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2012-11-19 10:30

DIETER RENCKEN

That the 2012 FIA Formula 1 World championship duel between Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) – each a World champion - has stretched to Brazil is no thanks to the Scuderia, which has since early September 2012 contrived every which way to lose a title that before F1’s summer holiday seemed a shoo-in for the Spaniard.

Consider: Going into the August break with 12 rounds done and eight remaining, Alonso had 164 points to Vettel’s 124; now, heading for Sunday’s season finale in Sao Paulo, the score is 273/260 in favour of the German.

MASSA 'PERSUADED'

The US GP held this weekend past at the superb Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas, provides a perfect microcosm of Alonso’s last three months.

Vettel started on pole from Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) after dominating all three preliminary sessions at the brand-new – for which read ultra-slippery – circuit as Alonso and F2012 struggled to ninth, more than 1.6sec behind of the blue RB8, despite Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, after Abu Dhabi, urging his team to throw everything at the final two rounds.

Ferrari "persuaded" Felipe Massa to take a strategic five-slot gearbox penalty, which, together with Romain Grosjean’s similar penalty for a similar (but bona fide) transgression, moved Alonso to seventh – crucially returning him to his odd-number starting column position on what was reckoned the clean side of the track.

Although Massa made his displeasure known, the tactic enabled Alonso to leap from seventh to fourth by Turn 1, where he slotted in behind Hamilton but ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher, whom Alonso had taken in a double move by going wide on the uphill run, then sweeping across.

It was Alonso at his robust best and set up him up for a podium when all seemed lost. Thus his balance sheet at the end of Lap 1 was: Three positions scored by the driver, one through team strategy, another through another’s misfortune – and, as it turned out, a continuing tilt at the title. Any wonder his peers regularly vote the 2005/6 champion the best driver on the grid?

By this time, though, Vettel and team mate Mark Webber, who started third, were well in the distance and a Red Bull 1-2 seemed certain. However Hamilton had other ideas and, after DRS-ing Webber for second on Lap 5, set off after Vettel. The two champions circulated in close proximity, the gap yo-yoing as backmarkers came into play, although Hamilton failed to get close enough to make his moves stick due to the Red Bull’s superior acceleration out of slow corners.

WEBBER WOES

Ultimately there were two complications: unseasonal, coolish (20C) weather, combined with Pirelli’s choice of Medium and Hard compounds on one of the gentlest surfaces of the year, resulted in negligible wear regardless of compound, and Renault’s recurring alternator issue – which this time claimed Webber (on Lap 40), having twice previously cost Vettel victory.

All of the top 10 qualified on the medium compound, which proved half a second per lap quicker than the Hard, but, though, proved hard to heat to optimum temperature. Thus tactics were all over the place as drivers delayed their stops in the hopes of catching either a pace car – which did not materialise – or warmer weather (ditto) which would better play to the Hards.

Thus the car best attuned to its Hards was in the pound seats – in this case Vettel’s, who controlled the gap from the front through better rear traction. Until, that is, Narain Karthikeyan’s hopeless HRT got in the way and Hamilton was all over him like a boisterous puppy. On another, more desperate, day Vettel may have fought back, but with at least 10 points over Alonso and only Brazil remaining, discretion was the better part of valour and he settled for the 18 points which come with second, his decision no doubt influenced by Webber’s demise.

Alonso had, again, been let down by Ferrari during his Lap 20 stop. A right-rear wheel nut jammed and he sat for what seemed hours, but fortunately Raikkonen had tyre issues of his own and was therefore unable to jump Alonso, who fed back in an eventual fourth place after Jenson Button, who started 11th on Hards, elected to run long.

It proved to be a chimera: once the McLaren had stopped it dropped behind Felipe Massa in fourth, whose put in one of his best races from 11th after being sacrificed, with Abu Dhabi winner Raikkonen sixth for Lotus. That was the final order, with Grosjean on the second Lotus seventh from Nico Hulkenberg – the Force India again impressing hugely – and Williams twins Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna.

A classic GP on the fantastic new Circuit of the Americas it had certainly not been but the capacity crowd saw a dice for the lead and Alonso ensured that next week’s viewing figures will go through the roof. On the bright side CotA can hold its head high, secure in the knowledge that its debut race was the best new event in more than  a decade.

Vettel’s victory sealed the Constructors’ championship for Red Bull – the team’s third on the trot, and a richly deserved success it was, too, for RB8 was without doubt 2012’s gold standard, certainly in the second half of the season.

“I’m very, very happy for the team to win a third Constructors’,” Vettel said afterwards. “It’s been a tough year so far and they have been pushing incredibly hard; they deserve to win, we have been the best team.”

'I WAS LUCKY'

Alonso spent the rest of the afternoon grinning like a well-fed cat, and no wonder: when he awoke in Austin on November 18 a podium one place behind Vettel seemed a distant dream, yet precisely that accompanied him to bed. More importantly, he (and Ferrari) survived to fight another day and who knows what Sao Paulo, with its bumpy track and capricious November weather, will bring?

He said: “It was an unexpected podium which came at the end of a particularly difficult weekend. We did not have the pace to match Red Bull and McLaren, so to only lose three points to Vettel was a nice present. It could have been much worse but now we will arrive in Sao Paolo in Brazil in with a chance right to the last.

“Maybe on paper that chance is not so big, maybe 25%, but deep down, I feel it’s much more than that. Anything can happen at Interlagos.”

To Hamilton the spoils and the last word: “To overtake both Red Bulls was the coolest thing for me. The back-markers really came into play today - and, finally, they worked in my favour. I’ve often been caught out when I’ve been trying to get through traffic, but things finally went my way today.
 
“When Seb was delayed by a back-marker I knew I had to grab my chance so I turned the engine up to the max and pushed like crazy. Along the back straight I went to the outside but Seb closed the door, so I moved to the inside, and he came back towards me.

“I was very lucky. It was very close. What made the difference today between Seb and me? I wanted it more, that’s what!”

Indeed, but Vettel and Alonso both want that title.

Badly…

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