Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
- The most remarkable achievements
- The most embarrassing moments
- The moments we want to forget
The most remarkable achievements
What a year is was in Formula One, a season with originally a record 20 races on the calendar, but after an initial postponement, the Bahrain Grand Prix was abandoned altogether due to the civil unrest in the Gulf state. But Bernie Ecclestone still hasn’t given up and the Bahrain Grand Prix is back on the 2012 calendar, let’s hope common sense will prevail if the situation in Bahrain is still be the same in April 2012.
The season-opener in Australia already showed a glimpse of Red Bull’s domination, but Formula One was pleasantly surprised by the third place of Lotus Renault’s Vitaly Petrov in Melbourne. Lotus Renault had already rocked the pit lane and paddock during the pre-season testing days with their revolutionary forwards pointing exhaust system, and they went on to also take third place during the next race, the Malaysian Grand Prix, this time it was Nick Heidfeld who climbed onto the podium to represent the men in black.
Jenson Button showed he was a true World Champion by winning the Canadian Grand Prix, a race that took an agonizing four hours and four minutes before the chequered flag was finally waved. The race had been started in the rain and Button left the grid from seventh position, like others had his share of incidents and almost accidents early on in the race, and also had a close call with McLaren team mate Lewis Hamilton, who tried to overtake him at the start/finish straight, but instead ran into Button, eliminating himself in the process.
“What is he doing,” Button asked his team on the radio after this encounter. At the same time the safety car came out, and Button decided to pit for intermediates. But he exceeded the speed limit in the pit lane, and was awarded a drive-through penalty which saw him drop further down the field, he was then in 15th place.
He had to switch to the full wet tyres again when the rain came down even harder, not much later the race was red flagged. When the race was restarted Fernando Alonso crashed into Button trying to overtake him at one of the chicanes, and Button once again had to limp back to the pits for new tyres. But he didn’t give up and carved his way through the field and after already forcing Mark Webber in the Red Bull in an error to take his second place, he with just one lap to go also forced leader Sebastian Vettel into making a tiny mistake, took over the lead and won the Canadian Grand Prix in grand style, his sweetest victory ever.
Also a remarkable achievement by Michael Schumacher during that same race, the seven times World Champion was in second position with still eight laps to go, but lost one place to Webber, and later another place to Button, but the resulting fourth place was the best finish by the German after his return in 2010. Schumacher became top-over taker of the season with 116 passes, followed by Toro Rosso’ s Sebastien Buemi (114) and Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi was third with 99 passes.
Alonso is next on the list, as he against all odds won the British Grand Prix. “Victory is the best medicine,” Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo had said after a problematic start of the season for the Ferrari team, and Alonso did just that, and it would be the only victory of the season for the Maranello-based team.
McLaren was the only team that could occasionally challenge the mighty Red Bull team, who took pole position after pole position and won race after race. Also a remarkable achievement, as the British team at the start of the season found out their MP4-26 had a few basic design flaws. They quickly decided to abandon the current configuration and were able to fight back and at the end of the season Button and Hamilton each had won three Grands Prix.
Of course also a very remarkable achievement by Sebastian Vettel, who won 11 races, took 15 pole positions and took the Formula One crown for the second successive time, and also became the youngest driver to do so. He will break more records in the future, but whether he will win seven titles and perhaps even break Schumacher’s record remains to be seen, Formula One changes very quickly these days.
Paul di Resta became Rookie of the Year, he gathered 27 World Championship points, and took sixth place during the Singapore Grand Prix. He only retired from the Turkish Grand Prix, and finished in a points scoring position in eight of the 19 races.
But the most remarkable achievement however, was without a doubt recorded by new tyre supplier Pirelli, their rather risky strategy of producing tyres that would wear very fast, turned out to be a master move of epic proportions. The Italian produced tyres more than doubled the number of pit stops, and forced teams to adapt new race strategies. Together with the new Drag Reduction System (DRS) and the re-introduction of the good old Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS), the Pirelli tyres provided a real overtaking fiesta for spectators that started in Melbourne and only ended at the other end of the globe after the finish flag was waved in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The most embarrassing moments
Sauber was disqualified from the Australian Grand Prix after FIA Stewards had discovered the rear wing of the Sauber C30 was not conforming per the regulations. According to the officials the upper rear wing element was not within the specifications of the Technical Regulations. Very disappointing for rookie Mexican Sergio Perez, who lost his seventh place during his Formula One debut, while Sauber lost valuable championship points and a few million Euros of their share of revenues as well. A season to forget for Sauber.
A season to forget for Williams as well, they recorded their worst ever season in Formula One, and at the end of the season they went back home with only five points, four scored by Rubens Barrichello, while Pastor Maldonado scored one point.
Although the season started on a high for Lotus Renault as they scored two third places during the first two races, it became apparent the front exhaust system designed by the team was a complete disaster. Not only did it fail to deliver more speed, the exhausts running through the side pods of the car caused a big fire during practice for the Spanish Grand Prix and Heidfeld had to hastily evacuate his burning car, this happened a second time during the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Heidfeld had just pitted and when he exited the pit lane his Lotus Renault burst into flames and again Heidfeld was able to get out of his burning car in time. It was a close call though, as the air bottle in the left side pod exploded while marshals were extinguishing the fire, one marshal was hit by the debris of the explosion but escaped serious injuries.
The Lotus Renault exhaust system was actually part of the so called off-throttle blown diffuser, that became a major embarrassment for the FIA, as they banned the off-throttle blowing during the British Grand Prix, but after pressure from several teams who used the system, ‘un-banned’ it again on the same day and instead decided to limit the use of engine mappings, which makes the off-throttle blowing possible. Ferrari and Sauber and the smaller teams were very unhappy with the decision to say the least, but not even the mighty Ferrari team was able to change the mind of the FIA, and in fact Ferrari and Sauber blamed the shaky FIA decision for their poor results this season.
Renault again made an embarrassing decision this season when they unexpectedly sent Heidfeld home, and Bruno Senna took over his seat for the rest of the season. Up to that moment, Heidfeld had scored more points than Petrov, and it was suspected it was a financial decision, as Senna brought along several Brazilian sponsors. To no avail, he could not impress in any way and in his turn lost his seat to Romain Grosjean for the 2012 season.
Also embarrassing was the battle between Lotus Renault and Team Lotus about the use of the brand name Lotus. Both parties claimed to have the right to use the Lotus name, also a confusing situation for the spectators. After a verdict of the British High Court, one would expect a fair and clear judgment, but I wasn’t to be, after the verdict both teams claimed victory, and carried on under the same names, Lotus Renault and Team Lotus.
Very embarrassing was Hamilton’s season, although he won three races, he finished the season in fifth place, after a spree of incidents and crashes, which earned him the title of ‘serial crasher’ of the year. He first tangled with Felipe Massa during the Monaco Grand Prix at the Loews hairpin, and then pushed the Ferrari onto the dirt in the tunnel sending the unlucky Brazilian’s car into the barrier. Later he pushed Maldonado into the barrier at St. Devote, which cost the Venezuelan his first Formula One points scoring position.
In Canada he tangled with Mark Webber’s Red Bull, sending the Australian in a spin, later tried to overtake Button but instead crashed into the wall. There was an incident at Silverstone, and at Spa-Franchorchamps he crashed after overtaking Kobayashi at the end of the Kemmel straight, but his main target seemed to be poor Massa who had already experienced a few close encounters with Hamilton during practice and qualifying sessions as well, but after another crash during the Singapore Grand Prix, Massa was livid.
The two crashed into each other again during the Indian Grand Prix, but this time it was Massa who received a penalty. Even more embarrassing than his crashes, were his comments about the FIA stewards. “Out of six races I've been to the stewards five times. It's a joke. It's an absolute fricking joke,” he commented after the Monaco Grand Prix.
Asked why he had to visit the stewards so often he replied: “Maybe it's because I'm black - that's what Ali G says! I don't know!” And that was probably the most embarrassing moment of the entire season, although meant as a joke, Hamilton had to apologize for his remarks.
The moments we want to forget
Or should we say: “The moments we want to forget but should not forget?” Just ahead of the second series of pre-season testing days in Spain, news emerged that Robert Kubica had been involved in a rally crash; the Pole barely survived the horror crash and was seriously injured. A major setback for his team, who were forced to replace him with Heidfeld.
Kubica and his manager remained optimistic and predicted he would be fit to race again in August, but to restore the functions of his almost severed and badly damaged hand and elbow, Kubica underwent about a dozen complicated operations and it soon became apparent he would not race again this year. Even worse, he recently had to admit he would not be ready in time for the 2012 campaign, and it is now even feared he might not return to Formula One at all.
More ‘lucky’ was Mexican driver Perez, who lost control of his Sauber during the last qualifying session for the Monaco Grand Prix while exiting the tunnel, and plunged sideways into the barrier with 130 mph. Perez was briefly knocked out by the impact and was rushed to hospital, a sigh of relief went through the pit lane after news emerged Perez was not seriously injured, he had suffered a concussion and a bruised thigh, but had escaped further injuries.
The world of motorsport was again rocked by the fatal accidents of IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon and MotoGP rider Marco Simoncelli; in just seven days two talented drivers lost their life, again a reminder of the dangers that are unfortunately inherent to motorsport.
Wheldon lost his life during the last race of the season on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when he got caught up in a multi-car pileup that has never been seen before in motor racing. No less than 15 cars were involved; initially Wheldon had nothing to do with the crash that started it all; he was an innocent victim. At that fatal moment he had simply nowhere to go, ran into the crashing cars ahead of him, was launched into the air and hit the debris fence with the open side of the cockpit and sustained fatal head injuries.
It was a shock for all involved in motor racing, but even more shocking was the result of the investigation into Wheldon’s accident that was published two weeks ago. The report blamed a post in the fence that had caused Wheldon’s injuries, and the report completely ignored the circumstances that actually led to the accident, and even claimed the race in Las Vegas had been safe. It was not safe and the drivers had already warned of the dangers of putting 34 cars on a short oval with steep bankings, which meant all cars were running flat-out at speeds of 360kmh, just inches apart, it was a recipe for disaster.
Just one week later Simoncelli was killed during the Malaysian Grand Prix, on the very first lap Simoncelli crashed and was hit by Valentino Rossi and Colin Edwards who were directly behind him. It was reminiscent of the accident Franco Uncini had in 1983 at the Dutch TT circuit of Assen, fortunately Uncini survived the accident and later became a sort of ambassador for safety, and today he is the official Rider's Safety Representative in MotoGP.
Hopefully motorsport will learn from these tragic accidents, and the writer of this column sincerely hopes Wheldon and Simoncelli did not die in vain; we owe it to them and their families to learn from their accidents and make the sport as safe as possible.
As far as Formula One is concerned, 2012 will be a new season with changes in the regulations, which could again provide a great spectacle, but it should be safe spectacle for all involved, drivers, teams and spectators alike.
Join us again next week for another episode of “Formula One: On and Off Track”