By JOHN LEICESTER
AP Sports Columnist
(AP) - One of the most enthralling seasons of racing in recent memory finished with one of the most exciting races ever. Surely, Formula One cannot get much better than in 2012. Our hearts surely wouldn't stand it. But next year could be special, too.
Unpredictable to the last lap. Competitive. Largely fair. With a deserving champion, Sebastian Vettel, pushed to his limits by a noble loser, Fernando Alonso, who might have finished as the 2012 champion himself with just a smidgen more luck. This year, F1 delivered everything one can reasonably expect from sport, and all at dizzying speed.
Ridiculously expensive and gas guzzling, F1 may seem like an anachronism at a time when governments and families are counting pennies and cutting back. But, wow, what a show.
With 20 races from March to November, this was the longest season in 62 years of F1. But it never felt too long, because the outcome remained so uncertain. The tension of not being sure who would finish as champion built up nicely through the year, becoming exquisite by the last race in Brazil on Sunday, where only Vettel and Alonso remained in the chase for the world title.
Seven different winners in the first seven races made this a year of exceptional variety. Having been so dominant last year, greedily winning 11 of 19 races, Vettel didn't really get his nose ahead this year until the F1 circus traveled through Asia in September and October, and he won four successive races in Singapore, Japan, Korea and India.
To the end, Alonso clung like a bull dog to Vettel's coattails. After thousands of miles of racing around the world in 19 different countries, the gap between them at the checkered flag at Interlagos on Sunday had withered to just three points, in Vettel's favor _ 281 to Alonso's 278.
The Spaniard climbed out of his bright red Ferrari and stared long and hard down the track with blank, faraway eyes. Had he won that last race in Sao Paulo, instead of finishing second, or had his German rival finished just two spots lower than his sixth place, then it would have been Alonso, not Vettel, being crowned as a three-time world champion and the Red Bull driver painfully ruing what might have been.
But of the two drivers, Alonso was most impressive in 2012, because he made his Ferrari seem far quicker than it was. From the day in February when heavy snow at its factory in Maranello, Italy, forced Ferrari to cancel the unveiling of its F2012 model, so little this year went to plan for the most famous team in F1. The car appeared to be a dud in preseason testing. The team's chassis boss said it was hard to drive. After the first race in Australia, Alonso said he felt the car was about one second per lap slower than it needed to be to get him on the front row of the grid.
That Alonso got to Brazil trailing Vettel by just 13 points was testimony both to his skill in squeezing every last drop of performance out of the car and Ferrari's relentless work improving it as the season progressed. The car's fundamental problems were also why Alonso hoped for a chaotic race in Brazil, because he knew his Ferrari had less chance of unsettling Vettel's superior Red Bull in a run-of-the-mill Grand Prix.
Alonso got his wish, and more.
Rain slickened the circuit. Vettel had a sluggish start and a mistake on turn four of the first lap, diving too aggressively into the corner, thumping into another car, spinning and leaving him at the back of the race. The radio linking him to his mechanics also broke, so when he later came into the pits for tires better suited for the damp weather, his team wasn't ready for him, costing him more time. At 25, Vettel is F1's youngest triple world champion. But this wacky race surely aged him.
"The most difficult race we faced," Vettel said.
But edge-of-your-seat entertainment for spectators.
"The most exciting race that I ever saw in Formula One," said Nelson Piquet, F1's champion in 1981, 1983 and 1987.
F1 plans to switch to smaller turbocharged 1.6 liter V6 engines from 2014, from the 2.4 liter V8s used now. That's a major shift that could shake up the sport's established hierarchy. But there aren't massive changes in the rules for 2013, which gives reason to hope the action might pick up next season close to where it left off in Brazil on Sunday. One of the most visible differences in the cars next year will be purely aesthetic: They'll be allowed to hide the kinks on their noses that were so ugly in 2012.