A German, A Spaniard and a Finn, who could still fly

Red Bull driver Mark Webber of Australia and his teammate Sebastian Vettel (right) of Germany perform "Gangnam Style" dance with South Korean rapper PSY, before the Korean Grand Prix. The rest of the season could well turn out to be a waltz for Vettel.-AP Red Bull driver Mark Webber of Australia and his teammate Sebastian Vettel (right) of Germany perform "Gangnam Style" dance with South Korean rapper PSY, before the Korean Grand Prix. The rest of the season could well turn out to be a waltz for Vettel.

It now looks like a straight fight between Sebastian Vettel (215 points) and Fernando Alonso (209 points), who both are gunning for their third world title. The next race, the Grand Prix of India, could mark the beginning of an interesting duel between the two. By G. Raghunath.

When the Formula One convoy arrived at Spa Francorchamps, Fernando Alonso, with a lead of 32 points over Lewis Hamilton (second on the leader board), was a cinch to win the 2012 World Championship. But his first shunt of the season in the Belgian Grand Prix proved a wee bit costly for the Ferrari driver. It not only whittled down his lead in the championship race, but took the momentum away from the Spaniard.

Alonso, no doubt, finished on the podium in three of the four races that followed, but it was Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel who seized the advantage, riding as it were in the slipstream of the former two-time world champion. A second place followed by three successive victories (Singapore, Japan and Korea) in five races, it couldn’t have been any better for the defending world champion trying to make a strong comeback in the championship after the summer break.

Red Bull, without doubt, has the two best cars in the field in terms of speed and set-up. “With 225 points still available and nine races to go, it’s going to be full on,” warned the team’s racing head Christian Horner at the end of the Hungarian Grand Prix. And true to his words, the team emerged from the summer break with the kind of upgrades to their machines that have been the envy of the other teams.

For instance, the refurbished set-up of the RB8’s rear suspension has helped both Vettel and Mark Webber manage their tyres better. And then the ‘Double DRS’ concept that the team borrowed from Mercedes and Lotus and perfected to impart exceptional straight-line speed to its cars. For sure, Red Bull has no peers when it comes to making upgrades to overtaking aids and systems.

The only driver to post back-to-back victories so far this season, Vettel’s dominant run in the last two races (the Japanese and the Korean Grands Prix) was quite reminiscent of his searing performances in 2010 and 2011. A vibrant Vettel behind the wheel of a vastly improved and fast RB8 — well, he must have already sighted his third World Championship.

The championship leader, though, prefers to hedge his bets. And he has demanded some more upgrades for the remaining four races of the season. “What I think is important is that we have to keep things simple. That means we have to concentrate on ourselves, because we cannot influence what others are doing and starting mind games now about what others will do in the next races is a waste of energy,” the official Formula 1 website quoted Vettel as saying.

Meanwhile, Alonso is in no mood to reflect on what has happened and wants to go in pursuit of his third world title, which, he truly believes, is within his grasp. The Ferrari head, Stefano Domenicali, echoed the Spaniard’s sentiment, saying, “Anybody who thinks that losing the lead in the Drivers’ Championship might leave us discouraged is making a big mistake.”

Despite being one of the most unpredictable seasons, not many would have foreseen Alonso’s sizeable lead (until the end of the Hungarian Grand Prix) in the championship race erode in such a manner as to leave him six points adrift of Vettel at the top of the standings. For a driver who so painstakingly worked his way up in a car that has been far from competitive, this reversal of fortune must have come as a cruel blow. And add to it, the two DNFs he had in Belgium and Japan — if Alonso can’t complain about rotten luck, who else can?

In Belgium, Alonso was caught in a first corner pile-up triggered by Lotus’s Romain Grosjean who was airborne for a moment before crashing into the Spaniard. In Japan, Alonso’s race ended in the first lap after Kimi Raikkonen collided with him on the second turn. Had it not been for these mishaps, it would have been a different story.

It now looks like a straight fight between Vettel (215 points) and Alonso (209 points), who both are gunning for their third world crown. The Grand Prix of India on October 28 could mark the beginning of an interesting duel between the two.

However, given the way the championship race has progressed this season, even the shrewdest of punters may find picking the winner very tricky. With 100 points still to race for in the championship, even Lewis Hamilton (153 points), Mark Webber (152 points) and Jenson Button (131 points) — placed fourth, fifth and sixth — have a theoretical chance of winning the title. But most importantly, one can’t discount Raikkonen, who is in third place with 167 points. Though he is yet to win a race this season, being amongst the points in all the races besides finishing on the podium in six is a remarkable achievement for a driver making a comeback to the sport after a three-year hiatus. Going by his consistency and past record (remember 2007?) some might be tempted to put their money on the Flying Finn.

Raikkonen himself believes he can pull off a miracle. “In 2007 the championship wasn’t decided until the last race, so anything is possible,” he said.

Two drivers in the history of Formula One, Mike Hawthorn (Ferrari, 1958) and Keke Rosberg (Williams, 1982), father of Nico Rosberg, have won the world title with just one victory in the season. So, you know from where Raikkonen could draw inspiration.

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2010: The year Sebastian Vettel became the youngest F1 champion. With a victory in the penultimate race of the season in Brazil, the Red Bull driver got his foot in the door, as he went into the final race at the Yas Marina circuit with 231 points, 15 behind championship leader Fernando Alonso and seven behind team-mate Mark Webber, who was second. While Alonso needed to finish not lower than fifth to win his third world title, Webber had to finish second to take the championship. As for Vettel, nothing short of a victory was necessary to make history.

Vettel showed his precocity by reeling out impressive timings despite running on heavily worn out tyres. The German never relinquished the lead he took midway through the race and went on to post his fifth victory of the season to win the world title.

Final points: Vettel 256; Alonso 252; Webber 242.

2008: The championship was decided in the final lap of the final race (Brazilian Grand Prix). Massa, seven points behind Hamilton, dominated the race from the start to win, but it wasn’t enough for the Brazilian as he was soon to find out, much to his chagrin. Hamilton, who had to finish not lower than fifth to win the title, dropped to sixth after getting into the pits for a tyre change. Nearing homestretch, Timo Glock, in fifth position, suddenly slowed down to a crawl and Hamilton sensed his chance and quickly overtook him to finish fifth (four points) and capture the world title.

Final points: Hamilton 98; Massa 97.

2007: A season when the feuding team-mates, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso, ripped McLaren apart. Still, going into the final race of the season at Interlagos, McLaren appeared to be in a commanding position with both Hamilton (107 points) and Alonso (103 points) in a position to win the world title. However, the team didn’t expect Kimi Raikkonen (100 points) to knock away the title from underneath its nose. The Finn drove brilliantly to win the race and with it the world title.

Final points: Raikkonen 110; Hamilton & Alonso 109 points each.

1994: It was a shoot-out between Michael Schumacher (Benetton, 92 points) and Damon Hill (Williams, 91 points) in the final race, the Australian Grand Prix. It was spectacular racing until the 36 {+t} {+h} lap as Hill went in hot pursuit of Schumacher. Into the sixth corner, Hill attempted to pass the German that led to a big collision. Both drivers had to retire while Hill’s team-mate Nigel Mansell went on to take the chequered flag. Schumacher, thus, won his first world title, albeit narrowly.

Final points: Schumacher 92; Hill 91.

1984: In one of the closest ever finishes to a season, Alain Prost and Niki Lauda (both of McLaren) were involved in a remarkable tussle for supremacy in the final race, the Portuguese Grand Prix. Prost had to win the last race, while Lauda had to finish third or higher. Starting in the second place, Prost went ahead of the field while Lauda steadily made his way through from 12 {+t} {+h} position on the grid. Mansell’s spin-off in the 52 {+n} {+d} lap was a godsend for Lauda who worked his way up to finish second, behind Prost and claim the world title.

Interestingly, only a half point separated the winner from the runner-up in the championship. In the end analysis, the Monaco Grand Prix that year proved to be Prost’s weak link. The race had to be called off because of inclement weather and Prost, who was leading the race, won only 4.5 points instead of the full nine.

Final scores: Lauda 72; Prost 71.5.

1981: A straight fight between Nelson Piquet of Brabham and Carlos Reutemann of Williams, the world title would be decided only in the final race, the Las Vegas Grand Prix. Reutemann had his task cut out as he had to finish in the top four to win the championship. Alan Jones went on to win the race, while team-mate Reutemann struggled with his car right through to finish eighth and thereby let slip the title. Piquet finished fifth but it was enough for him to win the first of his three world titles.

Final points: Piquet 50; Reutemann 49. G. Raghunath