A new champion, the youngest, too

Four drivers had the chance of winning the world title going into the final grand prix of the 19-race championship. That was how close it was. Over to G. Raghunath.

In Formula One, it isn't often that we see the championship lead changing hands so frequently through the season as it did in 2010. And for the first time in the history of the sport we had four drivers — Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton — going into the final grand prix of the 19-race championship with equal chance of winning the world title.

It is events such as these that could help Formula One win back fans, who have turned their backs on the sport that had been rent asunder by reprehensible scandals in the last few years.

The season though wasn't completely free of bugs. We had Hamilton's infamous safety car incident in the European Grand Prix (Valencia), Webber's recurring outbursts against Red Bull, which he suspected was clearly biased in the treatment of its drivers, the flexi-wings row and Ferrari's team orders among others. But these incidents were blown away by the action on the track that was simply electrifying.

Here are the highs and lows of 2010.

The New Vettel: What made 2010 very special was the coronation of Sebastian Vettel — at 23 years and 135 days — as the youngest World champion, a record he yanked out of another young driver of prodigious talent, Lewis Hamilton, who was 23 years and 301 days old when he won the world title in 2008.

“Thank you boys, unbelievable,” cried Vettel on winning the final grand prix of the season in Abu Dhabi (Yas Marina). And later, in the post-race press conference, the Red Bull driver said, “I'm speechless. I don't know what you are supposed to say in these moments, it has been an incredibly tough season for myself and all of us, physically and mentally. We always kept believing in ourselves — no matter what people said — in the team and in our car. I kept believing in myself and today was a special day all round.”

That pretty much summed up the young German's spectacular but frenzied eight months on the circuit this year.

Forced to grapple with reliability issues pertaining to his car, Vettel was quite unlucky in Bahrain, Melbourne, Singapore and South Korea. But he was also brazenly imprudent to throw away a few races from winning positions. For instance, in the Turkish Grand Prix, he busted a potential Red Bull 1-2 finish after running into Webber.

The tendency to take his aggressive driving a little too far best explains the German's poor conversion rate of pole positions. Starting from the pole in 10 races Vettel managed to win just three (European, Japanese and Abu Dhabi grands prix), which, by his standard, is quite appalling. But then his metamorphosis in the last two races was quite staggering. He showed the kind of maturity one would normally associate with a veteran. And what we saw in Abu Dhabi was the ‘New Vettel', a champion driver marked for far greater glory in the years to come.

Big guns hang fire: Going into the final race, Fernando Alonso, leading the championship table by a handsome 15 points from Vettel, was nicely placed to win his third World title. As the experts concurred, the World Championship was Ferrari's (Alonso's) to lose. But that's exactly what happened as the ‘prancing horse' botched up the Spaniard's pit stop, calling him in very early (15th lap). And when he rejoined the race, he had hopelessly dropped eight places to 12th and was struggling to overhaul Renault's Russian driver Vitaly Petrov.

Alonso finished a disappointing seventh, while a fifth place would have ensured him the World title.

The two McLarens, to start with, were lightning quick but after the mandatory mid-season break both Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button were woefully off the pace. Their cars simply lacked the pace to mount any serious challenge to the fiery Red Bulls after some changes, supposed to be upgrades, carried out on the McLarens, didn't bring in the desired results.

Winged wonders: Much like the diffusers used by Brawn GP in 2009, the front flexi-wings of the Red Bull and Ferrari cars caused a minor temblor at the circuit this year. Teams such as McLaren and Williams were highly suspicious of these front wings which they contended flexed under the weight of the load a little too much than was allowed, giving the cars substantial ground effect and a potentially significant advantage over the others. The issue was set to rest after the FIA ruled that the cars from both the stables were legal. The innovations, however, have set the tone for aerodynamics in the next season.

Wheels within wheels?: Though the Red Bull surge took the circuit by storm, it wasn't roses all the way for the team. One thoughtless move, when Webber's new front wing was given to Vettel, considerably changed the equation between the two drivers in the team. The Istanbul incident a few weeks later precipitated matters and Webber never missed an opportunity to berate his team, team-mate and team principal (Christian Horner).

Nearly a month after the World Championship was decided, Webber expressed his intention to stay at Red Bull and start the 2011 season afresh with Vettel.

Not fair, Ferrari: Eight years ago, Ferrari instructed Rubens Barrichello to let Michael Schumacher through to take the chequered flag at the Austrian Grand Prix. This sparked massive protests from the other teams, forcing the FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile) to promptly outlaw ‘team orders'. The Italian team quite subtly beat the ban this season, instructing Felipe Massa over radio to move over and allow Alonso to take the chequered flag in the German Grand Prix. Ferrari was fined $100,000, but other teams were not too happy with the FIA verdict — they wanted Alonso's victory to be declared null and void.

Later in the year though, the FIA lifted the ban on ‘team orders' but warned that teams acting in a manner that could bring the sport into disrepute would be punished.

Comebacks that flopped: His attempt to come out of retirement for Ferrari in 2009 was aborted by a sore neck, the result of a bike accident he had suffered earlier in the year. But the fighter that Michael Schumacher is, he decided to throw his hat into the F1 ring this year, but with Mercedes GP.

It was touted as the mother of all comebacks, and his reunion with team head Ross Brawn, a principal architect of the German's run of five successive World Championship victories with Ferrari, was expected to work like magic for Mercedes GP, which in its previous avatar as Brawn GP had presented a World champion in Jenson Button.

But disappointingly enough, Schumacher, even before the season had begun to gather momentum, showed that he was but a pale shadow of the champion driver that he was only a few years ago. The car, everyone thought, was the culprit, but the fact that his young team-mate Nico Rosberg finished two places in front — seventh with three podium finishes — proved that the former World champion was well and truly over the hill.

Team Lotus, returning to the sport after nearly 16 years, did not quite take off in the manner that it would have liked to. One of the most successful outfits in the history of F1 with seven Constructors' titles and six Drivers' Championships, Lotus had the mortification of finishing without a point this year.

The fate of the two new teams, Hispania Racing Team and Virgin, was no better.

Looking ahead: The FIA, in a crucial meeting recently, embarked on the idea of making F1 ‘greener'. Consequently the 2.4-litre V8 powerplants are set to make way for a more fuel efficient 1.6-litre turbocharged engines in 2013. And each of the drivers will not be allowed to use more than five engines.

Among other new regulations, each driver will have to use his gearbox for five races instead of the current four or incur penalty.