From the newly updated F1A&G | History series.
As if to prove a point, the 2011 Formula One season broke a string of four straight years with closely fought title battles. It was beyond doubt the season of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull. Quick out of the box, the Red Bull RB7 proved unstoppable in the hands of the young German sensation, who utterly dominated qualifying (15 poles, besting Nigel Mansell’s 1992 record) — only starting off the front row once, in Germany — races (11 wins, only one time not finishing on the podium) and laps (leading an all-time best 739) to become the youngest two-time Champion in F1 history. Despite Vettel’s victory last year, his driving had been rather erratic at times and he made mistakes. In 2011, however, it was apparent from the beginning that he had improved and was much calmer, far more mature. He was very controlled and just seemed always to get on with it, even when the races were difficult. Whatever doubts remained were extinguished as Vettel mastered yet another set of new technical rules — this time introducing a moveable DRS (Drag Reduction System) rear wing, together with mandatory KERS and rapidly degrading Pirelli tires — to capture the laurels with an altogether brilliant performance. He was so dominant at times this season it made you want to cry, because no matter how hard anyone tried, they just couldn’t catch him.
Vettel is a modern Fangio, really, in Formula One. I can’t see, other than his natural ability, how he is that good, how he can be that good.
— Stirling Moss (2012) —
Of course there were controversy and politics as well. Lewis Hamilton graduated into the role of F1 bad boy, colliding five times with Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and earning an almost equal number of race penalties, as his personal life collapsed in astonishing fashion. The new DRS technology made overtaking altogether too easy, compounded at some circuits (Canada, Europe, Italy, India and Abu Dhabi) with dual activation zones — leading to the sense that in trying to spice up the show, the sport veered too far towards gimmicks and showbiz, losing some of its true essence. The FIA tried to ban “off throttle blown diffusers,” perhaps the ultimate in esoteric F1 engineering, leading to the spectacle of a British Grand Prix in which different teams ran under different technical rules. The Bahrain GP was cancelled after the Arab Spring uprising. Malaysian Team Lotus and French Lotus Renault battled before the UK High Court for right to the Lotus brand, leading to the spectacle of two different teams — neither with any ties to Colin Chapman’s original — running under the Lotus moniker. And the Scuderia Ferrari were desultory after another season just slightly off the pace, as Fernando Alonso drove to a disappointing 4th place finish, pressuring Maranello to fix things, or else.
Remarkably, Red Bull’s straight line speed was poor throughout 2011, so Vettel was vunerable there. Partially as a result, the races themselves were extraordinary. DRS and tire degradation created immense unpredictability and excitement, with race strategies varied and often changed mid-race. Yet Vettel somehow always managed to find an extra 0.5s in Q3 to catapult onto pole and, like Jim Clark 45 years earlier, amazingly drove away from the field off the starting line, putting in both staggering opening laps coupled with balls-out, brave overtaking maneuvers like his outside pass at Monza’s Curva Grande against Alonso and his impressive move on Rosberg at Spa, overtaking the Mercedes around the outside of Blanchimont. At Monaco, the shortest circuit on the calendar, he led by 2 1/2s at the end of the first lap. If one thought it was only the car, though, Vettel convincingly beat his teammate Mark Webber in nearly every session, with the Australian managing only a single victory at the season-ending GP in Brazil. Spectacular drives by McLaren’s Jenson Button — recovering from 21st and last in the field, after having pitted six times, to pass Vettel on the final lap and take a rain-soaked, long-delayed Canadian GP — as well as Hamilton himself — mastering a tricky Shanghai circuit to pass Vettel with superior tire management and capture the win — were epic counterpoints to Vettel’s domination, though. In Spain, Vettel had to fend off a charging Hamilton towards the end to take victory, by just 0.6s after some hard defending against the McLaren. Add to that a record number passes (623 in the first nine races alone, more than the 547 from 19 races in 2010 and 244 from 17 races in 2009) and the F1 circus was faced with a year in which any position was vulnerable, except perhaps for P1. Overlooked by many was a tremendously competitive mid-field, in which Renault started strong, Force India become competitive (finishing 6th in the Constructors Championship) and the “other” Team Lotus managed to move decisively ahead of its new rivals at the rear of the F1 grid. But that was understandable in light of Vettel’s total domination of the longest, and in some ways most interesting, Formula One season ever.