It was inevitable that in the run up to the World championship showdown there would be mind games between rivals but so far Sebastian Vettel, who has the 13 point advantage over Fernando Alonso, has been the one on the back foot.
Alonso has been banging the drum lately about racing Red Bull design guru Adrian Newey, suggesting that Newey’s contribution is the more significant, “At the moment we are not fighting against Sebastian only,” he said in India. “We are also fighting against Newey let’s say.
“It is not so easy to fight, especially on Saturday, but on Sunday we are normally more competitive.” He reiterated this theme in Austin last weekend. The pattern of weak single lap Ferrari pace has continued with Alonso qualifying seventh in Abu Dhabi and 9th in Austin.
Alonso has also recently talked up Hamilton as his main rival, further undermining the status of the German, against whom he has now fought for the title in two of the last three years.
The prospect of Vettel being a three times world champion at 25 after only 101 Grands Prix, highlights the astonishing performance that he and Red Bull have achieved. Is it too much too soon to be credible, as his detractors would claim? Or is it just an example of driver and team in perfect harmony?
When a question about this came up this weekend, that he is where he is because he has had the best car, he was forced to defend himself, psychologically on the back foot, where Alonso wants to try to keep him,
“If you look back, I don’t know how far, but as far as I can look back, I think there was never people really successful in a really bad car,” he said.
“I think it’s a natural thing to happen that one day you have strong drivers in a strong team so you end up with a strong combination and then obviously that is difficult to beat.
“I think it’s natural to start in a weaker car..in my case I started with the BMW, replacing Robert (Kubica) for one race and then afterwards I got the seat in Toro Rosso, which at the time was not a very competitive car but I think we did a very good job and even won a race.. and obviously after that to step up to Red Bull Racing and 2009 was a great and fantastic season for myself, for the team, for the first time to be competitive, finishing on the podiums, win races, so I think it was a fairly normal way that I went.”
It didn’t help that one of Vettel’s closest allies in F1, Bernie Ecclestone, was quoted in the German media saying that he lacked charisma, compared to drivers of the past. Vettel was able to bat that away with humour.
In a later media session, Vettel paid tribute to Alonso as “one of the best drivers, who always gets the maximum out of the car,” but he will be focussed on doing his talking on the track. Red Bull has won this race for the last three years and in dry conditions Vettel should have no problem on Saturday and Sunday getting the fourth place he needs to clinch the title.
But with heavy rain forecast from Saturday night and set to fall all through Sunday, this looks like it could be a messy race, with safety cars and possibly rain delays. Anything can happen and that that neutralises Red Bull’s car advantage and makes it harder for Vettel to control.
He will need to be mentally very strong to close out the championship in such conditions; there will inevitably a nervousness on Red Bull’s side as they have more to lose.
“In sport anything can happen so we need look after ourselves,” said Vettel. “The weekend starts tomorrow morning (Friday) and not on Sunday, so really we have to go step by step, trying to do everything to ensure that we get the maximum result. Historically we’ve been very quick here, historically we know also it’s quite a place where a lot of things can happen so we need to be sharp in the moment and see what we can get.
“Weather-wise, it’s Sao Paulo. It’s the same as if you go to Spa, you know, things can happen quickly and the weather can change a lot here. Probably for Saturday, Sunday there’s some rain on the way, but then again you don’t know how much and when so I think I asked Pirelli yesterday if they have all the containers here with the rain tyres, and that’s the case, so I don’t think we have to be concerned.”
Curiously – and breaking with tradition – there was no handshake between the two title rivals for the cameras on Thursday.
It will be interesting to see whether they manage to get one together before Sunday.