Nothing Like 1982

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When Lewis Hamilton became the seventh different winner in seven races in Canada, who would have imagined that there would be no more new winners in the next ten events? Moreover, who would have imagined that Sebastian Vettel would take the lead midway through the Singapore GP, round 14, and hold onto it until the chequered flag in India, at the end of round 17? No man has led every lap for three races straight since Ayrton Senna in early 1989.

That over 23 years ago - before some of the readers of this article were even born. To give that some more context, I started watching F1 midway through 1989, which means that Vettel's run is the dullest stretch in terms of lead changes that I have ever witnessed. It beats anything which, for example, Nigel Mansell managed in his dominant 1992 season, or by Michael Schumacher in his pomp in 2002 or 2004, or by Vettel himself in his excruciating supremacy last year.

What is all the more remarkable is that Sebastian's current ascendancy is such a far cry from the randomness of the first part of the year, when even traditionally insipid events like Barcelona or Valencia turned on the excitement. At the time, people were wondering - not without reason, as a Sauber win looked possible and neither Lotus had won - whether 2012 might go on to replicate the incredible 1982 season, when there were 11 different winners out of 16 Grands Prix, and no-one managed to win more than twice.

Possibly with the exception of 2003, every season since 1982 up to and including 2011 has followed one of two patterns. Either a team and/or driver dominates from the outset (1984, 1988-9, 1992-3, 1995-6, 1998, 2001-2, 2004, 2009, 2011) and possibly (but not always) towards the end of the season the opposition starts catching up, or the season features a year-long stoush between two or three closely-matched teams (1983, 1985-7, 1990-1, 1994, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2005-8, 2010).

Not in the last 30 years has there been a season like this, which starts closely-fought between any number of teams but ends with a team becoming dominant in the back third of the year. So why is it that 2012 is concluding like this, with Vettel and Red Bull almost definitely surging towards their third consecutive titles, and why has a repeat of 1982 not come to pass? Why is it looking as though this season will not even surpass the 2003 tally of 8 different winners, which looked like a near-certainty earlier on?

The answer, I think, lies in one word: variables. 1982 had plenty of them. By that season, ground effects was hitting its peak but the development race was far less scientific and more hit-and-miss than what it is today. Many teams - including Brabham, Renault, Ferrari, McLaren, Lotus and Williams - were evenly matched, but different squads responded better to different circuits. That extended to teams outside those six mentioned; Alfa Romeo led at Long Beach and Tyrrell won in Las Vegas.

Lots of variety at the front, Austria 1982Williams, McLaren, Ferrari and Renault in close company, France 2003
The fluctuating performances of the cars were also due to several other factors. There were turbo engines - Renault, Ferrari and BMW - ranged against the venerable Ford DFV. Brabham ran both simultaneously. Again, the different engine philosophies came into their own at different tracks. There were three tyre manufacturers (Goodyear, Michelin and Pirelli) waging a tyre war, and teams started to experiment with alternative strategies; 1982 was the year Brabham reintroduced the refuelling stop.

And if you think the driving talent in 2012 is spectacular with six World Champions in the field, Autosport nominated the 1982 Brazilian GP as having the greatest field of all time, with the likes of Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, Keke Rosberg, Gilles Villeneuve (all too briefly) and Niki Lauda all on the grid. But not only was there an abundance of ability to mix up the results, they were also all at the mercy of something which, as I have written about in the past, has become a rarity in F1 these days: unreliability.

Fast forward to 2003, the best year in the last decade in terms of variety, and again a number of variables loom large. It was the height of the tyre war between Bridgestone and Michelin. Different teams - McLaren, Williams, Renault and Ferrari - all peaked at different times. It was the first year of one-lap qualifying with diverse race fuel loads. Plus mother nature conspired with a dodgy drain to give us a random winner in the form of Giancarlo Fisichella and Jordan's victory in Brazil.

By contrast, what have been the variables in 2012? Three engine manufacturers cover the large majority of the field. The regulations have become so tight that all the teams have adopted very similar aerodynamic solutions. Unreliability is uncommon. The biggest factors at the start of the season were how teams dealt with the loss of off-throttle exhaust blowing, and how they came to grips (pardon the pun) with the Pirelli tyres - the same Pirelli tyres for the whole field, at that.

And so the randomness at the beginning of the year was not due to teams coming up with different solutions. It was due to the fact that everyone was chasing after the same solution but, in an unusual occurrence, no one had found it yet. In the end, the cream has risen to the top. The teams have ended up in roughly the same hierarchy as in 2010 and 2011, and in the current set of rules there is simply none better than the combination of Adrian Newey, Red Bull and Vettel.

What's disappointing and boring about that is this: whilst the triumph of the boffin and the triumph of the guy who can best drive the fastest car are admirable, it's just not that inspiring. It would have been far more stirring, had the year's results remained random for longer, to see someone like Fernando Alonso pick his way through the havoc, keep on maximising his results, and take the title that way. For that would have been a genuine human achievement, and not just another organisational accomplishment.

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