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Formula One 2012: the highlights

  1. F1 2012: The year we came to love Fernando Alonso

    So, there’s no F1 on the telly this weekend, and won’t be until March. The most astonishing season many in the Sunday Afternoon Club can recall is over.

    Eight drivers - eight - won races this year as their teams struggled to find the grip regulations had outlawed. Pirelli contributed to what at times must have felt like a lottery. In the end, predictably, the cream still found its way to the top; champion Sebastian Vettel, luckless-but-brilliant Lewis Hamilton and the endlessly canny and courageous Fernando Alonso, surely equal to Vettel in his performances this year. Handicapped, from the get-go in Australia, by a car that would never be better than third fastest, and often slower, the stoic often lonely-looking Spaniard, just got on with it. Never complained, never explained. And we remembered that we’d forgotten just how good Alonso is.

    Vettel and the racing might have been the big winners this year, but for us at least, 2012 will be the year we came to love the man with the blue lid in the red car. So here, to help with your cold Turkey are the Sunday Afternoon Club’s highlights of 2012.

  2. Remember Jenson Button's win in Australia?

    There have been so many shocks in 2012, it’s easy to forget the season started with possibly the biggest shock of all: Jenson Button blowing Lewis Hamilton’s doors off in a straight fight. Lewis had come back from a winter in the Rockies a calmer man, but had he lost his edge?

    Lewis’s eventual departure maybe had its roots in Button’s dominant win: he could, after all, no longer feel the team was built around him. Behind the smiles the two drivers’ relationship deteriorated as did Button’s season. But Lewis’ driving did not. Only at Spa did Button again dominate. McLaren are all brave smiles now. They have to be, they threw this season away and in the process lost the faith of the fastest man in F1.

  3. Nico Rosberg records a win in China

    Eight drivers from six teams won grand prix in 2012, and it could even have been nine from seven had Nico Hulkenberg not leaned on Lewis on Brazil.

    Remarkably, by the time the season ended the most freaky result was not Pastor Maldonado’s win for ‘Phoenix’ Team Williams, but Nico Rosberg’s pole-to-flag victory in China.

    Mercedes produced yet another terrible car this year, one they simply did not understand, maybe not surprisingly considering its ‘killer app’. It became apparent early on that Ross Brawn had designed a car that could, when its DRS flap opened, pipe fast air all the way to the front of the car and stall the front wing too. Yes, we thought that too. It was too much of a diversion and, Schumacher’s ‘pole’ lap at Monaco aside, the team became bit part players, fighting with Sauber and Force India. Lewis has his work cut out.

  4. Perez in the wet in Malaysia

    Did he put it off the road deliberately, under orders from some greater Team Ferrari secret society?

    Did he hell, but Sergio Perez’s drive in Malaysia to finish a challenging second behind Fernando Alonso and another later in the season on Ferrari’s home ground at Monza was enough to ensure McLaren moved quickly to make sure he was on their team for 2013. Then again, Ferrari repeatedly said he was not their man.

    So who’s right? In 2012 we saw glimpses of a supertalent, but plenty more talent that’s still to be finessed. We’re not convinced at Sunday Afternoon Club. And Sauber? Well the Sauber-Ferrari could well have won a race in 2012, but the promise that lasted all the way through the mid-season faded by the end as the small team inevitably fell off the fiscal cliff and stopped spending on this year’s car. Next year’s car will be driven by Nico Hulkenberg, so maybe Ferrari did get its man after all…

  5. Rob Smedley and Felipe Massa's love-in

    Who saw the BBC’s rare interview with Rob Smedley last weekend on its post-race forum (it’s still on the iPlayer if you’re quick)?

    The Brit’s belief in Felipe Massa is powerful - it’s really quite touching. Massa looked like he was heading for an early bath as the teams headed for Europe: Perez would be in his Ferrari for Monaco, went the rumours. But Massa lasted the season out, got more confident and more importantly got faster, out-qualifying Alonso in the last two races of the season.

    He’s back to his very best, the man who outraced Kimi Raikonen and nearly beat Lewis Hamilton to the title in 2008. Look out for him in 2013. The comeback, his engineer revealed to BBC, began with a long weekend in the bosom of the Smedley family. A reminder that even in F1, sometimes all we need is a big bromantic hug.

  6. Alonso plays the averages to take Valencia

    Fernando Alonso’s march to what, by the time the teams took a half-term break, looked like an unbeatable championship lead began with an inherited win around the unlovely docks in Valencia. It became apparent then that this was Alonso’s strategy. The Ferrari F2012 was obviously not up to it, but that didn’t have to matter.

    At the start of the season it was almost undrivable, and yet Alonso brought it home fifth in Melbourne. Consistency would have to do, just as it did for Niki Lauda back in 1977. When he finished, he finished in the points. Hard not to imagine that had Ferrari built a car just a smidge faster, nobody would have got a look in…

  7. Red Bull's mid-season technical woe

    Red Bull, reigning double champions in both drivers and constructors championships, and the dominant force for the three proceeding seasons, looked out of their depth back at the start of the summer.

    Engineering superbrain Adrian Newey had yet to crack a way of reliably getting back the downforce lost to the ban on double diffusers. Worse, the RB8 had reliability issues, and the pressure was starting to show on the once happy-go-lucky Sebastian Vettel.

    His retirement in the soulless arena of Valencia was the low-spot of his season as a certain, and needed, second 2012 victory escaped him. And so the win-drought began and would not end until round 14 in Singapore.

    Valencia, too, found itself pushed aside, and will now co-host the Spanish Grand Prix after losing its stand-alone European Grand Prix status. It won’t be missed by many.

  8. Michael takes pole (briefly) in Monaco

    Who would ever have thought that the highlight of Michael Schumacher’s three-year return from retirement would be a single pole position lap? Of course, it was only that lap; he didn’t start from pole as he took a penalty for the kind of slip-up that unfortunately became as totemic in the second coming as that leap in the air from the top step did the first time around.

    Still, it did allow us to believe that the speed was still there when Mercedes gave him the equipment. Sadly, all too often, it was the judgment that was missing. He remains, statistically and maybe more, the greatest driver F1 has ever seen. But the dream that a man in his 40s can compete with men in the 20s must remain just that. We wish he’d won, but he was never even close.

  9. Williams win a race in Spain

    The Williams comeback was possibly the most remarkable story of 2012 - especially if you consider that until he crashed out on the second last lap of the first race of the season, Pastor Maldonado was set to beat Williams’ entire 2011 point tally.

    Williams produced an impossibly tidy car that seemed to sweet-talk its tyres. And with Lewis Hamilton demoted to the back of the grid, Maldonado made the most of it in Spain. The number 18 Williams would go on to regularly surprise us in Q3, if rarely in the final results. The number 19 car, driven by Bruno Senna, conversely made Q3 only once, but was usually there or thereabouts at the finish.

    You couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened had Rubens Barrichello stayed on for one more year? Still, wild as he his, Maldonado is fast. As is his new team-mate for next year Valterri Bottas. Bonkers name, but Frank Williams is already saying he is one of the very best…

  10. Mud and water and queues at Silverstone

    Did you go to Silverstone? Dried out yet or did you just throw the tent away?

    Silverstone didn’t need the rain this year, or the terrible decision it had to take to ask people not to come to qualifying on Saturday. To do that to UK race fans was the low spot of the season, and we’re still not sure whether we can forgive Silverstone for that, however freaky the weather was. It’s hard enough to see the romance in Silverstone when the sun is shining, let alone when it looks like Glastonbury, yet F1 needs Silverstone, like it needs Spa, like it needs Monza.

    Without their edges, worn rough by decades of history, it can all get a bit shiny, a bit new. And we’re not sure we want that all of the time. Still the sun shone on race day, Mark Webber beat Fernando Alonso in a straight fight and although we got less than 90mins of racing, we went home happy, if still a little muddy.

  11. The Spa first corner pile-up

    F1 returned from its summer break with a bang in Spa. A very nasty bang, that had many holding their breath as cars somersaulted over one another and far too close to Fernando Alonso’s head.

    At Spa Alonso was eliminated at the first corner and Vettel finished second behind Button. This, as Top Gear’s Sunday Afternoon Club noted at the time, was ominous. The rest of the season, we predicted, would be marked by Vettel slowly hauling in and then passing Alonso’s points tally. And lo, it came to pass….

    Spa also saw the FIA take firm action against Romain Grosjean, who Mark Webber was later to dub ‘that first lap nutcase’. RoGros’ speed is without doubt (if you believe Kimi is as fast as he was), it’s his temperament and special awareness that isn’t necessarily all there. He hit enough cars enough times this season to have put his drive in jeopardy apparently, but we hope he’s back next year.

  12. Lewis breaks down in Singapore

    Having won in Monza, Lewis Hamilton started F1’s ‘Asian series’ in contention.

    By the time the teams left India, Sebastian Vettel having won all four races, he was out of it and heading out of the McLaren team. The breakdown while comfortably leading in Singapore seemed to have been the final straw; anywhere, anywhere had to be better than McLaren. Even Mercedes.

    McLaren could have, possibly should have, won both titles this year. Its drivers won seven of the record 20 races. Its car was the fastest on the first day of the season, fastest on the last day. It’s what happened in between, a proper F1 omnishambles, that meant third in the constructors, fourth and fifth in the drivers and a team immeasurably weaker for losing Hamilton, who we still believe is the fastest out there.

  13. Alonso gets tipped out by Raikkonen in Japan

    We hope that right now Fernando Alonso is relaxing somewhere, with the not-unattractive lady the producers couldn’t keep their cameras off in Brazil. We hope he’s not brooding, though we have to admit, he looks like the brooding type.

    And if he is brooding, we hope he’s not regretting his most important DNF of the year, out on the first corner in Japan, tipped in to a spin by Kimi Raikkonen. Vettel went on to win the race and surely, at that moment, ‘Nando knew his task was desperate. He certainly began to sound like it, publically stating it would take something extraordinary to happen, like it did in Abu Dhabi.

    Vettel had his incidents too, notably with Kathikeyan in Malaysia (Vettel called him an idiot, but we think the blame can be equally proportioned). Vettel also had mechanicals in Valencia and in Monza, but they’re not the same as being taken out in someone else’s accident, are they? We’ll leave that to Fernando to decide.

  14. Kimi wins in Abu Dhabi (despite his engineer)

    It’s testament to just how left field in F1 terms is the personality of Kimi Raikkonen that his victory in Abu Dhabi, en route to third in the driver’s championship, will be better remembered for him dissing his engineer on the radio than for a solid drive in a bonkers race.

    Kimi’s still got it, even after a two year break not really getting to grips with world championship rallying. Has he been as exciting as we recall, in a car that showed itself from the start to be on the pace? We’re not so sure. His strategy and racecraft are possibly a little rusty, and mistakes in Bahrain and China cost him points, but the speed is still there alright. It’s the edge on the track we’d still like to see. It’s impossible not to compare Kimi’s comeback with that of Schumacher and sadly, the German doesn’t come out well.

  15. Vettel comes back from the dead in Abu Dhabi

    We were saying on Sunday just how astonishingly quickly Sebastian Vettel is able to get himself back in competition, back in the points from an apparently hopeless position.

    He did it on Sunday and he did it in Abu Dhabi. The comeback to third from a pit lane start at Yas Marina must rank as the drive of the year, even if he did make it hard on himself by running in to the back of B-team-mate Daniel Ricciardo behind the safety car.

    On the Thursday before the race Alonso had gone public with his belief that something would need to go wrong for Vettel if Ferrari were to take him to the title. And wrong it did go when the scrutineers were unable to drain enough fuel from Vettel’s car to take a sample. Vettel’s presence on the podium, let alone the 15 points he was able to salvage, must have destroyed Alonso. ‘What,’ he must have thought ‘needs to happen to keep this man down.’

  16. That first corner in Austin

    Wow. What a racetrack, and what a race, Austin proved to be. The US grand prix has had some terrible homes, the worst being a car park in Las Vegas, but closely run by downtown Detroit and downtown Phoenix.

    A purpose built home with a circuit (typically American) that was meant to include the best of the world’s other tracks, seemed too good to be true. But true it was and, again typically American, it has one ‘awesome’ feature. The climb up a wall of tarmac and into and around a completely blind bend seemed like the worst idea of 2012, what with ‘first lap nutcases’ like Grosjean and Maldonado on the grid. It wasn’t. And it made for one of the best sights of the year as a field of F1 cars approached it five abreast. A perfect advertisement for F1 in America. More like this please Bernie.

  17. Hulkenberg goes so close in Brazil

    From way back in February, when this year’s not-so-pretty broken nosed F1 cars started to appear in pre-season testing, one thing was apparent: it was going to be close at the front and in the midfield. Where seconds had been the margin in the past, tenths would have to do in 2012.

    Red Bull and McLaren and Ferrari continued to dominate, Mercedes fell back, Williams came back. And in the middle, Sauber and Force India, always not-quite there, fading towards the end as funds got diverted to next year’s cars.

    Except nobody told Nico Hulkenberg. The boy likes Brazil. He drove a Williams there, put it on pole, and led. Then he took a year out before popping back up at Force India, and he did it again. Such a shame he fell over on to Lewis Hamilton. We don’t blame him, it was impossible there. And the talent is impossible to deny. He was linked with McLaren’s empty seat, only to opt to go to Sauber, Ferrari’s B-Team. Don’t forget Ferrari made it clear it wasn’t buying Perez. There’s method in Hulkenberg making what looks like a sideways switch…

  18. Marussia's brave bid for tenth

    Marussia have been impressive this year, Caterham have not. Neither may have scored, but the embarrassment is all Caterham’s. It has a lot more money, the cars have KERS, in Heikki Kovalainen it has (or had) a grand prix winner, who has driven for McLaren.

    We were pretty sad then that a slightly questionable move on Sunday dropped Marussia back to 11th in the queue for Bernie’s money, behind Caterham who have more already and have squandered it this year. We like Marussia. It’s hard to forget the team’s name hit the front pages this year when its test driver Maria di Vilota suffered an accident that sounded, for a while, like the worst that could happen. And Marussia have quite possibly introduced genuine new talent to F1 with Charles Pic. It sucks all over again that they’ve lost him - and his backer’s money - to Caterham.

  19. A fond farewell to HRT?

    It seems unlikely there will be any HRTs on the grid next year. The team was laying off staff and mothballing the factory in Spain even as the cars were racing in Brazil. There is talk of a Chinese consortium looking to buy the team and its most valuable asset - a permit form Bernie to race in F1.

    But at times like this there is always a Chinese consortium. They might have been painfully slow, but this year’s cars were pretty, and last year’s had a paint job by Daniel Simon, who used to design Phaetons but now designs stuff for Iron Man and Captain America. We’ll miss them, and we’ll miss Pedro de la Rosa: a gent, and a man who knows how to rock a 50’s Matinee Idol haircut.

  20. Bruno Senna

    The situation is changing by the day, but as things stand one of the longest and most competitive seasons yet has seen a few casualties.

    HRT and its divers Narain Karthikeyan and Pedro de la Rosa, Michael Schumacher and quite probably Kamui Kobayashi, and Heikki Kovalinen will most likely not be back. We’ll miss them all. Vitaly Petrov is also most likely out. Also out, as of this morning, is Bruno Senna who will be replaced at Williams by Valterri Bottas. And if Bruno can’t find a way to any of the remaining empty seats at Force India, Caterham or Marussia we’ll probably miss him more than anyone. You don’t need to ask why, do you?

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