From seven different winners in the first seven grand prix to Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso's hotly contested battle for the world championship, the 2012 Formula One season was truly a memorable one.
A record 20 races were on this year's F1 schedule, beginning on March 18 in Melbourne, Australia and concluding last Sunday in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
After Vettel and Red Bull won the drivers' and constructors' championships in dominating fashion in 2011, F1's top boss, Bernie Ecclestone, hoped this season would not be another lackluster. His dream came true, with the season featuring eight different race winners and Vettel capturing his third consecutive championship by just a three-point margin over Alonso.
With plenty of action on the track and activity off the track, the season had many notable moments worth recalling.
THREE CHEERS FOR VETTEL
Vettel became just the third driver in F1's 63-year history to win three successive world championships, joining Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher. The 25-year-old German also became the youngest driver in the sport to win his third title.
Unlike his phenomenal year in 2011, Vettel needed a late-season surge to help him win this year's championship. He was 39 points out of the lead following his retirement in the Sept. 9 Italian Grand Prix. But the Red Bull driver went on a tear from there, winning the next four races -- Singapore, Japan, Korea and India. He then finished third in Abu Dhabi, after starting from the rear of the field there, and second in Austin, Texas before clinching the title with a sixth-place run in Brazil.
"I had a very smart guy who once told me the hardest thing was winning after winning, because you get the attention and the pressure, but you focus on how to win again, rather than focusing on the small steps it takes," Vettel said. "That's what I always try to remember or remind the guys on the team. It's just another day, another race and we have to be ourselves and make sure we enjoy it and the rest will be just fine."
Vettel concluded the season with five wins and 10 podium finishes. Last year, he had 11 victories and 17 podium appearances in 19 grand prix. He had clinched his second straight F1 title with four races to go.
Even though this season featured six world champions on the grid, including the return of 2007 champion Kimi Raikkonen, Vettel was once again the heavy favorite to win the title. But after the season began with a record seven different winners in as many grand prix, there was no clear favorite.
Vettel's first win of the season came on April 22 in Bahrain, a race that was canceled last year due to anti-government protests in that Middle Eastern country.
"It has been a tough year, extremely close," he said. "We had seven different winners in the first seven races, ups and downs for everyone. Back then, I already knew that every place, every point will probably matter in the end. It was closer than what we hoped for, but at some stage, people were not even mentioning us when they were talking about the championship. I think the most important thing was that we always kept believing."
Vettel and Red Bull are the latest dynasty in F1, so the big question for next season is simply this: Can anyone dethrone them?
"I'm very happy with what we have achieved so far, and I don't think this story is over yet," Vettel added. I'm very happy and extremely committed to give everything I have, also in the next years when I'm with them. At the moment, I don't see any point thinking about another team or something else. I'm extremely happy in the position I'm in. It's incredible what we have achieved."
Vettel is under contract with Red Bull for the next two seasons.
ALONSO'S BEST SEASON?
Fernando Alonso won back-to-back championships from 2005-06, but the Spaniard claimed this was the best season of his F1 career. The Ferrari driver notched three wins and 13 podium finishes for the year. He finished either second or third in the last five grand prix, but it wasn't good enough for him to beat Vettel for the title.
After enduring numerous performance and reliability issues with its cars during pre-season testing, it looked as though Ferrari would have a disastrous year. But Alonso gave the Italian team a huge boost by winning the second grand prix of the season on March 25 in Malaysia. Alonso then became the first repeat winner of the year with his stunning victory in the June 24 European Grand Prix. After starting 11th, the Ferrari driver delighted the Spanish crowd on hand at Valencia when he overtook Vettel for the lead after Vettel suffered mechanical failure and was forced to retire.
Alonso emerged as the title favorite when he scored his third win of the season on July 22 in Germany. Vettel trailed Alonso by 44 points at the time.
"I will remember 2012 like this was some dream season," Alonso said. "We didn't achieve the points to win the title, but I won so many things this year and so much respect from everybody."
But Alonso had his misfortunes in the Sept. 2 Belgian Grand Prix and the Oct. 7 Japanese Grand Prix.
Alonso was involved in a horrifying multi-car crash on the opening lap in Belgium. Romain Grosjean's Lotus sailed over Alonso's car during the incident. There were no injuries, but Alonso was shaken up when he slowly climbed out of his heavily-damaged car.
In Japan, Alonso wrecked on the first lap when Grosjean's teammate, Raikkonen, made contact with him and punctured his left-rear tire. One week after Japan, Vettel won the Korean Grand Prix and took over the points lead, which he held for the remainder of the season.
"I had two retirements in the year, over 20 races and the two retirements was not engine problem, not gear problem, not driver error," Alonso said. "It was nothing. It was one car puncturing your rear tire, and one car passing over you. Nothing really you could do in these two starts. So for sure there you lose a couple of points. There were also some races that we had some strange decisions and some penalties, so maybe we lost also there."
Alonso's teammate, Felipe Massa, saved his job at Ferrari after turning his season around in the late going. Massa finished second in Japan and then third in front of his home crowd in Brazil.
Mercedes' Nico Rosberg and Pastor Maldonado from Williams scored their maiden F1 wins this year. Rosberg picked up the victory in the Apr. 15 Chinese Grand Prix, and Maldonado took the checkered flag for the May 13 Spanish Grand Prix.
Rosberg's inaugural race win as well as his first pole position came in his 111th start. The German also gave Mercedes its first victory since the 1955 Italian GP.
Maldonado was perhaps the biggest surprise winner of the season. He swapped the lead with Alonso several times throughout the 66-lap race in Barcelona before beating Alonso at the finish by 3.2 seconds to become the first Venezuelan driver to win an F1 grand prix. Maldonado also gave Williams its first victory since Juan Pablo Montoya took the checkered flag for the 2004 Brazilian Grand Prix.
Williams' celebration in Barcelona was quickly interrupted when a fire broke out in their garage area. The fire caused extensive damage to the team's equipment, particularly with Bruno Senna's car. Senna had been involved in an early-race collision with Schumacher from Mercedes.
HAMILTON'S LAST YEAR WITH MCLAREN
Lewis Hamilton had an up and down year in what turned out to be his last one with McLaren. Hamilton began the season with a trio of third-place finishes and then earned his first win of the year in the June 10 Canadian Grand Prix. Then his season turned for the worse, as he failed to finish in Valencia, Germany, Belgium and Singapore.
Two months ago, Mercedes announced that Hamilton signed a three-year contract with the team, starting next season. The signing of Hamilton ended months of speculation that he would depart McLaren and join Mercedes after this season concluded.
Despite four wins, Hamilton ended his season 91 points behind Vettel. He also won seven poles, which was the most in F1 this year.
"I feel comfortable going into this winter, because I feel I did a good job this year," Hamilton said. "I gave 2012 everything I had. I couldn't have done anything more."
Hamilton had a remarkable six-year tenure with McLaren, scoring 21 victories and capturing the 2008 championship.
Sergio Perez will take over Hamilton's place and pair with Jenson Button at McLaren next year. Perez spent his first two F1 seasons with Sauber. The 22- year-old Mexican finished a career-best second in this year's races in Malaysia and Italy.
SCHUMACHER'S LAST SEASON IN F1
With Hamilton moving over to Mercedes next year, Schumacher decided to retire for good this time. Schumacher, the record seven-time F1 titleholder, had been with Mercedes since he came out of his first retirement in 2010. The 43-year- old German struggled in his three years with the team, recording only one podium finish -- a third-place run in this year's European GP.
Schumacher, who drove the No. 7 car this season, concluded his illustrious 19- year career in F1 with a seventh-place finish in Brazil.
"It's a strange sort of coincidence that I've ended my Formula One career now in P7, which was my first ever qualifying result at Spa-Francorchamps 308 races ago," Schumacher said. "It also occurs to me that I was driving with the number seven on my car, and that I have seven world championship trophies in my cabinet."
Schumacher accumulated just 49 points for the season to finish 13th in the rankings.
After spending the past two seasons in the World Rally Championship, Raikkonen had a great comeback in F1 this year. Raikkonen finished the season third in points (-74). Earlier this month, the Finn won the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after holding off Alonso at the finish by less than one second. It was his first win since the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix, when he drove for Ferrari, and the first victory for Lotus since the 1987 United States Grand Prix in Detroit.
Raikkonen became the eighth different winner of the year, which was the most in an F1 season since 2003.