// Mid Term Summary
To be quite frank, I was becoming a little bored with Grand Prix racing. The so-called ‘premier racing formula’ had lost much of its mojo from 2002 to 2011. Refuelling was creating additional issues of its own, as it had done since the FISA-specification refuelling machines were first rolled out, and ‘tyre wars’ was prevalent, leading to additional confusion and anything but a level playing-field, either for drivers or spectators.
Ironically, when the annual invitation landed on my desk, to join the reptiles at Silverstone for the British round of the 2010 F1 Championship, I almost forgot to return the RSVP. I was starting to behave like the corporate animals that left their seats spare at the London 2012 Olympics. They arrive in their droves, I have seen them doing so, parking their some-owned, some-rented and some-chauffeured swish-mobiles in the designated areas, hopping onto awaiting golf buggies and being ferried to the protective entry-gates to The F1 Paddock Club. Their rosy cheeks shine in mid-summer sunshine, matched by various pastel shades of shirts and skirts and the omnipresent designer sun-specs.
Within this cloistered, card-accessed environment, they wine and dine on the finest Beluga caviar, the smoothest of pate de foie, the choicest cuts of beef, fish and poultry, delightfully creative patisserie and petits-fours, all washed down by vintage Krug and a never-ending flood of beverages, alcoholic and soft. When encouraged to hoist their over-endowed selves from moderately comfortable dining chairs, it is only to experience a free Toni & Guy primp, a heftily discounted mobile phone or to argy-bargy for a rival team’s race-day souvenir, which is not included within the generously-inflated ‘goodies’ bag already placed beside their exclusive spots at the feeding trough.
As to the race viewing areas for this dedicated band of high-rollers, there was always the customary space available, right through the big race itself, mainly because they were more interested in texting some distant relative, neighbour or chum unable to partake of their privileges, from the comfort of the air-chilled dining area. The ‘okay-yah’ set (I know you have them on your side of the Pond too, from Bel Air or The Hamptons), is present for the partial amusement of the regular ticket-payers, most of whom neither know nor care what goes on behind those closed canvas doors.
At various times over the years, I have found that television provides the more apposite setting for a GP view. With six-pack and chips alongside, I can slob out in a manner that the darlings of the fashionista might only dream about. The more processional the race, the greater the likelihood of sleep taking over. Yet, mysteriously, I would usually manage the first half-a-dozen laps, dozing through most of the mayhem, only to awake with the final half-dozen to run, during which to resurrect a modicum of enthusiasm and plan through the rest of the evening’s televisual tedium of soaps, umpteenth-repeat Bond movies and Sunday hymn singing.
Cynical? Me? Not at all. I merely report the facts as I see them.
// VOLTE FACE
Talk about ‘about-turn’…2012 has made me revise my jaundiced view. I have seldom felt so enthusiastic about ANY race series. The usual pre-season pre-amble promised the usual round of anti-Bernie-isms, which invariably add to the colour and spectacle, especially when they come to nought, the Grand Puppetmaster defying his midget stature and advancing years with his customary wave of a hand and a twisted half-grin to dismiss and deflect political, social and other issues…would anybody dare to deny him his pleasure?
Here we were. Australia. Melbourne. Albert Park, to be precise. Even the drivers looked fresh-faced and moderately clean-shaven, most especially the newbies. Pirelli was the sole tyre supplier. It raised the issues. No more questionable holes in cockpits. No more refuelling. However hateful the public park was to hare around, the race was electric. Button claimed the honours. The account card was open.
A fortnight later, Malaysia was the place. The Hermann Tilke-designed venue at Sepang delivered its customary high quality racing but not for the usual suspects. Rain virtually stopped play and Alonso took the honours, fuelling a prospect for a return of the Prancing Horse to the winner’s circle. Yet, the virtual unknown of Mexican new-kid-on-the-block Perez upset the apple-cart with a fine second place. Interest levels were being spiked with the close proximity charging.
Remaining in the Far East, the circus relocated to China, where young Rosberg Junior (son of former F1 Champion, Keke) posted a debut victory for the Mercedes-Benz factory team. His joy was unbounded, naturally. Yet, there was another ‘first’ for the weekend, in that no call was made on the safety car. While Button claimed second ahead of Hamilton, Webber beat Vettel to elongate his face even more. Equally vital on the statistics front is this was the third different race victor in as many GPs.
Bahrain brought out Vettel’s fickle finger of fortune for the first time this year, while Hamilton and a comprehensively off-form Button dwindled in 8th and 18th places respectively. Whether they would be worth their reported $25,196,850 annual earnings apiece, when Vettel earns a ‘mere’ $15,748,531, as two-times World Champion, remained to be seen. The McLaren duo was certainly looking to Spain for a chance to regroup. The revitalised Lotus took a brilliant second and third spots, to add further mystery to the mix.
Fast, wide and not quite as warm as the desert, Barcelona provided another shock result, this time for Pastor Maldonado, the ‘bad boy’ employed by the Williams team. However, the celebrations for its first victory in eight years were cut short for the team that was once so high up the rankings, when fire broke out in the pit-lane garage and four Williams’ personnel were short-term hospitalised. Again, Lotus was in the hunt, with third and fourth places, Alonso driving his Ferrari into the runner-up slot.
Well into the first of the European legs, beloved Monaco was next in the calendar. At last, Webber would silence his critics with a wholesome and popular victory for Red Bull. Rosberg’s second place served to bolster his growing repute on the circuit commonly regarded as impossible to race upon. Reported to be earning as much as Vettel, he was clearly earning his crust. Inevitable accidents put paid to several of the back-markers, although Schumacher was a high-end casualty, albeit with mechanical failure.
For the seventh round of the Championship, a return was made to Montreal, Canada, where Hamilton finally got a chance to smile for the cameras. Interestingly Romain Grosjean took a fine second place to the McLaren pilot, adding more fuel to Lotus’s intentions. Perez scored third. Yet again, the bookies were losing money hand over fist. Seven different winners from seven GPs was having a most desirable effect on both box offices and TV audiences. Bernie’s script for more excitement was hitting fever pitch, even though tyres were now an omnipresent issue and winning was increasingly a pit-lane strategy and not an on-track domination by any one team or driver.
Returning to Europe in late-June proved fortuitous for Alonso, who scored his second victory of the year, causing the critics to bay (prematurely) for a Spanish Champion on home soil. However, Valencia is not a popular venue, even though Kimi Raikonnen and Lotus would not complain with another fine second place, Schumacher marking his first podium of the year in third spot.
The British Grand Prix came next at a drying Silverstone, Webber just managing to hold station ahead of Alonso, for his second win of the season. Vettel, looking increasingly down in the mouth settled for third, which helped Red Bull’s team aspirations. Lotus-Renault performed well again, taking fifth and sixth ahead of Schumacher. However, dwindling behind the German on home turf was the British McLaren pairing, looking increasingly as though the team was running out of options.
Just a fortnight later and Germany was on the schedule. However, despite lunging several times across the circuit perimeter line, for which Vettel was punished in a late-race charge into second place over Button, Alonso posted his third victory. A three-place penalty was placed on Vettel, who dropped to fifth, with Raikonnen delivering an excellent third overall for Lotus and the characterful Kamui Kobayashi gifting Sauber-Ferrari an excellent fourth overall.
Finally, with the prospect of the summer vacation in the air, the drivers headed for Hungary, where Hamilton, desperate for a win gave a sterling flag-to-flag performance at the head of the field. Again, Lotus managed to get its drivers onto the second and third steps of the podium, to underscore a vastly improved 2012 form. Vettel had to settle for fourth, with Alonso and Button behind him. Bruno Senna grabbed an excellent seventh place, while Webber, Massa (so far unsigned for 2013) and Rosberg rounded off the Top Ten.
Thanks to moderate consistency, Red Bull holds sway at the top of the points chart, while McLaren and Lotus are separated by a mere single point in second and third places respectively. In the drivers’ reckoning, 164 points gives Alonso (the salary champion at a whopping $47,245,593) a solid advantage ahead of Webber (124) and Vettel (122). Yet, there is all to play for in the second dramatic session that commences with Round 12, in Belgium.
// COMING UP
It is easy to state that Spa’s problems are over, yet I have a sneaking suspicion that they are not, despite the love that most drivers have for the 7.004km circuit, the season’s longest lap. The challenge of the changing gradients and climatic conditions in the Ardennes Forest, in the last weekend of August, will always be extant but this place is perpetually exciting. My tip for the top is Vettel, to be hounded by Hamilton and Raikonnen but, in truth, it could be anyone’s race.
Only a week later (9th September), the city park at Monza will resound to F1 cars once again. Ever the focal point of the ‘Tifosi’, the Italian F1 fans, for whom only a great victory is good enough, this classic venue always provides a seasonal upset and my prediction is for a Webber victory, thereby displacing the sport’s highest earner, Alonso, from what he is hoping would be the perfect win. Grosjean will probably claim third spot for Lotus.
The thrilling nocturnal race at Singapore’s Marina Bay Circuit takes place a fortnight later (23rd September), overlooked by the skyscraper skyline of the Asian capital. Despite the ungodly hour of racing allied to the difficulties of the floodlit track, this is the first of a run of visits to the Far Eastern venues and very few drivers dislike the artificial nature of the circuit, which comes as a surprise. I reckon that Vettel will do the business here, although he might not dent Alonso’s confidence much, the Ferrari driver whisking his car into the runner-up slot, hotly pursued by Schumacher, if his ageing eyes can take the pressure.
For the 7th October, it’s the turn of Suzuka, Japan, followed by the Korean GP at Yeongam a week later. I think that a late season push by McLaren will see wins for Hamilton at both venues and Lotus should do well too. Another fortnight later and the teams re-camp at New Delhi for the Indian GP. While Vettel gave a good account of things last year, I believe that Alonso will stake his claim for victory here, followed in close order by the Lotus pairing.
There is only a week’s break prior to the Abu Dhabi GP, where I reckon Vettel will stage a come-back, chased by Hamilton and Webber, before the crews head Stateside for the glorious weekend of 16th to 18th November and COTA’s chance to shine like a crazy diamond in the rough. However, I believe that it will be rough on Alonso, despite strong support for the Spaniard on Texas soil. Perez will probably take a relieved third place, with Vettel keeping a watchful eye on Button, who will enjoy setting the pace in the inaugural Austin GP.
Finally, the season finale in Sao Paolo, Brazil, just one week later. In a cracking season of changing fortunes, I would venture to suggest that Alonso will grab the race victory and secure his third Championship crown, with a narrow victory over Vettel, thereby justifying his immense worth to Scuderia Ferrari. Of course, I could be and probably am comprehensively off-course with my predictions but I shall guarantee that you will be glued to your TV screen, or even present at some of the second half of the season races, in this, the 2012 GP season, one of the most exciting and enthralling of an era. A true vintage year in all respects.