Last year, Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel had wrapped up the driver’s title long before the penultimate race at Abu Dhabi, setting a slew of records in the process, including the youngest driver in Formula One (F1) to win two consecutive championships.
This year, even as the defending champion continues to blaze away, winning his fourth race on the trot at the 2012 Formula 1 Airtel Indian Grand Prix last weekend, the story is not so simple.
Enter Fernando Alonso, who held the record for being the youngest F1 champion and youngest F1 double champion before Vettel broke both records. Now the 31-year-old Ferrari driver wants to steal back the limelight from the young pretender. Trailing Vettel by 13 points in the championship after the Indian Grand Prix, and with three races remaining in the season, Alonso knows that the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this weekend can be make or break for him.
The winner in a race gets 25 points, with the runner-up getting 18, and a third place finish, 15. This means that a maximum of 75 points are up for grabs and the race between Vettel and Alonso is wide open. With Lotus F1 team’s Kimi Räikkönen 67 points adrift of Vettel, this is now a two-horse race.
Alonso will look back at last year’s Abu Dhabi race with some satisfaction: Vettel had qualified there at pole position, equalling the record of most poles in a season set by Nigel Mansell in 1992, but an early tyre puncture saw his race end prematurely. Alonso took advantage of that to finish runner-up. This time, the Spaniard does not want to settle for second best, and his statement at the Indian Grand Prix had the bluster usually seen in boxing.
“I am 100% convinced that I will win the driver’s championship,” Alonso said.
It was met with an equally bullish retort from Red Bull Racing’s team principal Christian Horner.
“Talk is cheap at the end of the day,” Horner said. “We can all prophesy but it is a question of our focus now being on Abu Dhabi to extract the most out of the car, the drivers, the strategy, and the reliability that we can. It is going to be a question of having three perfect weekends.”
Vettel will have to contend with the desperation that Alonso must be feeling—he has never been closer to the driver’s title since his twin championship wins in 2005 and 2006, and it shows in his performance. The Spaniard has been driving out of his skin all of this season. At the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, Alonso started 12th on the grid after losing a tyre in qualifying, but clawed his way up to finish fifth in a collision-riddled race. At the next race in Malaysia, Alonso started ninth, but displayed his driving skills to the full in wet conditions to take his first win. At the European Grand Prix in Valencia, he pulled off some manic overtaking moves to climb from his starting position of 11 to race leader by the 34th lap, eventually winning the race. The Indian Grand Prix, where Alonso again showed some fine overtaking manoeuvres to finish second behind Vettel, was proof that he has not taken his foot off the pedal.
Yet one thing is certain—Alonso’s wins all needed a slice of luck. At the European Grand Prix, he took advantage of a crash which brought out the safety car and bunched up the field, cutting down Vettel’s original lead. Vettel retired from the race soon after with an engine problem.
“As we saw with Mark (Webber) with the KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems) problem, it can happen to Seb or it can happen to us, so I am optimistic,” Alonso said, referring to the KERS failure suffered by Vettel’s teammate Webber at the Indian Grand Prix, which allowed Alonso to overtake him towards the end of the race. “Anything can happen.”
India’s lone F1 driver Narain Karthikeyan, who competes for the HRT F1 Team (the Hispania Racing team), says the momentum is clearly with Red Bull Racing.
“Alonso is a bit of a lone horse at the moment,” Karthikeyan said. “I don’t think anything can stop Vettel from winning, but having said that, I agree that anything can happen. Also, the Abu Dhabi circuit does not allow much overtaking, so whoever takes the poll will be hard to stop.”
What makes Alonso’s performance truly special is the fact that the Ferrari car is generally regarded as inferior to Red Bull’s. Ferrari’s team principal Stefano Domenicali admitted as much after the Indian Grand Prix. “It is clear at the moment that Red Bull has a better car,” he said. “But what can we say? We cannot cry. I have said to my team, ‘listen, in 1982 at the World Cup of football, our team (Italy) was not the strongest, but we won the title.’ We have the luxury of having Fernando with us, who is the No. 1 driver, so it is something we will do and fight up until the end.”
Ferrari, the most successful team in F1 history, have been struggling to keep pace with Red Bull, and have not won a title since 2007.
Alonso has been open about his frustration.
“I think we need to bring some new parts to Abu Dhabi and hopefully improve a little bit the competitiveness of the car and get closer to the Red Bulls,” he said. “It would be nice to finish in front of Seb there and if we win, even better. For that, we need to make a step forward as at the moment we are not able to win.”
At the Indian Grand Prix though, Alonso did beat Vettel in terms of the fastest lap, with the Spaniard just ahead of the German in the list. The Red Bull cars were also slow on the long straight, with Vettel recording one of the slowest top speeds among all the competing cars. But these statistics have to be put in context.
“The Red Bulls have a lot of downforce,” Karthikeyan said, “which means that they are a lot faster around the corners. What’s the difference between the top guy on the list and the bottom guy in terms of top speed? Three-four kilometres per hour? At the corners Vettel is probably faster by 10-12 kmph. So if you look at the overall race, the Red Bulls are flying away.”
As for his own performance, Karthikeyan says hard times are ahead. He was advised to slow down as early as the seventh lap during the Indian Grand Prix because his brakes were overheating, and from then on Karthikeyan’s only concern was to coax the car to the finish. His teammate Pedro de la Rosa crashed out with a brake failure.
“Brakes matter much more in Abu Dhabi,” Karthikeyan said. “There are many more hard braking zones than in India. It is not a comfortable time for me, in India I was braking 30m before the point I should have been ideally braking. It’s quite scary, having to nurse the car around in a race.”