The 2011 season will be remembered for the domination by Sebastian Vettel, who steamrollered his way to back-to-back world championships by winning 11 of the 19 grands prix.
The combination of Vettel and the hugely effective, Adrian Newey-designed Red Bull RB7-Renault was unbeatable on some tracks, and it appeared that the German's first world title in 2010 had enabled him to move to a new level of confidence and performance.
Another talking point was the absence of a stout season-long challenge to Vettel. McLaren's Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and Vettel's team-mate Mark Webber all won races, but none of them could go toe-to-toe with the reigning champ on a regular basis.
It was 2009 champion Button who emerged with the most credit, winning three times and annexing second in the points with some impressively mature drives. Team-mate Hamilton, on the other hand, was stymied by on-track incidents and off-track personal issues, and matched his worst finishing position in the points.
Ferrari had a below-par season by its standards, although lead driver Alonso wrung the neck of the car as often as he could, and scored a sole victory at Silverstone. Second driver Felipe Massa was disappointing for the second successive season, although hit the headlines for his year-long spat with Hamilton.
Webber ended the year with a welcome victory in Brazil, but he was otherwise comprehensively outperformed by Vettel, and admitted that he had taken too long to learn how to exploit the Pirelli tyres to their maximum. It's something he's vowed not to repeat in 2012, when he, Button, Hamilton and Alonso will all be itching to get one over on Vettel.
Here are the standout moments from the season, as selected by Autocar's grand prix editor Alan Henry.
Webber and Alonso, wheel to wheel at Spa-Francorchamps
Plunging down the hill towards the rollercoaster Eau Rouge corner at Spa-Francorchamps is akin to tackling the north face of the Eiger, and it demands considerable respect. So when Mark Webber popped his Red Bull out of the slipstream of Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari on that 170mph descent during the Belgian Grand Prix, you could almost hear the collective intake of breath from the surrounding grandstands.
Webber kept coming – and Alonso wisely conceded the line. In fact, the manoeuvre was a whole lot more secure than perhaps it looked, as Alonso later explained.
“I had total confidence that Mark would not do anything silly,” he said, with the strong implication that perhaps he couldn’t say the same for all of his colleagues.“Anyway, I knew I could probably overtake him again next time round.”
So it proved, with Alonso deploying his Ferrari’s drag reduction system to excellent effect as he regained the place. It was epic stuff.
Alonso keeps the faith at Silverstone
There was a glorious slice of symbolism surrounding Fernando Alonso’s victory for Ferrari in the 2011 British Grand Prix. This year’s F1 Ferrari was an also-ran, certainly from an aerodynamic point of view, but the two-time world champion always squeezed a little more out of this lemon than one might reasonably have expected.
One such race took place at Silverstone, where Alonso also gamely got behind the wheel of a 1951 4.5-litre Ferrari 375 identical to the one that Froilan Gonzalez drove to Maranello’s first grand prix victory here at Silverstone, 61 years earlier.
The 375 is one of the many jewels in the seldom-seen Ecclestone Grand Prix Heritage Collection.
“I just can’t imagine what it must have been like in those days, sitting up in the slipstream for an entire grand prix distance,” said Alonso before climbing aboard Bernie’s precious machine for a demonstration lap. Now he does.
Vettel flexes his muscles
There are some people in the F1 community who think Sebastian Vettel is a cuddly bunny sort of character, but the truth is that he is tough beyond his years. Beneath that genial exterior is a steely man who’d run over his own grandmother if there was an extra point on offer for doing so.
My favourite Vettel moment came at Suzuka when he ruthlessly forced Jenson Button’s fast-starting McLaren to swerve on to the grass as they accelerated from the starting grid. It was an instinctive move by Vettel and proof, perhaps, that he’s as up for a bare-knuckle fight as he is serenely sailing around at the front.
Luca di Montezemolo shows his colours
Now that Silvio Berlusconi has stepped down from his country’s presidency as Italy stares into the economic abyss, can we expect Luca di Montezemolo to ride to the rescue on one of his Maranello stallions?
Could be. Most of us in F1 have long been of the view that Montezemolo is cut out for more than running a business empire, but he’ll have to content himself with continuing the Ferrari legend for the moment. His 2011 contribution to the debate involved the threat that Ferrari might quit F1 unless the rules were changed to enable top teams to run third cars.
I think there is merit in that viewpoint. But it isn’t going to happen, trust me, because it would spread the sport’s income too thinly. Great theatre, though.
Lotus changed to Caterham
I will never be able to clear the image of Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen battling it out in Caterham Sevens. When will Mercedes be renamed ‘Brackley?’
This was an on-going subtext rather than an individual event, but the edge between McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari number two Felipe Massa was certainly a classic demonstration of the raw meat calculated to entice the plebs into the Colosseum.
No fewer than five times did these two protagonists come together in a shower of carbonfibre, winglets and end plates as they found themselves repeatedly battling wheel to wheel. And as every confrontation passed, so the relationship between the two men worsened. Then at the end of the season there seemed to be something of a reconciliation.
But that just put me in mind of the parting shot Alan Jones offered Williams team-mate Carlos Reutemann in 1982 when the Argentinian driver left the team. “Shall we bury the hatchet?” asked Carlos. “Yeah, in your ******* back, mate,” Jones succinctly responded.
2011 drivers’ points standings
1 Sebastian Vettel (GER) 392 points; 2 Jenson Button (GBR) 270; 3 Mark Webber (AUS) 258; 4 Fernando Alonso (SPA) 257; 5 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) 227; 6 Felipe Massa (BRA) 118; 7 Nico Rosberg (GER) 89; 8 Michael Schumacher (GER) 76; 9 Adrian Sutil (GER) 42; 10 Vitaly Petrov (RUS) 37; 11 Nick Heidfeld (GER) 34; 12 Kamui Kobayashi (JPN) 30; 13 Paul di Resta (GBR) 27; 14 Jaime Alguersuari (SPA) 26; 15 Sebastien Buemi (SUI) 15; 16 Sergio Perez (MEX) 14; 17 Rubens Barrichello (BRA) 4; 18 Bruno Senna (BRA) 2; 19 Pastor Maldonado (VEN) 1.
2011 teams’ points standings
1 Red Bull Racing 650 points; 2 Vodafone McLaren Mercedes 497; 3 Scuderia Ferrari 375; 4 Mercedes GP Petronas F1 Team 165; 5 Lotus Renault GP 73; 6 Force India F1 Team 69; 7 Sauber F1 Team 44; 8 Scuderia Toro Rosso 41; 9 AT&T Williams 5.
Race winners 2011
Australian Grand Prix, 27 March: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
Malaysian Grand Prix, 10 April: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
Chinese Grand Prix, 17 April: Lewis Hamilton (McLaren)
Turkish Grand Prix, 8 May: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
Spanish Grand Prix, 22 May: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
Monaco Grand Prix, 29 May: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
Canadian Grand Prix, 12 June: Jenson Button (McLaren)
Grand Prix of Europe, 26 June: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
British Grand Prix, 10 July: Fernando Alonso (Ferrari)
German Grand Prix, 24 July: Lewis Hamilton (McLaren)
Hungarian Grand Prix, 31 July: Jenson Button (McLaren)
Belgian Grand Prix, 28 August: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
Italian Grand Prix, 11 September: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
Singapore Grand Prix, 25 September: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
Japanese Grand Prix, 9 October: Jenson Button (McLaren)
Korean Grand Prix, 16 October: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
Indian Grand Prix, 30 October: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull)
Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, 13 November: Lewis Hamilton (McLaren)
Brazilian Grand Prix, 27 November: Mark Webber (Red Bull)