By Adam Cooper, Crain News Service
DETROIT (Dec. 27, 2013) — Until Formula 1's annual summer break in August, the 2013 drivers' world championship still appeared fairly wide open.
Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and Lotus' Kimi Räikkönen were very much in the mix, and Red Bull Racing's Sebastian Vettel was far from being a clear favorite.
Indeed, Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton won in Hungary at the end of July — the final race before the four-week break — and it appeared Mercedes had seized the momentum, and that Mr. Hamilton could now back up his qualifying pace with strong form over a race distance. The paddock believed he had a genuine shot at the title.
However, when action resumed at Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium, at the end of August, Mr. Vettel and Red Bull Racing appeared to have found an extra gear and they never looked back. Instead of a tight battle to the wire, we watched in awe as Mr. Vettel continued his assault on the record book, ultimately winning nine straight races from Belgium to Brazil, besting the previous all-time record of seven wins shared by Alberto Ascari and Michael Schumacher.
The change in Pirelli Tyre S.p.A.'s tire specification played a part, but the likelihood is that Mr. Vettel would have gotten there in the end anyway, although his margin of superiority would not have been so great. Red Bull design guru Adrian Newey continued to fine-tune a package that has long been the one to beat, and he continued to find useful benefits from the flow of exhaust gases, while pursuing little gains in every other area.
And then there was Mr. Vettel, who barely put a foot wrong all year. A gearbox failure in the British Grand Prix in June aside, he rarely had any bad luck, but he also did a brilliant job of managing his races when there were a few car issues. It often seemed he went only as fast he had to, and had plenty in hand.
On the negative side, the Malaysian Grand Prix saga where he ignored team instructions to hold position behind teammate Mark Webber cost him a lot of goodwill.
Mr. Webber endured a tough year. There was the odd reliability issue and some sheer bad luck. He proved he could still get the job done by taking pole positions but things rarely went his way in races. A classy and determined competitor, he leaves F1 with his head held high, bound for Porsche's new LMP1 sports-car effort in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
For Mr. Alonso and Ferrari, 2013 was yet another year of frustration. The Spaniard won in China and Spain and with typically feisty drives, kept himself in the title hunt until summer. He flattered a car rarely good enough to qualify much higher than fifth or sixth. From there he could get to the podium, but loads of wins remained just out of his grasp.
Teammate Felipe Massa continued to operate in Mr. Alonso's shadow and actually seemed to find some performance after being told he would not return to the Scuderia for a ninth season.
Mr. Hamilton's decision to join Mercedes before the season was vindicated when the team made a big step forward, and watching the races from home, retired seven-time champion Schumacher could be forgiven for being a little frustrated by the timing of the upturn after he decided to quit F1 and leave Mercedes at the end of last year. The W04 logged a string of poles, with both Mr. Hamilton and teammate Nico Rosberg contributing. Its big weakness was keeping its tires alive in races, and more than once we saw the silver cars slip back.
Mr. Rosberg scored a superb triumph in Monaco and another at Silverstone after Mr. Vettel retired. Though a winner in Hungary, Mr. Hamilton was often disappointed in his own performances, perhaps a little unfairly.
Mr. Räikkönen and Lotus got off to a flying start when they won the season opener in Australia, and for a while the Finn looked like a genuine title contender as he logged points consistently. But then he lost momentum with a run of midseason misfortune, and the tire change hampered him badly in qualifying as he struggled for front-end bite.
Meanwhile, he became embroiled in a dispute over his pay, ultimately leading him to rejoin Ferrari for 2014. Surgery for an ongoing back problem proved to be a handy reason for him to leave Lotus with two races remaining in the season.
Lotus teammate Romain Grosjean was one of the season's rising stars and in the latter races he often got the better of his teammate and logged an impressive stretch of podiums. He has now established himself firmly as a top-level driver and put the previous year's troubles behind him.
For McLaren, 2013 was a total nightmare. This was not the first time one of the best-resourced outfits on the grid produced a car that wasn't great out of the box; however, unlike previous years, there was no dramatic revival as months passed.
Jenson Button and Sergio Perez could on occasion creep into the final round of qualifying and score a few points, but they didn't do so consistently, and they were never even close to making trouble for the frontrunners.
The poor form was a huge disappointment for Mr. Button, in his first year as clear team leader after Mr. Hamilton's departure, and well aware he is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. It proved even more catastrophic for Mr. Perez, who showed flair and aggression, but found himself booted out at season's end nonetheless.
Force India's season got off to a good start after the team put extra emphasis on designing a car to work with the original-spec 2013 tires. But it suffered an abrupt downturn after Pirelli's change and several races were wasted before things got back on track and Adrian Sutil and Paul Di Resta became regular points contenders once more. They were matched evenly, and both had good days, but Force India dropped both drivers at season's end.
In the first half of the season, Sauber rarely sniffed the points, but aerodynamic updates — and the change of tires — led to an impressive turnaround in the second half. Nico Hulkenberg qualified third at Monza and became a regular top-six contender, confirming again he is a great talent. Rookie Esteban Gutierrez struggled to make an impression, although there were occasional glimpses of speed.
From early in the year, it seemed likely Scuderia Toro Rosso teammates Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne would be auditioning for the Red Bull seat, and that became a reality when Mr. Webber's announced his decision to move at Silverstone. The timing proved to be perfect for Mr. Ricciardo, who put in some stunning qualifying performances throughout the year, and deserved his promotion. Mr. Vergne had some good races, but inevitably being overlooked for promotion was a blow to the Frenchman.
Pastor Maldonado, who won the Spanish Grand Prix in 2012, could be forgiven for thinking Williams would once again at least challenge for podiums, but the car proved to be hopelessly uncompetitive, and usually Mr. Maldonado and rookie teammate Valtteri Bottas were stuck in 17th and 18th, just ahead of the "new" teams.
After mid-season changes to the car, Mr. Bottas, who had shown a hint of his talent with an opportunistic third on the grid in a damp Montreal, delivered a fabulous race in Texas, taking eighth. By then, Mr. Maldonado had well and truly burned his bridges, and for team and driver, the end could not come soon enough.
The Caterham and Marussia teams battled for last place. As noted, they could give Mr. Williams a hard time in races occasionally, at least in the early laps, but in essence, they once again battled in a class of their own. Off track, both teams continue to face a struggle to survive.
How it happened
Two unusual factors shaped the 2013 F1 season, and they helped create a perfect storm playing into Red Bull's hands.
First was the build-up to next season and the extensive rule-change package — new aerodynamics, new turbocharged V6 engines, etc. — that will turn the sport on its head. Teams had barely put their 2013 cars on the track before they began the process of switching their focus to the new era far earlier than they would normally concentrate on the following year's car. When exactly that focus approached 100 percent was a topic of conversation all year.
Inevitably there was a huge impact on this season as one by one, teams began to cut off the usual flow of new parts, as they in effect wrote off the rest of 2013. It was obviously easier for those not in the title fight — notably McLaren — to give up on this past year, whereas Red Bull kept pushing ahead with minor developments, keeping the RB9 in front.
Second, there was the change Pirelli made to its tire specification, a result of the debacle of multiple failures seen in the British Grand Prix — the eighth of 19 races in 2013. The season's first half made clear some cars were more suited than others to the 2013-spec rubber, tried briefly in the first practice session in Brazil the previous year.
The RB9 was not comfortable on those tires, and team boss Christian Horner made his displeasure known at every opportunity. Red Bull felt it had the best car and yet it was not dominating, thus tires had to be the key.
Silverstone provided a handy opportunity for the FIA to mandate a change back to the previous year's tire constructions — and after the summer break, it was obvious just how much that helped Red Bull claim its fourth straight drivers' and constructors' championships.
FINAL DRIVERS' CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS:
1. Sebastian Vettel . . . . . . 397
2. Fernando Alonso . . . . . 242
3. Mark Webber . . . . . . . . 199
4. Lewis Hamilton . . . . . . . 189
5. Kimi Räikkönen . . . . . . . 183
6. Nico Rosberg . . . . . . . . 171
7. Romain Grosjean . . . . . 132
8. Felipe Massa . . . . . . . . . 112
9. Jenson Button . . . . . . . . . 73
10. Nico Hulkenberg . . . . . 51
FINAL CONSTRUCTORS' CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS:
1. Red Bull-Renault . . . . . 596
2. Mercedes AMG . . . . . . 360
3. Ferrari . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 354
4. Lotus-Renault . . . . . . . . 315
5. McLaren-Mercedes . . . 122
6. Force India-Mercedes . . 77
7. Sauber-Ferrari . . . . . . . . . 57
8. Scuderia Toro Rosso-
Ferrari . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
9. Williams-Renault . . . . . . . . 5
This report appeared in Autoweek magazine, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.