It was, in that well-worn sporting cliché, a season of two halves: that is, if you call one half Sebastian and the other half Vettel.
In a 19-race season (shortened by one when the political unrest in the Middle East led to the cancellation of Bahrain’s Grand Prix), the 24-year-old German won 11 times and became the youngest driver ever to claim back-to-back World Championship titles.
Unlike his first title, stolen by a short head with a late dash to the line, the second was won in a canter. Mounted on another thoroughbred from the seemingly inexhaustible stable of Red Bull Racing design wizard Adrian Newey, Vettel made all the early running – five victories in the first seven races – and added five more in another withering six-race burst between Belgium and India in the second half of the season to seal victory. He was World Champion with four races remaining.
Vettel was poised if not to break, then at least to equal, Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of 13 wins in a single season, but a rare failure to finish in Abu Dhabi – a tyre blew as he led the field away on the first lap – and a gearbox gremlin that saw him finish ‘only’ second in the last round in Brazil meant he had to content himself with another outright record instead.
That was for the number of pole positions claimed in a single F1 season, which stood at 14, a mark set by Nigel Mansell in his all-conquering year with Williams Renault back in 1992. Pole position for the Brazilian race was Vettel’s 15th of the year.
That apart, it was another year of outright domination by F1’s ‘Big Five’: Vettel and his Red Bull teammate Mark Webber, McLaren Mercedes duo Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, and Ferrari flag-bearer Fernando Alonso.
Among them they claimed all 19 race victories, all 19 poles and all but two fastest laps – the usurper there was Felipe Massa in the sister Ferrari with two of his own in an otherwise forgettable season for the Brazilian, the first Maranello driver to fail to score a podium since Ivan Capelli, also way back in `92.
Speaking of podiums, the Big Five almost monopolised those as well. Of the 57 podium places on offer, just two went to other men: Vitaly Petrov, third for Renault in Melbourne’s season-opening race, and Nick Heidfeld, also for Renault, at the very next race in Malaysia. Renault, though, went backwards, and now they have turned to the returning former World Champion Kimi Raikkonen for 2012 in a bid to restore fortunes severely dented by the loss of Robert Kubica to long-term injury.
Behind Vettel the unwanted ‘best-of-the-rest’ accolade must go to Button. At 31 the 2009 World Champion finds himself in a mature, well-ordered and confident place – so much so that he became the first teammate ever to beat Lewis Hamilton. Both men scored three race wins, but Button’s consistency earned him second place overall and a prolonged contract at McLaren.
For Australian fans the good news is that Mark Webber finally won a 2011 race at the final round in Brazil – the first time the popular Aussie had won more than once at any World Championship venue.
Arguably, too, it was Webber who provided the most memorable moments of the year, mainly, it seemed, in his duels with Alonso – two men at the height of their powers with unfailing trust in each other to do the right thing. Who could forget Webber’s steely resolve as he passed the Ferrari flat-out through the awe-inspiring Eau Rouge corner at Spa-Francorchamps? Seven fastest race laps also suggest Webber still has the pace to go with a commitment that burns as fiercely as ever as he enters his 11th season at the pinnacle of world motor sport.