Brazil set for thriller as F1 season reaches climax
In Sao Paulo
The 2010 world champion will be crowned either in Brazil on Sunday or in Abu Dhabi seven days later as one of the most thrilling Formula 1 seasons in history reaches an intense climax.
The F1 teams gather in Sao Paulo this weekend with five drivers still in with a chance of clinching the title at the end of a contest that, before it began in Bahrain in March, was billed as potentially one of the greatest there had ever been. It has fully lived up to those expectations.
The battles between Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button have made this an all-time classic season, arguably the closest between the highest number of world-class drivers in the history of the sport.
It is astonishing in many ways that so many drivers have remained in contention until now. But, inevitably, with only two races left, it is increasingly unlikely that this will remain the case by Sunday evening.
There have been so many twists and turns this season that it would be very unwise to rule anyone out, but Button, particularly, is entering the last chance saloon at Interlagos.
The reigning champion is returning to the track where he clinched the title for the Brawn team last year. But at 42 points adrift of Ferrari's Alonso with only 50 remaining, his chances are already effectively over - as he admitted himself after a disastrous race last time out in South Korea.
Five men are still in with a chance of winning the F1 drivers' title - but for how much longer? Photo: Getty
Realistically, though, he has no chance.
It has become something of a mantra for drivers who are struggling in the points table this season to hark back to 2007, when Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen made up 17 points (almost two wins in that year's scoring system) on Hamilton in the last two races to steal the title at the last race.
That was remarkable in itself. But for something similar to happen to Button this year it would require all four drivers in front of him to hit major trouble - the 30-year-old is 17 points behind even the fourth-placed driver, Red Bull's Vettel.
On top of that, Button has not won a race since the Chinese Grand Prix back in April, and has struggled for pace as the season has gone on. The Italian race in September, where he was a close second to Alonso, was a rare exception.
The mathematics of the situation are complex. But for Button it is more straightforward than for the others.
To have any chance of staying in the championship, he must finish in the top two in Brazil - and even then he is out of it if Alonso or Webber win. And if Alonso finishes anywhere in the top six, Button is out of it regardless of where he finishes.
In these circumstances, the most likely scenario is that Button will drop out of contention this weekend and either in Brazil or at the final race in Abu Dhabi seven days later be asked to support team-mate Hamilton's bid, assuming the 2008 champion's chances are still alive.
In third place, 21 points behind double world champion Alonso, Hamilton is also facing an uphill struggle trying to close the gap on a man who has won three of the last four races and four of the last seven.
The biggest problem for both Hamilton and Button is that the McLaren has generally not been quick enough in the second half of the season to challenge Red Bull, still easily the fastest car in the field, and Ferrari.
This weekend, the team are again promising to bring updates to improve the car, but so they have at most races, and the pattern for the second half of the season has been that McLaren have struggled to make them work effectively straight away.
Their main hope could be that Sao Paulo's Interlagos circuit is one of those tracks where it's difficult to predict the relative competitiveness of the top three teams.
Red Bull have started virtually every race weekend as favourites for pole position and victory, such has been their pace advantage at most tracks - either Webber or Vettel has been on pole at 14 of the 17 races so far.
But Interlagos has a long pit straight, which will favour the McLarens and penalise the Red Bulls. On the other hand, the track is also pretty bumpy, which might make things a bit tricky for Hamilton and Button's cars, which tend to be more stiffly sprung than their rivals'.
The Red Bulls will be easily the strongest cars through Interlagos's twisty infield section, which swoops up and down the gradients of the natural amphitheatre in which the track sits.
The Ferrari sits somewhere between the Red Bulls and McLarens in both areas - but is particularly strong in braking and traction, two characteristics that are important in Brazil.
Given Red Bull's qualifying record, though, it would be a surprise if either Vettel or Webber was not on pole - and it must also be expected that Alonso will be their closest challenger.
On balance, you would expect Vettel to be the strongest driver over the final two races, at least in terms of outright pace. But making up a 25-point deficit on Alonso may well be too big a task, given the Spaniard's consistency and the German's lack of it.
Incredibly, Vettel has converted only two of his nine pole positions into victory in 2010 and has lost significant points no less than eight times, with the causes split more or less half and half between driver errors and reliability problems.
Even if Vettel wins in Brazil and Abu Dhabi, the Ferrari driver still only needs a third and a fourth to be champion. Both eventualities must be considered unlikely on the evidence of the season so far.
Webber, in the second Red Bull, has a much better mathematical chance of becoming champion, but although the Australian is only 11 points (slightly less than a fourth place finish) adrift of Alonso, his problem is a worrying lack of momentum.
The 34-year-old's last win was in Hungary at the beginning of August, he has finished on the podium only twice in the last four races, when he was second to Vettel in Japan, and he crashed out of the last race in Korea two weeks ago.
It is little wonder, then, that BBC F1 pundit Eddie Jordan thinks Alonso is in a "very, very strong position".
Alonso is the only driver who can tie up the championship this weekend. This is how:
- If he wins in Brazil, Webber must finish fourth or higher to keep the championship alive. Everyone else would be out of contention, regardless of where they finish.
- If Alonso is second, Webber must be higher than eighth to stay in it, Hamilton higher than fourth and Vettel must win.
- If Alonso is third, Webber must score points, Hamilton must be in the top four and Vettel in the top three.
- If Alonso finishes lower than third, the championship will stay open to the last race because Webber, at least, will still be able to win regardless of where he finishes.
With so much at stake, the pressure on all five men will be intense. Almost every race this
season has been brilliant. But Brazil, where the track nearly always produces high-action races, promises to raise the bar yet again.