We are now getting into what is known as the ‘Business End” of the season and with five drivers still in with a shout of the title, separated by a scant 24 points – less that the points from a win – it’s shaping up to be the most exciting finale in recent F1 history.
Five drivers can win it, no-one knows for sure who will. But one thing is certain – four drivers will lose it.
No-one wants to be left in that position and thus the whole issue of team orders and teams prioritising one driver over the other has been a recurring theme throughout this season. This is because we have three teams all at a high technical level, with very strong drivers.
Ferrari kept seeing Alonso tucked up behind Massa and asking to be allowed through as he was faster. It happened in Australia and then in China Alonso took matters into his own hands and passed Massa as they came in to the pits. And so in Germany the team took matters back into their hands and moved Massa over to let Alonso through.
At McLaren we had a spirited battle between the drivers in Istanbul, but since then the team and both its drivers have made it abundantly clear that they are going to race to the bitter end, even if it means losing the title to another driver.
I asked Martin Whitmarsh point blank on Saturday in Monza whether the team and it shareholders had spoken after the 2007 season about how they let Raikkonen steal the title by allowing their drivers to race and whether they had resolved never to let that happen again. He replied that this was the McLaren credo and would stay that way as long as he’s in charge, even if it means losing the title this year.
So this throws the spotlight on the other two teams, especially Red Bull.
On Sunday many rival team engineers were puzzled by Sebastian Vettel’s phantom engine problem, which seemed to only afflict him for one lap, but in that lap he was passed by Webber. As it turned out he then went long on the tyres and managed to jump Webber and others to finish fourth. Was the engine thing some kind of team order, it was whispered? I think the outcome disproves that theory, but today Flavio Briatore, Webber’s manager, said “Red Bull haven’t realised yet that if they continue like this, with Webber and Vettel racing against each other, they could lose the championship.”
“At Ferrari there is a clear situation with Alonso the team leader and Massa lending his hand. It’s not the same with Red Bull, not even with their strategy in the race. They have thrown away a hundred points, Vettel’s made all sorts of mistakes. If they don’t want to win the championship, this is how to do it.”
He would say that, wouldn’t he?
Vettel would point to Sunday’s race to show how he started two places behind Webber on the grid and ended up two places in front of him to show that he is the one the team should back, despite his 24 point disadvantage. Vettel is quite capable of winning in Singapore and if Webber retires it will be more or less all square with four to play. So clearly it’s too early to call Vettel off.
Meanwhile at Ferrari the situation appears to be clear cut, but I saw a very interesting article by Fulvio Solms in Corriere dello Sport, which said that there is a pact at Ferrari, whereby Massa will help Alonso for the rest of the season, but on the basis that he is free to challenge for wins and the title in 2011.
The theory goes that Massa has been struggling with the 2010 Bridgestone tyres and has expectations that the Pirellis for next year will be more suited to his style of driving.
“He’s very happy at Ferrari, the only problem is getting the Bridgestones up to temperature and it’s true that he is hopeful about the arrival of Pirelli, even if no-one knows yet how the tyres will behave,” Massa’s manager Nicolas Todt is quoted as saying.
There is a cultural debate at the heart of this story – pragmatism versus sporting romanticism. It is not about Italian values versus British, it’s just different attitudes to going racing.
F1 is a cynical sport, but McLaren’s approach and Red Bull’s thus far, has given this championship a thrilling edge. Sooner or later the maths will start to intervene and some decisions will be taken – Red Bull will surely crack first, after all it is not easy to imagine the Red Bull owner accepting the same fate as befell McLaren in 2007, given the investment and the fact that the team has enjoyed such a car advantage all season.
If it comes to it, McLaren will let their drivers go into Abu Dhabi free to race each other. And if someone else wins the title so be it. Is that noble or foolish?