Fernando Alonso’s win in Sunday’s Korean Grand Prix meant the 8th change of championship leader this season.
Alonso has been on a run of 133 points from seven races and returns to the summit for the first time since the Australian Grand Prix and he does so at a crucial time, with just two races to go. His lead over Mark Webber is 11 points, while Lewis Hamilton is 21 points behind and Sebastian Vettel 25 adrift.
It means he can clinch the title in Brazil if he wins the race and Webber finishes fifth or lower.
Basically it’s about booking your place in the final at Abu Dhabi. Alonso has already booked his place and is the only one who has; Webber, Hamilton, Button and Vettel have one last chace in Brazil to book their place.
Reliability is one key area and it is well known that Ferrari are cutting it fine on engines. Failures earlier in the season mean that he has one engine for Brazil and Abu Dhabi, which has already completed the race in Monza, which he won.
“We cannot really have any problems, otherwise it is finished,” said team boss Stefano Domenicali on Sunday night.
Brazil is quite tough on engines, being at altitude and also featuring the long uphill straight to the finish line. To be competitive in Brazil the drag reducing F Duct rear wing is going to be vital and the more efficient systems will have an advantage.
Ferrari will also be hoping that Interlagos specialist Felipe Massa takes points off Alonso’s rivals. His podium in Korea will boost his confidence and in front of a now sceptical home crowd, he will want to avenge his hurt pride from the shame of letting Alonso through in Germany. Psychologically he will be a very interesting case study in Brazil.
It was their first double retirement since the 2008 Australian GP, and their first failure to score a point in 22 races, showing what a consistent force they have become.
With two races to go, and one driver 11 points off the lead with the other 25 adrift, logic would suggest that the emphasis would go behind the leading driver, but Red Bull has made it clear that this will not happen.
Furthermore team boss Christian Horner expanded on his comments from last week on team priorities, when he said that the team would be built around Vettel for the future. Psychologically that is a tough thing for Webber to hear at this stage of the season.
Alonso will seek to exploit this uncertainty in the team, although if Vettel is still a similar margin behind after Brazil the situation may change a little in Abu Dhabi.
Red Bull should have an advantage in Brazil so a win there is vital for both drivers. Webber needs to finish ahead of Alonso in both the remaining races with a win in one of them. Vettel could do with winning both races to be sure, but even then he’ll need another car between him and Alonso.
Lewis Hamilton’s second place was surprisingly only his 2nd podium finish in the last 7 races, but it got him back into the fight, albeit needing Alonso to have a problem to get properly back on terms. He seemed very down after the race, disappointed that he let Alonso pass him after he’d nicked second place in the pit stops.
They’ve been bringing developments to the cars, but these haven’t been making the impact they might have hoped, certainly they haven’t been as effective as the ones they brought to the car this time last year.
Final point is that although Ferrari and McLaren have been here many times before, while Red Bull are in the championship fight properly for the first time, the two grandee teams are both under new management. For both Domenicali and Martin Whitmarsh, the honour of being put in charge of these great institutions comes with a pressure to deliver titles. Neither man will feel complete until he has won titles as team principal and justified his selection.
On that level, those two and Horner are all in the same boat.
“We will fight to the last corner of the last lap,” said a fired up Domenicali on Sunday night.
It truly is a wonderful championship battle this year.