Brazilian GP 2012 revisited: Was this Formula 1's most dramatic race?
Hamilton's final race for McLaren and their last win, Schumi's F1 swansong, and the title showdown between Alonso and Vettel
By James Galloway
Last Updated: 16/11/17 10:33am
While Lewis Hamilton's "is that Glock?" title win of Brazil 2008 will perhaps always be considered the single most dramatic moment in the history of F1 world championship deciders, should Brazil 2012 be considered a better title-settling race?
Interlagos, November 25, 2012, was the day of Sebastian Vettel's spin and champion recovery, Fernando Alonso's thousand-yard stare, and, in the hours after the chequered flag had fallen, the post-race yellow flag controversy.
And that was just the title battle on a day of rich subplots. Beyond the Vettel-Alonso showdown, Brazil 2012 featured Michael Schumacher's final grand prix, McLaren's last win and Hamilton's swansong for his boyhood team before his career-defining switch to Mercedes.
The 2012 season finale served up F1's ultimate race within a race - and both were nailbiters.
Writing in his post-race column, Sky F1's Martin Brundle declared: "The first 20 laps of the race were the most exciting I have ever had the privilege to commentate on."
Five years on, what made Brazil 2012 so special?
The lead-up to Brazil
While Vettel and Alonso emerged as the season's chief protagonists, their tense duel took its time to take shape.
A record seven different winners in the opening seven races (Jenson Button, Alonso, Nico Rosberg, Vettel, Pastor Maldonado, Mark Webber, Hamilton) was remarkable at the time and all the more astounding in retrospect considering just 10 drivers have shared the subsequent 109 grands prix.
Vettel only won once in the opening 13 races and with Alonso, despite a clear car disadvantage, brilliantly wrestling his Ferrari to three wins to hold a 42-point advantage over his Red Bull rival by mid-season.
But the Vettel charge began once F1 left Europe as the German reeled off four successive wins to take a 13-point lead with three rounds to go.
However, the difference still stood at 13 points two races later with Vettel's winning momentum first checked by a disqualification from Abu Dhabi qualifying for a fuel infringement and then defeat to Hamilton at the inaugural US GP in Austin.
Onto Brazil...and how Vettel nearly lost on lap one
With a quicker car and a 13-point lead already in his favour, Vettel's title odds shortened at the Interlagos finale when he qualified fourth and Alonso eighth. The German only needed to finish in his grid position even if the Ferrari driver won.
Yet the impossible turnaround suddenly seemed eminently possible on the race's first lap. With rain beginning to fall, Vettel was facing the wrong way by Turn Four - and with a big hole in the side of his Red Bull.
A bad start - which Vettel would blame on team-mate Mark Webber, sowing the seeds for the 'Multi-21' controversy of the following Spring - had already dropped the German behind Alonso and into seventh before double contact with the Williams of Bruno Senna at the end of the long backstraight left him facing the oncoming pack.
As the field streamed past his stricken Red Bull, Vettel was lucky not to suffer race-ending damage. But when he eventually got going, he did so from 22nd and last. Alonso, meanwhile, had moved into a championship-winning third place within two laps.
Vettel comes back from the brink
"To be perfectly honest after the first lap I thought 'it's probably all over'," admitted Red Bull's Adrian Newey after the race. "I was pretty surprised to see the car going."
But Vettel did keep going, allowing Red Bull engineers to take pictures of the RB8 from pitwall so Newey could assess the damage.
"We photographed the car going past and saw all the bodywork damage and, more worryingly almost, a huge crease in the exhaust system. Normally [with] that sort of damage the exhaust is going to crack and the bodywork will catch fire and that will be the end of that."
A change of engine mapping settings, and the fact the rain worsened, played to Vettel's advantage. By lap eight, he was to sixth. Alonso was now only two now places ahead, meaning the title was back in the Red Bull driver's grasp.
Hamilton v Button…and Hulkenberg
Amid the drama of the title race behind, an absorbing battle for the win simultaneously broke out at the front.
In their final race as McLaren team-mates, Hamilton and Button raced away into the lead from the front row and changed places three times within the race's opening eight laps.
"The wheel-to-wheel action between Button and Hamilton was thrilling, masterful, respectful, risky, and mesmerising," wrote Brundle. "And all watched by Nico Hulkenberg who then impressively made his way to the front of the race."
Force India's Nico Hulkenberg, revelling in the mixed conditions, began pushing the McLarens and, after race leader Button pitted, the German overtook Hamilton for the lead on lap 18. He didn't relinquish it for 30 laps before Hamilton claimed it back.
Yet what had been a hitherto display of supreme error-free driving was ended when Hulkenberg plunged down the inside of Hamilton's McLaren at Turn One as the McLaren encountered a backmarker, only to drop it on a damp patch and spin into the Englishman. Hamilton's dream of a winning exit from Woking was scuppered, with Hulkenberg slipping to sixth.
A grateful Button picked up the pieces for what turned out to be his 15th and final F1 victory.
It was McLaren's seventh win of the year, as many as world champions Red Bull. Incredibly, they have failed to win again in the 96 races since.
A passing of the baton
After recovering from the biggest of lap-one scares, Vettel was rarely out of a championship-winning position thereafter but his worsening car damage, and the lingering on-off rain, meant the title was never safe until the closing laps. A broken radio also contributed to a late scare when mechanics weren't ready for a pit stop.
With Alonso running second following the reitrements of Hamilton and Hulkenberg, Vettel needed to finish eighth to be sure of the crown. With ten laps to go he was in seventh, but then rose to the security of sixth when Schumacher, featuring in the final GP of his second career, chose not to put up a fight and let the Red Bull through.
Vettel's third consecutive title was then finally confirmed when Paul di Resta crashed on the start-finish straight on the penultimate lap to ensure the season finished under the Safety Car.
After a breatheless afternoon, Vettel was world champion from Alonso by three points. Cue one of the longest stares in F1 history...
The post-race controversy
But the story of Brazil 2012 wasn't finished quite yet and it briefly seemed as if there could be a dramatic final twist in the tale.
Footage emerged on the internet which apparently showed Vettel had illegally passed the Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne under a yellow flag on lap four.
Such was the commotion on social media that Ferrari wrote to the FIA seeking clarification, but analysis of official footage showed Vettel had passed a marshal waving a green flag before legitimately making the move on Vergne.
The FIA replied to Ferrari 'stating that as the overtaking manoeuvre was not in breach of the regulations, and therefore there was no infringement to investigate, it was not reported to the stewards by Race Control'.
The epic story of the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix was finally complete, but the memory lives on.