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Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany sprays champagne as he celebrates his win at the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix at the Suzuka Circuit in Suzuka, Japan, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012. (Itsuo Inouye/AP)
Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany sprays champagne as he celebrates his win at the Japanese Formula One Grand Prix at the Suzuka Circuit in Suzuka, Japan, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012. (Itsuo Inouye/AP)

Motorsports

With five races to go, Vettel gunning for third championship Add to ...

After getting a huge break in his last race, reigning Formula One champion Sebastian Vettel heads into this weekend’s action with a new lease on life.

Always one to smile broadly, Red Bull driver and reigning double world champion Sebastian Vettel likely arrived in South Korea this week with an ear-to-ear grin after a win in last week’s Japanese Grand Prix put him almost on equal terms with points leader Fernando Alonso of Ferrari.

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Going into Sunday’s Korean Grand Prix, Vettel looks to be in the driver’s seat after Alonso retired on the first lap in Japan, allowing the German to close the gap to top spot in the championship from 29 points to four.

With five races to go in the F1 season and what looks like the fastest car in the field beneath him, Vettel must be seen as a clear favourite to capture his third consecutive title when the season comes to a close in Brazil next month.

For his part, Vettel is not taking anything for granted.

“I want to be very careful because it’s still a long way ahead and there are a lot of things that can happen,” he said after winning in Japan.

“I think there’s still a long way to go and as I said, we have to focus on every single race and try to do our best and then we will see whether it’s good enough.”

Japan turned out to be disastrous for Alonso, after his Ferrari was tagged in the right rear tire at the start by Renault’s Kimi Räikkönen and spun out of the race almost before it began. With Alonso in the garage, Vettel’s dominating win sliced 25 points from the Spaniard’s lead.

To make matters worse, Alonso’s teammate Felipe Massa finished second in the Japanese Grand Prix, pointing to the speed that Ferrari had in its car at the Suzuka Circuit. Considering that Alonso has outclassed Massa at almost every turn in 2012, it wouldn’t be farfetched to think that Ferrari’s No. 1 driver would have been nipping at his main rival’s heels had he not retired.

Instead, the double world champion is now behind the eight ball, staring at a determined Red Bull driver whose car looks to be terribly quick. Unfazed, Alonso went on Twitter (‏@alo_oficial) to show his resolve.

“We had bad luck with Kimi, a yellow flag and a puncture today! Now all our efforts for Korea,” he tweeted at the end of the race, adding “Five great races coming!”

Should Vettel take the title, he will join an elite group of grand prix drivers who have won three consecutive championships. It is an exclusive club that boasts only two members: Michael Schumacher, who won five straight championships with Ferrari from 2000 to 2004, and Juan Manuel Fangio, who took four consecutive titles beginning in 1954.

Then again, after Alonso has amazed most with his ability to find ways to win and score the maximum number of points available at almost every race, Vettel shouldn’t be counting on his third title just yet.

The Ferrari also looked quick in Japan after struggling to keep pace with the front-running Red Bulls and McLarens on most weekends this year.

Without the benefit of the fastest car, Alonso’s championship run has instead been fuelled by a combination of consistency in scoring points and seizing opportunities when they arise.

For example, he used his uncanny car control to take an unlikely win in the second race in Malaysia in a downpour and later in the year was Johnny-on-the-spot when the frontrunners ran into mechanical troubles on the streets of Valencia and handed him a victory.

In addition, Massa hinted in the post race press conference in Japan that Ferrari might have something extra in the tank for the next few races. When asked if the Ferrari was a match for the Red Bull in the stretch run, Massa replied coyly: “Well, let’s say not on this track.”

“I think we need to wait and see track to track ... nothing is finished for Fernando.”

NASCAR to say goodbye to dumb rule?

Apparently, NASCAR is considering an elimination of the single most stupid thing in racing: The Top-35 rule.

In place for the past eight years, this rule guarantees a place on the starting grid of NASCAR races to the top-35 cars in owner points, even if they aren’t quick enough to qualify on speed. Yup, you read that right.

The rule penalizes teams not in the top-35 in more ways than one. Yes, there’s the possibility that a car that has the speed to get into a race will be pushed off the grid by an entitled one. Worse yet, the rule is self-perpetuating, since the guys who actually have to qualify on speed must use the first practice session to ensure their cars have enough juice to make the field.

On the other hand, the cars that have a locked-in spot can skip that step and work on race set-up from the first session confident that they’re on the grid no matter what happens in qualifying.

The drivers outside the Top-35 who don’t get into the field also don’t score any points, which means they drop further behind and must take even more risks at the next race.

So, drivers in the top-35 have all the cards in their favour. They don’t have to take any chances in a system gives that them a definite edge and works to keep them in a position of privilege.

While it needs to go because it’s a completely unfair system, the bottom line is simpler: The cars in any racing field should be decided by qualifying times and nothing else.

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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