SAO PAULO, Brazil - So, after 20 rounds raced in 19 countries over five continents, Sebastian Vettel, at 25, is Formula 1’s youngest-yet triple World champion by a scant three points and only the third driver to have achieved this remarkable feat from consecutive seasons.
Rencken: Nip-'n-tuck in Brazil
The others were Michael Schumacher, who ironically re-retired after Sunday’s 2012 Brazilian GP, and (the late) 1950’s hero Juan Manuel Fangio.
But it was nip-'n-tuck for the 71 laps of the race as Red Bull’s Vettel, who arrived in South America with a 13-point cushion over his nemesis 2005/6 champion Fernando Alonso, who has taken his Ferrari to places it had no right even being close to, was forced to concede 10 points.
'I'M VERY SATISFIED'
Yet vanquished Alonso has every reason to hold his head as high as Vettel; through the season he consistently put in masterful displays, reaching the podium when victories proved a bridge too far even for his prodigious skills.
In fact, consider Alonso’s post-race comments, made despite the depth of his despair: “I’m very satisfied. I think it’s very good feeling what I have now. It was very frustrating maybe in Abu Dhabi, feeling [in 2010] because we have in our hands [the title] and we lost it. It was some kind of frustration there.
“Here is completely the opposite. I’m so proud and I’m so happy to fight until the last lap with the package we have in hands. That is the best thing for me, to feel proud of myself, it was by far the best season of my career and I will remember this 2012 like some dream season. Obviously we didn’t achieve the points to win the title but I won so many things this year: so much respect from everybody.”
He sure did.
Qualifying had not gone well for either: Vettel lined up fourth, having switched to caution mode after overdoing a hot lap, while Alonso came in eighth before being elevated a slot when Pastor Maldonado was docked 10 places for failing to present his Williams for weighing.
But suspicions lingered that the title challenger had set his Ferrari up for a wet race, deemed it prudent to sacrifice qualifying in favour of race pace, go for downforce rather than speed. After all, capricious weather was forecast… and it arrived right on time.
As the grid lined up, so the drops fell, lightly at first, then with increased vigour, leaving the bumpy track surface a greasy grey. Decision time: medium compound dries (for 21 of the 24 starters) or Intermediates?
Without exception the grid started on qualifying choices, with on-pole Hamilton taking an immediate lead from Felipe Massa (Ferrari), up from fifth, and fellow front-row starter Jenson Button in the second McLaren as they headed downhill through the Turn 1 Esses.
Vettel and Alonso? Down to seventh after a poor start and up to fourth respectively.
Then disaster: just when Vettel should have been at his most cautious he dived down the blind side of Bruno Senna’s Williams, putting the Brazilian (and Sergio Perez’s Sauber) out on the spot as he spun. With a damaged side pod, Vettel continued in 22nd place, his team advising him not to pit (“the damage can’t be repaired...”). It sparked a valiant fight back similar to his effort in Abu Dhabi a month earlier and ultimately he would be richly rewarded.
As the drizzle thickened so Hamilton and all front-runners bar Button and Nico Hulkenberg, driving his last race for Force India, elected to pit for Inters. They were, in the post-race words of Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery, “exceptionally brave” to run through on slicks but and fortune rewarded the brave.
When Hamilton and the rest, now more than 30 seconds back despite making up ground as the rain intensified, switched back to dry rubber the leaders were 45 seconds up the road and Hulkenberg ahead of Hamilton.
Amid various spinners and excursionists, Nico Rosberg pitted his Mercedes with a debris-induced rear puncture, leading race director Charlie Whiting to deploy the pace car. In a flash the leading pair’s advantage disappeared, despite their being able to pit for replacement rubber and still exit in the lead. A frustrated Force India team boss Robert Fernley later intimated it had been a “showtime safety car’ phase to close the gap.
“Are we into Nascar or F1?” he asked rhetorically.
CHANGE OF LEAD
However, the six-lap break swung the title pendulum back in Vettel’s favour, the damaged blue car in fifth to Alonso’s fourth, with Hamilton joining the battle for the lead as the pace car peeled off on lap 29. He took team mate Button two laps later and lined up the leader who retained his advantage through the next tyre-change shuffle. Order: Hulkenberg, Hamilton, Button, Alonso; Vettel seventh – and thus in a title-winning position.
Lap 48, and a change of lead after Hulkenberg slid wide, allowing Hamilton through, with the order unchanged until the former, desperate to take his first win, pulled alongside Hamilton again as they came upon a stray Marussia heading for Turn 1 with 15 laps to go. Out stepped the Force India’s rear, bumping Hamilton out of the race and into retirement with a broken front suspension, allowing Button back into the lead and all others up a slot.
Alonso now third behind Hulkenberg, with Massa riding shotgun; Vettel down to ninth after a tyre stop.
Then came the most inexplicable decision of the afternoon, arguably the entire championship: Hulkenberg docked a drive-through for causing a collision. The way it was subsequently justified was that he had (inadvertently) taken out the leader and thus deserved sanction – so the stewards believed. Maybe – in which case Vettel surely deserved similar for his lap 1 antics when he caused the retirement of not one, but two, cars.
True, neither of the retirees was leading – but since when should that be a distinction, for they had their own goals and ambitions which were destroyed by a reigning champion who should have known better at such a crucial point. Such a decision would have changed the entire face of the race and thus championship – and Alonso and Ferrari have every right to feel aggrieved by the inconsistency.
HONOUR TO FERRARI
Still this chaotic race’s twist and turns were not over: with two laps remaining and Alonso now second and Vettel in a title-winning sixth, Paul di Resta (Force India) crashed heavily in the increasingly treacherous conditions at virtually the fastest part of the circuit – the pits-lane entry on the long and arcing main section – triggering yet another a pace car, this time one that would last to the end of one of the most dramatic title showdowns in recent history, one at least on par with that 2008 classic which saw Hamilton narrowly nick the title off Massa at the same Interlagos circuit.
It was Button’s win in the sort of conditions under which he excels but Vettel’s day after a race in which both the good and the bad contrived to deliver a third consecutive title after Alonso did his very best (again) to bring honour to Ferrari.
Massa took third from Mark Webber in the second Red Bull after the Australian yo-yoed up and down the order after a challenging race, with Hulkenberg sixth ahead of his compatriot.
Seventh went to the retiring Schumacher after an uncompromising final race for Mercedes, with Toro Rosso’s Jean-Eric Vergne and Kamui Kobayashi, who warred every which way in his last race for Sauber, ninth.
The result means Vettel (281 points) made history on that damp overcast day by winning the tussle of the third title from Alonso (278), with Kimi Raikkonen, another who slithered every which way in Brazil – including down a dead-end escape road – third on 207 after finishing 10th in Brazil for Lotus.
'I WAS CRYING'
“It’s difficult to imagine what goes through my head now, I am so full of adrenalin,” said Vettel as he climbed out of the car which had served him so well all season - five victories to Alonso’s three - in a season which feted eight different winners.
“It was an incredible race, everything that could have happened to make it more difficult for us today, happened! I got turned around in Turn 4 for no reason and was heading the wrong way; I had to get straight and was lucky no one hit me. (He did that in reverse.) The car was damaged and we lost speed on the straights, even more as it dried up, but fortunately it started to rain again.”
Still Vettel was not finished despite the enormity of the moment and his achievement: “It’s unreal what has happened. To win a third title, especially here where one of my heroes Ayrton Senna was from, it’s difficult to put into words.
“I was crying in the car but my radio wasn’t working, so I’m maybe happy for that! Tomorrow I can probably say more, but now I just don’t have the right words.”
Here’s betting he and Alonso will have the right words to shout when the season kicks off in mid-March in Melbourne…