Despite the cries of frustration last year, F1 has returned to recent form in 2012. Like 2007, 2008 and 2009 is it too much to expect this year to come down to the last race? This observer thinks not.
Nico Rosberg’s remarkable drive in Shanghai nudged F1 fans further towards the happy suspicion that this could be one of the vintage seasons in Formula One, with the World Championship basically up for grabs. The three races so far have been won by three different drivers and three different teams. McLaren may lead both the drivers and constructors World Championships, but they are not permitted to swagger just yet, certainly not before Barcelona next month when all cars will be upgraded in varying degrees.
No team has established any sustainable technical advantage to date. The absence of exhaust-blown diffusers has shown Red Bull’s Adrian Newey to be mortal, while the Scuderia Ferrari are back in one of their frustrating doldrums, which seem to affect Maranello every 10 years of so. That’s despite Alonso’s win in Malaysia, one race sure to be remembered for the exploits of the talented driver, not his car.
I’ve said before that “domination” and “exciting” are not at all incompatible in the saga of Grand Prix racing. It is utterly exciting, though, to see constant overtaking, qualifying debacles (like Vettel’s 11th after failing to post a quick enough time for Q3) and winners coming from far back on the grid. This may be the 2010s, but it seems more like the early 1980s!
For a couple of hours or so we were given respite from the topic which presides menacingly over Formula One like a thunder cloud, which is Bahrain and the abject folly of the decision to race there next Sunday.
In this period of remission we were reminded of the fact that Nico Rosberg is a driver capable of sustaining a combination of speed and precision over 56 laps.
And, even more importantly, we were nudged further towards the happy suspicion that this could be one of the vintage seasons in F1, with the world championship unlikely to be dominated by any one driver, as was the case with Sebastian Vettel last year.
The three races so far have been won by three different drivers and three different teams. McLaren may lead both world championships but they are not permitted to swagger just yet, certainly not before Barcelona next month when all cars will be upgraded in varying degrees.
Mercedes have looked good in qualifying in all the events, only to fluff their lines on Sunday afternoon. But here they established themselves as serious players. And it was not all because of that refined F-duct.
Rosberg – who had already proved himself to be quicker than his team-mate Michael Schumacher over a single lap – is fast, and so is his car, without any controversial additives.
Mercedes spent the winter recruiting extravagantly. We already knew that Ross Brawn was one of the great team leaders. But now, just behind him, he has Bob Bell, Geoff Willis and Aldo Costa.
The only concern was that too many chefs might spoil the banquet. But that does not appear to be the case and the new WO3 model will not be content to be a distant fourth, which was the case with the team last year.
After two disappointing seasons the Silver Arrow is back. But what has most impressed in this still embryonic season is the midfield, which looks as good as Barcelona’s.
Lotus, Sauber, and Williams have all caught the eye and on Sunday the Williams pair of Bruno Senna and Pastor Maldonado both finished in the top eight. The competition between Paul Di Resta and Nico Hülkenberg at Force India could also be a minor classic in the months ahead.
Apart from the winner, the two drivers most enjoyable to watch were Lewis Hamilton and Vettel. I have never seen Hamilton so happy to finish third, for he is dedicated to winning.
It might have something to do with the fact that he leads the championship. And he has a good car. But he looked a contented man in Shanghai, which is not something that could have been said last year. He even managed to pass Felipe Massa without clattering into him.
While Rosberg continued on his serene course to the chequered flag Hamilton appeared to relish in the cut and thrust of the fight behind the leader. “There was a serious train of cars out there,” he said afterwards, grinning, with pure enthusiasm.
Hamilton, remember, was awarded a five-place grid penalty before the race. It wasn’t his fault – it was because he needed a new gearbox – but it still would have been enough to make him sulk last year.
I enjoyed watching Vettel even more than his compatriot, Rosberg. Because this was a Vettel we have not seen much of before, harrying and hustling, fighting off Hamilton for a while and then, after being overtaken, trying to get his position back, even though he knew his car lacked power in a straight line and that his tyres were spent. This was a double world champion showing his pedigree.
“We were generally too slow on the straights,” he said. “We were losing a lot of time there. That made it extremely difficult to pass, to be honest.”
Vettel started in 11th position and quickly went backwards. He admitted: “I think I missed out a little bit on the start. I was a bit too late. I wasn’t entirely happy finding the revs and I was a bit confused. Usually I’m pretty quick when the lights go off, but today I think I was one of the last ones. I didn’t wake up enough.
“Then I was behind the Williams and at Turn 1 they crashed into each other a little bit and I had to hit the brakes and I didn’t know what was going to happen. Then I lost another couple of positions – I nearly lost a position to Heikki Kovalainen in the Caterham so I think it was a really bad stage on the first lap. With the strategy we managed to kind of come back.”
It was a nightmare for the strategists on the pit-wall in Shanghai. But great fun for the rest of us.
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