Although the last quarter turned into a little bit of a Red Bull procession, the season as a whole was the most exciting and unpredictable I think I can remember. I've decided to chop the season up into uneven quarters to look back on it. The first section covers the initial fly away races, and the second is from the early season break to the mid-season interval. The third covers the three following races, and the fourth quarter covers the three pairs of back-to-back races with which we ended the season.
Australia, Malaysia, China and Bahrain
The start of the season was ominous for everyone except McLaren. In Oz, they locked out the front row in qualifying and got first and third in the race. It would've been a 1-2 but the safety car came out at exactly the wrong moment which meant a back-to-back pit stop enabled Vettel to leapfrog Hamilton.
In Malaysia it was a wetter than a pair of mermaids in a bath. In the rain the Ferrari's lack of pace mattered less and the team executed its strategy perfectly to give Alonso the win. Perez had a stonking race and came second, but had the speed to win it had he not slid near the end.
China saw a third team and driver win the third race. Rosberg got a great pole and win, and the Mercedes was miles faster than all others. Schumacher's bad luck continued, as the team forgot to put all four wheels on during his pit stop. But for that a podium was possible. Behind Rosberg were the two McLarens, suggesting the soggy Malaysia might've been a weather-related blip.
Bahrain, most controversial race on the calendar, saw another surprising race. Vettel got the win after qualifying on pole and the Lotus team had a great weekend with a double podium result. Hamilton could only manage eighth and Button didn't even score due to reliability failure.
After the first four races, which saw four different teams and drivers win, it still seemed that McLaren were the team to beat, but for pit stop problems and the odd breakdown.
Spain to Hungary
Spain saw a comedy of errors (not enough fuel) relegate Hamilton from a deserved pole to last on the grid. This pushed Maldonado to pole and Alonso to second, which was also where they finished. The race displayed just how great the Williams has been this year, and Maldonado, lacking much contact (in both senses of the word) with other traffic showed his raw pace to take a fantastic win. The McLarens had a race to forget, coming 8th and 9th.
I predicted a Rosberg pole in Monaco, but it was Schumacher who had the fastest qualifying time. Alas, he was put down 5 places due to hitting Senna in Spain so it was Webber and Rosberg on the front row. They finished where they started, with Alonso getting third. After this, it was strictly downhill for the Silver Arrows.
Canada was a terrific race. It started Vettel, Hamilton, Alonso, but the McLaren driver opted for a two-stop strategy and his rivals one stop. It looked like it could go either way, but by the end it was clear Hamilton not only had probably the fastest race pace anyway, he also had the right strategy. Late, forced pit stops put Vettel and Alonso off the podium, where Grosjean and Perez enjoyed Hamilton's company.
Valencia was weird, because it's almost always tedious, but this year was phenomenal. Vettel was fastest in qualifying and ahead by miles in the race, but a reliability failure cost him a certain victory. Alonso qualified a feeble 11th, but rose through the field to eventually claim the 25 points and, with Raikkonen and Schumacher joining him on the podium, it was like 2006. Hamilton had the pace for many points, but a collision with a vindictive Maldonado cost him any hope of them.
In British qualifying the soggy weather favoured Ferrari, but he and Webber swapped the 1st and 2nd places in the race (Webber seems to excel in the UK). Vettel and Massa followed, and McLaren were just 8th and 10th.
Germany saw Alonso start and finish first. This was probably Ferrari's most competitive period in terms of pace. It was also fantastic for Sauber, who rose from 12th and 17th to 4th and 6th.
Hungary saw the resurgence of McLaren dominance with Hamilton qualifying and finishing first. The Lotuses got 2nd and 3rd, with Vettel and Alonso following.
At the mid-season interval which followed Hungary it appeared that McLaren had the fastest car, but a series of errors (including in pit stops) meant that they were not cruising to either title. Red Bull had suffered some reliability failures, but Ferrari and Lotus were solid and fast, though probably behind the other two top teams.
Belgium to Singapore
Memories of Belgium are dominated, naturally, by Grosjean's massive and entirely unnecessary crash at the start which wiped out multiple cars. However, in racing terms Button enjoyed a great pole and a dominant victory. Vettel and Raikkonen joined him on the podium, with Hulkenberg scoring an impressive 4th.
In Italy the McLarens continued their supremacy and locked out the front row, with the Red Bulls 6th and 12th and the Ferraris 3rd and 10th. Hamilton won the race, with Perez climbing from 13th to 2nd and Alonso from 10th to 3rd. Neither Red Bull finished, with Vettel suffering another alternator failure.
Singapore proved boring, and also that whilst the McLaren was very fast it was also fragile. Hamilton retired from certain victory, gifting the win to Vettel. Button and Alonso followed, and Di Resta's 4th suggests that Force India's development was perhaps the most impressive of the midfield teams.
Japan to Brazil
The last six races of the season were three pairs of back-to-back races.
Japan was a very different story to recent races. Red Bull upgrades gave them the front row and although Webber was taken out early on Vettel cruised to a seemingly effortless win. Alonso was also taken out early on in a racing incident, but Massa's strong 2nd suggests his team mate could have done very well otherwise. It was very nice to see Kobayashi on the podium at his home race, especially as it may be his last season in the sport.
In Korea Red Bull started and finished 1st and 2nd, albeit swapping in the race so that Vettel claimed the win. Some serious bad luck (a mechanical failure and then getting some astroturf snagged on his bodywork) really hampered Hamilton, who managed the greatest 10th place finish of the season. The Ferraris finished 3 and 4, but Massa was so fast that, all else being equal, he probably could've beaten Alonso.
India saw the once unpredictable season continue to dissolve in Vettel's dominance, as he claimed the pole and then the win, his fourth in a row. Alonso grabbed 2nd but the McLarens finished only 4th and 5th.
Abu Dhabi, like Valencia, is a normally tedious circuit that was fantastic this year, partly because Vettel also lacked fuel (as per Hamilton in Spain) and ended up starting from the pit lane. Despite this, and aided by some monumental luck regarding safety cars, he managed to drive through the field to 3rd, finishing right behind Alonso. Hamilton would've racked up another victory had his car not failed, which gave Raikkonen not only the prize for most entertaining radio messages of the year but also his first victory since his return.
It was the first race at the new Circuit of the Americas, and it proved to be a cracker (if hard to follow on the radio). Vettel and Hamilton were in a league of their own, but this time it was the Briton who came out on top, passing Vettel on the track to seal a famous (and back-to-back) win in America. Alonso got 3rd, his best realistic position, and Massa continued his strong form with 4th.
Interlagos is perhaps my favourite circuit, and the first two blistering laps showed why. The Ferraris leapt up the field, the McLarens drove away from everyone else, several cars crashed out and Vettel was spun and 22nd of 22 running cars within half a lap. Raikkonen took a long detour, presumably hunting for a pub, and Hulkenberg was unfortunate to slide a short way into Hamilton, earning himself a drive-through penalty and ending the Briton's race. Button finished second only to the safety car, and Alonso's 2nd was not good enough to overturn Vettel's substantial points advantage.
Season ebbs and flows
McLaren should be the most disappointed team on the grid. At the very start, very end and middle of the season they had the fastest car, sometimes by a considerable margin. A combination of poor pit stops, fragile reliability and Button losing lots of pace mid-season cost them any shot at either title. For them, it was the equivalent of confidently wandering into an 18th century duel with a sub-machinegun and then leaving the safety on and getting a musket ball in the face.
Red Bull should be pretty happy (unsurprisingly, they won both titles for the third consecutive year). Early on their car was fairly quick but not the fastest, but around Singapore a significant upgrade gave them the best car by miles for the next few races.
Ferrari are harder to assess because their initial car was absolutely abysmal. However, in the early mid-season break they brought a very good set of updates which closed the gap to the frontrunners significantly. Around Germany/UK they were competitive at the sharp end in the race, but subsequently the updates were too infrequent and simply didn't bring enough (if any) extra speed. Wind tunnel woe continues to afflict the team.
Looking ahead to 2013
The car matters more than the driver (cf Hamilton this year). There are probably four teams capable of producing a title-winning car:
Red Bull - have the best recent record by a mile, and Vettel really knows how to use it. Webber was ahead of him mid-2012, but was unable to get the best out of the updated, faster car. Hard to see Webber beating his team mate.
Ferrari - Massa's shown a resurgence in form, but Alonso is the only man at the team permitted victory. The prancing horse has started most recent seasons in quite a lame fashion, but Alonso drove a fantastic season. If they can put together a competitive car from the off he would stand an excellent chance of taking the title.
McLaren - fast but fragile at times this year. They need more reliability, both in the car and in the pit stops. Button and Perez are both fast drivers, but the former struggles if the car isn't spot on and the latter will be new to a top team. I don't read much into Perez's failure to score points for the last X races of 2012, as he had a few dry spells earlier in the season too.
Lotus - their car this year was very reliable and often got their drivers on the podium, but they need a bit of extra oomph to really challenge for the title. New sponsor Burn (like Red Bull but made by Coca-Cola) may give them the cash to develop the car a bit more. Raikkonen proved ultra-reliable and generally fast, but Grosjean needs to sort his head out. The Frenchman's amiable and quick but needs a cooler head on his shoulders.
It also depends on how the various teams stack up. If one gets an advantage and the others are all a close second this'll allow the leader to just drive off into the distance, as per 2011. If they're all highly competitive at the same level the title race could be close for a long time, as happened this year.
I do not advocate betting on the title at this stage, unless you can get silly odds on Vettel, Alonso, Button, Perez or Raikkonen.
The betting review, which will be rather shorter, will be up fairly soon.