A topsy-turvy year

Where Red Bull was expected to further its dominance, it looked like a level playing field. What led to this churning at the top? N. Sudarshan analyses the Formula One season.

Not since Michael Schumacher has any one driver thoroughly dominated Formula One. In the seven years after he won the last of his seven world championships in 2004, five different drivers have emerged triumphant. Four of those titles were decided in the last race of the season and one in the penultimate race. It was that close.

But, when Sebastian Vettel scorched to his second successive victory last season in the manner he did — winning 11 of the 19 races and sealing the championship with four races remaining — it did, albeit in a small measure, bring back memories of the Schumacher days.

So, when seven different drivers split the first seven races of the current season among them — for the first time in the history of the sport — it came as a pleasant surprise. Where Red Bull was expected to further its dominance, it looked like a level playing field. There were maiden victories for Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado and German Nico Rosberg as well. What led to this churning at the top?

From the Red Bulls’ outlawed exhaust blown diffusers to their unreliable alternators, from the Ferraris’ lack of pace to the McLarens’ problems on and off the track, there were reasons aplenty. Add to this, tyre manufacturers Pirelli, who returned last year after a two-decade long hiatus, dishing out a new compound that nobody could come to grips with.

The teams found it extremely difficult to handle the Pirellis and it even led to claims from Schumacher that the tyres are like ‘driving on raw eggs’. The new tyres no doubt made for exciting races at the start.

Red Bull’s own problems meant that in the first 13 races, they won just three and more importantly Vettel just one. “It’s pretty much as we feared before the season started,” Adrian Newey, Red Bulls’ chief technical officer told Autosport. “Having explored exhaust blowing technology quite heavily for two seasons and then having that taken away hurt us quite a lot. Probably more than other people because we had been exploiting it for longer.”

While it took them till the Singapore Grand Prix in late September to find a way around, it was the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso that surged ahead at the start. He won three out of the first 10 races including a storm affected Malaysian Grand Prix and a perfect start-to-finish triumph in Germany.

But once Red Bull found the fix for the diffuser problem, there was no catching Vettel. He claimed the next four races and came roaring back into the title race. For Alonso, however, the qualifying performances started to drop and the Ferrari was always forced to play catch up to the much faster Red Bull.

All this, by no means, suggests that it was essentially a two-horse race. Kimi Raikkonen, returning after a two-year gap and driving a Lotus, raked up points in all but one race. With his victory in Abu Dhabi, when he became the eighth driver to register a race win this year, he ran the top two close till the last few races. Lewis Hamilton in his McLaren was remarkably quick. But his blow hot blow cold performance — four victories coupled with five retirements — meant that the man who was in with a genuine chance mid-way through the season faltered towards the end.

The Red Bull, in spite of being the quickest, had to grapple with reliability issues throughout. Vettel’s chances were wrecked twice by alternator failure — the fault which also ended Mark Webber’s race in the United States Grand Prix. On the other hand Alonso’s car was not so quick. But reliability was its forte as Alonso steered it in majestic fashion to ensure that Vettel didn’t go too far ahead.

Arguably the most topsy-turvy of all seasons had to end with a finish befitting it and so did it. The last three races again threw up three different winners and to add to the excitement, neither Alonso nor Vettel were among the victors.

In what can be described as a testimony to his incredible driving skills, Alonso, in spite of neither qualifying in the top three nor winning any in the last 10 races, was just 13 points behind Vettel going into Brazil. But, it just wasn’t enough. At the end of it all we had the youngest ever triple world champion in Sebastian Vettel.