Formula One comes under scrutiny like no other sport. Its glamorous excesses aside, one boring race and the pitchforks come out. A dull Wimbledon final or Champions League climax doesn’t render tennis or football as a whole a pointless parade but F1 is always up against it.
As a fan in the 21st century, I am always told it was better in someone else’s day and that F1 isn’t what it used to be, but 2012 changed that.
The season opened with an unprecedented seven different race winners and upstarts Sergio Pérez and Romain Grosjean challenging the status quo with their maiden bows on the podium. As the season settled it became clear this was a two-horse race. The mercurial and romantic Fernando Alonso versus the mechanical and relentless Sebastian Vettel.
Both were double champions, Alonso with Renault in 2005 and 2006, and Vettel with the supreme Red Bull conquering the previous two seasons, yet no one expected Alonso to be anywhere near the German. The Ferrari had been a shambles of a car but his remarkable ability to dig deeper than anyone else meant he was trailing Vettel only by 13 points heading into the finale in Brazil.
Vettel started three places higher on the grid but clouds were hovering in the Brazilian sky and there was a lingering sense this grand prix would not be a procession. The lights went out and 30 seconds later Vettel was rolling backwards downhill at turn four.
His critics argued that Vettel could not overtake. Sitting staring at 23 exhausts this was the moment to prove them wrong. Alonso may have leapt to a championship-winning position but this mammoth 71-lap race had plenty of twists and turns left. Mark Webber and Felipe Massa were obtrusive to their respective teammate’s rival, and such as Kamui Kobayashi were torpedoing through, without a drive the following year and with nothing to lose.
Amid all this mid-grid scrapping, there was a race to be won. The McLarens of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button were tussling up front, with Nico Hülkenburg (Force India) lighting up the track behind.
As the heavens opened and closed on a whim for the next hour, an eager Hülkenburg misjudged the wet surface while overtaking for the lead and Hamilton became a bumper cushion. The Briton’s final race for McLaren would end with him parked up against the barriers, no doubt wondering whether Mercedes would bring him the successes that were vanishing at McLaren. Button finished first but that was the lesser story of the day.
A bruised Vettel spent the race carving through the field and contributing healthily to the record 144 overtakes made. Alonso could only do so much; second was his ceiling. A compliant Michael Schumacher, ending his second F1 spell in mediocrity, made no efforts to stop Vettel leapfrogging him for a vital sixth place – a symbolic gesture of one legendary German passing the baton to another.
A late safety car ensured there would be no more stings in the tail and both teams knew it. The Red Bull pitwall were fidgety, waiting for the confirmation in two laps’ time, while the Ferrari garage was disconsolate and silent.
Alonso stood by his car in the rain, gazing vacantly and awaiting a meagre podium celebration, knowing full well this was his best chance of a third title. Here was a man who had not put a foot wrong all year, only twice missing out on the points at the hands of a careering Grosjean. The following season would replicate the same order but a 155 point gap told a starker story.
When the nostalgics pine for the times of Hunt and Lauda, or Senna and Prost, it would be abhorrent if 2012’s duel is not hankered after in the same way.