With three races to go and only 13 points separating the top two drivers in the Formula One standings, the world championship is literally up for grabs.
Although qualifying speed and race pace seem to be in Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel’s favour, reliability and consistency lie squarely with Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. And which will be the deciding factor in the 2012 world championship is anybody’s guess.
The only certainty is that the sport will crown the ninth three-time world champion in F1 history at the end of the season.
Momentum is definitely on reigning double-world champion Vettel’s side after he took his fourth-straight victory in Sunday’s Indian Grand Prix to stretch his lead by seven more points.
“I think the secret – if there is any – is that we didn’t approach the first of those four races thinking we can win four,” said Vettel, who repeated his performance of a year ago after starting from the pole and taking a dominant win on the Buddh International Circuit just outside New Delhi.
“We focused on the first one, then on the second one, then on the third one, then on the fourth one. It takes a lot of discipline, focus in the right moment, to be there, to be sharp and I think we were in the moment.”
Before Vettel went on his winning streak, Alonso had a comfortable 39-point championship lead.
No matter how you slice it, only Alonso’s exceptional skill, relentless drive and good fortune here and there allowed the two-time world champion to stay in the title hunt. His three wins are easily more than anyone thought Ferrari would attain this year and few in the paddock – except perhaps for BBC’s F1 technical analyst Gary Anderson – thought that Alonso had any chance at a third title after his car proved to be a handful in winter testing.
In India, the Ferrari driver was at it again, starting the race fifth, but managing to minimize the damage by finishing second ahead of Red Bull’s Mark Webber.
“I think [second place] is good news for us, seeing that we could fight Red Bull in the race,” Alonso said.
“In qualifying, we are not close enough to fight for pole position but in the race normally things improve for us. Everything set up for the race, everything was fine and I pushed 120 per cent every lap, so the combination was this second place.”
While Vettel needs more of the same, Ferrari’s ability to bring upgrades to its car to catch Red Bull will likely be the deciding factor in the final trio of races.
If the Scuderia can solve the technical problems that have plagued its development in 2012, Alonso may have a shot at his third championship. If the team can’t, the Spaniard will have to hope that the Red Bull car lets Vettel down because his Ferrari simply can’t keep up otherwise.
The Scuderia started on its back foot this year, putting a car in track that ended up being about one second per lap slower than its top rivals at the season opener in Australia. Alonso’s strong suit this season has been the steady points haul he’s been able to deliver in the slower but reliable scarlet car.
Until he was taken out by another driver in a wreck at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix five starts ago, Alonso had scored points in all 11 previous races. His other retirement was due to contact by another driver at the start of the Japanese Grand Prix.
In Alonso’s favour is the fact that Vettel’s car hasn’t been as bulletproof, with an alternator issue causing two non-points scoring finishes this year, including an agonizing failure while leading the European Grand Prix in Valencia. Alonso went on to win that day after Vettel stopped.
But when the Red Bull car works as planned, it has the outright speed to beat all challengers.
The late surge by Vettel has also been helped by the fact that Ferrari’s development efforts have been foiled by some screwy results from its wind tunnel, which did not match the data that the team got during real aerodynamic tests with the car on an actual track. The difference has stymied the evolution of the car and taken Ferrari in the wrong direction in some cases.
The issue was so critical that prior to heading to India, the team rented the wind tunnel at Toyota’s former F1 factory in Germany to test out some new parts coming for the car before the end of the year.
“I think we need to bring some new parts to [the next stop in] Abu Dhabi, hopefully improve a little bit more then competitiveness of the car, try to be a little bit closer to Red Bull's on Saturday and hopefully on Sunday as well,” Alonso said.
“Obviously three races remaining; championship is the main target, so we need to recover some points and will be nice to finish in front of Sebastian in Abu Dhabi, whatever the position it is. And if we can win the race it will be even better, but for that we need to make a step forward – at the moment we are not able to win.”
Ferrari also needs to step it up to make sure it wins the fight with McLaren for second overall in the constructor’s table, which brings some serious prize money. Ferrari leads McLaren by only 10 points. Vettel’s win and teammate Mark Webber’s third place helped Red Bull virtually clinch the constructor’s title on Sunday. It is 91 points ahead of Ferrari with only a maximum of 129 points available in the final three races.
Making up any ground on Red Bull is no easy task under the best of circumstances since its design whiz Adrian Newey always seems to have something up his sleeve to stretch an advantage.
That fact is nothing new. In the past two decades, drivers have won eight world championships behind the wheel of a Newey car, while teams have taken another eight constructors’ crowns using his designs. Newey is the only car designer to have won three constructor’s championships with three different F1 teams: Red Bull, McLaren and Williams.
But, Vettel insisted there’s more to his success than just a talented driver in an excellent F1 car.
“I think the result today or the result last week or whenever, the results in the last two years are not just thanks to me or thanks to Adrian [Newey], or thanks to any particular person in the team, I think it’s thanks to all of us,” he said.
“Everyone is pushing hard – there are lots of bright guys with good ideas. Obviously some guys are really important but all in all, that’s the spirit we share and it’s just nice to be a big part of it.”
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Correction: There are a maximum 129 points available in the final three races of the Formula One season. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.