As the checkered flag fell on the final round of the 2012 Formula One World Championship, Sebastian Vettel was cruising comfortably in sixth as Fernando Alonso fought conditions and his car from second place for an impossible win. And yet it was Vettel that emerged victorious. With the dominant RB8 and a buffer of points, the German took a third consecutive driver’s championship — a remarkable, rarely -repeated accomplishment that still left a slightly remorseful sentiment with Formula One’s fans, for Alonso, of anyone on the grid, had fought the hardest.
Equipped with a car called one of the worst Ferrari creations in history and facing a grid that in the first seven races produced seven winners, including the man who won 2011’s title almost without competition, the prospect of a third championship for Alonso was dim. And yet, he emerged.
Never one to give up, Alonso countered by winning again at the Hockenheimring, and later just missing the podium in Hungary. Suddenly his points lead seemed sustainable, and the F2012 drivable, but all efforts stalled in Belgium with a costly DNF — not just a figurative blow to the championship leader as Romain Grosjean’s Lotus catapulted across the nose of the Ferrari almost killing Fernando himself. This he reacted to next round by grabbing third before all the tifosi in Italy, also a great drive, but telling of some new chinks in the red car’s untenable armor.
In his favor, though, Alonso’s challengers had been fluctuating in the points standings below him. By the end of the Monza race, only Lewis Hamilton had equaled his three wins, and when those two weren’t winning masses of points were going to usual backmarkers like Pastor Maldonado and Sergio Perez. The next podium at Singapore worked perfectly into this coincidental strategy: main rival Hamilton dropped out with gearbox problems, Jenson Button took and inconsequential second, Vettel (much farther down the championship order) won, and just to make sure no one got out of hand, Alonso supervised it all from third.
Only six races then remained, with each being of greater value and their results more important. But at this critical moment something changed in the Ferrari driver’s fortunes. Instead of Hamilton then beating Vettel or any of the other contenders keeping each other in championship disarray, the Red Bull began to win. And the F2012 began to fall behind. In Japan Vettel won. In Korea Vettel won and Alonso ended third. In India Vettel and Alonso finished one-two. The German had taken the lead. In Abu Dhabi Alonso started sixth and Vettel twenty-fourth. Both made the podium, Ferrari just beating Red Bull to second.
Alonso’s ensuing race had all the elements of his late 2012 season: incredible driving, a hard fight, a difficult car, a bit of luck, and the whole team (including Felipe) working for his success.
The incredible drive started at the green flag, the hard fight with his brilliant start. He could not keep pace with the top three though, and was gifted a podium spot only by the failure of Mark Webber’s Renault alternator. Even better, he was also gifted a loss for Vettel. Despite a weekend of untouchable pace, a charging Lewis Hamilton took the Red Bull down from the lead at the end of the DRS zone on lap 42. Vettel scored seven fewer points. Alonso would stand a chance in Brazil.
So when the Brazilian GP weekend began a week later, the eyes of the Formula One world were on him. Prospects looked grim; a thirteen-point gap would have to be overcome. By the end of Saturday it had only worsened. Alonso would start seventh, Vettel fourth. But the German must have known that if he spun, or crashed, or if the Renault alternator failed again Alonso would be right there, wrestling his F2012 to the front. It was Red Bull’s championship to lose, and as if to confirm that it would not be easy for them—not a flag-to-flag domination like so many races in 2011—rain began to fall.
While Fernando was charging up from his start position as ever, Sebastian was swamped and found himself, by Descida de Lago corner, fighting in the mid-pack. Turning in two and three-wide in the low visibility, Bruno Senna’s Williams slipped and tagged Vettel’s sidepod, spinning him around and back to twenty-fourth place.
The damage to the RB8’s aerodynamics was, incredibly, negligible, but championship planning had taken a hit. As Alonso threatened the podium, Vettel needed to make the top ten. Based on the latter’s performance in Abu Dhabi, the race between them was far from over. While it evolved around the two contenders into a pit-stop and crash festival, The Red Bull worked its way forward, moving up and down the order in the flip-flopping weather but always with the same goal: maintain the points gap.
Alonso was struggling and clearly fighting hard. When the leaders crashed up ahead there was a glimmer of hope for Maranello: the prospect of first place, which Vettel could only match with a fourth. But as the laps ticked down and Jenson Button extended his lead out front, Vettel scythed through the field to sixth. Despite an almost superhuman effort by Fernando Alonso that spanned the whole 2012 season, the Ferrari dream died in Brazil.
Thus, Vettel became the third man after Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher to win three Formula One World Championships in a row—a surely incredible feat that affirms the 25 year-old’s status as one of the best drivers in the sport’s history. But that he was the best driver of 2012 is debatable.
First Singapore fell to Vettel, then the next three races. He remained present on the podium for the next two. But barring his charges in Abu Dhabi (which can be considered one of F1’s greatest ever individual performances) and Belgium, every one of his major successes were the straightforward, 2011-type: take the start from high up the order, pull ahead out of DRS range, and arrive on the podium two hours later, index finger in the air, German anthem playing. It was like he just cruised to his wins.
Conversely, Alonso was always fighting. He consistently had to recover from poor qualifying performances with tricky, awesomely skillful first-lap antics. He battled excessive and uneven tire degradation and a changing group of forward and mid-pack drivers. Even alone and out front, the unworthy F2012 fought him back. Over the season, his performance was titanic and indicative of a skill level that may be surpassed by many statistically, but for application and circumstances cannot quite be matched. With it and determination and a will to continue in a car that did not improve, he finished on the podium an incredible thirteen times (at the top step for three of those) and scored 278 points—three too few.
Those three points, by the sport’s standards, make Vettel the best driver of the year. After all, what is skill if not success? But Formula One, overall, is as much a contest of engineering as driving, and there was certainly a failure by Ferrari this year to equip their number one.
So while it cannot be said that one driver deserved it more than another, the clear message of 2012 is that one did have to work harder, and he, Fernando Alonso, rose to that challenge in a way that fans have never seen. Though the year will be written down as the third championship season of a young man that may well win many more, it was his adversary, pushing a red car hard through the rain in Brazil while the goal was far out of sight and the fight lost that should, at least for now, be remembered.