2011 in F1: Vettel in fine fettle

We pick out the major themes from the year just passed in Formula One.

F1 News: Sebastian Vettel

2010 had keep us all on tenterhooks as the race to the driver's crown extended all the way to the last race of the season. 2011 was nowhere near as close, but that didn't make it any less amazing.

Herr Vettel rules the roost

On 1st Jan 2011 at 10.59am, we ran our first Formula One story of the year on ESPNSTAR.com. "Vettel wants quick season start" claimed the headline.

The young German, having been crowned world champion a mere two months ago after an enthralling 2010, wanted a less frenetic end to the season in 2011.

"Surely the target is to use every single opportunity in every race to put yourself in a stronger position, and ideally have a quieter end to the season," he told Autosport.

ESPNSTAR.com's Year-End Reviews

2011 in NBA: Unexpected heroes

2011 in Rugby: All Blacks reign supreme

2011 in Tennis: The Year of the Joker

2011 in Golf: Winds of change

2011: The Flashback Calendar Part 1

2011: The Flashback Calendar Part 2

2011: In Memory

If one could ever point to an instance of walking the talk, this would be it. By October 9 2011, with four races still to go, Vettel had gone beyond the reach of every single one of his competitors. He had 12 wins that included an incredible eight pole to podium finishes. 

The previous 10 months had been one exhibition of masterful driving after another, the likes of which had not been seen since compatriot Michael Schumacher's heydays.

By the time the season finished Vettel had added three more chequered flags to his tally, and with 15 poles, had broken Nigel Mansell's record of most poles in a season. In a year where everyone was gushing about Novak Djokovic's incredible run on the tennis court, Vettel's dominance over his sport was even more complete. 

One merely has to look at the travails of teammate Mark Webber to appreciate how good Vettel really was. In stark contrast to the German, Webber had a mere three pole positions and a solitary win in 19 races this season. The Australian did have some bad luck, but such a massive difference in fortunes cannot simply be attributed to the fates.

Vettel was on another level, one that even an immensely talented driver with an equally good car couldn't reach.

"We've put the benchmark very high, we know that it has been a special season from all sides," Vettel told Sky Sports News as he visited the Red Bull base in Milton Keynes after securing the title in Suzuka.

So high in fact, that a repeat may just be out of reach next year. 

The duelling duo

While Vettel was serenely claiming race after race, Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa were generating headlines of a different nature. Six times the pair clashed on track, with an ungainly confrontation after the race in Singapore being the nadir of a fraught season.

And if one were to be brutally honest, a large part of the blame lay with the prickly Brit. Apart from his run-ins with Massa, it became something of a tradition for Hamilton to be summoned before the stewards after every race, so much so that Nigel Mansell criticised him publicly, telling ESPN: "Lewis is not mature and he's not got a head on him.

"I think he needs to settle himself down because the recent episode at Monaco was unnecessary and unflattering both for himself and Formula One. I thought his driving style was very poor because he had no respect for anyone else because where is anyone going to go?"

This was before Hamilton crashed with Kamui Kobayashi in Belgium, was involved in a post-race fracas with Massa in Singapore and was penalised three grid positions for ignoring double waved yellow flags in India. 2011 simply cannot end soon enough to the former world champion.

Button goes from strength to strength

He may not have been able to mount a serious challenge to Vettel, but Jenson Button was undoubtedly one of the classiest drivers of the year. With Hamilton busy getting himself into trouble at every possible opportunity, the 31-year-old played the elder statesman role to perfection - concentrating on the racing and trying to at least push Vettel from time to time.

As an added bonus, he treated fans to one of the best races in many year - charging from the back of the pack to finish first at the Canadian Grand Prix. In a rain-drenched Montreal, Button's win was perhaps not a surprise given his mastery of the car in slippery conditions.

What was a surprise was that he did it after being involved in a crash (with Hamilton, who else), a puncture and a drive through penalty. Most drivers would have been happy to have just finished the race after such a nightmare. To actually win it was nothing short of sheer genius.

"For me it was a fantastic race. Even if I hadn't won I would have enjoyed this race immensely, but it's a win, definitely my best," gushed an elated Button afterwards. In a year where all the talk was of Vettel, all credit to him for delivering a race that will make almost every "Best Ever" list. Second place in the final points tally was the least he deserved.

A quiet year for Ferrari

Once the team to beat in F1, Ferrari have been pushed into the shadows by the rise of Red Bull and resurgence of McLaren. That trend continued in 2011, as Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa struggled to impose themselves on the rest of the pack.

Alonso did manage to stand atop the podium once, at the British Grand Prix - but the ambitious Spaniard would have been disappointed with the failure of his car to keep pace with the front-runners, despite garnering more points this year than in 2010.

"If I had to score our performance, I can but repeat what President Montezemolo said, giving us something between a five and six, but all the same I am proud of what the team was able to do," he remarked after the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix. 

While Alonso was hampered to a certain extent by the car at his disposal, teammate Felipe Massa's form was far more worrying. Massa finished in sixth with 118 points, a whopping 109 points behind fifth-placed and nemesis Hamilton. 

Team president Luca di Montezemelo sent out a warning to the Brazilian, saying: "Felipe knows next year is very important for him," before admitting that " it is up to us to give him a competitive car."

While Massa should line up on the grid for the prancing horse come March, he will be aware of the need to really step up his game in 2012.

The return of the Iceman

There was much holiday cheer for F1 fans when Kimi Raikkonen announced his comeback with Lotus Renault. One of the most popular drivers on the circuit, the Finn's retirement from the sport in 2009 had come as a shock to many. 

A former world champion with Ferrari, Raikkonen's return has added additional spice to what promises to be a season to savour. Unlike Michael Schumacher, the 32-year-old has age on his side and even though he may not have the best car on the track, much will be expected from him.

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