With a 13-point advantage going into the final race of 2012, Sebastian Vettel – needing to finish only 4th – had all the impetus to reap glory with ease. However, as Richard Brown looks over, the Brazilian Grand Prix played host to a championship decider of epic proportions.
The sprinkling of rain that accompanied the start of Sunday’s race, as the driver’s sat on the grid with dry tyres, added a nervy edge to what was an already exciting and palpable atmosphere of tension.
The cars set off from the line. Both Ferraris got incredible starts – Felipe Massa in particular launching from 5th to 2nd – both Red Bulls made decent getaways, but found themselves under threat from cars that gained better acceleration on the run down to Turn 1.
Vettel himself got good traction off the grid, but found himself squeezed to the unfavourable tight inside line of the first chicane, swamped by cars arriving with speed down the outside. He emerged from the first forays down in 7th.
As the pack charged down towards Turn 4, the field jostled for slipstream and track position, up to the first heavy braking zone of the lap – how would different drivers respond to the unpredictable track conditions? On a track that was ever-cooling with the rain, there were big contrasts in drivers attacking the braking zone.
Vettel appeared to brake earlier than most, Kimi Raikkonen in the Lotus narrowly avoided the Red Bull initially. However, the over-ambitious Bruno Senna, making a brave lunge up the inside of Force India’s Paul Di Resta, suddenly found himself on a V-line for Vettel with nowhere to go. The Brazilian banged into the rear of the Red Bull, tipping it into a spin.
Vettel was then succumbed to a precarious 5 seconds of dodgems with both Senna and Sauber’s Sergio Perez bouncing off him, as the champion-elect faced backwards up the hill in front of oncoming traffic.
The communal exhaling of air in relief from Red Bull fans at seeing Vettel drive away unscathed, must have surely rivalled the wind Southampton has seen over the past 2 weeks. The ferocity of the impact Vettel’s car received at the rear was visually startling – more so, when put in the context of how damaged the car of guilty party, Bruno Senna, was in the incident’s aftermath.
What likely saved Vettel is how the rear wheels on modern F1 cars are much less vulnerable than those of yesteryear. It is rare nowadays to see a car, other than in the most extreme of collisions or wallop against a barrier, suffer great damage. The rear suspension is firmly built into the gearbox/engine structure, is surrounded by a strong plateau of bodywork, and is bound together by rigid wishbone arms.
Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the sizeable chunk taken off Vettel’s left-side floor and exhaust assembly, will have hindered his aerodynamic stability during the race – particularly through corners.
But if we consider that it could so easily have been the front wheels to his Red Bull car taking the brunt of the impact, fate might have played a different card to Vettel on Lap 1.
Lewis Hamilton will certainly be leaving Brazil wishing that the exposed front-end of F1 cars had offered him more strength, as he found himself on the wrong end of a collision with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg.
In what was probably the next biggest sub-plot alongside the championship battle, the 26-year-old Briton was desperate to win his last race for McLaren, as a fitting farewell to a team that has been part of his life for 14 years.
Having won McLaren’s first pole position at the Interlagos circuit since 2000 in qualifying, Hamilton was highly competitive from the get-go during the race, battling for the lead with team-mate Jenson Button in the early knockings.
The other star of the race was indeed Nico Hulkenberg, who turned out to be the McLarens’ closest challenger. His unfortunate driving error under braking, whilst trying to re-pass Hamilton for the lead, should not make us forget the stella drive he produced.
Exploiting the tricky conditions, the German driver who is heading to the Sauber Team for 2013, re-demonstrated his wet-dry driving skills in Brazil that saw him take a surprise pole position for Williams back in 2010.
What will give Hulkenberg at least bittersweet satisfaction from this year’s race – which eventually only saw him finish 4th – is the fact he heads into the 2013 championship with a secured team contract.
To the contrary, in 2010, the same day he got his superb pole position, the F1 world learned of the announcement that Hulkenberg had lost his position at Williams for the next season – in undeserving circumstances.
Hamilton’s demise from another race that could have seen him claim potential victory, adds one final ‘if’ in a 2012 campaign that has had more of them than a Rudyard Kipling poem, for the now Mercedes-bound driver.
As one can tell, what was so brilliant about Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix, was the culmination of so many different contests and journeys at once.
At the back of the grid even, there were crucial scores to settle. One that commentators often gave reference to during the race, was the battle between the smaller teams for 10th place in the Constructors Championship.
At face value, this might appear understandably unimportant. But for these teams, finishing 10th out of the 12 teams competing is hugely valuable. The team that does so receives £40 million of prize money – which when added to ease the burden of huge team expenditure costs, will be so vital to the next season’s campaign for that given team.
At this final race, it was Caterham, with driver Vitaly Petrov’s crucial 11th place finish in Brazil, that pipped the Marussia Team to the post – a gutting prospect for them, having held the precious 10th position in the table since late September.
As a final thought, spare a second for losing title contender, Fernando Alonso. There are few words to describe how he must be feeling. His undying motivation – personal, and in publicly encouraging his team to persevere – commitment and consistency across this 2012 season, in a car that at no point was the fastest for raw speed has been quite something.
Alonso drove with precision and aggression in Sunday’s race, and to yet again reach the podium through all the climatic chaos, after another lowly qualifying placing, was a fitting reminder that Fernando Alonso will always be there to the maximum of his capabilities – never giving up.
With Alonso driving exactly the sort of race he had to, Vettel needed every ounce of his sporting aptitude to make it back up through the field, to the eventual 6th place that secured his title confirmation.
There is still a fairly vocal section of fans that question Sebastian Vettel’s deservedness to have achieved so much success, so quickly as a young man who is scarily only 25 years old.
Vettel certainly has his fallibilities – his external behavioural traits, such as reacting to misfortune or disappointment poorly, often make him easy to dislike; or his occasionally uneasy presence when racing wheel-to-wheel with other competitors. Equally, his often imperious qualifying performances, that equate to numerous victories leading races from lights-to-flag, rekindles uneasy memories of the style of dominance Michael Schumacher and Ferrari enjoyed during 2002-4
One recent comment I read on an F1 forum claimed that for Vettel to truly be classed as a ‘great’ driver, he needs to now win glory at another team. Yet, one only needs think back to Aryton Senna’s three world championships – all won with McLaren; Jim Clark’s time of dominance during the 1960s – all achieved with the Lotus marquee – to realise that such claims, and others you will read around, are loose at best.
It is important that in the scramble to come to terms with quite how consistent Sebastian Vettel’s performances have been, the fan community don’t start creating judgemental criteria out of thin air. Onlookers must accept that the fundamental utilisation of skill and equipment Vettel and his team have shown over the past 3 years, is similar to all champions who have gone before. Given the intense competitiveness shown by numerous teams and drivers over recent seasons compared to past eras, it is arguably an even greater feat.
To succeed at anything in life takes determination, luck and talent. For the the 24 drivers that form up on the grid each year, their sport equates to their life, and such factors go hand-in-hand. One man, in one car, has to come out the winner ultimately – and the combination of the aforementioned, and so much more, is why only 32 men have had the honour of calling themselves ‘Formula 1 World Champion’.
Sunday’s Brazilian Grand Prix, at Interlagos, gave us a worthy race to end a brilliant and predictably unpredictable season of Grand Prix racing. With technical regulations remaining stable for 2013 and several key drivers moving between teams, the new season next March promises to deliver more of the same.