27 Nov 2012

Formula 1: A Passion Reignited (2012 Season Review)

Sharon Endacotte reviews the 2012 Formula 1 season - and recalls how she fell in love with the sport in the first place.

Formula 1 has been part of my life for as long as I can remember.

When I was very small, my little pedal car had racing transfers on the bonnet. I clearly remember the hot summer day, the smell of the bright red plastic and my dad scratching the tiny decals all over it. I’d tear up and down the drive pretending to be James Hunt and my little sister (by dint of being called Nicola) had to be Niki Lauda. Those were The Rules, and anyway, she was two years younger than me.

I did stop short of setting her on fire.

My memories of those races seem to be set in perpetual summer, with heat haze shimmering over the track and the air filled with dust. It’s quite possible that was just how a 1970s Radio Rentals telly made everything look, but then again, most of the Seventies (at least, the bits without the power cuts) look like that in my mind.

In the Eighties, Dad and I normally got banished to the dining room to watch our races on a little colour portable. The picture was probably better than on the old telly – the 1980s Benetton liveries particularly benefitted from this improvement – but the sound quality was rubbish, so as far as I was aware, races in the Eighties sounded like they were being run by small, angry wasps.

The Nineties started with so much promise, but after Imola in 1994, like many fans, I needed to take a little time out from the sport. It wasn’t that I was unaware of the risks involved, but three horrific accidents, and two fatalities, in one weekend was hard to take. Like so many people, I had huge admiration for Ayrton Senna, but I was also familiar with Roland Ratzenberger from his appearance with his almost-namesake Roland Rat on TV-AM, racing his car against the Ratmobile. My birthday being May 2nd, Imola ’94 rather overshadowed my 21st. I didn’t much feel like celebrating.

I couldn’t stay away for long though, and although it took a while before I was comfortable watching races live again, I was following the action on the back pages of the newspapers, and I watched my sport rebuild itself into something bigger than before.

Bigger, but not necessarily better.

As time passed, regulations made tracks, cars and drivers safer, but it seemed that all too often the races followed the same pattern – a dull procession around yet another Hermann Tilke track, with little opportunity for overtaking and more entertainment in following the politics, personalities and strategies of the sport than in watching the actual races. Personally, I feel some of the changes in recent seasons, like KERS and DRS, have made a big improvement (though not as big as if they’d ditch *yawn* Valencia for somewhere even marginally interesting), but, like Kimi at Interlagos, F1 seemed to be having a little trouble finding its way.

And then came the 2012 season.

When Jenson Button decisively won the season opener, pundits immediately began to speculate that this was going to be 2009 all over again. Button had a great season in 2011 after all, and only the unstoppable force of Sebastian Vettel had kept him from the top of the Driver’s Championship (albeit by a wide margin). But it wasn’t that simple, and race after race we saw different winners, technical surprises and inspired racing as the season opened out into a Championship that was impossible to call.

I won’t say that every race was perfect, because there were some dull as ditchwater races mid-season, and Silverstone turned into a quagmire of mud and chaos, but the season as it unfolded had more twists and turns than the most complex circuit. Eventually, the contenders for the title started dropping away, Jenson then Lewis then Kimi, until it was down to Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso.

The tail end of the season was full of surprises. First, and following on from a dreary Indian GP, Abu Dhabi hosted a surprising entertaining race, full of the old fashioned thrills and spills we all love. The track has a reputation for being a bit, well, boring… well, not this time.

Surely Austin would let us down though? We’re always being told that America doesn’t ‘get’ Formula 1. The stands would be empty, the crowd apathetic at best and, as another Tilke track, the racing was going to be pedestrian. The US GP was going to be a disaster. We all knew it.

But we were wrong.

Actually, I had a hunch we were going to be wrong, because last year I worked with an intern from Austin, who had so much enthusiasm for what was coming that it gave me hope. And holy cow, was it worth hoping for.  The day after, I was on the phone to my dad and we were raving about it for ages. The 250 miles and 30-odd years between us may as well have vanished. Me and my dad, excited about F1 again. Magic.

And the race result, a faultless drive from Lewis Hamilton, meant that going into the final race of the season we still couldn’t say for certain who, of Vettel and Alonso, was going to claim the Driver’s Championship. They were both driving well.  Arguably, Alonso had worked harder in reaching such heights in a car that really wasn’t worthy of a champion, but Vettel’s sheer class and Red Bull’s technology were an epic combination. And Ferrari were prepared to do whatever they had to to give their lead driver a fighting chance.

So at last we came to Brazil and Interlagos, to a race that was almost a microcosm of the season itself. Vettel was hit and took damage on the first lap, ending up at the back of the pack after spinning out. Surely the title must be Alonso’s now? With Hamilton leading from the front, second passed between Button and Massa, Alonso moved up to third… but Vettel was already starting to move through the pack, the damage to his car not enough to slow him down.

 Then Alonso lost it on lap five, struggling to stay in the race as conditions worsened and the track became more and more slippery. Another couple of laps in, Grosjean and Webber both slid out, Webber being hit by Kobayashi, and by lap 8, three cars had retired and Vettel was back up to seventh.

We had more action in those first few laps than some races manage in their entirety.

Up front, Button and Hamilton jousted for the lead, looking like they were out to enjoy themselves, oblivious to the championship battle behind them. It was a privilege to watch them play, and it looked like Hamilton stood a good chance of bringing his time with McLaren to a fairy-tale close, if not in first then certainly on the podium with his team mate…

Meanwhile, with Vettel up to sixth, all he had to do was hold on. However, in the increasingly wet conditions, hanging on was far from guaranteed. Alonso spun out again, but recovered. To complicate matters further, as teams starting calling their drivers into the pits, it stopped raining. It wasn’t going to get any easier to predict the results… especially not with the Force India of Nico Hulkenberg suddenly taking the lead. By lap 23, Hulkenberg was 47 seconds clear of the pack, with only Jenson Button for company.

And then the safety car came out.

The pack closed up, and by the time the debris from all the incidents had been cleared and racing resumed, things were much harder to call. The advantage Hulkenberg had gained was gone and Hamilton re-took second, but as the rain started coming down again, Alonso just couldn’t catch Button for third. By lap 49 Hamilton was back in the lead (and I was beginning to feel slightly dizzy). But just when it was looking like Hamilton was going to get that fairy tale ending after all, Hulkenberg made a disastrous move at turn one, lost control and took Hamilton out, his McLaren career over. Button slipped through to retake the lead, and Hulkenberg was handed a drive-through. With Vettel holding seventh, Alonso’s only chance was to get past Button and win the race, but with the Ferrari significantly slower than the McLaren, Button soon built a lead of over twenty seconds.

Michael Schumacher, in his final race, pulled his car aside, letting Sebastian Vettel slip into sixth place. It was almost as if he was passing the baton to the younger driver, and with Button’s lead apparently unassailable, Fernando Alonso’s Championship was effectively over. Just as it seemed the last pieces were falling into place, however, there was one more incident; Paul di Resta lost control on the final corner of lap 70 and smashed into the wall. There was no choice but to run the final lap under the safety car.

So many things were hanging on the outcome of this one race. Jenson Button ended the season as he began, with a race win, and while Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa were on the podium, it was Sebastian Vettel who took the overall victory from sixth place. Caterham slipped past Marussia to gain the last vital place in the Constructors’ Championship. It was the end of an era at McLaren as Lewis Hamilton drove his last race for the team, ready to move to Mercedes next season, and the seat vacated by the retirement of Michael Schumacher. And there are still driver moves to be decided.

The 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix deserves to be remembered as one of the great races of the modern era. It lacked nothing – pace, excitement, drama, rain, smashes and crashes, tears of pain and tears of joy. Everything good about this season was there, wrapped up in those 71 laps of Interlagos, and until the chequered flag fell, nothing at all was certain. What more could any fan ask for? Except, perhaps, an oxygen mask and a defibrillator on standby.

As I write, it’s 110 days until the start of the 2013 Formula 1 season.

Not that I’m counting…