From the newly updated F1A&G | History series.
Then there was 2012. The season started with name changes: Team Lotus became Caterham; Renault was renamed Lotus; and Virgin Racing was rechristened Marussia. Along with the typical driver reshufflings. Vitaly Petrov and Bruno Senna were replaced at the new Lotus F1 team by 2007 World Champion Kimi Räikkönen — returning to the sport after two seasons competing in rally cars — and reigning GP2 titleist Romain Grosjean, who also made it back to the show after a two-year absence. Petrov later squeezed out venerable Jarno Trulli at Caterham, making the opening race of 2012 the first since the 1973 German Grand Prix to take place without an Italian F1 driver competing. The Formula One technical regulations were further amended to enhance restrictions against blown diffusers, adding tighter constraints on the position of the exhaust tailpipe, exiting the bodywork much higher up than in 2011 and thus no longer in the vicinity of the rear diffuser. Mid-season, ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix, the rules were rewritten yet again to require teams to submit an engine map used during the first four races of the season, which became known as the “reference map” — any subsequent changes to the engine’s mapping software would require the approval of the FIA — and banning the use of reactive ride-height. The system, first proposed by Lotus in 2010, used hydraulic cylinders located in the brake calipers and suspension push-rods to make minute adjustments to the ride height of the car, thereby keeping ride height at an optimal level throughout the race and providing stability during braking. The new regulations also included reprofiling of the car’s nose. The pre-2012 rules had permitted the nose to be as high as 62.5 cm (24.6 in) above ground, but revisions to the code intended to protect the drivers’ safety tub from being “speared” lowered the maximum allowable height to 55 cm (22 in) ahead of the front bulkhead.
This resulted in most the season’s cars — McLaren being a prominent exception — being launched with horrendously ugly “platypus” nose designs, as teams reworked the front chassis with a visible step-change in height along the nose in order to maintain air flow across the front wing and under the car. Fernando Alonso called the new stepped-nose Ferrari F2012 “very strange,” but loyally urged that the “all Ferraris are beautiful cars.” Ugly or not, the Ferrari came out of the box as a beast, with performance and reliability problems plaguing Maranello from the first pre-season winter testing sessions. In some ways, that was the story of the 2012 season: Alonso wrestling with an uncooperative chassis to wring out unexpected results in qualifying and absolutely brilliant race performances. That the Spaniard hailed as his “best season ever” one in which he eventually lost the World Championship shows how much of a struggle it was to remain competitive. With six World Champions in the 2012 field, whoever won the F1 title would deserve it. That view was underscored after the first seven GPs were refreshingly won by a record seven different drivers.
You had to feel for Fernando Alonso; he gave his all like a gladiator, just one with a smaller sword than his opponent. Alonso was on a higher level this year than at any other time in his career. But he lost the championship because of two non-finishes at Spa and at Suzuka, where he tangled with a Lotus driver. One of these was not his fault, the other he risked a lot and lost out. Such are the fine margins.
— James Allen On F1 —
The longest campaign in motorsport history fell into a series of neat chapters. For a long time, a driver in an inferior car performing at a level of consistency rarely achieved looked poised to pull off one of the most remarkable championships in history. The changes to the exhaust regulations hit Red Bull harder than anyone else, and it was not until Bahrain that Vettel really got into his stride, though he had taken a hard-won second place between the McLarens of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton in Australia. Yet in the end, one of the greatest brains sport has ever seen got on top of the challenges presented by the pre-season rule changes and devilishly confusing Pirelli tires. McLaren was the fastest car at the start and end of the season and in the middle too. It was eclipsed by Adrian Newey’s Red Bull RB8 in early summer and in October, when things really mattered. Nonetheless, the gap was tiny — the top 10 cars frequently qualified all within 1.5s of the pole sitter — and only early season pit-stop blunders and reliability failings in the autumn, which cost Hamilton more than 100 points, undermined McLaren’s shot at the title, despite a fabulous U.S. Grand Prix in Austin where the Brit hounded Vettel into a P1 error to take the lead with just a handful of laps remaining and capture victory, sending the drivers’ championship to the finale at Interlagos once again. That was not enough to outweigh Vettel’s four consecutive wins in Singapore, Japan, Korea and India, a superior mid-season streak (in which the German led every lap for three straight races) that belied an otherwise riveting display of unpredictable 2012 race results. These included remarkable 1st GP wins by Nico Rosberg for Mercedes in China — the legendary Mercedes Silver Arrows returning to the winner’s circle for the first time as a constructor since 1954 — and youthful Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado for Williams in Spain.
Vettel becoming, at just 25, Formula One’s youngest triple champion was an easy prediction to make following 2011, when the German ran away with his 2nd title and the Red Bull team was simply unbeatable. It looked considerably less likely as the F1 circus headed off for its summer break the next August when, after 13 rounds of the longest-ever 20-race season, Vettel still had only one victory to his credit and was a daunting 42 points off the lead. Some of the highlights of this most capriciously unpredictable year included a chaotic and confusing rain-affected Malaysian Grand Prix in March, where it was left to Alonso and Sergio Perez to fight it out for honors at Kuala Lumpur. Alonso kept his head while Perez ate into his lead, but the Mexican slid wide and lost enough time for Alonso to scrape home to win his first race of the season, a stunning result considering how far off the pace Ferrari had been in testing and in the Australian opener. Maldonado’s finely judged victory at Catalunya was the first for Williams GP since 2004, and a day many believed might never come. That it arrived on the weekend of Frank Williams’ 70th birthday was almost divine intervention — in reality it was down to the excellence of Maldonado on that particular weekend, staving off Fernando Alonso who was desperate to win his home event. In June at Valencia, the emotion exhibited by Alonso on the podium was uncharacteristic, the Spaniard reduced to tears by the reaction of the patriotic crowd to his incredible win from 11th on the grid. That it was aided by retirements of Vettel and Hamilton mattered not. (There was misery for Sebastian Vettel, who retired from P1 with a 19s lead, and Lewis Hamilton after the McLaren driver crashed out after a collision with Maldonado with only two laps to go.) A critical tweak to the Red Bull’s use of exhaust gases to enhance the rear aerodynamics was introduced in Japan. In tandem with a clever — and of course, now-banned — “double DRS” overtaking aid that made its debut at the previous race in Singapore, it put the car on another level from the rest and Vettel romped to four sraight victories.
In Abu Dhabi, Hamilton should have won the race, but McLaren’s reliability woes put paid to his hopes. On the podium, the intrepid David Coulthard stepped forward to interview the winners — the traditional moderated post-race press conferences having given way for entertainment purposes to banal and almost surreal podium “Q&A” by past F1 stars. Cue the the now infamous YouTube hit “people have been giving me sh*t” comment by Kimi, who finished 3rd by 4s from Fernando. Accidents and shunts added to the tension and excitement of the 2012 season, even Michael Schumacher not immune to the dangers of a wet track at Hockenheim, and eventual World Champion Sebastian Vettel also fell victim in Brazil. By far the most horrifying, however, was Romain Grosjean’s over-zealous move entering La source at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix; the resulting carnage destroyed four cars and was the beginning of the end for Alonso’s title quest. Alonso was lucky to walk away alive when the airborne Lotus missed his helmet by mere inches after launching off the Ferrari’s rear tires. As if calling a backmarker an “idiot” on his team radio wasn’t enough, Sebastian Vettel stirred up more controversy by overtaking Jenson Button off the road for 2nd place at Hockenheim and earning a post-race time penalty that dropped him to 5th. Branding Lewis Hamilton “stupid” for un-lapping himself from the Red Bull earlier in the race hardly went down well in the McLaren camp, too.
If we were cruel, we would say McLaren blew this championship. They had everything in their favour, from drivers to car to designers to budget to everything. They blew it.
— BBC Chief F1 Analyst Eddie Jordan —
Aside from Michael Schumacher’s phantom pole position at the Monaco Grand Prix, where he was dropped back on the grid due to a lingering stewards’ penalty from the prior race, Mercedes failed to top any significant timesheets for the rest of the season. Schumacher himself achieved an ironic high-point in Valencia when he made the only podium appearance of his comeback in 3rd place; despite the all-too-obvious failure of the seven time World Champion to recapture his former glories, Schumi remains one of the greatest drivers of all time. And then to Brazil. In what turned out to be one of the most dramatic final-day races of all-time on a slippery surface, Sebastian Vettel completed the job despite a first-lap collision with Bruno Senna. But as others, including Lewis Hamilton, fell by the wayside, Vettel managed to drag his car into 6th place and stay three points ahead of 2nd-place Alonso. Inevitably, the talk must turn to Vettel; but what is there left to say? The facts speak for themselves — youngest pole sitter, youngest race winner, youngest World Champion, youngest double Champion, youngest triple Champion…the list is endless. Vettel’s statistics vaulted him into the realm of legends, bettering both Clark and Lauda with 26 career wins and moving easily into 3rd place all-time with 36 pole positions. The fact the Ferrari driver ultimately lost out by only three points, and actually outscored Vettel in the final three races by 10 points, underlines not only what an utterly fantastic season Alonso had but also how unlucky he was not to win it, even in what was at best the 3rd fastest car. Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull did it yet again, scoring their third consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ world titles, but it was far from a foregone conclusion.