At the end of this season we know that Formula 1 will have a new three-times world champion; either Sebastian Vettel or Fernando Alonso will win this championship and with it will acquire the mythical status of drivers like Ayrton Senna and Sir Jackie Stewart of being a triple world champion.
Becoming a three-times champion means being considered one of the “greats” of this sport.
Fans at present are debating who is more worthy of winning the title; Alonso has had an extraordinary year dragging results out of a less competitive car, but Vettel kept notching up the points and stayed patient early on when the Red Bull was struggling, then worked with his team to bring the car up to the dominant level it now enjoys. His part in that cannot be underestimated, even if Alonso and many fans dismiss it as all Adrian Newey’s work.
But it’s worth pausing for a second to reflect on the value of three world titles, because it is a very special thing in our sport, a remarkable threshold which few have crossed and as a result there is far more at stake for both drivers in the next few weeks than simply winning the 2012 World Championship.
In Singapore I spoke to Alonso about this subject and he confirmed that the main goal of his career is to become a three times champion, like Senna. Lewis Hamilton has said the same thing in the past and he is now trying something different to try to make that happen, although it looks like he may have to bide his time. I think the fact that it matches Senna’s achievement makes it so attractive for the current generation.
There is therefore a huge value for both contenders riding on the outcome of this season. For Alonso it feels slightly more desperate than for Vettel; the chance was there but it’s slipping away now. Red Bull has had a significant performance advantage since Singapore and the 100 points scored by Vettel in Asia these last four rounds has knocked Alonso down onto the canvas, changed the face of the championship.
Although Alonso talks about being 100% certain he will win and the margin of 13 points with 75 to play for suggests that it is still all to play for, Vettel’s task is easier; he has 13 points lead over Alonso, so he just needs to increase that by another 12 or 13 over the next two races and he will be champion in Austin. Alonso’s best chance will come at Interlagos, but it may be too late by then. The Ferrari driver needs a win either in Abu Dhabi or Austin and with a car which is not capable of matching Red Bull’s qualifying performance, let alone surpassing it, that will be very tough indeed.
The Ferrari was half a second behind the Red Bull in qualifying in India, although it looks like Alonso may have let slip a couple of tenths, so third may have been there for the taking, which is where the rumours of a row with Pat Fry have emerged from. The Englishman said after qualifying, “We needed to be perfect today and we weren’t.” While both he and Stefano Domenicali said that the target had been the second row of the grid.
The new diffuser on Alonso’s car only last weekend was a good step and there clearly was some frustration that they didn’t get everything out of it. But they cannot really blame Alonso, who has made the car look better than it was on countless occasions this season.
Over the weekend Alonso made reference to fighting not just Vettel, but Adrian Newey for the championship, “now we are fighting against Newey and at the moment we cannot match him,” he said.
That has always been the case for drivers not sitting in a Newey car during one of his “hot” spells. Michael Schumacher raced against Newey in the 1990s, before the design genius had a quiet spell in his later McLaren years in the 2000s, allowing Ferrari to dominate.
Now Newey is fully on song again and the formidable team of engineers around him is working perfectly together to give Vettel the car to go out and do what he does best; claim pole, make a clean start, get clear of the DRS zone, build a gap, manage the gap, win the race.
Alonso’s race pace on both the hard and soft tyres was strong on Sunday and if he had been able to start the race on row two with the mood he was in for racing, he might well have been able to challenge Vettel in the opening exchanges, but the Red Bull still had something in hand.
Ferrari has wanted for qualifying pace all season, so suddenly finding it now is going to be difficult.
“We are not fast enough, especially on Saturday, but we can improve the situation in Abu Dhabi or USA. 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 Red Bulls on Saturday and hopefully Sunday as well,” Alonso said.
“There are three races remaining and the championship is the main target. We need to recover some points. 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.”
After Sunday’s race Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali’s words sounded like those of a competitor who knows he’s got little chance, but isn’t yet going to admit defeat, “It is clear at the moment that Red Bull has a better car,” he said. “But what can we say? We cannot cry. We need to work hard, full stop. By saying that they are stronger we don’t have to change the approach we keep in house.
“I have said to my team, ‘Listen, in 1982 in 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 Number One driver, so it is something we will do and fight up until the end.”
And at the end one of them will become a three times world champion and a legend of the sport.
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