The Formula 1 World Championship turned 64 in 2013.
It also turned into a one-man show, with Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel underlining his right to be spoken of in the same breath as the greatest drivers in Grand Prix racing history.
The bald facts are that Vettel won 13 of the season’s 19 races. That matched the all-time record set by his idol and sometime mentor Michael Schumacher in a Ferrari back in 2004.
He also won nine in a row from Belgium through the last race in Brazil. No-one has ever done that before; while Alberto Ascari also won nine in a row in Ferrari cars, those victories were spread over two seasons, 1952-53, and without the relentless pressure of modern F1 with its punishing global reach.
Vettel’s final tally of 397 points was a staggering 155 more than runner-up Fernando Alonso, also in a Ferrari, could accumulate. And yet…
… it had all started so differently! Right here in Australia, Lotus sounded a warning when Kimi Raikkonen claimed victory in the opening round of the season. ‘Aha,’ we thought as we paired that with the Flying Finn’s win in Abu Dhabi late the previous year, ‘Lotus will be a force to contend with in 2013…
Fast-forward to Brazil and race 19: Romain Grosjean’s Lotus blows its Renault engine spectacularly soon after the start – and Raikkonen is not even in the race.
By Singapore the relations between Kimi and Lotus had reached breaking-point as he alleged non-payment of his salary and announced his departure to rejoin Ferrari in 2014.
Whether it was coincidence or not, he then chose to skip the final two long-haul races in Texas and Brazil to have corrective surgery on his back.
Most of the damage Raikkonen did on-track was done in the first half of the season: he was in the top two in four of the first five races and six of the first 10. But come the second half it was Grosjean, maturing until unrecognisable as the same first-lap frightener of the year before, who assumed the mantle of Lotus lead driver.
A run of four podiums in five races propelled him to seventh in the Drivers’Championship but was not enough to sustain the troubled team’s claims to be back among the sport’s elite. Will they sign a pay-driver for 2014 to balance the books?
If not Lotus, we wondered, might Mercedes be the main men? The Rosberg-Hamilton pairing was, on paper at least, one of the most attractive on the 2013 grid. When Nico won twice in quick succession, in Canada and Great Britain, there were knowing nods once more.
Lewis underlined the Silver Arrows’ potential with some superb qualifying efforts backed up by his first victory for the marque in Hungary. But their momentum, too, tailed off: Hamilton was third in Belgium next time out but didn’t visit the podium again all season.
He and Rosberg finished fourth and sixth respectively as Mark Webber roared through to claim third place overall with a fine finishing burst of four podiums in the last five rounds. It was, of course, Mark’s last stand: next year compatriot Dan Ricciardo takes up the considerable challenge of being Vettel’s Red Bull teammate.
By now you should be asking if we have forgotten a certain famous team that flies the Italian flag. The answer would be ‘No, of course not, but…’ And the ‘but’ would be a big one. Victory for Fernando Alonso in round three in Malaysia, after his second place in Melbourne, was a false dawn for the Scuderia. The combative Spaniard did it again in Spain just two rounds later, but those were the two lone successes of the team’s year.
Alonso, as always, performed miracles to carry a car that wasn’t worthy of him, claiming a further six podium finishes. Felipe Massa, alas, claimed just one all season. Unlike Webber, with 199 points to add steel to Red Bull’s Constructors’ campaign, unlike Hamilton and Rosberg with almost equal contributions for Mercedes, Felipe chipped in just 112 points to go with Fernando’s 242.
Despite the standard utterances of faith and trust, it was not enough: the Brazilian’s Ferrari career was over and Raikkonen announced as his successor long before the season finished. Brazil was Massa’s 139th and final race under the Prancing Horse banner and in 2014 he will try his luck with Williams.
If Ferrari disappointed, what are we to say about McLaren? Jenson Button claimed the once-great team’s best result of the season in the final race in Brazil. Sadly, he was fourth, and that meant McLaren had failed to score a single podium for the first time since 1980.
They finished fifth overall – but their 122 points were 193 fewer than fourth-placed Lotus managed. The season cost Sergio Perez his job after just one season with McLaren, who have changed tack and offered highly-rated youngster Kevin Magnussen the chance to shine in 2014.
It was, perhaps, McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh who best summed up what every team except Red Bull must have been thinking at the end of 2013.
“Formula 1,” said Whitmarsh, “is a relentlessly demanding sport, and next season’s new regulations are already presenting all the teams with a daunting array of technical challenges – not only powertrains but aerodynamics, too. For quite some time we’ve been working extremely hard on those technical challenges, and our focus will be unstinting and unwavering from now onwards, throughout the winter. In other words, the 2014 season starts this evening.”
Brazil was indeed the final race of the current V8 era. It began in 2006 and was utterly dominated by Renault, suppliers to Red Bull among others. The French marque claimed five Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles, 60 victories, 66 pole positions and 56 fastest laps in eight V8 years.
Who will challenge them in 2014 when the new era of turbo-charged, energy-harnessing 1.6-litre V6 engines comes in? And who can take the fight to the all-conquering Vettel?
If he wins in Melbourne on March 16 he will single-handedly hold the F1 record for consecutive wins. No disrespect to the 26-year-old German, but the sport needs someone to step up to the plate. Might it be his new teammate?