Last weekend was the first time since the Formula 1 World Championship was established in 1950 that four drivers went into the final round with a mathematical chance of becoming World Champion. The title battle might have lacked the personal edge and intensity of those between Senna and Prost in the late 80s and early 90s, or even that between Schumacher and Alonso in 2006, but in terms of the sheer number of serious contenders, I can't think of another season which compares.
In the end, it was Sebastian Vettel who walked away with the title. Readers of this blog will know that personally, I had hoped that Mark Webber would win the championship. Partly because he had always struck me as someone who had established a front-line F1 career against the odds, who for years had looked like he would never get the title-contending car I was always convinced his talent merited, and, in part simply because if he were to win the title, it would probably be the last time that the F1 World Champion is older than me.
Vettel, however, was a worthy winner. On balance, the man who most deserved to come away from the desert on Sunday with the winner's trophy. He made mistakes, yes: Clattering into the back of Jenson Button at Spa, eliminating himself in Istanbul when he moved across on Mark Webber, failing to abide by the safety car rules in Hungary. But, equally, he suffered more mechanical misfortune than any of is major title rivals: The engine that lapsed onto 7 cylinders in Bahrain; the faulty wheel bearing that took him out of contention in Australia while he was in a commanding lead; and finally, the engine failure in Korea, which looked to have robbed him of any realistic chance at the title. That he was able to triumph in spite of these set-backs was down in part to the fact that the Red Bull RB6 was the class of the field, but his own prodigious pace was equally significant. The ten pole positions, the times he drove away into the distance leaving everyone else wondering where he had gone – at Albert Park before the car broke, at Suzuka and, appropriately enough, at the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi.
That speed alone, though, might not have been enough for him to have secured the title were it not the unusually high error-rate of all the title contenders this year. As teams and drivers packed up under cover of darkness at Abu Dhabi last Sunday, Hamilton, Alonso and Webber might all have been ruing mistakes made, wondering what might have been. What if... Mark Webber, especially. Unlike the other two, he does not have a championship to his name, and at the age of 34, with what appears from the outside to be a somewhat frosty relationship with his own team, one has to wonder if the best opportunity he is ever likely to have has slipped through his fingers. He may be a couple of years younger than Schumacher was when he won his seventh title at Ferrari in 2004, but Vettel, who is only five years older than Webber's step-son, is only likely to get faster. Webber has to hope that the 2011 Red Bull is every bit as competitive as this year's. And even then, that might not be enough.
The lapse of concentration that saw him crash out of the Korean Grand Prix, throwing away a near certain second place and, given Vettel's retirement, perhaps a fifth victory. Had he won that race, he might well have found the team willing to order Vettel out of his way at Interlagos, and he would now be World Champion. Nor was that his only mistake. There was his almighty accident in Valencia, after he ran into the back of Heikki Kovalainen's much slower Lotus, his scrappy early races in Bahrain and, especially, Australia, from which he really should have scored more points, given the potential of the Red Bull. And leaving the door open for Sebastian Vettel at the start in Malaysia after securing pole.
Lewis Hamilton's Mclaren was not, over the season as a whole, anything like a match for the Red Bulls, and by the end of the year, Ferrari had also appeared to have moved ahead of the Woking team on performance. As such, three wins and fourth in the points table was not a bad result. But he could have had so much more had he been a little more patient at the start at Monza, had he given Mark Webber a little more room while trying to pass at Singapore and had he taken a slightly more measured approach to the wet races in China and Australia, not been panicked into making the wrong calls on tyres. That, in spite of these errors, and notwithstanding the fact that the 2010 Mclaren was probably only the third quickest car this year, he was still in with an outside chance of the championship at the final race, is testament to Hamilton's incredible natural speed. Discussing the merits of the current F1 grid with a friend and former kart-racer earlier in the year, he expressed the view that in terms of sheer pace, Hamilton was on a different level from anyone else on the grid, even Alonso, even Kubica, even Vettel. And there were times, especially those occasions where he was running top three or four while his world champion team mate was struggling to get out of the midfield, when it was hard to disagree. 2010, though, was not to be his year, and just as with his first season, back in 2007, it was his occasional hot-headedness which prevented him claiming a second world title. If he ever learns to tame that impetuous streak, he might dominate the sport in the manner of Michael Schumacher in the first part of the last decade.
It was probably a good thing that, thanks to a rather eccentric pit strategy from Ferrari in Abu Dhabi and the near impossibility of overtaking there (tip for the track owners – get rid of the stupid fiddly bit leading up to the hairpin before the back straight), Fernando Alonso was denied a third title. Had Alonso secured the championship by less than 7 points, then it would be hard to forget the team's barely disguised order to Massa to hand victory to him at Hockenheim, which seemed about as clear a case of team orders as ever I have seen (I don't have a problem with team orders in F1, but by my reading, the rulebook does). Credit where it is due to Alonso, though. When he was nearly 50 points adrift at the mid-way point in the season, he was insistent that he would win the world title this year. At the time it seemed a most implausible claim. With Ferrari struggling to match Renault and Mercedes at Istanbul and Silverstone, never mind Mclaren or Red Bull, and with but one win to his name at that point, it seemed unlikely to say the least. And yet, he would go into the final race with an 8 point lead, knowing that a top 2 finish would secure in the title no matter what. His wins at Monza and at Singapore, under intense pressure, were a good illustration of why many consider him the most complete driver on the grid. Had he and his team not been frightened into an early pit stop that left him staring at Vitaly Petrov's gearbox all evening, his name would by now have joined those of Lauda, Stewart, Senna and Piquet as three-time champions.
Yet it would be wrong the blame the failure to bring the title back to Maranello entirely on that pit-call. Had Alonso not dropped his car into the barriers at Spa, had he not crashed out on Saturday at Monaco, forcing a back-row start at the one circuit where you really don't want to start at the back of the grid, had he handed back track position to Robert Kubica at Silverstone and avoided the drive-through penalty, he might well have had the title secured long before they got to Abu Dhabi. As with Hamilton and Webber, Alonso could not blame bad fortune alone for his eventual defeat.
Actually, the one man among the title contenders who didn't really make a mistake worthy of the name all year was reigning world champion, Jenson Button. His problem was that, not withstanding those two classy victories in the rain at Albert Park and Shanghai, he simply wasn't quite fast enough. Typically about a couple of tenths down on Hamilton over a single lap, he continued to struggle in qualifying and his race pace, while better, wasn't quite enough to compensate, given how difficult passing is in modern F1. Whether by accident or design, Mclaren appear to have hired the perfect number 2 to Lewis Hamilton. Quicker than Kovalainen ever was, any driver capable of out-pacing Hamilton in the rain, as he did at Shanghai, has a fair mastery of his art, but I expect Button may join the long list of English one-time champions. He rarely took points off the younger Briton and there didn't appear to be any of the tension evident in relations between Webber and Vettel over at Red Bull. One more season at Mclaren then off to enjoy his retirement?
It may have been book-ended by two processions in the Middle East, but the 2010 season turned out to be something of a vintage year. The most open championship battle that I can recall in a quarter century of following the sport. Some classic races along the way, and a new world champion crowned at the age of just 23. If Mercedes and Renault (or Lotus, or Lotus Renault, or whatever they end up being known as) can get their act together next year, 2011 could be even more open.