F1 season review: Vettel the only man able to last the pace
For some, the chequered flag at the Brazilian Grand Prix came as a blessed relief. So dominant has Sebastian Vettel been in the second half of the season that Formula One very much felt in need of a reboot.
Vettel achieved the astonishing feat of winning his ninth consecutive Grand Prix in Interlagos, matching the previous record of the great Alberto Ascari in the process, and of course that is something we should laud rather than lament.
But one cannot help but wonder what might have been. At the halfway point after the July Hungarian GP – just two wins separated the top four drivers and, while Vettel had a solid lead, he was by no means running away with the title.
That first 10 races of the year had seen five different winners: Kimi Raikkonen getting the early glory for Lotus at the season opener in Australia, Nico Rosberg picking up Mercedes’ first victory, team-mate Lewis Hamilton also claiming a maiden victory at Mercedes, plus a double win for Fernando Alonso.
In addition, there were massive elements of uncertainty caused by the Pirelli tyres, no one quite sure how their rubber would hold together until the final corner.
In some ways, it made for thrilling viewing, the preceding laps almost a pointless precursor to an all-ornothing final few laps. But it also made a mockery, drivers unable to push at certain points in the races, overtakes mere inevitabilities rather than the result of a moment of pure genius behind the wheel.
Pirelli’s problems reached their nadir with the five blow-outs at the British GP but already they and Mercedes were in the dock for the secret tyre test back in May.
As F1 packed up for the summer break, it led to some inevitable questions. Could Raikkonen keep up his consistency at Lotus, could Ferrari raise their game sufficiently to match Red Bull, and could Mercedes continue to surprise?
Sadly for the armchair enthusiasts, the answer to all was a resounding “no”. From the moment the sport returned from that mid-season interval at the Belgian GP, the outcome on the Sunday was always the same, a win for Vettel, as well as six of the final nine pole positions of the year.
The boos that often rang out at the trophy presentations said it all really, boos that took their cue from the Malaysian GP where Vettel ignored team orders to pass Mark Webber for the win.
It was an ugly way of going about things, his response afterwards ungracious in its delivery, the petulant nature of his actions highlighted even more at the end of a season where his closest rival, Alonso, was a whopping 155 points behind.
It was unnecessary and the one blot on Vettel’s copybook. As for F1 more broadly, it wasn’t a great year. There were admirable sideshows off track with Bernie Ecclestone’s current court case, the driver merry-go-round and an often fractious relationship between Ferrari and Alonso.
But after four straight Vettel titles, F1 is in need of an injection of something new. That will come with the change to 1.6-litre turbocharged V6 engines, and with Mercedes, McLaren and Ferrari promising a more sustained challenge.
Such promises have been made before, only time will tell if the change is a brief speedbump before more of the same from Red Bull and four-time world champion Vettel.
BEST AND WORST OF THE SEASON...
Race of the season
The British GP was edge-of-theseat stuff courtesy of the litany of tyre blow-outs. There were five in total with two safety-car deployments, one of which was for those rarest of things, a Sebastian Vettel retirement. It all came down to a seven-lap blitz to the finish, with Nico Rosberg winning.
Has anyone had a better virtual facelift than Romain Grosjean behind the wheel of an F1 car? Last season, he was the car to avoid, a magnet for flying debris and unnecessary crashes. This year, he has instead become a model of consistency and Lotus’ new team leader. Where once he looked mentally frail, in the space of a few months he has become mentally resolute.
Worst PR exercise
Vettel likes to paint a picture of himself as a happy-go-lucky kind of guy. But the F1 fraternity saw a completely different side to him in Malaysia when he ignored team orders and overtook Mark Webber. It led to a rebuke from the Red Bull hierarchy and the German was then regularly booed on the podium.
The honeymoon period between Ferrari and Fernando Alonso is officially over. There were a series of moments – notably calling his team “idiots” over the radio at the Italian GP before claiming it was lost in translation and he had said “geniuses”. It followed an earlier incident in which he was rebuked by president Luca di Montezemolo for “rash outbursts” in Hungary.
Flop of the season
McLaren well and truly had a season to forget. After Brazil, they stood a hugely disappointing fifth place in the constructors’ standings on 122 points, a little over a fifth of the points haul of Red Bull and only 45 points better than Force India. Jenson Button ended in ninth with Sergio Perez in 11th, the Mexican also losing his race seat.
Worst kept secret
It has to be Mercedes’ ‘secret’ Pirelli tyre test at the Circuit de Catalunya, which blew up in their faces. Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were given the all clear by team principal Ross Brawn to take part in what he felt was a legal test. The FIA saw it differently and Mercedes were left out of the subsequent young drivers’ test, a fairly meagre punishment in light of their indiscretion, which left their rivals on the grid well and truly fuming.
Biggest question mark
There’s no concrete evidence but you’d have to say that Mercedes offer the greatest promise. The rumours are they have the edge over their rivals in terms of the engine changes. They have a better base with which to work with Lewis Hamilton going into his second season with the team. The question marks are over Ross Brawn’s position as principal and how Hamilton’s relationship with Nico Rosberg will stand up if they are battling it out for race wins.
Mark Webber, who bows out of F1 to focus on sportscar ambitions with Porsche, will be sorely missed. You will struggle to meet a more rounded driver as a human being or someone more willing to speak his mind. On his day, he could be blisteringly quick, the only problem was his team-mate was Vettel, who looks set to break every F1 record ever set.