Will Gray

Season review: The Frontrunners

One of the most competitive F1 seasons in recent years saw eight different winners in 20 Grands Prix – so with a combination of speed, luck and reliability the key to success were Red Bull worthy winners?

At the end of 2011, F1 had a wide spread between the top cars with Red Bull on 650, Ferrari 495, McLaren 375 then Mercedes down at 165 and Lotus (then Renault) on 73.

Early season form in 2012, however, suggested Mercedes and Lotus and even two others - Williams and Sauber - could be a threat to the front three.

In the end, it was only Lotus who was able to deliver a consistent enough campaign – albeit mainly through Kimi Raikkonen - to break the old mould as the top three closed together and became a new top four – with Red Bull on 460, Ferrari 400, McLaren 378 and Lotus 303.

In terms of intra-team driver rivalries, it was all Fernando Alonso at Ferrari and it was also clearly Sebastian Vettel with the upper hand at Red Bull.

At McLaren, though, Lewis Hamilton was often faster than Jenson Button but a series of issues meant he never grew the points advantage he needed within the team to secure full backing for a one-man title shot.

Ultimately, that hurt both him and the team – because in many races they were the ones with the car to beat.

A look at the averages makes for interesting reading.

Hamilton was a class above in qualifying, taking the best average grid position of 4.3 and a 16-4 ratio over Button. An impressive 11 out of his 20 starts were made from the front-row - including seven pole positions - and only once did he qualify outside the top ten.

Vettel was next best on an average of 5.1 and six poles although he missed out on the top ten on three occasions. His team-mate Mark Webber was third on 5.9 with his run of 2-1-2-2-3-3 in the final six qualifying sessions improving his numbers.

Alonso was only fourth best on Saturdays with an average of 6.1 – with just two poles and three front row starts – while Raikkonen never made front row at all and averaged a start position of 7.5 with his best being one third and four fourths.

Come race day, however, and it all fell apart for Hamilton.

Despite winning four races – just one less than champion Vettel’s season-topping tally – Hamilton’s average position in the races he finished was 5.3 compared to Vettel’s 4.4 and Alonso’s 3.3.

Hamilton led almost 20 percent the race laps – again, second only to Vettel’s impressive 30 percent – but problems and failures cost him the title.

The McLaren was the most consistently performing car as the team showed their usual strength in continued in-season development while Red Bull was slow to shine and Ferrari struggled at the start and end.

Front row lock-outs in Australia and Malaysia pointed towards a strong season for McLaren but after winning in Australia, Button’s hopes were effectively wiped out by a nine-race run going the wrong way on tyre management and at the same time Hamilton was continually hampered by operational issues that stopped him collecting points when the team was clearly on top.

Although those issues were sorted in the mid-season, putting Hamilton firmly in the title picture at the end of the European season, gearbox failure in Singapore, suspension problems in Japan, anti-rollbar issues in South Korea and fuel pump failure in Abu Dhabi ended his chances.

All in all, Hamilton lost at least three potential victories through mistakes or car failures – and had they all converted, he would have been right in the title race as it went down to the wire.

Ferrari, meanwhile, were the opposite. Their car was far from the strongest on the grid – in fact it was often only third or fourth best – but Alonso ended up just three points from the title.

With 13 podium finishes - three ahead of champion Vettel – Alonso was the most consistently successful driver of all, yet not once did the Ferrari driver set a fastest race lap.

The car simply was not good enough, and of Alonso’s three victories, the first was helped by McLaren’s mistakes and the second was inherited when Vettel dropped out. Only the third, in Germany, was what you would call a genuine race victory.

The team simply struggled to get developments to work. That was either down to issues with the reliability of outputs from their wind tunnel or a simple lack of ideas from the design office – but given they said the tunnel issues were sorted mid season and their performance still tailed off to the end, it suggests the latter.

At times Alonso could not help himself from making public comment on the team’s slow development rate – and he had a fair point. Given that, it’s no wonder he has regularly been named as the driver of the season.

One man who might dispute that, however, is Raikkonen.

It’s easy to forget that the Finn started the season rusty after two years on the sidelines competing in everything from snowmobile challenges to US oval truck racing.

He stepped back into F1 life just as he had left it – cool, calm, cold and completely disinterested in playing the media. This time, he had the strong internal support of a team that had staked a lot on his success. They played him well, and he relished it.

He was the only driver to complete every race and while the car was certainly able to mix it with the front-runners it was often not quite good enough to stay there to the end.

While team-mate Romain Grosjean was suffering mistakes and retirements - seven in total plus a one-race ban for dangerous driving – Raikkonen clocked up enough points to finish third in the championship table, albeit some distance off the two title contenders.

His average in the races he finished was 5.5 – impressive considering he completed all but one racing lap. He scored six podiums and just as it looked like he would never get to the top step he did, with victory in Abu Dhabi.

The gamble for Lotus paid off well – and despite Grosjean’s issues (which they trust he has learned from after signing him up again for 2013) it put them firmly ahead of rivals Mercedes.

The Brackley-based German team’s season went from exciting promise to ultimate disappointment, with a one-off victory for Nico Rosberg in China all the ‘Silver Arrows’ could cheer about.

Even the excitement in Monaco of a Michael Schumacher pole - his first since his return - was dampened by a five-place grid penalty he had to serve for bad driving in the preceding race.

It was a case of seeing out his three-year comeback for Schumacher and although there was always a question mark over his contract extension, when the team announced Lewis Hamilton for 2013, Schumacher’s reaction was not that of a man who had decided his own fate.

An average of 9.7 on the grid and failure to make the top-ten shoot-out eight times - including four times in the final six races – was simply not good enough.

In races he was let down by the team on many occasions and clocked seven retirements but his average position when he made it to the finish was only 10th and that was not the performance level expected from either side – driver or team.

However, the fact that Schumacher matched Rosberg 10-10 in qualifying (a huge improvement on last year) and that the younger German managed an only slightly better finish average of 8.8, implies it was more of a car issue than a driver problem.

Indeed, Mercedes went in the wrong direction in set-up, hampered by an innovative double-DRS design that while initially beneficial ultimately got in the way of development progress.

They could never sort out issues with their rear tyre wear, while internal changes in the aero department, moving from a 50 percent to 60 percent wind tunnel model and losing key aero man Loic Bigois, all had their problems.

They failed to keep pace with development – shown by their average grid position dropping from 3.8 in the first half of the year to 9.2 in the second – and with long-term Mercedes chief Norbert Haug taking the blame and leaving his role.

One small ray of light for Mercedes, however, is that they stopped car development much earlier than their rivals and that could give them a head start in 2013. But they will need to make a big step.

And so to Red Bull. Having lost the huge benefit of the blown diffuser, around which their car concept had been carefully constructed, the champions were on the back foot from the off.

In the early part of the year, the car was not bad but it was certainly not one of the leaders. Through intense development, however, they turned it into a champion.

In the first six races, Vettel started 6-5-11-1-7-9 and Webber 5-4-6-3-11-1. In the last six races, that turned into 1-2-1-24-1-4 and 2-1-2-2-3-3 respectively. Red Bull threw everything they could at the car, introducing new parts and throwing them away if they didn't work.

Sometimes it’s hard to find the right direction, and it took them a while to develop an innovative concept at the rear of the car – but the long-term view worked and unlike Ferrari, who seemed to take a zig-zag approach to development, Red Bull had a clear focus on the concept they wanted to achieve and persisted until they got it right.

The key was splitting the flow at the rear of the car to maximise the diffuser – and when they got this to work and then added a double DRS into the mix, they were almost unstoppable.

In the early stages, Vettel did well to keep collecting points – in the first 13 races, he took 10 points finishes including three podiums and one victory. It kept him in the mix. Webber, meanwhile, also picked up enough scores to keep him in the mix too.

But from the Singapore Grand Prix, Vettel’s run of 1-1-1-1-3-2-6 is what won him the world championship. It showed once again that when he has a car that suits him, he is pretty much unstoppable.

Once back in the old routine of starting from the front, getting out of range for DRS and then controlling the race, Vettel knew he had what it took to retain his title. And he did it.

So yes, Red Bull and Vettel did deserve the title. Because they fought hard, developed well and turned an ok car into a dominant one. And that is the mark of champions.