Classic F1 Races: 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix

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Interlagos has played host to a number of classic races, but the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix was one of the most dramatic in the sport’s history as Sebastian Vettel stole the title from Fernando Alonso’s grasp after falling to the foot of the field in a first-lap accident.

Background to the race:

Vettel had somehow managed to fight back to third place at the in Abu Dhabi before finishing second at the US Grand Prix, and thus held a 13-point advantage over nearest challenger Fernando Alonso heading into the final race. Vettel, then, only needed fourth place to secure his third Formula 1 crown – what seemed a simple enough task given that he had finished on the podium at each of the last six races. The Grand Prix was also to be Michael Schumacher’s last in Formula 1 and, rather less significantly, the final race for the cash-strapped HRT.

Qualifying:

Vettel had at this stage established his reputation as a phenomenal qualifier when the car was to his liking, while Fernando Alonso had struggled on a Saturday throughout the year. It was a session of changeable conditions, with a damp track in Q1 – necessitating the use of the intermediate tyres – before the circuit dried out sufficiently for slicks to be used in the all-important top 10 shoot-out. Lewis Hamilton led a McLaren 1-2, but both title contenders were out-qualified by their respective team-mates, with Vettel fourth and Alonso a hugely disappointing eighth. Promoted to seventh by a ten-place grid penalty for none other than Pastor Maldonado, the Spaniard would have to call on his notoriously rapid starts to ensure he kept his waning title hopes alive.

Pre-race:

With Felipe Massa, consigned largely to the role of Fernando Alonso’s understudy during his spell at Maranello, ahead of the title contender on the grid, an interesting situation arose. Ferrari had, albeit controversially, deliberately damaged Massa’s gearbox at the United States GP to promote Alonso up the grid, but chose not to do so on this occasion. The Brazilian driver, who had qualified one place down on his team-mate’s rival in fifth, was forced to dismiss suggestions that he would give Vettel an impolite nudge or two heading into the first corner, saying: “I’ve always been an honest person and an honest driver. And that will continue to be the case. My limit is the limit of the regulations, and I will stay true to this limit.”

Alonso, himself, meanwhile prayed for rain on race day, conceding that overhauling Vettel would be “very difficult” if the heavens remained shut. It was dry before the lights went out, but dark and menacing clouds had descended on the circuit and the teams were braced for a wet race.

The race:

Almost instantly, the tables were turned. A sluggish getaway from a seemingly rattled Vettel demoted him in to seventh – at risk of the opportunist moves so common from the midfield-runners, while Alonso started superbly, moving up to fifth as the cars snaked through the Senna S. If that start was a nightmare for Vettel, but what followed may only be described as a horror-show. Amid the midfield chaos, the German driver collided with Bruno Senna’s Williams, sending him spinning into Sergio Perez’s Sauber. As he rolled agonisingly down the hill, virtually every driver swept past, his hopes of glory seemingly extinguished. Despite side-pod damage which ensured any remaining fingernails on the pit-wall were swiftly sheered, he limped back into life – a reproduction of his Yas Marina heroics necessary if he was to have any chance of winning the title.

Alonso, meanwhile, was helped up to third place – the ‘golden position’ – by his oh-so-generous team-mate Felipe Massa as he forced Mark Webber to the outside of the track into Turn 1. The Ferrari driver, however, conceded the position to the fast-charging Nico Hulkenberg on lap four as he ran wide on the increasingly slippery tarmac, while Vettel began to climb back up the order.

Only Jenson Button and Hulkenberg stayed out as the rest of the field dived into the pits for the intermediate rubber when the rain intensified – a decision that paid off for, particularly for Hulkenberg, who passed Button to take an extraordinary lead as the rest of the field reverted back to the slicks.

By lap 23, when a safety car was deployed due to debris on the track, Vettel was up in fifth place but the rapidly drying track posed problems for his damaged Red Bull. He was consequently dispatched at the restart by Kamui Kobayashi in the Sauber, and then demoted to seventh by Massa’s Ferrari. At the front, meanwhile, pole-sitter Hamilton passed team-mate Button to take second place before capitalising on an error from Hulkenberg to snatch the lead. The Force India driver refused to go down without a fight, but perhaps a little boisterously dived down the inside of the McLaren driver into Turn 1 on Lap 54, sliding into the side of the McLaren and dumping Hamilton out of the race with suspension damage as he earned himself a drive-through penalty. Button was back in the lead.

Kimi Raikkonen, meanwhile, provided the most amusing moment of the race as he attempted to rejoin the circuit via a dead-end. “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing,” the Finn famously said in Abu Dhabi two races earlier, he certainly didn’t on this occasion.

As the rain arrived once more, Vettel dived into the pits but miscommunication with his team led to a lengthy pit-stop as Alonso gratefully took second from his team-mate thanks to a neatly-timed stop by the Ferrari team. Button was a speck in the distance at this stage, and second was not enough for Alonso as Vettel passed compatriot Michael Schumacher to claim sixth – a result sufficient to retain the title.

A spectacular crash for Paul di Resta on the ascent towards the start/finish line brought out a safety car which ended the sensational race on a rather underwhelming note, but Vettel had somehow done enough to clinch his third crown, celebrating wildly in parc fermé as a dejected Alonso stared on, perhaps wondering what he had to do to secure that elusive hat-trick himself.

Jenson Button’s impressive, yet admittedly inherited, victory was overshadowed by the epic finale to a season-long title duel, as Vettel beat Alonso by just three points.

A whopping 141 overtaking manoeuvres were carried out during that quite magical race, and it was without the question the most entertaining programming I’ve ever seen on a Sunday evening. Then again, it was only competing with Countryfile.

I’m sure we wouldn’t mind a repeat this weekend, even if the title has already been decided.

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