Brazil GP: Burning questions
Can the genius overcome the jester? Will the Interlagos weather gods have the last laugh? Can Schumacher go out on a high?
By Pete Gill, William Esler, Mike Wise and James Galloway
Last Updated: 23/11/12 10:50am
Will it be the genius or the jester who is crowned champion?
So after eight months of racing, 1124 laps and 3500 miles of track action, the 2012 season has boiled down to this: a last-race showdown between, in the red corner, the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso and, in the mostly blue, Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull. At Interlagos on the final weekend of the season, it's winner takes all.
Yet it doesn't quite feel as dramatically climatic as that, does it? The stage might be set for the finale that the sport wanted and the season deserves, but more pronounced are the fears that the shoot-out will prove to be a damp squib. The rational money is on Vettel, already possessing a handy thirteen-point lead and vastly superior machinery, disappearing into the distance while Alonso grapples with a sluggish car that was 1.6 seconds off the pace last Saturday. On Sunday, he lost another forty seconds to Vettel and Lewis Hamilton over the course of 56 laps. If Brazil delivers normality, Vettel's coronation as Sebastian the Third is almost a certainty.
Yet while the odds are stacked in the German's favour, there is hope for the Spaniard. The most reliable leveller in F1 - rain - is currently forecast (see below). And while Webber has disproportionality suffered the consequences, Red Bull have regularly lacked reliability of late (also below). If Vettel is unable to finish in the points, any place on the podium would be sufficient for Alonso. And last but by no means least, as we saw on Sunday morning at Austin, Ferrari are willing to do anything to win their first Drivers' title since 2007.
Yet the fact remains Ferrari haven't found a way to beat the Red Bulls in a straight fight since July. Alonso tends to be mighty in race spec, but unless some competitive single-lap pace can be extracted from his F2012 then Sunday will surely prove an insurmountable task - and particularly dangerous from the onset.
Be careful what you wish for? Especially if the track has been sprinkled with rain, the one place not to be when the track plunges down into the notoriously-tight Turn One is Alonso's average starting position this season of sixth. Just look at what happened to Fernando, through no obvious fault of his own, at Spa and Suzuka when he started from fifth and sixth respectively. In sum, the damp and cold environment Ferrari are pinning their hopes on may actually be more dangerous to their own man than his title rival.
Yet beggars cannot be choosers and a lottery still represents Alonso's best hope of wrestling the title from Vettel's grasp to become, lest we forget that both drivers are striving for the same goal, the youngest three-time champion in F1's history. Don't miss it. PG
The most unwelcome hat-trick
After Red Bull wrapped up their third straight constructors' title in Austin, Adrian Newey was quick to acknowledge that the season has been far from plain sailing. It never was going to be compared with 2011's romp, the designer admitting once again that this year's restrictions on exhaust blowing had cost them. After more than one false start, Red Bull found a solution that worked mid-season; in the hands of Sebastian Vettel, the package started delivering with devastating effect from Singapore onwards.
A hat-trick is now within touching distance for Vettel; he needs 'only' to finish fourth this weekend and must be seen as the overwhelming favourite. Finish fourth in a Red Bull? The way things have been going for Vettel lately, one suspects that might actually prove a more difficult feat than finishing on the podium.
The path might seem gilded, yet life also has an uncanny, unerring habit of placing obstacles in the way. Hence Christian Horner's admission that the team are worried by the recurrence of alternator-itis that struck last weekend. It was an older specification alternator that was fitted to Mark Webber's car, Red Bull having opted to play it safe even though Renault, in conjunction with supplier Magneti Marelli, has beefed up the newer spec. that let them down in Valencia and Italy.
The older spec. had never let them down before last weekend. With Red Bull now electing to use the Mark 2 newer version in Brazil, they will be hoping that it will succeed where the other two have failed. It's precisely the hat-trick they don't want; sat up on the pitwall on Sunday, Horner's foot could be twitching more than ever. MW
Will it rain?
Despite a reputation for unsettled weather, only three of the last ten races at Interlagos have been affected by rain. However, the good news for Ferrari is that the wet stuff is forecast for this weekend. The question, though, is when.
One thing we do know is that when it rains at Interlagos it rains hard - just ask Fernando Alonso or Jenson Button about what happened in 2003. Usually, you can watch the clouds roll in over the city, giving the teams a visual reference in addition to their existing radars.
With the forecast for Sunday predicting temperatures of 31 degrees and humidity of 92%, the expectation is that we are likely to see rain at some point during race day. Even if the rain falls before the start of the grand prix, it is likely to wash away any rubber on the track and a damp, greasy, green track could be just what Alonso needs to pull off a shock. We'll see. WE
Will McLaren and Hamilton be promoted in the standings?
And will it matter if they are? Well, for McLaren and Ferrari, the team which could be usurped at Interlagos as runners-up in the Constructors' Championship, it matters a great deal. The difference in prize money between second and third place in the finals standings is thought to be as much as £10m; a sizeable amount in anyone's budget. Push a little further and you could argue that a promotion for McLaren would also amount to vindication of their two-driver policy against Ferrari's de facto one-man-team outlook. Perhaps.
As for Hamilton, it's doubtful he's particularly fussed about whether he finishes third or fourth in the Drivers' Championship. And we can be sure Kimi Raikkonen, the current fourth-placed driver with a lead of sixteen points over Hamilton, really doesn't give a hoot. But Hamilton will be aware that the 2012 Brazil GP might be the last race he has a realistic chance of winning for a long while, so he'll want to leave McLaren on a high, and if that results in third rather than fourth, all the better. PG
Can Sauber catch Mercedes?
Just twelve points separate the two teams heading to Brazil, with Mercedes enduring the worst season in their F1 history, having never finished lower than fourth in the Constructors' Championship.
Losing fifth to Sauber would be a major blow to the Brackley-based outfit, with the Swiss team seen as relative minnows compared to the might of Stuttgart.
Mercedes seem to have given up on 2012 since F1 left Europe, with Nico Rosberg's fifth in Singapore their only score in the last six races, and points around the twists of the Interlagos circuit are unlikely.
Sauber have also struggled in the fly-away races, failing to score in three of the last four, and it is that form that could ultimately cost them fifth - and with it much-needed revenue. But, with his future still in doubt, Kamui Kobayashi has a point to prove, as does Sergio Perez after failing to score even one since being announced at McLaren in 2013. But what a neat twist it would be if Perez rediscovered his summer form to deliver additional and costly humiliation against the beleaguered Mercedes team Hamilton is joining for 2013 before taking his place at McLaren. WE
How will Schumi sign off?
It's a sad reflection on the way his 'second' F1 coming has petered out that unless Michael Schumacher does something completely extraordinary in Brazil - like win the race or inadvertently run into one of the title contenders - the end of the most successful career in the sport's history is likely to prove a mere footnote in the wider context of the race weekend.
As a man who became so accustomed to playing a central role in such last-day title showdowns (he won two and lost three in his glittering 'first' career) the wily old German will know full well that he, and a host of other drivers, will be even further down the bill than normal at Interlagos with Vettel and Alonso taking the two starring roles. In truth, that's a position he's had to live with more than ever over the last couple of months given Mercedes' year has gone into free-fall since the end of the European season.
Furthermore, if his and the Brackley team's fortunes from Austin are an accurate guide, Interlagos could prove another completely forgettable weekend given from what a now appears to have been a frankly heroic fifth on the grid, Schumacher inexplicably dropped to 16th at the flag, the second worst finish of his entire career. Whatever you think of the ever-controversial German, a similarly anonymous result on his definitive F1 swansong would be rather cruel. But, facing facts, unless this weekend proves wet throughout - which, of course, it could - the best Schumacher can realistically hope for is scraping a few points in the race before definitively beginning the next chapter in his life. F1 rarely does fairytales. JG