My assessment of the four best teams in Formula 1 in 2012.
4. Scuderia Ferrari
Once again for Ferrari, it was so near yet so far. It has to be said though, they are lucky to have been so near. For the third year running, Ferrari have to ask themselves how they have managed to deny the best driver in F1 the world championship.
Pre-season, the signs were not good. There were all sorts of rumours emanating from test sessions — that the car produced too much drag, was unstable under braking, and all sorts. The showing in Australia confirmed those fears. And yet, at the next race — rain affected as it was — Fernando Alonso stormed to victory (albeit with a Sauber up his chuff).
Then, at the European Grand Prix, he became the first driver to win two races this year. In Germany, he won a third. Alonso was emerging as a serious championship challenger, despite driving a terrible car.
In the end, Ferrari could not continue to punch above the car’s weight. Alonso had to relent to Red Bull’s superior mid-season development. Alonso himself constantly cited Adrian Newey as the reason he couldn’t match Vettel’s pace towards the end of the season.
Murmurings of misconfigured wind tunnels are all very well. But when they have had the best driver in the business for three years, and still not managed to win a title, they need to ask if there is a bigger problem than the wind tunnel.
3. Lotus F1 Team
Similar to Force India, I keep on expecting this team to run out of steam, but they keep on proving me wrong. While almost every other team on the grid had a real up and down season, Lotus were a paragon of consistency. They scored points in every single race.
A huge part of Lotus’s success is the decision to hire Kimi Räikkönen. Before the season began, I found the idea laughable. The Finn is popular, but his two years away from F1 were not kind to his reputation. Add into the mix the struggles that Michael Schumacher faced when he made his comeback, and the prospects did not look good for Räikkönen.
But Räikkönen had none of the race-rustiness that Schumacher exhibited. In fact, Räikkönen was incredibly sharp and clever in wheel-to-wheel combat right from the word go. He even came close to grabbing a victory in Bahrain. He finished the job in his next visit to the middle east at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Räikkönen was even in the hunt for the title.
Romain Grosjean’s comeback was not so smooth, and this decision is reflecting less well on Lotus at the moment. They are continuing to show faith in Grosjean, and only time will tell if they are right to do so.
2. Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
I was close to placing McLaren in 3rd in my rankings. They have had yet another difficult season, once again mostly of their own making. A catalogue of pitstop errors at the start of the season, and another poor reliability record, meant that McLaren were never fully able to make the most of their fast car.
Then there is Jenson Button’s very alarming difficult spell in the middle of the season, which seemed to leave the team helpless. Even when Lewis Hamilton was able to win in the McLaren, Jenson Button struggled in the midfield, denting McLaren’s hopes in both championships.
On the plus side, McLaren’s season was bookended with victories, and propped up by a successful spell mid-season. Given the fact that they clearly had a great car for most of the season, they really ought to have had a better shot at both championships.
Instead, once again, McLaren missed out — and have no-one to blame but themselves. McLaren is a team that is rightly proud of its record and heritage. And yet, when you look at their record, the major fact that stands out today is that they have not won a Constructors’ Championship since 1998.
1. Red Bull Racing
The year didn’t get off to the start for Red Bull Racing. For the first time in a while, Red Bull appeared to have been caught off guard. Their car was not quite as quick as some others, and the team sometimes found themselves battling in the midfield.
But that difficult period for them came at the best moment — at the start of the season, when no single team could take advantage. There were seven different winners in the first seven races — and Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber were both among them.
It didn’t take too long for Red Bull to get to grips with the situation. Even so, Red Bull’s drivers were stuck behind Fernando Alonso in the Drivers’ Championship for the majority of the season.
Things took a turn for worse at Monza when the Red Bull drivers shockingly finished 20th and 22nd. Vettel’s retirement was caused by a similar alternator failure that hit him in Valencia. The blame was conveniently laid at the door of suppliers, but it was nonetheless a weakness in the Red Bull car. Fear of that weakness would follow them until the end of the season.
But after that all-time low in Monza came Singapore, where Vettel was dominant. He won four races on the bounce, which gave him the lead of the Drivers’ Championship. He just clung onto that lead until the end of the season.
Red Bull didn’t have the fastest car. They didn’t have the most reliable car. Their drivers weren’t flawless. Their tactics didn’t always work out.
So I have placed Red Bull Racing at the top of my rankings for one simple reason. They won the development race. They hit their stride and pulled the performance out of the bag just when they needed to. And that’s what makes them champions.
When they were backed into a corner, they delivered the goods. That’s more than you can say for any other team this season.