As a finale to the 2012 Formula One season, the Brazilian Grand Prix was an apt representation of the campaign.
Inclement weather turned the race on its head, giving every team a chance of getting to the front of the grid, mirroring the unpredictability of the start of the season which saw seven different drivers win the first seven races of the year. McLaren boasted the best car on the grid, only for bad luck to deny their lead driver Lewis Hamilton another win – another frustrating chapter in a season which finally saw him leave his boyhood team.
And in the midst of it all the title race unfolded, in which the two best drivers, Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, concertinaed up and down the standings, the lead in the provisional points tallies changing hands time and again.
In the end it was Vettel who triumphed, putting aside a first-lap shunt which saw him drop from fourth on the grid to the back of the field to finish sixth. Alonso did his bit, but saw his second-place finish rendered meaningless by his rival’s progress behind him.
Vettel takes the plaudits as he continues along a seemingly inexorable path to greatness. Only Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher had ever won three titles in a row – Vettel, still only 25, is by some distance the youngest to achieve the feat. Only Schumacher, Fangio and Alain Prost have more titles – the German now keeps company with the likes of Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda and Ayrton Senna as triple champions.
And now that Schumacher has hung up his racing gloves for good, when the drivers line up at the start of the 2013 season, Vettel will be the sport’s most decorated active racer.
As Alonso watched on from the podium in Sao Paulo, knowing how close he had come once again, he would have been forgiven for wondering how different it might all have been.
Had the Spaniard managed to garner just 11 more points at the right times in his career, we could now be reflecting on Alonso as a five-time world champion with three different constructors.
Since his 2005 and 2006 triumphs with Renault, he has had more near-misses than Pastor Maldonado on a slippery track.
For McLaren in 2007, he ended the year a single point behind Kimi Raikkonen of Ferrari. In 2010 he led going into the last Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi, only to be stranded in eighth place as Vettel took the lead in the championship for the first time in the season right at the death, winning by four points. This year, the margin was three points.
Despite that, Alonso has been the outstanding driver of this campaign. The Spaniard treated us to a title race that went to the wire this season where none should have existed. He wrung the neck out of one of Ferrari’s poorest cars when it lacked quality or competitiveness, then held on resolutely when Vettel and Red Bull clicked into gear towards the season’s end.
There were coruscating drives at the beginning of the year, days when willpower alone seemed to eke out extra places and points towards the end. His two retirements of the season came as a result of being collected in crashes that were not of his own making – just a couple of ninth-place finishes would have been enough. Had Vettel had the same car to drive, would he still be world champion?
That is not to denigrate Vettel’s achievements – he could easily point to an alternator which cost him and his team precious points and key moments in the season if we are to delve too deeply into the ‘what-ifs’ of the campaign.
Equally, he produced some drives worthy of a champion in a season where he did not always have an all-conquering car. In two of the last three grands prix, circumstances forced him to find a way through the field from last place. He finished third in Abu Dhabi, sixth in Brazil.
With the technical regulations changing little between this season and next, and McLaren needing to rebuild the team following the loss of Hamilton, it would be remiss to look too far beyond a repeat of Vettel and Alonso’s race for the title.
Another nail-biter next year, perhaps ahead of the German becoming Alonso’s team-mate at Ferrari in 2014, and the Formula One landscape will look very exciting once more.