A Decade On: What Made the 2012 F1 Season So Special?
Written by Vyas Ponnuri, Edited by Sameena Khan
It is over a decade since the 2012 F1 season concluded at the season finale in Brazil, held on 25th November 2012. So, let us take a short trip back in time to one of the best Formula 1 seasons ever: The 2012 F1 season. One of the most competitive seasons of all time, the 2012 season saw multiple winners, including two first-time winners, four new faces on the podium, a title fight that went down to the wire in Brazil, and a driver winning his third title.
The season saw an unprecedented seven winners in the first seven races, four maiden podium sitters in the form of Sergio Perez, Nico Rosberg, Romain Grosjean, Pastor Maldonado, and Kamui Kobayashi. Rosberg and Maldonado took their maiden wins in Formula One at the Chinese and Spanish Grands-Prix, respectively. In contrast, Schumacher gave us a glimpse of his former self in his final season of F1, going fastest in qualifying at Monaco. Kimi Raikkonen took his first win on returning to the sport in Abu Dhabi. The USA once again returned to the F1 calendar, with Austin hosting the penultimate round of the season. Multiple drivers were initially in the hunt for the title. Still, it came down to Sebastian Vettel vs Fernando Alonso in the end, with Vettel winning out after one of F1’s craziest title-deciding season finales.
A crucial rule change in 2012 regarding the exhaust exit was introduced in the wake of the controversy regarding the ban of “Off-throttle blown diffusers” during the 2011 season. As a result, the exhaust exits were placed higher and further away from the diffuser on the F1 cars for 2012. This is said to have affected Red Bull the most, with their vehicle being the quickest on seven tracks out of 20, down from 18 for the previous season. Pirelli introduced new tyre compounds for the season, with the most complex compound being only 31% harder than the softest compound on offer, compared to 70% for the previous season. This reduced the tyre life, pushing teams towards making multiple pit stops during the race. It was likened to “Driving on raw eggs” by seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher.
If we look back at the 2012 season, there is one noticeable fact: The performance of most teams’ cars on track was in a similar bandwidth - according to an analysis by the German Language Speed Week, just 1.64 seconds separated McLaren, the fastest on the track, to Toro Rosso in ninth. These nine teams were mostly in the running for points on race day. The teams being so closely matched also made for unpredictable qualifying sessions, which meant getting through into the final Q3 session was not assured for those of the “top” teams. This led to Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa, Romain Grosjean, Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button, and even Mark Webber from Red Bull not making it through to Q3 across many rounds for the season. Overtaking wasn’t as easy due to the closing performance gap between teams, which made their recovery drives harder than usual.
Reliability was another critical factor throughout the season. While McLaren had the fastest car on the grid according to data, the Mercedes engines were also the least reliable, with McLaren having four race-ending failures and the Mercedes team having five to their name, all to Schumacher. Red Bull suffered from three race-ending shortcomings, most notably Vettel retiring from the race lead at Valencia and later in the season at Monza. On the contrary, Ferrari experienced zero mechanical failures, despite being the fourth-quickest car across the season. Lotus had the third-quickest vehicle and experienced only one retirement due to reliability across the season, with Grosjean having to retire from second place on the road at Valencia. Despite their excellent reliability, neither driver could mount a serious championship battle due to Grosjean having multiple crashes across the season or the team just lacking overall pace.
In such a closely-contested season, consistency was key. This aspect saw Fernando Alonso outshine the competition: He never finished outside the top ten throughout the season, his only retirements coming due to crashes in Belgium and Japan. Vettel, too, had only one finish outside the points all year, coming in Malaysia, apart from two reliability-induced retirements.
Coming to the championship battle, it was a race to the third World Championship for both contenders: Vettel having won the previous season and Alonso looking to bring silverware back to Maranello. The season started with a battle between the McLaren and Red Bull drivers. However, Alonso’s consistency and ability to extract incredible performance from the Ferrari, and thus significant results in succession, kept him in contention for the title. 2012 could be considered one of the Spaniard’s best seasons in the sport, as he regularly achieved podiums in a car capable of just making it to the top ten on Saturday. To put it into context, he outscored his teammate Massa by a whopping 156 points. He put in standout performances on more than one occasion, the best ones being his win from 11th on the grid at his home race in Valencia and an impressive win from ninth on the grid in a race of changing conditions and a red flag in Malaysia. It was a fantastic season for the Spaniard, and despite his two retirements due to crashes, he finished only three points behind eventual champion Vettel. The image of his shell-shocked reaction at the end of the season finale in Brazil, which regularly does the rounds on the internet, speaks more than anything. He had done the unthinkable and had almost won the championship in the fourth-quickest car. It was indeed an unbelievable season for the Spaniard.
A very closely-matched grid, softer tyres, newer rules regarding diffusers, and reliability not being at its peak, coupled with drivers having the pace to win on their day, clearly threw up some great races. 12 of the 20 races in the 2012 season saw the margin of victory being less than five seconds. And fittingly, it was one of the tensest title deciders, which ended in Vettel winning out over Alonso by just three points. The record of seven different winners in seven races stands to date. In contrast, 2022 saw only seven drivers finish on the podium. This puts into perspective how unpredictable and close the 2012 season was.
The odds of such a season repeating are slim, but we can only hope and pray to get a close season of Formula 1 racing in the future.