This driver had a slightly up and down, but nevertheless, nearly flawless season in 2012. He overcame a 40 point deficit in the second half of the season to take a world championship which will go down in history as one of the most hard-fought ever in the sport.
1. Sebastian Vettel
With Red Bull’s 2011 dominance coming mostly from its exhaust manipulation, the Milton Keynes squad knew its strengths would be diminished somewhat with 2012’s regulations. In testing, the RB8 was not a bad car and would certainly be a front runner, but the dominance was a distant memory.
In Australia, Vettel was struggling to get the RB8 to cooperate and he qualified 6th. In the race he made good progress and moved up to second after a mid-race safety car. He couldn’t give Button a hard time for the lead and finished in second place.
Vettel struggled again in Malaysia in not only qualifying, where he qualified 5th, but in the race as well. He wasn’t in the battle for the win, but looked set for a decent fourth. As he went to lap an HRT, he cut his tire on its front wing, destroying the tire. He couldn’t recover from this and finished 11th.
In China, Vettel missed Q3 for the first time in a long time, as the top ten in Q2 was separated by just two and a half tenths of a second. Through good strategy he recovered to 5th place.
Vettel’s breakthrough came in Bahrain as he took his first pole and win of the season. He sustained early pressure from Grojean and huge late pressure from Raikkonen to win in one of the more controversial races of the season.
In Spain, the Red Bull wasn’t exactly the class of the field anymore and Vettel qualified 7th. He was on for a top 5 finish, but when he passed under the yellows caused by Schumcher’s accident with Senna, the drive through that resulted dropped him down to 9th. He charged his way to 6th by the flag.
In Monaco, Vettel was not on form and just squeaked into Q3. He started 10th after not setting a time, which allowed him to start on the harder tires. He went with a long first stint which allowed him to get up to 4th after his first and only stop. He stayed there until the finish.
In Canada, Vettel took his second pole of the year. He was in contention for the win until his one stop strategy had to be abandoned in the dying stages of the Grand Prix. Once he pitted for a second time, he was flying and recovered to 4th place by the end of the race.
Another pole in Valencia set up a dominant race. Flashes of 2011 showed as an unassailable lead was built up in the early stages of the race. A safety car brought the field together, but at the restart, Vettel barley finished the lap before his alternator gave up. He retired on the spot. A guaranteed win was gone.
Vettel qualified 4th in England and finished 3rd. He couldn’t quite challenge the leaders for the win, but he did a good job to help him team maximize their points haul that day.
In Germany, Vettel qualified on the front row and challenged Alonso for the win throughout the race. Button got ahead of him midway through the race which complicated the matter. A move to get past Button 3 laps from the end was done outside the confines of the track, thus making it illegal. It was too late to issue a drive through penalty, so 20 seconds were added to his final race time, dropping him down to 5th place.
In Hungary, Vettel again couldn’t challenge for the win but was in contention for the podium and gave Grojean a hard time in the closing laps, but had to settle for 4th place at the end of the race.
Vettel missed Q3 for a second time in 2012 in Belgium. After the first lap crash, it was as if Vettel started at the front. He made up several places and set about making inroads on the leader, Button. He couldn’t put a dent into Button’s lead and finished a distant second.
Red Bull was not strong in Italy. Vettel qualified 6th. In the race, it looked like he was set to finish there until an alternator problem struck and he had to retire.
In Singapore, Reb Bull brought a big update in a bid to whittle down Alonso’s points lead. Vettel qualified 3rd on the street circuit and was running second when Hamilton retired with gearbox troubles. He led until the end of the race.
Over the next three races, Vettel took 2 poles, 3 wins (in which he led every lap of the race) and with them, the points lead. He led the championship by 13 points after the Indian Grand Prix.
In Abu Dhabi, it looked like Mclaren had the upper hand on pace. Vettel qualified 3rd, but it was found that his Red Bull was underfueled. He was sent to the back of the grid. Vettel opted to start from the pitlane so he could make setup changes to his car. Starting from the back, Vettel made good progress to go up to 12th place early on. Under the safety car, Vettel changed his nose and was back at the back once again. By the time the second safety car came out, Vettel was all the way up to 4th! He battled for several laps with Button for the last spot on the podium and won out in the end. On a day when points seemed impossible, luck came to Vettel and he ended up with 15.
In Austin, Vettel dominated the practice sessions and qualifying, taking his final pole of the season. He led until lap 47 util, after a race long battle with Hamilton ended when the Brit passed him on the back straight. He held onto second until the end of the race.
Going into Brazil, it was just Vettel and Alonso in the race for the title. Vettel needed to finish 4th and he was guaranteed the title regardless of what Alonso did. Vettel qualified 4th, saying he could have done better. On the first lap of the race, disaster struck as Vettel was spun by Senna in the 3rd corner. He received damage to his exhaust and nearly had to retire. Luckily, the rain provided a good opportunity to make up places. Vettel battled throughout the race to finish the in 6th. He wrapped up the title in spectacular fashion with 3 points to spare.
Vettel did a fantastic job this season. While he wasn’t dominant until the last third of the season, Vettel never put a foot wrong other than missing Q3 in China and Belgium. To claw back a 40 point deficit to lead by 3 points in just 9 races was remarkable regardless of any shortfalls in Alonso’s car. For this reason, Vettel is my number one driver of the 2012 season.