Vettel, Alonso prove class in fascinating F1 season
Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel claimed his third consecutive world title at the dramatic Brazilian Grand Prix, as McLaren’s Jenson Button took his third win of the season. Vettel stopped four times in his sixth place finish, having lost time with a spin and sustained damage following contact with another competitor on the opening lap. His nearest championship rival Fernando Alonso could only finish second behind Button, meaning his valiant season in what was largely thought of as a comparatively uncompetitive Ferrari ended four points short of victory. Vettel became the youngest ever triple world champion on Pirelli’s P Zero Silver hard and P Zero White medium tyres, with the Cinturato Green intermediates playing their part in damp conditions.
Jenson Button claimed an early lead from second on the grid, staying out on the medium tyres while the rain fell. The different strategies shook up the established order: the Caterham of Heikki Kovalainen running as high as sixth overall, ahead of the Marussia of Timo Glock in seventh – who also both remained on the slicks until laps 15 and 14 respectively. When the safety car came out for 10 laps, Button pitted on lap 23 for hard tyres while the track still remained damp as the rain eased off.
In the closing stages of the race, the rain returned with a vengeance, meaning that it was no longer possible to stay out on the slicks. On lap 50 Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg went onto the intermediates, while Vettel stopped for medium tyres on lap 52 and then two laps later for intermediates as the rain fell harder. On lap 57 Button made his second and final stop onto intermediate tyres without losing the lead. Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo and Kovalainen ended the race on the Cinturato Blue full wet tyre.
Vettel’s tyre strategy consisted of starting on the medium tyre, switching to the intermediate, then to the hard, then to the medium, and finally to the intermediate again. His title rival Fernando Alonso, who needed to finish at least third with Vettel tenth or lower to claim the championship, made one less stop: starting on the medium, then to the intermediate, then to the medium, then to the intermediate again. In contrast, Button was the only finisher to stop just twice.
Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery concluded: “On this day 11 years ago we won the World Rally Championship with Richard Burns, so it is quite fitting that today we have seen another truly dramatic title-decider, here in Interlagos. The weather played a huge part in proceedings, forcing the teams to alter their strategy and react to the changing conditions. The teams faced a particularly hard task because conditions in free practice and qualifying were a lot warmer and much drier, so today was a step into the unknown.
“With the weather so unpredictable, some teams used strategy by putting one driver on slicks and the other on intermediates, in order to have real-time data about the relative performance of the tyres. A further variable affecting the tyre strategy was also the lengthy safety car period in the first half of the race, which reduced the amount of wear with the cars still on heavy fuel. Even when the rain was falling hard in the first half of the race, the medium tyres still generated enough heat and grip to enable Jenson Button to maintain control without going onto the intermediate.
“Congratulations to Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel, who adapted their strategy calls brilliantly to changing circumstances, as well as to Fernando Alonso and Ferrari, who pushed them every inch of the way. We’d also like to congratulate Jenson Button, who got the very best out of both the slick and the intermediate tyres, and take this opportunity to pay tribute to Michael Schumacher: a great champion and fantastic ambassador for the sport, who ended his final grand prix in the points.”
Alonso benefits most from tyres
Much of the reason for Alonso’s end of season placing, ahead of both McLarens of Button and the departing Lewis Hamilton, and the Red Bull of Mark Webber – faster cars than this year’s Ferrari by all accounts – has been his ability to make the Pirelli tyres work with the car on a wide variety of circuits. Though Ferrari led the championship after the first quarter, “[we] had probably the most difficult start of the championship in these three years in Ferrari, with a car that was not competitive at all,” Alonso told the Financial Times. His consistent competitiveness allowed him to finish on the podium in each of the final five Grands Prix of a season, whose first seven races boasted seven different winners. Even Williams, whose 2011 had been horribly uncompetitive, found a weekend in Barcelona where its driver Pastor Maldonado made Pirelli’s tyres work well enough to win a race.
Alonso was not the only driver who overcame the challenge of racing a slower car using tyre-based adaptability over the course of the season; this has been an excellent year for Lotus-Renault’s Kimi Räikkönen, who achieved six podiums and victory in Abu Dhabi to finish third – the only driver other than the end of season title contenders to top 200 points for the year. The Finn summed up the situation before the Monaco Grand Prix: “It is very difficult to say who is really the quickest overall because at one race one team is there and then suddenly they are tenth in the next race. So it’s a bit of an odd situation. But it gives a lot of chances for all the teams who have the speed. When the tyres are working for them, they are much better than the others.”
While Pirelli, which was given the brief of making tyres to last for around a third of the race, surely deserves credit for making “really clever people [struggle] to work things out”, in the words of drivers’ representative Webber, the Red Bull driver also implied that tyre difficulties have made it difficult for teams to “get things as close to perfect as possible”. From the point of view of Tyres & Accessories, this season in particular has been one of the best in living memory, both in terms of competitiveness and in the way it has given spectators a reason to look at today’s tyres as complex pieces of technology, the result of over a century of research and development. And of course, despite the difficulties with the tyres, Vettel was able to make the fastest car come in first – just.
There are three major questions set up by this season’s championship for 2013:
• With Vettel and Alonso backing up their status as Greats of F1 in 2012, will Button and Mercedes GP’s Hamilton be able to raise their game?
• Will Lotus be able to continue its remarkable ascent, with Räikkönen confirmed for the season?
• Perhaps the most important question of all – will Pirelli continue to supply tyres that will challenge teams and drivers alike to find consistent pace, or will the design philosophy change in reaction to a season not to the tastes of some teams and drivers?