problems either switching them on or keeping them alive, you knew just how tough the game had become.

As a result the racing was hugely unpredictable for the first half of the season, which started in Australia as the 20 Grands Prix took the circus to Malaysia, China, Bahrain, Spain, Monaco, Canada, Spain, Britain, Germany, Hungary, Belgium, Italy, Singapore, Japan, Korea, India, Abu Dhabi, the United States and Brazil. Last year Vettel scored 11 victories; this year was much harder and he won five, to Lewis Hamilton’s four, Fernando Alonso and Button’s three, Mark Webber’s two and one apiece for Nico Rosberg, Pastor Maldonado and Kimi Raikkonen.

The changes to the exhaust regulations hit Red Bull harder than anyone else, and it was not until Bahrain that Vettel really got into his stride, though he had taken a hard-won second place between the dominant McLarens in Australia. Subsequently Webber won in Monaco and Silverstone, but it wasn’t until Valencia that the team looked dominant, even though alternator failure there cost Vettel victory.

Meanwhile, McLaren had started the year with the best car, wrapping up the front row in Melbourne and Sepang and winning with Button in the former. They were quick in Malaysia and China too, though Hamilton was compromised in Shanghai by a five-place grid drop for a gearbox change. That was the first sign of the less than perfect reliability that would cost the team dear.

They slumped after Spain, where a fuelling snafu dropped Hamilton from an excellent pole to the back of the grid, but surged ahead again in the late summer, with victory for Hamilton in Hungary, Button at Spa and Hamilton again in Italy.

In between them, Ferrari had gone into the year knowing their car needed a lot of work. Alonso qualified only eighth in Australia and finished fifth, but then came that opportunist’s win in Malaysia, and soon he was either heading the points table or running in the top three.

Despite the F2012’s shortcomings, he always got the best out if it, and after the first seven races fell to the ‘Different Seven’, he became the first repeat winner after Vettel and Romain Grosjean retired in Valencia. Then he won again in Germany, but as Ferrari’s development lagged woefully thereafter, Red Bull in particular struck back. Vettel lucked in in Singapore as Hamilton’s gearbox broke, but then a revised rear suspension (amongst other upgrades) generated fearsome traction and he won in Japan, Korea and India too. At the same time, Alonso lost a 25-point chunk of his advantage when Grosjean triggered mayhem at the start in Belgium, and more points when Raikkonen took him out at the start in Japan. Thereafter Ferrari were on the back foot and had to resort to extreme tactics such as deliberately breaking a gearbox seal on Felipe Massa’s car in Austin to get Alonso on to the clean side of the grid.

In the end, McLaren got back on top in both the United States - where F1 racing made a stupendous return at Austin’s all-new, purpose-built Circuit of The Americas in Texas - and Brazil with wins for Hamilton and Button, but Red Bull had the pace over Ferrari and duly clinched both titles. Taken over all 20 races, it was a just result, though one had to feel desperately sorry for Alonso, who had driven his heart out all year. And for Massa who, having endured a terrible first half of the season, regained all his old form in the second yet had always to subjugate his own interests to those of his team mate.

McLaren should have stayed in the fight, but paid the price for its occasional performance slumps, mechanical reliability which struck down Button at Monza and Hamilton in Singapore and Abu Dhabi, and the bad luck that befell him in Brazil where he was taken out by Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg.

Reborn as Lotus, the old Renault team restructured around an exciting driver line-up as Raikkonen returned from rally exile, and team boss Eric Boullier brought Grosjean back from the wilderness after he won the 2011 GP2 championship.

That was inspired, and the Lotus E20 (named after the team’s Enstone base and the fact that it was the 20th design to emanate from there) was a very good car. At times, such as in Bahrain, Canada and Hungary it was probably the best car. Raikkonen admits that he should have been more aggressive pushing the change Vettel home in Bahrain, and Grosjean should have won in Valencia but for a faulty alternator. In the meantime, victory often seemed imminent but somehow it never happened - until Abu Dhabi. There, in one of the best races of the season, Raikkonen finally broke through and set the seal on his comeback with a great victory. 303 points and fourth place overall showed just how far Lotus had come - the only pity was that Robert Kubica was no longer a part of the team too.

Mercedes went into 2012 with high hopes, and they got higher still when the team won their first Grand Prix in some style in China, as Nico Rosberg finally broke his duck to join Damon Hill as a second-generation F1 winner. The young German was strong in Bahrain (where he was also uncharacteristically feisty with Hamilton and Alonso), and finished second in Monaco, but thereafter Mercedes simply slid off the pace and never looked threatening again. Meanwhile, in the other F1 W03, Michael Schumacher endured a terrible season, plagued by poor reliability. The one bright spot was the sole podium of his comeback, in Valencia. Otherwise he was limited to a sixth, four sevenths and two tenths. He also had unnecessary accidents, notably when he ran into Bruno Senna in Barcelona and Jean-Eric Vergne in Singapore.

Mercedes’ abiding problem was aerodynamic, as team principal Ross Brawn was finally moved to admit in Korea, but with Hamilton coming on board and Lotus aero chief Mike Elliott in charge of next year’s car, there may be light on the horizon.

Continued in Part Two

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