December is always a time to take stock of the year gone by so here’s my top ten drivers of Formula 1 2012!
In a 20 race season Alonso was able to consistently get the maximum from his car. When the season opened the Ferrari was considerably off the pace and it seemed that Fernando would endure a miserable season however a superb wet-weather victory in Malaysia gave the Spaniard some early season momentum. A run of races where Alonso dragged everything possible from his ill handling car kept him in championship contention.
Taking three victories in this years Ferrari was an amazing achievement but for Alonso to have had arguably two of the best victories of his illustrious career-Malaysia and Valencia-showed his range of talents. By mid-season the Ferrari was more of a match for the Red Bull but it still took fortune-retirements for Vettel and rain in some qualifying sessions-for Alonso to be in position to challenge for the title.
Even though Alonso has now gone six seasons since winning the World Championship when all things are considered he is the most complete driver on the grid.
A third consecutive World Championship for Vettel would in most seasons ensure the top rank but Vettel’s struggles in the opening half of 2012 left a mark against his name.
In those early season races the Red Bull struggled for speed and the McLaren was the fastest car on the grid. For the first time in over three years we saw Vettel in a slower car and he struggled. More often that not in the early season races Vettel was outqualified by his teammate, Mark Webber. However as the car was developed in the second half of the season we saw a return to dominant form by Vettel.
A major upgrade at Singapore gave Vettel a much better package and once again the fastest car on the grid. A string of dominant victories-Singapore, Japan, India and Korea were added to his early season Bahraini success and Vettel went to the final races of the season as a clear favourite.
Were it not for two alternator failures, while leading at Valencia and Monza, Vettel would have enjoyed a more comfortable title margin than three points to Alonso.
Hamilton bounced back from having a thoroughly miserable season in 2011 to show a new found maturity on track. The needless on-track squabbles that punctuated last year were replaced by a much calmer Hamilton.
His form this year was much more reminiscent of his rookie season in 2007 where Hamilton would challenge for race wins when the car was capable of it otherwise he would take a podium, or high points paying position, and concentrate on the championship.
The fire and spark that burns in Hamilton was still however apparent, particularly in qualifying, but bad luck meant that there was little chance of being able to challenge for the championship when the season drew to a close.
Hamilton was unfortunate that he suffered numerous mechanical failures towards the end of the season and was also the innocent victim of other drivers at various races-clashing with Maldonado at Valencia or Grosjean at Spa, but having caused numerous accidents last year it could be argued as karmic payback!
This was probably the best we have seen of Hamilton and while he is driving at the top of his game a move to Mercedes next season is one that is fraught with difficulty but with Hamilton driving so well it’s a gamble that could pay off.
Returning to Formula 1 after a two year exile in rallying Raikkonen showed few ill-effects of his time away from Formula 1. His racecraft was still top drawer and as the season progressed he was able to gradually find the devastating qualifying speed exhibited in his first stint in F1.
Michael Schumacher’s return to the sport showed how difficult it is for a driver to come back after an absence but whereas it took Schumi almost two years to find his feet again Raikkonen was back on the pace from the start of the season.
In comparison to his teammate, Romain Grosjean, Raikkonen improved throughout the year and put the Frenchman to shame by season’s end. The qualifying battle was close between them but the Iceman’s cooler head in race conditions allowed him to show his teammate a clean pair of heels by the end of the season.
Early season podiums made it easy to assume that Kimi would win a race in his comeback season with the only surprise being that it took until the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix for his success to come. Staying in the championship hunt until the end of the season was great encouragement to Lotus and next season he will expect to once again be a contender.
Button was unable to match his 2011 form but another solid and productive season from the former champion was more than enough for McLaren to feel confident in their future without Hamilton.
Even though Hamilton was back to his best in 2012 Jenson still enjoyed another very competitive season with three victories and his first McLaren pole the high points. His pole lap at Spa was one of the best pole laps of the season and Jenson’s form on the majestic track played a key role in Hamilton’s decision to tweet telemetry from qualifying and could have played a role in his departure from McLaren. This led to Button publically criticising his teammate.
Next season Button will be very confident and will lead the development of the new car. While Sergio Perez is a talented driver Button will no doubt be very confident for 2013 and will relish the opportunity to be the team’s lead driver.
The Mexican did enough in the first half of the season to fully deserve a move to McLaren for next season and could easily have won a race with slightly different circumstances. Running wide in the closing stages of the Malaysian Grand Prix cost him the chance of challenging Alonso for the victory but other strong showings in Canada and Monza cemented a superb second season in Formula 1.
The move to McLaren will bring a lot of pressure with it. When a driver moves to one of the leading teams he is expected to finish on the podium on a regular basis and win races. This season Perez was under pressure to finish in the points and when he challenged for podiums it was unexpected and therefore he was rightly praised. To illustrate how difficult this transition is Perez would be well served to remember Heikki Kovalainen’s move to McLaren in 2008. The Finn was unable to meet the consistency that is demanded of a leading driver and has spent the last three years fighting at the back of the grid.
The source of Perez’ strong performances were generally his ability to understand and conserve the tyres better than the rest of the field. He still lacks single lap speed in qualifying and the move to McLaren will surely mean that he will need to be qualifying at the front end of the grid if he is to meet expectations from within the team. Even so this season showed how much potential Perez has and while there are question marks about how he will handle the pressure of expectation at McLaren he deserves his chance.
Webber claimed his second Monaco victory this year and followed it up with a trademark combative win at Silverstone. Even so his season was ultimately a disappointment.
For the first half of the season he was outpacing Vettel and looked to have put 2011 behind him. However as the summer progressed Vettel found his form and Webber slipped backwards. The Singapore upgrade produced a car more suited to Vettel and he romped to four consecutive victories to put himself into a championship winning position.
Webber on the other hand finished the season fighting for points finishes and only had two podiums following his British victory.
After a year on the sidelines as Force India’s test driver Hulkenberg performed admirably in the opening half of the season before finding an improvement to his form from the German GP onwards.
Qualifying fourth, in a wet session, was his third Q3 effort of the year but from that point onwards “The Hulk” was a regular feature in the final ten minutes of qualifying. A string of points scoring races, and his first fastest lap in Singapore, saw the former GP2 champion outperform his highly rated teammate, Paul di Resta, over the course of the season.
This was rewarded with a move to Sauber for next season where Hulkenberg will be expected to be a team leader for the first time in his career.
The final year of Schumacher’s Formula 1 career will be remembered for the frailty of his Mercedes, bad luck and a stunning pole position at Monaco.
Having struggled for the first year of his comeback Schumacher started the season very competitively with three top four qualifying efforts before retiring from each while running in the podium spots. In these early races the Mercedes was at its best and looked to be one of the more competitive cars on the grid.
A penalty for causing a crash with Bruno Senna at Barcelona meant that Schumacher’s pole lap at Monaco would only net sixth on the grid….and a crash with Romain Grosjean at the start. For much of the season it seemed as though if it wasn’t for bad luck Schumacher would not have had any luck!
In one moment of good fortune Schumacher finished third at Valencia having benefitted from a late race clash between Hamilton and Maldonado. Wet weather qualifying at Silverstone and Hockenheim saw Schumacher qualify third, comfortably outpacing Rosberg.
Having been criticised for much of his comeback Monaco, Silverstone and Hockenheim showed that the seven times champion still deserved to be on the grid but the second half of the year was miserable. Bad performance by the car and huge crash in Singapore saw the German endure six pointless races before signing off on his career with a seventh place finish after coming from last position in a chaotic Brazilian race.
The controversial Venezuelan was a polarising figure within the paddock this year. For each of his fans there were multiple detractors but his stunning Spanish victory showed that he is far more than just a “pay driver.” His victory, while under severe pressure from Alonso, was a masterpiece of defensive driving and one that any driver would have been proud of.
Unfortunately for Maldonado however his season also consisted of numerous crashes and clashes with other drivers. Like Grosjean at Lotus it seemed that for much of the season Maldonado was a magnet for contact with other drivers.
His speed is beyond doubt, ten Q3 efforts, and by Singapore he had calmed down sufficiently and was in line to finish on the podium once again but for a mechanical failure. The rest of the season saw more terrific qualifying laps but only a handful of points.
The challenge for Pastor going forward is to consistently find the balance between speed and consistency. If he can do this he will be a very dangerous driver to the rest of the field…for very different reasons than for most of this season!