The Formula One World Championship came to a thrilling climax Sunday after a tension-filled and action-packed Brazilian Grand Prix won by Mclaren’s Jenson Button. In the end, it was reigning World Champion Sebastian Vettel who claimed victory by just three points from Spain’s Fernando Alonso.
The race began only seconds after the heavens opened, glazing the track with a sheen of near-invisible water that wrong-footed several drivers, but it was Vettel that made the first error.
After a tardy start from his 4th place grid slot the German was back among the midfield runners as the pack hurtled towards turn four, but the fast-starting Bruno Senna in his Williams was unsighted by Vettel as they turned into the corner and when the two came together at the apex it was the Red Bull that ended up facing the other cars racing past on either side. His car suffered further damage when Sergio Perez struck him a glancing blow, but it was the Mexican who came off worst with terminal damage to his Sauber machine.
Vettel swiftly got his car facing in the right direction and began the pursuit of his championship dreams, and as the rain fell harder the action was beginning to mount up front as Jenson Button re-passed Felipe Massa, who had squeezed past him at the start and applied pressure to team-mate Lewis Hamilton. Soon he was right on the tail of his compatriot and made a move to take the lead of the Grand Prix.
Behind them Alonso, now up to 3rd after a lightning start, ran wide on the wet surface into turn one and was passed by Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India, the German once again proving his class in these tricky conditions.
Button and Hamilton continued to dice to the angst of their team, but on lap 10 Hamilton dived into the pitlane for intermediate tyres, quickly followed by the rest of the field excepting Button and Hulkenberg who chose to continue on slick rubber. Although initially quick, those that made the change began to burn up their Pirelli tyres as the rain eased and the track dried. This left Hulkenberg and Button (the Force India having caught and passed the Mclaren) running 40-plus seconds ahead of anyone else and it looked like they were the only contenders for victory.
However, debris after the first lap fracas soon caused Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg to suffer a puncture and the Safety Car was sent out to slow the field while it was cleaned up, thus negating the brave work of both Hulkenberg and Button. As the teams and spectators took the temporary to breathe and take stock, the vital contenders were as follows: Hulkenberg, 1st; Button, 2nd; Hamilton, 3rd; Alonso, 4th; and Vettel, already back inside the top 10 for those crucial championship points, in 5th.
When the restart came Hulkenberg maintained the lead, while Hamilton pounced on Button who was struggling with tyre temperature, while Alonso and Vettel warily sized each other up. Mark Webber proved he wasn’t going to be the perfect team player when he attacked his teammate into the first corner but came off badly when he skidded wide. Up front, Hulkenberg span on the 48th lap and Hamilton passed the recovering Force India to take the lead.
Button had initially fallen back, but was now setting fastest laps as he closed back in on his rivals. In the end, he didn’t need to try and overtake as Hamilton and Hulkenberg came together at the tight turn one, the German snatching a brake while re-passing Hamilton and clattering into the Mclaren who was out on the spot with a smashed front suspension. Hulkenberg rejoined but it was now Button who led once again, and things got worse for Force India when their man was awarded a drive-through penalty.
With battles raging up and down the field, Kimi Raikkonen added a spot of humor when he slid off the track at the penultimate corner. He was stranded deep into the run-off area and in his desire to avoid driving over rough grass to regain the circuit he darted through an open gate, somehow ending up behind a marshal’s post and in with the crowd.
He found, to his dismay, that the exit back onto the circuit he had tried to find was closed (one he had found open when he made a similar mistake back in 2001) and he sheepishly turned the car back around and drove through the desperately scattering marshal’s around the gate to rejoin the race!
It wasn’t over yet. The rain came yet again and forced everyone to make the switch to intermediates again. Vettel had stopped two laps earlier and consequently was down in 10th when the pitstops had been completed. Alonso was running 2nd, courtesy of magnanimous teammate Massa who allowed Alonso through. Italy dared to believe the impossible was now possible. If the race ended there and then, Alonso would be champion for the first time in six years.
Unfortunately for them, Vettel was making headway into those ahead having survived an encounter with Kamui Kobayashi earlier in the race, and once he passed Michael Schumacher for 6th, the points situation made a grim reading for Ferrari. Unless Button retired and Alonso took the lead there was no way the title would be theirs.
A last moment accident injected more uncertainty briefly into the race when Paul Di Resta smashed his Force India to pieces at the top of the hill, losing control at 150 mph and slamming into a guard rail. Thankfully emerging unscathed, his mistake was to signal an ending to the entire championship saga as the Safety Car escorted the field round the 71st and final lap of the season.
Racing was suspended, and in that moment Sebastian Vettel became the sports youngest ever triple World Champion.
Symbolically, the Safety Car entered the pits, allowing the field to cross the line at speed and Jenson Button duly collected his 15th Grand Prix victory ahead of a drained Alonso, emotional Massa, Mark Webber, Nico Hulkenberg, Sebastian Vettel, Michael Schumacher, Jean Eric Vergne, Kamui Kobayashi and Kimi Raikkonen. Vitaly Petrov managed 11th place for Caterham which elevated them to 10th in the team’s championship ahead of rivals Marussia, a vital aim for those cash-strapped outfits that need the television money awarded with that 10th position.
Arriving in Parc Ferme, Vettel played up to the cameras while in the background Alonso stared into the middle distance, lost in his thoughts for a brief second but etched into the mind after his expression was caught on camera in what will be an iconic moment of the 2012 season.
And so the 2012 Formula One season came to an end. Eight drivers have tasted glory, six different teams victorious in twenty different races. Two men fought to the death. One of them is a triple World Champion.