With Little Drama, Vettel Easily Wins F1 TitleBangkok, Dec 29: Over the last five years, Formula One fans have been spoiled by late-season championship deciders. That wasn't the case in 2011 as Sebastian Vettel won his second straight title with four races
Bangkok, Dec 29: Over the last five years, Formula One fans have been spoiled by late-season championship deciders.
That wasn't the case in 2011 as Sebastian Vettel won his second straight title with four races to spare.
The Red Bull driver did so with a dominance as complete as any driver since Michael Schumacher at Ferrari.
Red Bull teammate Mark Webber had pushed Vettel all the way in 2010 but was very much in the shadows in 2011, the Ferraris were off the pace throughout, McLaren left its surge much too late and had to deal with a brooding Lewis Hamilton, and Mercedes' hoped-for renaissance never materialized.
Vettel will enter the 2012 season at the favorite to make it three straight titles, especially because the sport is in something of a developmental holding pattern pending a contentious overhaul of the engine rules for 2014.
Red Bull, McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes will all enter next season with the same driver lineup, and there is little by way of rule changes to spice up the tactical battle.
That means the mid-table and lower-ranked teams have been left to provide the off-season news in the driver market, and Lotus has provided the biggest headline by hiring 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen after his year in the World Rally Championship.
That's the Lotus that was known as Renault, not the other team formally known as Lotus, which has changed its name to Caterham, reflecting the financial and political churn that at times overwhelms the contest on the track.
Off the track, F1 is about Bernie Ecclestone.
The head of Formula One was called as a witness in the ongoing hearing of German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky, who is being tried for allegedly taking bribes in relation to the sale of F1's commercial operations to investment group CVC Capital Partners.
Ecclestone testified that he paid $23 million to Gribkowsky, saying he felt pressured to make the payment to avoid the sale process bringing Ecclestone's network of trusts and companies under the notice of tax authorities.
Ecclestone's commercial operations should benefit most from the break-up of the Formula One Teams Association, which had been one of three power blocs in the sport, besides Ecclestone and CVC, and governing body FIA.
Ferrari, the sport's most powerful and iconic team, said it intends to withdraw from FOTA, potentially dragging engine customer teams Sauber and Toro Rosso with it. Ferrari was also joined by the sport's rising power, Red Bull.
The split, which could be resolved in the off-season, centered on the disagreement over the Resource Restriction Agreement - a kind of salary cap which restricts how much can be spent on what.
Ecclestone should be able to prevent the teams from uniting and getting their own commercial rights. But more directly, the split may impact the likelihood of the contentious 2014 engine rules being implemented.
Ferrari and Ecclestone had both spoken publicly of their opposition to FIA's plan to introduce smaller six-cylinder engines to replace the existing V8s. While ostensibly trumpeting the green virtues of such a plan, FIA's move was chiefly designed to retain existing car makers in the sport and perhaps lure back others by giving F1 engine development greater applicability to road car operations.
The split could also imperil existing restrictions on in-season testing, wind tunnels, and the gamut of pricey expenditures which the sport was trying to restrict.
With those issues beneath the surface, fans have been kept entertained by the on-track action and the novelty of new venues.
India was added in 2011, but Bahrain was called off amid sectarian unrest. It was back on the calendar for 2012.
The big addition for the coming season is the return to the United States, with a race scheduled for a new circuit in Austin, Texas. Funding and construction of the track has not been without its problems, but the delay should not be an issue.
A second race in the United States will be added to the calendar in 2013, in New Jersey. Formula One has not been held in the United States since 2007.
F1's chances of a good attendance for the Texas race will be greatly boosted if the championship is still up for grabs when the championship arrives in Austin for the penultimate race of the season.
If that is to happen, either Vettel must slip up - and it is hard to see any such lapse - or the other teams must catch up.
Realistically, only McLaren, Ferrari and possibly Mercedes have a chance of bridging the gap.
McLaren will be hoping Hamilton spends less time in the stewards' room and more time on the podium in 2012. In 2011, he finished behind a teammate in the standings for the first time - a testament to Jenson Button's ability to better nurse the Pirelli tires which debuted in 2011.
Barring a sudden turnaround in Felipe Massa's form, Ferrari is essentially a one-man team in Fernando Alonso. And while the Spaniard appears content in that role, he will need a vastly improved car around him if he is to have a title shot in 2012.
Mercedes should, on paper, be a lot better than it has shown over the past two years, boasting the combination of Schumacher, the well-regarded Nico Rosberg, accomplished team principal Ross Brawn and deep pockets of the parent company. With little change in personnel, the high expectations will only be met if the engineering team can create a much better package.
Next year's wild card could be Raikkonen.
It was a surprising driver choice by Lotus, but the team was eager for a big-name team leader when it became apparent that Robert Kubica will miss most, if not all, of 2012 as he continues the slow recovery from serious injuries suffered in a rally crash ahead of the 2011 campaign.
Raikkonen had his remaining contract paid out by Ferrari at the end of 2009 to accommodate the arrival of Alonso, and acknowledged he had lost his motivation.
He claims the enthusiasm has returned, and if the Finn gets a car that allows him to show his best, there is cause to believe that Lotus may improve sharply.
But if Raikkonen found motivation difficult even at Ferrari, it remains to be seen what kind of mood he brings if Lotus remains stuck among the also-rans.