Coming into the 2012 F1 Grand Prix of Brazil, it had always seemed probable that Sebastian Vettel would clinch his third world championship title over Fernando Alonso. And so it proved.
But before delivering that expected outcome, the race delivered an extraordinary rollercoaster ride of drama and emotion that saw fortunes swing all over the place, as both the championship and the race win itself could have ended up being decided in any number of permutations each more unpredictable than the last.
The drivers had arrived in Sao Paulo to predictions of 100 per cent certainty of rain on race day, but by Sunday itself the forecasts had swung around to confidently predict a dry race. Naturally, then, the fine drizzle started around 20 minutes before the hour - enough to jangle the nerves of the drivers on the grid just that little bit more ahead of the 2012 season finale deciding the world championship battle.
The shower was very light and the forecasters were all saying it would soon be over, so no one was tempted to move away from their slick tyre choice as they formed up behind the lights. When the lights went out, Lewis Hamilton got a flying start and swooped across the track to ensure that Jenson Button had no chance of challenging for the lead into turn one, leaving Button had his hands full dealing with the fast-starting Ferrari of Felipe Massa. The local hero was able to pass the McLaren and then had a try for the lead around Hamilton, but that one was firmly repulsed.
The Red Bulls meanwhile had suffered a poor start, Vettel particularly struggling to launch off the grid while Webber was briefly bested by Alonso for fourth place. Webber won that initial encounter but on lap 2 the Australian was too busy focussing on making an attack on Massa ahead of him to react in time when Alonso dived through for third place. That was the minimum he needed to stand a chance of claiming the world championship - but he still needed Sebastian Vettel to finish out of the points to succeed, and how likely was that?
Likelier than anyone had thought, it turned out: a first lap collision with Bruno Senna into the turn 4 left hander spun Vettel's Red Bull around and left him facing the oncoming traffic. Miraculously there was no further contact for Vettel as he rolled backwards to a stop, and while there was sidepod damage to his car from the initial hit with Senna, Vettel was able to get underway and was soon chasing down the backmarkers to recover his lost positions. Senna meanwhile had gone on to run over the back of Sergio Perez' Sauber, and both cars became the first retirements of the race, and were joined by Senna's team mate Pastor Maldonado in a separate spin of his own on lap 2.
As everyone was reeling from the implications for what this all meant to the tittle battle, there were bigger problems for the entire field: the weather wasn't obeying the forecasters' prognostications, and the drizzle not only continued to fall, it even picked up strength. The forecasters still maintained it wouldn't last, so the teams were unwilling to switch to intermediate tyres; but in the meantime the drivers were finding it increasingly difficult to locate any grip out on the track.
Sure enough, Alonso lost his much-needed third place by running wide at turn one on lap 4, and he had to be thankful that it was now a concrete run-off and not grass. Even so, it still put him down to fourth behind the hard-charging Nico Hulkenberg who was driving in his final outing for Force India. Then there was Mark Webber, spinning around after contact with the Sauber of Kamui Kobayashi; and then Romain Grosjean flew off at high speed into a hard impact with the tyre wall on lap 7.
With flags denoting slippery conditions now on display all around the circuit, Jenson Button proved to be most adept handling the situation and moved into the lead around a struggling Lewis Hamilton on lap 8; Hamilton continued to fight his way around for a few more laps, but on lap 11 he'd had enough and with the light rain still persisting he joined the growing number of drivers that included Vettel and Alonso diving into pit lane for a change to inters. Whether that was a good move depended very much on how long the rain continued to be a factor, but in the meantime Jenson Button was staying out on the slick tyres along with Nico Hulkenberg who was himself soon challenging for the outright lead of the race - finally claiming it at the start of lap 19
All this early weather-related chaos had comprehensively scrambled the field behind the leaders, with Hamilton and Alonso ahead of Vettel whose recovery amid the spins and pit stops had already put him into back up fifth ahead of Kobayashi, Webber, Nico Rosberg, Paul Di Resta and Daniel Ricciardo. Not that it was looking like settling down anytime soon: with the rain now easing, the drivers were burning through their intermediates at a ferocious rate and the teams were soon forced to undertake a second round of pit stops, Hamilton leading the latest charge onto pit lane on lap 18 for a reversion to dry weather tyres.
It was increasingly surprising that there had still not been a safety car so far in the race with the number of incidents that had been seen and the amount of debris lying on the racing line dropping off from damaged cars - such as Sebastian Vettel's mangled Red Bull. One bit of debris punctured Rosberg's right rear tyre on lap 21 just after he'd pitted for new tyres, and finally the video evidence was too great for the race director to ignore. On lap 23, the safety car was at last deployed for the first time of the day.
That allowed Hulkenberg and Button to dive into pit lane for their first stops of the afternoon and still return to the track at the head of the field, essentially giving them both a free pit stop while the rest of the cars were still struggling to catch up while complying with their restricted delta times. The safety car closed up the field as a whole, and when racing resumed on lap 30 there was a clear dry line all round the circuit and everyone was back on dry tyres, although Alonso was reporting more rain at turn 4 and the weather service was now also forecasting more light rain as incoming.
Hulkenberg easily cleared for the lead ahead of Button, Hamilton and Alonso, but behind them there was a white knuckle moment for fifth which saw Vettel flanked by Webber on the outside and Kobayashi on the inside three-wide into turn 1. Kobayashi won the position, but there was a moment of career-defining realisation for Webber: if he turned in, he would wipe out his leader and championship leader Sebastian Vettel. He couldn't do it and expect to stay with the team, so he had to abort and slid off into the run-off, which dropped him down to a lowly fourteenth place y the time he rejoined the track.
Elsewhere, changing conditions were resulting in changing positions up and down the field. Hamilton got the better of Button for second place on turn 4 on lap 31, and next time round it was Kamui Kobayashi getting the jump on Fernando Alonso through the Senna esses for fourth place - only for the Ferrari to undo the damage on lap 33. Sebastian Vettel was in sixth behind this battle, clearly chomping at the bit to give it a go but being warned by his team to not stress his already-damaged car too much or else it could end in disaster. This time, Vettel realised the truth of the situation and complied, so that when he came under attack from Felipe Massa he opted for discretion over fool-hardy valour and ceded the spot to the Brazilian, who quickly went on to pick up fifth place from Kobayashi for good measure.
Conditions still looked murky and grey as the race reached lap 40 an hour after the start, and a spin by Paul di Resta that dropped the Force India down to 12th place emphasised just how tricky the conditions remained even though the rain was little more than a light drizzle. Mark Webber also spun on lap 44 heading into Juncao after dabbing a tyre onto the still-wet white lines under braking, and Vitaly Petrov had a spin at Ferradura on lap 47, but it was no where near wet enough to even consider reverting to intermediates even though everyone was nearing end-of-life on their current set of dry tyres. The drivers would simply have to take extra-special care in the meantime, and not do anything silly.
That advice came too late for Nico Hulkenberg, who spun the Force India at Pinheririnho on lap 48. While he quickly gathered the car up and resumed, it was too late to do anything about Lewis Hamilton nipping through and claiming the lead. Hulkenberg was able to keep second place over Button, followed by Ferrari team mates Alonso and Massa with Kobayashi still ahead of Vettel and Webber. As far as the world championship was concerned, that was still comfortably inside Red Bull's safety margin for getting Vettel his third championship.
But things were about to change again: the rain was actually getting heavier, resulting in Kimi Raikkonen flying off from ninth place and going for a sightseeing excursion through the grassy infield. The conditions were also impeding Hamilton, and on lap 55 Hulkenberg sensed the possibility of reclaiming the lead when Hamilton found himself held up by the Marussia of Timo Glock. Hulkenberg attempted the inside line, but the tyres couldn't take it on the greasy track and dug in, hopping the Force India into the air - and the back end of the car landed right on top of the front left suspension of the McLaren, which was demolished by the impact. For this third time in 2012, Hamilton had gone from leading the race to retirement in a matter of seconds.
That put Button back into the lead ahead of the Ferraris while Hulkenberg was dumped down to fifth behind Webber after being handed a penalty for causing the collision with Hamilton.
Meanwhile Sebastian Vettel was dumped briefly out of the top ten as the result of a poor pit stop for Vettel, partly the rest of problems with radio communications between the car and pit wall which meant they were ill-prepared when Vettel came in for an emergency new set of intermediates having pitted just a few laps previously for medium compound slicks.
Despite this, Vettel was soon back into the top ten which was sufficient to keep him in the lead of the title battle, and Alonso had his own scare when the Ferrari twitched and only the Spaniard's superb reflexes kept him from spinning out on lap 57 Alonso survived and was handed second by Massa, while Vettel reacted by climbing to sixth after a similarly good-natured concession by Michael Schumacher in his final F1 outing. Vettel was once again being told by his anxious team to maintain station and bring it home as conditions reached possibly their worst state of the entire day.
That was proved when Schumacher and Kobayashi tangled at turn 4 on the penultimate lap, sending the Sauber into turn 4; and second later there was a far more serious accident when Paul di Resta went into a slide that he couldn't correct through the last corner and slammed hard into the outside concrete wall opposite the pit lance entrance. The car was right on the racing line at the fastest bit of the circuit, and there was also a lot of debris from the shattered Force India which meant that the race stewards had no option but to deploy the safety car for the second time of the afternoon: the race would end under yellow, the positions frozen.
That meant Button had won the race, Alonso had claimed second and Massa had clinched an emotional home race podium position which meant that Ferrari had beaten McLaren to the runners-up spot in the constructors championship. But in terms of the drivers' world championship, it sill wasn't enough to change the outcome in Alonso's favour: Vettel came home in sixth place behind Webber and Hulkenberg, and that was enough to make make him the youngest-ever triple world champion by a slender three point margin in the end.
Not that it was all about the title or the race win: a great overtaking move by Vitaly Petrov on Charles Pic on lap 66 had swung the crucial tenth place in the constructors championship away from Marussia and back to Caterham at the very last moment, which might yet have ramifications on the driver transfer market and Heikki Kovalainen's chances of staying in F1 in 2013.
As Sebastian Vettel celebrated, running down pit lane to bask in the adoration of the Brazilian crowd, there was no disguising the heavy heart of Fernando Alonso as he trudged his way to the podium celebrations with Button and Massa. He'd given it his all, and there was nothing more he could have given; it just hadn't been enough to overcome the performance gap between the Ferrari and the Red Bull.
Vettel might have been missing from the podium celebrations, but the party was soon in full swing in the Red Bull garage - which once again boomed out Queen's "We Are The Champions" over the sound system. Yes they were - and deserved ones too, you had to admit.Full race results