When around either bulls or stallions watching where one's walking is always very important. There is, of course, the danger of being kicked, but then, there is also the danger of stepping into something unpleasant. Well, with this piece I am going to step in it, and likely big time.
It was fitting, given the fight for the Drivers' Championship, that Austin, Texas and the new Circuit of the Americas would play a part in the fight for the 2012 Formula One World Championship. Vettel driving for Red Bull and Fernando Alonso driving for Scuderia Ferrari would give the 19th round of the World Championship a bit more of a rodeo feel than anything else. But, the rodeo metaphor would almost perfectly suit the discussion of who was actually more deserving of the title of World Champion.
Who is more deserving of praise? Is it the man the climbs on the back of a raging bull or the man that wants to sit on the back of a bucking bronco? Instead of gazing in wonder and awe, or perhaps just thinking how crazy either actually is, we become so used to seeing such things, such incredible feats, that discussion of which is better, which is more courageous, or crazy, simply becomes the natural course of conversation.
The same is true of Formula One. The series is now more than 60 years of age and drivers controlling cars on the very limits of sense and senseless has become so ordinary, so commonplace that the discussion of who does it better becomes a means of passing the time.
Almost immediately following the conclusion of the Brazilian Grand Prix, and Sebastian Vettel's three-peat, people began waxing poetic about the championship slipping through Alfonso's fingers and the sheer effort he had offered throughout the season. It seemed clear Alonso was the moral victor, but would such a judgment be accurate? Would it even be right to do such a thing?
Nevertheless, such debate would take place all throughout, and immediately following, the season. And who could blame them? 2012 would serve up surprise after surprise and it would leave many apparent experts looking for ways in which to redeem themselves.
While never placing himself in a position of authority on the subject, Niki Lauda would declare, before Vettel's incredible run of four-straight victories that, he believed 'He will be champion if he carries on like he has done up until now.' Lauda would then declare, 'Why should he change?'
It would be this tireless effort that would leave people believing Alonso deserving of the championship. He would certainly put together some wonderful results and would demonstrate an ability to get more out of his car than his teammate for sure. But it would seem as though consistency was the default setting for a championship. All of a sudden, the very thing people complain about NASCAR for, consistency over success, became the suggested model upon which the championship should have been based.
But Lauda's point, 'if he carries on like he has…' would be very poignant. There are many factors involved in motor racing, and perhaps more so in Formula One. A lot has to go right over the course of a season in order for a constructor and driver to be crowned champion. And what makes for one's season to be more special than another's? Let's look at some of the factors, some of the elements that would ultimately lead to Alonso become the emotional champion and Vettel's performances being dismissed. Because Alonso would already be endowed with the honor of being the moral victor, it becomes necessary to look at things from Vettel's point of view, to a degree, in order to determine if he too could lay claim to such a title. Can either be determined a more deserving driver than the other?
What about consistency? At 20 races long, there was absolutely no way Sebastian Vettel comes to be a three-time World Champion without it. To think that Vettel and the RB8 failed to live up to potential and squeaked out a championship in the end would be far from true. At the start of the season it would be the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button that was the fastest and apparently most complete car on the grid. The Red Bull chassis seemed to come along next with Renault close behind. Ferrari seemed a very distant player.
Red Bull would be hit hardest by the new regulations. Repeating as champion remains most difficult in any sport because the champion becomes the target. It would become very evident Red Bull was suffering the slings and arrows of its competition early on. However, because of the groundwork laid out by designer Adrian Newey, and the sheer abilities of Vettel and Mark Webber, Red Bull continued to score podium and points-paying finishes when it was more than clear victories were out of the realm of possibility at the time.
There would be tenacious performances, such as Vettel's gritty performance in Bahrain to hold off Kimi Raikkonen to earn his first victory of the season. But, of course, there would be the first race of the season in Australia when Vettel qualified 6th and finished 2nd. But how about Monaco? In that race Vettel would start from 10th on the grid, a position well down on a grid notoriously difficult to make a pass. And yet, by the end of the race Webber would take the victory and Vettel would come away with a 4th.
China would also be a rather telling race. Alonso would start the race from 9th on the grid while Vettel would be a lowly 11th. Though apparently lacking straight-line speed, Alonso would remain mired down in the pack unable to make his way forward. As a result, Alonso would not show any shine of brilliance and would end the race right where he started. Vettel, however, would turn the poor qualifying performance around and would come away with a solid 5th place finish.
But the lack of straight-line speed, and the overall poor performance of the F2012 would be something the pro-Alonso camp would use to validate his place as the moral victor. However, car development would be just yet another area in which Vettel would emerge as the rightful champion.
Formula One is still a team sport. Without a strong car and team behind the driver there are only those few moments over the course of the season in which a driver, even to the caliber of Vettel and Alonso, has to shine. But, to win a championship it takes those flashes of brilliance, and consistency, in order to actually pull it off.
Much would be made about the apparent superiority of the Red Bull RB8 to that of the Ferrari F2012, but there would be a couple of important things to keep in mind. Had the battle for the championship come down to either Sebastian Vettel and, say, either Pastor Maldonaldo or Bruno Senna with Williams, then it would be clear who the moral victor certainly would have been and the reason for that would simple—means. Scuderia Ferrari is by no means a small team in the Formula One paddock, and therefore, would have every opportunity Red Bull would have of improving over the course of the season. But that would be just the point.
Romain Grosjean would come barreling over the top of Fernando Alonso at the Belgian Grand Prix ruining his start from 6th place on the grid. However, Alonso would recover in incredible fashion in front of the Italian crowd. After starting 10th on the grid, Fernando would come away with an incredible podium, much to the delight of the Tifosi. Vettel's race would come to an end after starting 6th on the grid. As a result, Alonso would leave Italy having a 39 point lead over the German.
The simple fact of the matter is that Grosjean's spearing of Alonso did not bring his season to an end, nor did it destroy his lead in the championship. It certainly didn't help, but it wouldn't be as though he lost the lead as a result of the incident. And, given the fact Alonso would recover in fine fashion to finish 3rd in the Italian Grand Prix, it meant his season was still on a positive track.
But what about setbacks? Up through the Italian Grand Prix, Vettel had two retirements compared to Alonso's single departure in the Belgian Grand Prix. Right there was a maximum of 50 points that Vettel would have no opportunity to fight for. But in addition to the two retirements, Vettel would suffer a sliced tire in the Malaysian Grand Prix that would ruin a potentially strong points-paying position. Then, a penalty in the German Grand Prix would rob Vettel of yet another podium.
But then came the Singapore Grand Prix. Up until the Singapore Grand Prix Red Bull had been suffering an up and down year with a number of incredible low points for Vettel's championship hopes. Alonso would continue to amaze with his performances in an improved, but still, less than stellar F2012. The incredible consistency of the Spaniard, but also of the F2012, would keep him in the lead while Vettel's consistency would be off-set by the car letting him down.
But, as stated earlier, Formula One is very much a team sport and to carry on to a championship, whether in the Constructors' or Drivers' battle, requires teams continue to improve over the course of a season. And this, then, leads to the Singapore Grand Prix.
Throughout the first half of the season Red Bull's design team had introduced evolution after evolution. Not all of these would be met without controversy. Once again, Red Bull was the target. However, it was clear Newey and his team were determined to claw back something of what it had the year before. And then, in Singapore, it would all come together. From Singapore onwards, Fernando Alonso would not score another victory. In Vettel's case, however, he would go on a run, scoring four-straight victories. It would be this run, and the relative stagnation of Alonso's Ferrari, that would lead to the Spaniard falling some 13 points behind at the conclusion of the Grand Prix of India.
The team had come through for Vettel and his talent would be able to take full advantage of the advances. Interestingly, Alonso would take his three victories with an apparently under-achieving Ferrari. And, had it not been for the struggles of Vettel during the same period it is more than likely the German would have been at the top of the championship standings. Therefore, the string of four victories would be, in many ways, the team paying back Vettel for his early season misfortunes. The same could not really be said of Alonso and the vast army at Scuderia Ferrari.
It is undoubtedly clear that Alonso had to put together one special season in order to remain in the championship fight to the very end. However, could the season be regarded as any less special for Vettel after suffering all of the setbacks he did? Talk about having to dig deep. Even if there was a great deal of confidence about improvements made to the RB8, the fact remained Vettel suffered his second DNF right before the race in Singapore, so confidence could not have been all that high coming into the race at Singapore. Yet, with the team's, and his own, back against the wall, Vettel delivered.
Let me be clearly understood. Alonso put together one of the most incredible seasons. But to say that he deserved the title more than Vettel is to fail to give the picture a balanced look. And, having a balanced look at a championship fight, especially after one of those involved is the same man that a year earlier had one of the most dominant performances in Formula One history, can be difficult.
So let's try and look and things in a balanced frame of mind. And start with the dominant 2011 season. Red Bull itself could not have been much more of a contrast. While Vettel was securing victory after victory, Mark Webber, Vettel's teammate, would not be able to replicate the same kind of performance. It was clear Vettel had come to terms with the new Pirellis, and the car, much more quickly than Webber. This would lead to a number of times in which Webber would look as though he was driving anything but the same Red Bull chassis Vettel had around him.
But then came 2012, and just about anyone could have won throughout the first portion of the season with all of the tire issues teams were facing. This certainly seemed to make it possible for just about anyone to score a victory.
The Malaysian Grand Prix would be a race that would, in all honesty, make this entire debate possible. The incredible weather during the second round of the World Championship would take away any performance advantage any of the other teams would have over Ferrari. And while Vettel would drop out of the points after getting his wheel clipped by Narain Karthikeyan, Alonso would go on to score a well-earned and well-deserved victory. But, had it not been for the weather, it is more than likely Alonso would not have come away with the 25 points and the margin at the end of the season would have been much larger.
And that leads to the next point that needs to be kept in balance—what some call ‘luck'. Vettel has been considered one of the ‘luckiest' drivers in all the paddock, and, as the season progressed it would become clear that Providence certainly seemed to offer him some great opportunities that he would take full advantage of. However, to say that Alonso was without luck all throughout the season would be far from accurate.
Most people tend to just focus on the events of the Belgian and Japanese Grand Prix and determine Alonso just didn't have luck on his side at any time throughout the season. But while this belief, or statement, would be more than false, it really isn't the point. The point is that when it seems luck has run out, what is the response?
Following Vettel's retirement in the Italian Grand Prix, when it seemed certain his championship hopes were hanging on shallow breaths, gasps of air, he and the team would respond with four-straight victories. Alonso would do the best he could after the Belgian debacle and would come away with a 3rd place in the Italian Grand Prix. However, after retiring in Japanese Grand Prix it would take team orders to keep a faster Felipe Massa from going by and stealing a podium from Alonso.
To say Alonso, as a result of what happened in Belgium and Japan, did not have luck on his side throughout the season would be a terrible inaccuracy. In all actuality, it could be argued to the opposite: had it not been for luck, Alonso would not have been anywhere close in the championship fight.
Consider that point for a moment. Why not say that Lewis Hamilton is more of the moral victor than Alonso? A penalty in China and possible victories in Singapore, Abu Dhabi, Brazil and others could have resulted in Vettel and Alonso not having been in the championship picture at all.
It would be obvious throughout the season that Fernando Alonso had put together some truly remarkable performances just to enable his Ferrari to get him to the a podium result. But is it any less incredible of a performance to come back from setbacks to climb to the top step of the podium? And what about Sebastian Vettel's performance in the Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi? After starting the race from the pitlane, Vettel would have to climb up the running order twice in order to come away with a 3rd place result behind Raikkonen and Alonso. Just the performance he would put together in the series finale in Brazil would have to cause Vettel's performances behind the wheel of the RB8 not to merely come down to the abilities of the car. In that final race Vettel's car would be badly damaged, and yet, he would claw his way from dead-last to finish 6th and clinch the championship.
Very simply, the 2012 Formula One World Drivers' Championship came down to a battle between two very talented drivers who, on their day, have more than the ability to put together game-changing performances. This does not mean that either one is more worthy than another, it just makes for entertaining racing. And that's the point.
Motor racing is anything but cars going around and around a circuit. It is drama-filled as man and machine is tested each and every lap. Expected to perform at their very best each and every second of every race, the potential for failure and surprises are what makes motor racing anything but simple and boring. And, it is for those same reasons that it makes it more than difficult to determine which driver has had a more stellar season compared to another. Often the struggles of one aids the efforts of another. And so, in that regard how does one determine who had the better season. Formula One is a sport with the smallest of margins. The slightest change can make the difference between a Vettel of 2011 and of 2012. In both cases he became champion, but the circumstances would be far from similar.
So while it makes for interesting news, judging which driver has a more spectacular season can be far from straight-forward, and therefore, has the potential of taking away from the achievements of others. This certainly would be Vettel's point in his early remarks following the end of the Brazilian Grand Prix and the season.
One thing is for certain, however, the 2012 Formula One World Championship would be one of the most entertaining seasons within Formula One. Yes, there had been more than a few seasons within just the last decade in which the championship would go down to the final race, including Vettel and Alonso battling for the championship back in 2010, but the 2012 season would be special for just how many drivers would remain in play for the title so late into the season. And that is what all of the drama, all of the fortunate and unfortunate luck brought fans throughout the season.
Sources'Exclusive Niki Lauda Q&A: Alonso Will be Champion', (http://www.formula1.com/news/interviews/2012/9/13843.html). Formula 1. http://www.formula1.com/news/interviews/2012/9/13843.html. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
'History in the Making: Vettel's Route to the 2012 Title', (http://www.formula1.com/news/features/2012/11/14124.html). Formula 1. http://www.formula1.com/news/features/2012/11/14124.html. Retrieved 3 December 2012.
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