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Page last updated at 13:12 GMT, Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Was 2010 the best F1 season ever?

Sebastian Vettel

Abu Dhabi GP in 90 seconds

By Mark Hughes
BBC F1 commentary box producer

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was the first time a world championship showdown has featured four contenders. That, and the quality of the title fight throughout the season, has begged the question of whether 2010 was the best season in F1 history.

There were certainly many elements of fascination. The dynamics of the three contending teams were each very distinct and that in itself lent the title battle an intriguing, multi-element feel.

In this, it recalls some of the great seasons.

In 1982, for example, there was the backdrop of turbo vs naturally-aspirated cars as drivers from Williams, McLaren, Ferrari, Brabham and Renault all at various times looked to have what would be winning advantage.

But back in those days tragedy was all too close and should a season in which F1 lost two drivers - one of them, Gilles Villeneuve, one of the all-time greats - and saw a career-ending accident for one of the other title contenders, Didier Pironi, really be considered a great season?

For some, such rawness made F1 heroic in a way it cannot ever be now. If you're of that persuasion, then the greatest seasons have already been set. If not, then 2010 has to be right up there.

In Fernando Alonso, Ferrari were finally hooked back up with the sort of driver they need - a natural leader who takes the initiative, inspires the team and has them buzzing to his frequency, everything aligned one way.

Ferrari had not had this since Michael Schumacher retired at the end of 2006, his replacement Kimi Raikkonen imbued with a supreme natural gift but just way too passive a character for the personality of this team.

Alonso's recruitment was a blow to the incumbent Felipe Massa and it is a moot point whether Alonso's superior performance made him the natural number one or whether the way Alonso effectively took over the team had a negative impact on the Brazilian's performance.

Either way, there was never really any doubt: this was a team structured around winning Alonso the title, with Massa in a back-up role.

This was not explicitly made clear to Massa or the watching world until lap 41 of the German Grand Prix. The team orders incident cast Alonso as the ruthless villain - a role he plays well and with relish - and every great story needs a villain.

Niki Lauda returns to win the world title in 1977
Is Lauda's return to racing after a near-fatal crash F1's greatest story?

For the epic quality of the back-story behind a final-round showdown, nothing has yet beaten 1976 when Niki Lauda, having received the Last Rites following a fiery crash in the German Grand Prix, got out of his hospital bed and returned to fight for his title with James Hunt.

That was perhaps the sport's Greatest Story Ever Told and the echo of its effects are still felt today, in the intensity with which the game is played off-track.

McLaren and Ferrari were bitter enemies in that year of punk, and the sport began its transition from esoteric specialist interest activity to a global sport with massive reach.

McLaren and Ferrari are still at it now.

At McLaren there was a fascinating dynamic of the reigning world champion joining the previous world champion's team - and how that might play out.

The last time there'd been two world-class drivers together at McLaren was in 2007 with Lewis Hamilton and Alonso - and so volatile had that proved that it almost ripped the team apart.

Subsequently McLaren had adopted an easier - but slower - partner for Hamilton, giving them a much easier life but generally only one car in contention.

In Jenson Button there was the guarantee of two potential race-winners. But with Button entering the lion's den, things could have got potentially tricky.

Red Bull was different again. The F1 programme is effectively a marketing operation for the parent drinks company, with a super-sharp race team contracted to run it and featuring the sport's greatest design genius.

What it also featured in Sebastian Vettel was a crucial part of that marketing programme, a very young, edgy, brilliantly fast racing driver of sunny disposition.

Sebastian Vettel

Vettel's career in F1 (UK users only)

In Mark Webber the marketing (Austrian) side of the operation believed it had a natural number two, tough and experienced, but a driver who had been out-qualified by Vettel 15:2 the previous season. But no-one had told Webber that, and if they had he certainly wouldn't have acquiesced.

They renewed his contract for 2011 after a few number two-like performances in the early races of the season - then he began winning, beating Vettel to victory in two consecutive races. This wasn't part of the plan...

Each grand prix weekend we got a new instalment of how these various scenarios were panning out and as well as the tensions within the teams, it was there between them too.

The Red Bull was a rocket ship - though initially a conveniently unreliable one - and their rivals could not fully understand why.

Yes they had noted its exhaust-blown diffuser and were immediately onto developing their own, but that did not explain it all.

Throughout the season various elements of the RB6 came under scrutiny - did it have ride height control, did its front wing and/or floor bend to allow it to run illegally low?

Sometimes it was Ferrari and McLaren united against Red Bull, conspiring to have the car's advantage trimmed back by campaigning to Charlie Whiting, technical director of governing body the FIA. Later in the year, as Ferrari made its own aerodynamic breakthrough, so Ferrari and Red Bull were united against McLaren's complaints. As ever in F1, any alliances were temporary.

All these multiple tensions gave the championship fight a feeling of brittleness.

McLaren and Button starred in the early season, maximising their opportunities with a series of flawless calls in what was not quite the fastest car but which was close enough to put Red Bull under pressure, thanks to that car's initial unreliability.

Then the RB6 came fully on song - but with Webber, who delivered two stunning victories over his team mate.

The following Turkish Grand Prix was the season up to that point in microcosm - the Red Bulls leading, under big pressure from the two McLarens. Such pressure did that scenario create that it burst the Red Bull tension out into civil war, as Vettel collided with Webber.


However, the continuing tension between the two - which flared into the open again as recently as Brazil - pales alongside the radioactivity of the two vintage seasons Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost spent as team-mates fighting for the title in 1988 and '89.

As the Red Bull Turkey incident paved the way for a McLaren one-two, so war almost broke at McLaren too, as Button briefly engaged Hamilton for the victory - until he was called off.

Only Button's equanimity kept this team in equilibrium. Had Button made that move work and taken the victory, you can bet Hamilton's reaction would not have been serene.

Did calling Button's challenge off constitute team orders? It probably did but was done in such a way that was by general consensus acceptable.

What happened at Hockenheim with Ferrari was altogether more contentious. But if Ferrari was serious about winning Alonso this title, it had to be done, so far behind had they fallen by this stage.

But ever since it was equipped with its own blown floor at Valencia, the Ferrari was generally the second fastest car, sometimes - if the track was stop/start enough - Red Bull fast.

So began the Ferrari comeback and it was quite something to behold, Alonso now in title-chasing mode, relentlessly brilliant, essentially taking over from McLaren in the relay chase of Red Bull.

Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet
The class of 1986 with Senna, Prost, Mansell and Piquet sparked one of F1's most memorable eras

That element of the fight would have been lost had the governing body chosen to make political capital out of the team orders scenario rather than just confirming the stewards' fine.

It was another super-positive aspect of the season that on-track incidents were not used politically as had been the case in the previous few seasons. Having ex-drivers in the stewards room also helped enormously with bringing consistency and evaporating suspicion about motives. This title fight felt hard but clean.

It was fought with one of the best collections of F1 drivers ever assembled, too.

All six title-contending cars had world-class drivers inside them and all on their day could be - and were - the star of the show. That the big bad wolf of Alonso chasing the Red Bulls down had a final twist in the tale in Abu Dhabi was just the final flourish to a truly great season.

Was it as good a twist as Nigel Mansell's tyre explosion at Adelaide '86 allowing Prost in the slower McLaren to take a last-gasp underdog title?

Well, such things are for the individual to decide. But in a sport that habitually produces great stories, 2010 was one of the best.

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see also
Hamilton targets McLaren comeback
14 Nov 10 |  Formula 1
Ferrari hit back after criticism
15 Nov 10 |  Formula 1
Webber downbeat as title bid ends
14 Nov 10 |  Formula 1
Vettel 'kept believing' in title
14 Nov 10 |  Formula 1
Vettel win seals maiden F1 title
14 Nov 10 |  Formula 1

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