The most exciting Grand Prix season in recent memory?
There’s certainly an argument for it.
As teams struggled to get their heads around the narrow performance window of Pirelli’s tyres, we watched a record-breaking seven different winners in the first seven races.
After the summer break in August, however, it became apparent that the trend wouldn’t continue. You needed to be in a Red Bull or a McLaren if you wanted to win races — and that’s precisely what two-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel and the McLaren drivers did. Reliability issues put paid to McLaren’s title chances and, as Vettel wrapped up four victories and 100 points in consecutive races, it became clear that it was the German’s championship to lose.
But Fernando Alonso, driving better than ever, kept the pressure on by dragging his slower Ferrari into unexpected places. It all came down to the Brazilian finale, where Vette recovered from a first-lap nightmare to clinch his third title. Nigel Roebuck, Damien Smith, Ed Foster and Rob Widdows were joined by 1979 Formula 1 World Champion Jody Scheckter to chat through the dramatic 2012 season.
Alonso VS Vettel
RW: What a season. Nigel, did the right man win?
NR: No. I think the outstanding driver of the year was Alonso. It was interesting that when I was in Texas, talking to people in the paddock, I would say 90 per cent of those I spoke to were of the same opinion. Alonso’s not had the best car so he’s been on the edge the whole time, trying to compensate for its shortcomings. He’s made very few mistakes in light of that. Think about most of the other drivers and they’ve clattered into someone at some point during the year. Apart from Japan I can’t remember a time when that happened with Alonso. I greatly admire the fact that he never gave up, despite having a patently slower car certainly in the last few races.
JS: Alonso did a good job, but that doesn’t mean I respect him for what he did at McLaren in 2007.1 think he drove well and whether or not he deserved the championship is a matter of opinion.
EF: I think Vettel deserved it. The thing with Alonso was that, OK he didn’t have the fastest car in qualifying, but his car did have an amazing run of reliability. Think of the points that Vettel didn’t get because of reliability problems -25 went in Valencia, for instance.
DS: I don’t really talk in terms of who deserves what, you race with what you’ve got. Vettel definitely had the best car in the second half of the season and he made the most of it.
That run of four victories from Singapore to India was the key to it for him. You can’t say he didn’t deserve it, but I think everyone would feel that in terms of pure performance what Alonso managed this year was the equivalent of what we saw with Alain Prost in 1986. You just know he was up against it at every race.
NR: It tells you something about the type of car you have when your race engineer is on the radio at the end of the race begging you not to set fastest lap…
JS: That would be really nice! Vettel’s solid, and very good. He’s got to get another four That run championships to beat Michael (Schumacher) and I’m sure that’s what he wants to do. Not so easy because sometimes it looks straightforward and sometimes you’re in the middle of the grid, driving as hard as you ever could, and it doesn’t make any difference. Vettel’s had the car; he’s had the whole package these last three seasons. But winning just one championship is tough. I obviously could have won three… with the right tyres, the right engine, the right everything else.You know what it’s like!
RW: But some are saying that Vettel was lucky this year.
NR: You’ve got to say that in Brazil he was extraordinarily lucky. Most of the field missed him affer that incident with Senna and secondly he managed to continue. As Adrian (Newey) said, it was very marginal. But most of all I wonder why there was no investigation into the coming together in the first place. This is something that unsettles me a bit. At some races the stewards investigate every tiny little thing. Then at others, depending on who those stewards are, you think ‘it’s just passed them by’.
RW: There was certainly some luck involved. But perhaps a better question is whether Vettel could win without Adrian Newey?
JS: You can’t win without the right car, but whatever liM you say he’s still one of the best drivers, or the best driver, there is.
NR: I personally think Adrian is worth more than any driver.
JS: Are you sure about that…?
NF: If you’ve got Adrian, you’ve got a guarantee, haven’t you? To a certain extent you’re going to win races whatever the team, whatever the drivers.
EF: True, but VeItol could win without Newey. We’ve seen lots of teams winning races this year and they haven’t got Adrian Newey designing their cars. Put Veffel in a McLaren and he’d win races, put him in a Ferrari and he’d win races.
DS: What I would say about Veffel is that he’s clearly flawed, as they all are in their own ways, but Veffel’s easily rattled. He still makes mistakes and the benefit he’s got with Newey’s cars is that he can get out front and dominate. He’s got that advantage, but he’s a worthy three-time world champion.
NR: Yes, he is. But all my life I’ve believed that you learn more about a racing driver when he’s up against it, when he’s not in the best car. It’s how he responds to that.
JS: I’ve always thought that was very true for a team as well. When they’re winning that’s all right, but when it gets harder you see how they react.
The trials of Lewis Hamilton
RW: Hamilton would have been close to fighting for the championship if it weren’t for those retirements while leading in Singapore and Abu Dhabi. Not to mention the times he was taken out in Spa and Brazil. Nigel, how did Lewis do this year in your view?
Lewis was back to the Lewis that I remember from 2007. Until 2012 I always thought that his first year was his best. I thought he just drove beautifully then: no complications, he wasn’t paid much money, he was still living in England, he had an uncomplicated life.., and then he started to lose it in various different ways. Particularly in 2011 he lost it in a big way.
In 2012 he appears to have been seffled again from a personal point of view. I thought he drove brilliantly, particularly in the last half of the year.
JS: Absolutely, when he came to Fl, it was brilliant. Nobody comes in and has that type of performance with so few things going wrong. It was incredible.
In 2011 he wasn’t even making mistakes by being overly aggressive he was just making mistakes that were completely stupid. I rate him as the best driver in heavy traffic. I used to rate Jenson as one of the worst, but he’s become quite good in traffic now. For me, Lewis in those first two years was absolutely fantastic. He did some manoeuvres in traffic that were brilliant and he got away with it most of the time. Last year he was just doing the wrong thing. I’m definitely a fan of his, though.
I think Lewis and Jenson are a great pairing because they complement each other so well and Jenson’s maturity means it’s probably the most workable pairing in Formula 1. I think it’s a significant failure for McLaren that they haven’t won a world title this year.
I know the competition’s really strong, and that’s great, but as a package, McLaren had it all this year. They’ve got a long winter ahead of them to look at where they lost it. It’s a big disappointment.
The return of Räikkönen
RW: I declare an interest here because I love Kimi Räikkönen. I think he’s good fun and I was really pleased to see him come back. Nigel did he look good because of Grosjean being… unreliable? Or was he as good as he looked?
NR: First of all I don’t think it was anything to do with Grosjean’s eccentricities. I thought Kimi drove beautifully. I do suspect that the last little bit of edge is not there, but fundamentally he did a wonderful job. He made mistakes in qualifying, which compromised some of his races, and Kimi will always be Kimi. I mean, the Thursday before the Brazilian Grand Prix every driver was at the track apart from K Raikkanen… who was in Los Angeles with his mates.
RW: Oh good, I’m pleased to hear you say that.
NR: That’s the way he is. I remember Martin Whitmarsh telling me about exactly the same thing, Kimi going from Montreal and not going straight to indianapolis the weekend after, but going via Las Vegas for three days.
RW: Sounds eminently sensible…
NR: You’re probably right, but as Martin said, ‘I told him, “If you lose pole by five thousandths of a second, won’t you kick yourself?” He Obviously agreed with me and then he got his plane to Vegas. That’s Kimi!
JS: I used to think that of James (Hunt), if he didn;t do all the extra stuff, how good could he really have been?
EF: Yes, but then Kimi did finish third in the championship. To complete every single race, and to finish all bar one in the points, that’s an amazing run of form.
DS: The Lotus-Renault team was the perfect place for him to make a comeback. If he had gone back to Ferrari or McLaren, against those other world champions, he would have been in the shade. But being leader of a very good team, albeit not quite a championship winner these days, was probably the best environment for him. He got better as the year went on. What’s more, Fl ‘s so much the better for having him back.
JS: Kimi did better than I anticipated and I thought he drove really well. When he won the championship you got into thinking that he was very, very fast. Then the year after he wasn’t very good at all. In fact, I think he did better this year than he did in his championship year.
RW: It’s interesting too that in terms of a comeback year it was a lot better than Schumacher’s.
NR: The only thing I’d say is that he’s firstly a lot younger, secondly he was away for only two seasons rather than three and lastly while he was away he was rallying and driving competitively. I think he drove better this year than those last two years at Ferrari when he seemed to lose interest.
Button, Massa & Webber: Second best
RW: So will Webber and Massa just be number twos next year? And what do we think about Buttons season?
NR: I thought Jenson had a fairly typical Jenson season, quite honestly. There are days that you don’t know that he’s in the race. At the same time its not a surprise when he just takes the lead and disappears. I’ve said this before; I don’t think its a surprise that Jenson’s hero was Prost because in many ways he drives just like he did.
JS: Yes, he does.
NR: I don’t think he’s as good, but like Jo Ramirez used to say about Prost, when the car was absolutely right no one could beat him, if the car wasn’t quite as good as it should be then Senna was the guy you needed. It didn’t greatly surprise me when Jenson won in Australia he can do that sometimes. Spa as well he was fantastic and had the upper hand on Lewis all the way through.
DS: Jody, you were saying about Jenson that your perception of him has changed in terms of the way he deals with traffic. As a driver, the perceptions of him have changed dramatically over the past 10 years or so, haven’t they?
JS: Yes, they have. I don’t think he was ready for Formula 1 when he arrived in 2000. I think I said that at the time because of how he interacted with the traffic. He’s got better and better at it, and its a strong point of his now. Nigel summed it up right if the cars right he’s really, really good. Lewis can take a bad car and drive around the problems, though.
RW: What about Mark Webber? It seems to me to TW be a horrible position to be in team-mate to Sebastian Veffel.
NR: Yes, its true. Mark was wonderful at Monaco, he was wonderful at Silverstone, but other races you thought ‘where the hell is he? He’s a bit of a mystery to me, he always has been, but you know what he can do when he’s really on it. In the early part of the year when Red Bull wasn’t at the front it must have been a big comedown after the success of 2011. Interestingly enough, at that point of the season Mark was usually quicker than Sebastian.
JS: Driving with Vettel is difficult for anybody; you’re NM talking about the best. Webber’s had some races where he’s really been fantastic and been faster but can he keep it up at that level for the whole season? No. And you’re against the best in the world.
RW: What about Felipe Massa? Delightful guy, you can’t help liking him. Again.., he’ll always be number two.
NR: Let’s remember that in 2008 he was World Champion for 20 seconds. You’ve got to say that he usually had the best of Raikkonen when they were team-mates and I suppose its arguable that he will never again be the driver he was before his accident (in 2009). But I thought it interesting that he picked things up this year, particularly after a long drawn-out process with Ferrari re-signing him. That really seemed to trigger something and he started to drive like we know he can. But in the early pat of the year frankly, he was pretty dreadful, wasn’t he?
JS: I suppose, and I’m going to be mean now, NM when he was doing badly Alonso wanted him to stay because why does he want some hot-shoe coming in? That was probably pat of the decision. I wouldn’t have rehired him for his performance earlier in the season, but he did come back and showed that he could beat Alonso. He hasn’t done a consistently good job since his accident, really.
1. Fernando Alonso
In terms of what he did with what he had, Alonso’s campaign will stand among the very greatest, by any driver, ever. One thing to be constantly on it in an ultra-competitive car, quite another to be that way in a middling one. His Ferrari’s average qualifying position was seventh, but when it rained Fernando was both times on pole. In 20 races there were 13 podiums and while necessarily on the edge very few mistakes. He is simply the best driver in the world right now, end of story.
2. Lewis Hamilton
While not the most complete driver in Fl, Hamilton is out-and-out fastest. After a tumultuous season in 2011 he was this year back to his best. There remained lapses of judgment it was foolish to scrap with Maldonado in the late laps at Valencia, and antagonising his team on Twitter was a reminder that maturity still awaits but the sight of Lewis driving with joyful abandon is hard to beat. Only poor reliability kept him out of the title race but now, out of the McLaren nest, what comes next?
3. Sebastian Vettel
World champion yet again, and almost unbeatable in the fastest car. Vettel was often brilliant, but early in the season Red Bull was not the dominant force of 2011 and his head seemed to go down a little. Always an ebullient winner, if rather less gracious in difficult circumstances, he laid to rest suggestions that he can’t race the drive from 10th to second at Spa was exceptional. Crucially, as we saw in Abu Dhabi and Brazil, his luck is almost a match for his consummate natural ability.
4. Kimi Räikkönen
After two disappointing years in the forests, Raikkanen was back, quirky as ever, in Fl , an environment in which he relishes nothing bar driving. It was anyone’s guess how the comeback would turn out, but in the event Kimi unlike Schumacher was competitive from the outset. That last edge was perhaps not quite there, but he was consistently strong in the races. At Lotus they reasoned that a relatively laid-back ambience would bring out his best. They read him well.
5. Jenson Button
In Melbourne, the opening race, Hamilton took pole, but Button snatched the lead at the start and had the rest of the afternoon to himself. At Spa, five months on, Button was similarly unapproachable, leading all the way at the ultimate circuit. In between times, though, he was often curiously off the boil. At times he seemed bewildered, but by Hockenheim again had the set-up to his taste always crucial with Jenson and in the second half of the season played a much stronger hand.
6. Nico Hülkenberg
Sergio Perez had some fine results, but wasn’t terribly consistent. Many were surprised given Hulkenberg’s availability when McLaren signed the Mexican to replace Hamilton. In the long term Nico appears set for Ferrari, after a season of remarkably high quality that yielded fewer results than he merited. At Force India they liked his sunny disposition, pace and flair, as demonstrated at Interlagos. Signing for Sauber might seem like a sideways move, but it might be for one season only.
7. Mark Webber
If it seems odd to place only seventh a man who won superbly at Monaco and Silverstone, Webber made the podium on only two other occasions. There is no doubt about his pace or commitment when the cars were less than fully competitive he sometimes outshone Vette! but often he finished lower than expected. It says everything about Adrian Newey’s genius that, despite being accustomed to being considered the other driver’, Webber rejected Ferrari to remain with Red Bull.
8. Nico Rosberg
In China he was on pole by half a second, made a bullet start and won conclusively. The breakthrough had been made and it looked as though Nico and Mercedes were finally due the season so long anticipated. Not so: there was a close second at Monaco, but no podiums thereafter. The team often flattered in qualifying, only to deceive in the race, thanks not least to its cars’ appetite for tyres. Rosberg remains a talent, however, and might show better against Hamilton than many anticipate.
9. Paul Di Resta
Even after a great result, like sixth place in Bahrain or that fine fourth in Singapore, di Resta invariably comes across like the recent recipient of bad news, such as not being snapped up by a top team. This is unfortunate, for Paul is talented and sooner or later bound to drive for one of them. For much of the season he was on par with his Force India team-mate, before being shaded in the late races. He drives with innate class and his day will surely come acknowledged, one hopes, with a smile.
10. Felipe Massa
For all his mistakes, Massa scrapes into the top 10 by virtue of his late transformation, which put this loyal and decent man up to seventh in the standings and allowed him to contribute significantly to Ferrari’s season. Frankly lost in the first half of the year, his confidence in pieces, Felipe finally got a handle on the lacklustre F2012, whose later updates suited him perhaps better than Alonso and offered a glimpse of the man who almost beat Hamilton to the title four years ago.
Hülbenberg VS Di Resta
RW: I thought Hulkenberg had some fantastic races, but di Resta was a little disappointing.
NR: Yes, although I wouldn’t say di Resta was iTTI disappointing; all you can say isthat Hulkenberg got the beffer of him. I’m not just going on the Brazilian Grand Prix whillilkenberg led. I think a lot of people have seen some ing special about him for a while now. Frankly it amazes me that McLaren didn’t take him rather than Perez. For now you’ve got to assume that he’s locked into Ferrari for 2014.
JS: I think what we forget about this last season is EM that the lesser teams were massively good compared to how they have been in the past. You normally had three teams at the front and everyone else was miles behind. Now you have five or six teams that could lead a race, that could win.
EF: I think it’s always interesting watching these midfield teams. It’s very easy to say that they had a middling car and it’s very hard to prove yourself. But then Hulkenberg did it in Brazil, Veffel did it at Toro Rosso, Alonso at Minardi, and that’s what Hulkenberg’s done this year. Di Resta, although I think he’s performed very well throughout the year, hasn’t had any of those races when you sit up and think, ‘Wow, where did that come from?’
DS: I’ve always thought highly of Hulkenberg, I saw ds him in his junior days and he seemed to have all the right ingredients at that stage. I think the signs are there that he’s a top performer. But I’m not sure yet whether he’s a top, top performer in the Veffel mould.
NR: Hülkenberg has that spark, I feel, and it doesn’t hurt either that he’s immensely popular in the team. He’s very, very well liked.
RW: Jody, you pretty much set the world on fire when you came over from South Africa. Your rise to Fl was meteoric. What does it take for these guys towards the back of the grid to prove that they are something special?
JS: Well, I drove in a spectacular way because I NM slid the car a lot and I think that got me noticed. It was probably a disadvantage when the tyres got more and more sophisticated, though. You’ve got to come in and beat what you think the car can do. That’s important. You have to put the car in a place it shouldn’t be.
Penalties and punishments
RW: Nigel, blimey, we’ve seen this from the year dot – the odd madman comes along, does something crazy, but in Grosjean’s case the number of mistakes he makes is a bit worrying. Maldonado’s been wild on occasions, too.
YNR: You’re right, but the thing they have in common is that they’re both fundamentally blindingly quick. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. If you look at Grosjean’s qualifying times against Raikkonen’s in the first part of the year he was blowing Kimi away regularly. I’m worried, though, about the kind of accidents Grosjean has had. If you play back the Spa start in slow motion you think ‘What on earth was he doing?’ It makes you worry whether his peripheral vision is quite what it should be. He just veered across the road into Lewis as if he had the place to himself.
RW: What about Maldonado? Christ, sometimes you think Maldonado should?
NR: Christ, sometimes you think Maldonado should have his own personal steward, don’t you? He does some very odd things, but on the other hand I think he’s been blamed for things this year unfairly on occasion. I thought the coming-together with Perez at Silverstone for example was just a plain motor racing accident. The problem is that once you get a reputation, it’s very easy to be blamed ever after.
EF: I think it’s similar with Grosjean, but in terms of everyone being on his back so much he’s driving scared. Every time he’s got to negotiate that first corner, you think, ‘How’s he going to handle this?’ Of course that’s in the back of his head after that one-race ban. I think it’s hard to drive like that. Jody, I’m sure you’ll know better than me.
JS: I was lucky, I practised a lot with my peripheral vision, my first wife was very jealous…
RW: Actually, you are the man to talk about this. After that shunt at Silverstone in 1973, people say you realised there was something you needed to change. Is that true, or is that bullshit?
JS: No, I don’t think it’s true at all. If anything it was ME when I joined Ken (Tyrrell) and he started pushing me to slow down. Maybe when I saw Francois Cevert’s accident it came home to me as well. No, at that stage I was just driving as fast as I could and the car twitched out on me.
RW: But these two? Is this something that will just get worked through their system?
JS: We’ll see. You hope so. As Nigel says, they’re blindingly fast and that’s one of the most important things. Everything else can be sorted.
DS: There are some interesting parallels here with Jody. Because of that accident at Silverstone it’s easy to forget how great your start in El was and how competitive you’d been. The Silverstone thing dominated the headlines for some time and that’s what people remember. Grosjean was sometimes superb at the start of the year then he made these mistakes, pretty big ones at times, and they’re the things that people remember. It’s about character as well. With Maldonado you get the impression that all the barbs that come his way just bounce off. He doesn’t care, it doesn’t bother him. With Grosjean he’s looked shaken at times this year and I don’t think he’s the same guy now that he was this time last year.
NR: I agree with that. I think the one-race ban really shook him. I actually like Maldonado. I think he’s a bit of a wild man at times. As John Wyer used to say, ‘You can always tidy up speed, but you can’t speed up tidiness.’
The mystery of Mercedes and Schumacher
RW: We must talk about Mercedes because it’s really quite fascinating to me that a team of such size and resources has done so badly.
NR: When you look at the technical personnel, some people have speculated that there are too many cooks. I’m not saying that’s necessarily the case, but I’ll admit it surprises me.
The car was OK sometimes and lamentable at others. On the other hand in Shanghai Rosberg not only won the race, but was on pole by half a second. He took off at the start and no one got near him. But that was one weekend in 20.
EF: Does the fact that the Mercedes dropped off ? in performance so much after that win mean Ross (Brawn) has done as he did in 2008 and said ‘forget this year’?
NR: I think there’s no doubt about that. As long as Michael was with any team there was always going to be a certain amount of focus on it, but next year with Lewis it’s going to be a different deal altogether. If Lewis isn’t competitive then the problem is not with him.
DS: Jody I’m intrigued to hear what you have to say about Michael and his comeback.
JS: It must have been horrible sifting on the pit wall NM trying to look busy, as he did after he retired in 2006, it’s probably the worst thing you can do. If you retire having won the world championship seven times, you feel like God. Now he’s going to come out of this thinking differently. I think that’s good for a person; it brings you down to earth.
NR: That’s probably right. You know when you’ve said that when you retired you didn’t go to a Grand Prix for 10 years because you started the company in America and it took up all your time? Fundamentally that’s Michael’s problem. Down the road I really do wonder what he will find to do because you just get an impression that he doesn’t have an interest in anything else.
RW: Organic farming maybe?
JS: That would get rid of his fortune quite quickly! It’s quite hard for some people to adapt to the change. I went from first class to stand-by in one year. Talking about feeling lost in a team, when I announced my retirement halfway through the 1980 season I already felt lost. I didn’t feel like I was a pat of the team two weeks later.
The other goodbyes
RW: Were not just saying goodbye to Herr Schumacher, as we might not see Bruno Senna, Heikki Kovalainen or Kamui Kobayashi on the 2013 Fl grid. Who are we excited about seeing in an El car? I’ll get the ball rolling by saying that I can’t wait to see Voted Boffas in the Williams.
NR: Yep, I agree. I will be interested to see how Esteban Gutierrez goes in the Sauber, too. Actually down the road, and I’m not talking about next year or maybe even the year after the really intriguing guy on the horizon for me is Antonio Felix da Costa. I think to come into Formula Renault 3.5 for the sixth round and just dominate the last quarter of the season was amazing.
EF: I’m going to be really sad to see Kobayashi go. The fact his fans have raised more than €650,000 to try to keep him in the sport is an amazing achievement and a pretty good reflection on how he’s viewed.
I’ll also be sad to see Kovalainen go because he’s driven better at Caterham than he ever did at McLaren. I think he deserves a seat somewhere.
NR: Yep, I would agree with that, except I would say that there have been occasions this year when Petrov’s been quicker. Looking at their reputations and their records, that shouldn’t really have happened.
DS: Petrov’s no mug though, is he?
NR: No, he isn’t.
DS: That’s the thing, the quality through the grid is as strong now as it’s ever been. What do you think Jody?
JS: I think it’s stronger than it’s ever been, certainly. M. The standard of driving right through the field has been very, very good.
DS: But there are a lot of drivers out there who will be looking for world sports car drives next year by the looks of it. It’s amazing, really, some of the quality that’s being leff on the sidelines. Of course the teams are having to look more and more at money.
RW That seems to me to be the big factor here. It’s become a lot more about money than it ever used to be. It’s not just ‘he’s got great talent, he’s really quick so we’ll take him’ is it? It’s not like that anymore is it, Jody?
JS: No, but it hasn’t been like that for years. If you M. get a driver that really stands out he’ll still have to come with some sort of sponsorship.
Going back to Kobayashi that’s the guy I’ll be sad not to see. I’m not so sure about the other guys. He was quicker in qualifying than Perez quite a lot of the time, which is the speed thing again. He’s been very brave and he hasn’t crashed too much as far as I can remember. I can’t believe that being a Japanese driver they can’t come up with something that gets him in there. He’s the first Japanese that I remember that is in the middle to top of all the drivers. I’d be very surprised if something from Japan doesn’t come together.