“Where do you start, really? I think you guys had your show and we had to really fight until the end” were the words voiced by Sebastian Vettel in the post race press conference at Interlagos on Sunday. He was absolutely right, and what a show it was. A typically chaotic, rain affected Brazilian Grand Prix produced a cracker as well as a new piece of history. As well as being only the third driver in history to win 3 consecutive titles (after Fangio and Schumacher), Sebastian Vettel has become the youngest triple World Champion.
Qualifying set the trend for the weekend and reminded us all that Championship finales are rarely straightforward. It also reminded us that if McLaren were more reliable, they too would be in Championship contention, as Hamilton and Button filled the front row. Fastest in every practice session, the Woking based team looked comfortable, as Hamilton’s aim of leaving the team on a high was going to plan. Vettel was outqualified by team-mate Mark Webber for the 9th time of the year but was crucially 4 places ahead of Alonso. His team-mate Felipe Massa continued his improved form to take 5th on the grid, the Brazilian showing the sort of form that led him to a similarly tense finale at Interlagos in 2008. 2010 polesitter Nico Hulkenberg squeezed between the Ferrari’s, managing 7th to compound a difficult Saturday for Fernando. Team-mate Paul di Resta was disappointed to miss out on Q3 after a solid Friday and Michael Schumacher finished his last ever qualifying in 13th.
As the teams arrived to the grid, the first signs of rain appeared. Light, persistent rain was making tyre choice almost impossible. While nobody was willing to take a risk on the intermediate compound, each knew that the first lap was going to be very difficult indeed. Lining up for the 62nd time on the front row, the 2 McLarens got off the line well enough. Hamilton led comfortably into the first corner however Button lost his second place when quick starting Felipe Massa stormed round the outside of both Red Bulls before sliding down the inside of the Englishman’s machine. Button would use his KERS on the run down to Descida do Lago to recapture the spot. Vettel had made a cautious start and was forced to back off when team-mate Mark Webber cut across his bow into the Senna S (defending against Alonso). With the Red Bull rear end squirming and sliding, Alonso got round too, as did Hulkenberg. Suddenly the German was under pressure from Paul di Resta.
Into turn 4 they went and after being narrowly avoided by Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen, Vettel was then hit by the Williams of Bruno Senna. The Red Bull was sent spinning and Vettel was pointing the wrong way. Senna was then momentarily launched over the back of Vettel’s rear suspension before hitting Sergio Pérez’s Sauber. Both Senna and Pérez retired on the spot, but crucially the Red Bull, albeit visibly damaged, continued. While the German frantically communicated on the radio, Webber had closed on Massa into Junçao. The Australian pulled alongside the Ferrari on the outside, however in doing that left a giant Ferrari sized hole for Alonso to cheekily sneak down the inside to take third. Suddenly it was Alonso on course to win the championship.
Vettel hit back immediately, setting the fastest lap on lap 2 at the same time as Hulkenberg cruised past Webber. The Force India proving its pace as the German then pressured Alonso into a mistake into turn one. The Ferrari twitched on the increasingly damp braking zone and sailed into the run off area of the Senna S, and just about rejoined in front of Webber and Massa. As the rain got heavier, the yellow flags became more frequent, Romain Grosjean fishtailed at Mergulho and was chucked off into the barriers. His race, run. Meanwhile, almost unnoticed up front, Button had passed Hamilton for the lead of the Grand Prix, only for Lewis to sneak up the inside of turn 1 the next lap. Button locking up his brakes tried to find a way back through.
Still only 7 laps in, the second Red Bull of Webber also found himself pointing the wrong way; this time he was punted off by Kamui Kobayashi, with di Resta also in close company. Conditions were getting worse by the second, but Vettel was somehow, almost unbelievably up to 8th place, as Button got back past Hamilton on the exit of Descido do Lago on the 8th lap. Now the rain became even heavier and it was clear that a change of tyres was necessary. In came Hamilton and Webber to change to intermediate’s, as did Alonso. Red Bull then immediately pitted Vettel to cover the Ferrari’s move. In probably the craziest start of the year, we had Nico Hulkenberg fighting for the lead, both Caterhams, both Marussias and an HRT filling the remaining points positions; Kovalainen running as high as 6th.
After a couple of quiet laps, Hulkenberg closed to with a second of Jenson Button. The German, having taken pole in similar conditions in 2010, made his move on lap 19 to brilliantly take the lead of the race. He then proceeded to pull out a handy lead, seemingly at home with the conditions. He would keep the lead until lap 48.
The safety car came out on lap 23 due to debris on the track. Nico Rosberg already knew that, as he limped back to the pits with a puncture. That closed the pack up and it gave the viewers and to some extent the drivers a chance to take a breather and calm down a little. Lap 29 and the race was back on again. Hulkenberg made a stonking restart and bolted from the two McLarens of Button and Hamilton, Alonso maintained 4th but at this stage was not good enough for the championship. Vettel though, was immediately passed by Kobayashi, pushing Webber off in the process. Hamilton then got back past Button into second. Vettel then ceded his position to Massa who was performing well in the second Ferrari. The next lap, Massa pulled off a fantastic move round the outside of Kobayashi into 4.
It remained rather stagnant but no less tense for the following 5 laps. Further back, Raikkonen was closing and harrying the back of Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes and made a move round the outside of the Senna S. The two cars came perilously close to touching, but extreme driving skill and respect meant no contact was made. Raikkonen hung on round the outside, wheels almost banging and the two going side by side on the exit. Incredible action, that showed that Raikkonen was back with a bang and that Michael (at least in racecraft) had never lost it.
After Hulkenberg threw away his lead with a spin on lap 48, he chased Hamilton back down for the lead. When Hamilton got stuck behind Timo Glock and Caterham’s Heikki Kovalainen, the Force India pulled up alongside the McLaren. But in a cruel twist of fate, Hulkenberg locked up the rears and spun into the side of Hamilton, immediately breaking the Brits front suspension. Both dropped down, Hamilton retired and Alonso moved up onto the podium (despite surviving a monumental snap of oversteer on the same lap exiting the Senna S) and thus, provisional World Champion. Vettel pitted immediately for intermediate tyres, though his team were still without communications due to radio failure and had no tyres ready for him. He dropped outside the top 10 once more.
As Alonso then pitted, Hulkenberg was given a drive through penalty for causing a collision, a sour end to a wonderful Grand Prix for the German. The rain now at it’s heaviest, Vettel scrambled his way into the top 10 and up to 6th place. Passing Kobayashi, Vergne, di Resta and Schumacher. Surely the title would be his. Alonso closed to the back of Massa for second place. As expected the Ferrari number two leapt out the way and ceded the place. The closing laps would be as tense as the opening ones. The battle at the back between Caterham and Marussia was almost as intriguing as the title battle, with Petrov holding that elusive 11th position. An extra £10 million was estimated to be at stake and this battle was going down to the wire. Ultimately though, both battles were to be resolved a lap early as on lap 70 out of 71, Paul di Resta lost control of his Force India on the main straight and clattered into the wall, losing both front and rear wings. The Scottish driver exited unharmed but inevitably brought out the safety car. And with it, the end of the championship.
Jenson Button capped off a relatively disappointing campaign in the same manner he began it, with a near faultless victory. Alonso’s second place was not good enough in the end but the Spaniard showed great spirit to do everything he could to win the title. Massa ended the season with a well deserved home podium ahead of Webber, who just held off the unlucky Hulkenberg in 5th. Champion for the third time Vettel finished 6th ahead of Schumacher who had a typical Schumi charge to the points on his very last weekend.
An exhilarating finale to end all finales encapsulated the very essence of the 2012 Formula One season. Unpredictability, changeable conditions, the underdog rising and some scintillating wheel to wheel action. Roll on F1 2013 in only 16 weeks time.