It’s been a season long duel – and this weekend it could well reach its breathtaking climax. Eight months ago the Formula One season burst into life on the street of Melbourne, Australia. Since then, the world’s greatest drivers have done battle on five different continents, from desert sands to city streets. Several big names have fallen by the wayside; Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen and Mark Webber can no longer entertain the possibility of adding the 2012 Formula One World Championship to their CV.
Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, double World Champions both, are the only men left standing after what has proved a season for the record books. One of them will be a triple World Champion when the final chequered flag falls.
It’s the American Grand Prix, and not only must the organisers at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas ensure that their maiden event runs smoothly. It’s the first American Grand Prix since Lewis Hamilton triumphed at Indianapolis in 2007, and it could be a real baptism of fire for the American crowd should the championship be decided this weekend.
Mclaren were fast in Abu Dhabi – of that there was no doubt, but their form recently has been highly erratic; Lewis Hamilton said he ‘didn’t know’ why his car was so quick at the Yas Marina circuit after disappointing performances at both the Korean and Japanese Grand Prix. Meanwhile teammate Jenson Button bemoaned a bewildering lack of race pace compared with the speed he had shown during practice sessions. It could go either way for Mclaren in Austin. An unknown track, and a car that appears to have a mind of its own where technical setup is concerned – add to that the team’s appalling reliability record this season and the question of how well they will do becomes even more of a quandary.
Lotus on the other hand have had a consistently reliable and fast car all year, and Kimi Raikkonen made use of the British-designed and built Lotus E20 car to win a fortnight ago in a thrilling Abu Dhabi race. While it will be hard for him to repeat the feat, ‘The Iceman’ will no doubt put on a good show as he bids to cement his 3rd place in the championship table. Mercedes are in no comfortable position to be cementing anything, with no points scored in the last four races and the team now only 12 points ahead of rivals Sauber in the hunt for 5th place in the constructors championship. Michael Schumacher in particular will be eager to enjoy a good weekend as the legendary German, who is statistically the greatest racing driver the world has ever seen, has only two Formula One races remaining since he announced his retirement at the end of the 2012 season.
So what of Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel?
In November 2010 Vettel became the youngest World Champion the sport has ever seen. Only eleven months later he was the youngest back-to-back World Champion having claimed both the 2010 and 2011 championships. The German already has 26 victories to his name, an incredible achievement given he has only started 99 races since his debut in 2007. Quite fittingly, his first ever Grand Prix was the 2007 race at Indianapolis so a circle really would be closed should he seize the 2012 crown this weekend in the United States. The 25 year old has received criticism from some quarters for having achieved all his success while in the dominant Red Bull cars designed by Adrian Newey, many doubting his ability to succeed in a lesser machine in the manner of Ayrton Senna or Michael Schumacher. However, great drivers are those that capitalise on their situation, and contrary to his dominant 2011 campaign no-one could accuse Seb of having had it easy this year. Vettel struggled relatively speaking in the first half of the year, whilst others challenged his supremacy. With Mercedes, Ferrari, Mclaren and Williams all winning races, the reigning World Champion collected a solitary victory at Bahrain before an alternator failure stripped him of an almost signed-and-sealed 1st place in Valencia. While this was going on, he didn’t go to pieces as he did on occasion in 2010, his mature drives to 2nd in Australia and 3rd at Silverstone particularly of note.
2012 has seen a more rounded, more comfortable and if anything deadlier Sebastian Vettel than ever before.
And now to Alonso. What can one say about this maestro that hasn’t already been written? The man who broke Michael Schumacher’s stranglehold on the sport with title wins in both 2005 and 2006, Alonso has come close since on two occasions but not quite made it to the top. Perhaps unlike any other driver on the grid today, the Spaniard is a factor everywhere he races, and his uncanny ability to haul an often underperforming Ferrari on to the podium has made him a thorn in the side of his Red Bull rivals. Let’s face it, the Ferrari F2012 is certainly not the fastest car of this season; nor is it good looking in the way a Ferrari should be, looking more like the result of a child having assembled a Lego playset. The old adage is that ‘a winning car is a beautiful car’, and the F2012 would surely take pride of place in Maranello’s collection should Alonso take it to the title. To do that, the flamboyant and masterful Alonso needs a healthy dose of luck – his skills alone are not enough to topple the combined might of Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull RB8 car. Although Vettel had a slice of misfortune in qualifying for the Abu Dhabi race, it didn’t alter the championship picture significantly as the German finished the race just one place behind Alonso’s Ferrari. A retirement from Vettel would give Alonso the opening he needs to claw back lost ground, at the time of writing a mere ten points.
There is a sense that should Alonso win it will not be his title; it will be Ferrari’s, and more importantly, Italy’s, such is the passion and pride for the Scuderia that runs through the blood in Italian veins.
When all is said and done, the ultimate destiny of the 2012 FIA Formula One World Championship boils down to solid, pure mathematics. Points quite literally mean prizes. Only one of them, Vettel, can wrap it up this weekend, but Alonso will give his all to ensure he takes the fight down to the wire in Brazil.
For Alonso the goal in Austin is simple – finish ahead of Vettel and he will be close enough to get the job done in Sau Paulo. If he fails to beat the Red Bull, he must ensure he is no more than three or four cars behind otherwise he faces another title slipping away.
For Vettel the chances of winning this championship are stronger. Should he win and Alonso be 5th or lower, Sebastian Vettel will have his third world championship. The advantage lies with the German, but he is up against a terrifying adversary.
The stage is set.
Fate will decide the rest.