To call this race the final showdown in a cliff-hanger of a season would be to underestimate the tension in the warm air of Abu Dhabi tonight. The greatest strain will be felt in the Ferrari garage where a big helping of luck is needed if Fernando Alonso is going to become World Champion on Sunday. Despite his amazing strength of character and heroic late-season run of success he cannot be viewed as the favourite for the title. The series of wins and podiums that have put him in the lead of the championship perhaps obscures the simple fact that the Red Bull cars are comfortably the fastest this season, with an advantage of the same magnitude as that which the Brawn team enjoyed at the start of last year, but in this case without any sign of their rivals catching up and matching their speed.
Ferrari, just like McLaren, will be hoping that their final development push will have given them more pace. But there will be nobody in any garage tonight who thinks that the two Red Bull drivers will fail to secure the first two positions on the grid tomorrow. But they will still be hoping. Perhaps Alonso will put together a single perfect lap and split the two Red Bulls? Or if he is third it could be that he will launch well and muscle past one of them at the start? Either way, so long as it is Vettel on pole, Fernando and Ferrari have a chance to control the race and Red Bull will be unable to exercise a team decision to favour Webber. Then, you might argue, even if the two Red Bulls are lying first and second, there is no certainty that Vettel would let Webber past even if that is what his team expect of him. A third place for Alonso might be enough if Vettel has sufficient dislike for Webber to refuse to forego victory for the sake of a team-mate who he feels behaved outrageously and robbed him of a win in Turkey. And perhaps it might rain. In which case a chaotic race would reduce the chance of a simple lockout of the first two spots by the Red Bull team. And, in spite of the high track and air temperatures in Abu Dhabi, tyre temperature issues were haunting the teams today. So Ferrari must have some small hope that, if they can manage this issue better than Red Bull: an appropriate pit stop strategy might allow a less compromised out lap and get Fernando ahead of whichever of the Bulls is immediately in front of him during the race.
Against this must be weighed the reality of the situation. Even with a fast and well-balanced Ferrari in the hands of a confident and inspired Alonso, the Red Bulls are odds-on favourites to dominate a dry qualifying session. A determined Lewis Hamilton with a faster McLaren this weekend would be more likely to qualify ahead of the Ferrari than ahead of the Red Bulls as well. Robert Kubica might step up again and have a great qualifying run, which again could push Alonso down the grid but would be unlikely to trouble either Vettel or Webber. What a situation. I am aware of the various permutations of the points of course but, as I prefer the simple logic of a championship table based purely on results, I will not discuss all the possibilities here. Suffice to say that, although he leads the World championship on points, Alonso faces another steeply uphill task to beat two rivals who enjoy the benefit of a much faster car in qualifying at least. If he can win the race it is mission accomplished. To do so he has to beat two top drivers in faster cars….
Another outbreak of Red Bull unreliability is another straw at which Ferrari can clutch. Sebastian Vettel would be well ahead in the championship if his car had not been so fragile earlier in the year, and Mark Webber’s own mistakes have prevented him from clinching the title already. But while Ferrari say that they are going into the last race with their emotions in check to avoid mistakes, it may be significant that the team made a pit-stop error in the last race. The problem with Massa’s loose wheel is ominous, as was the occurrence that stranded him on the track today. Whether it was literally running out of fuel, or some issue with the fuel feed, the Scuderia must be crossing their fingers and hoping that no similar problem hits Alonso’s car.
I find that I have little support when I promote the ‘medals’ system of scoring the World Championship. But the interesting thing is that on this occasion it has produced an equally tense situation in the last race. Both Hamilton and Button are out of contention already under this hypothetical scoring system. If Webber wins, Alonso cannot equal the four second place finishes of the Australian so Mark will be champion. If Vettel wins, Fernando would be champion so long as he is second or third. If none of the three contenders win, Alonso would be champion as he has more victories already. So, under this system (see: Medal-System Championship) both Red Bull drivers have to go for victory. A purer situation, and no less tense than the one that is real.
Motor racing is a nerve-wracking game. This race will test the three contenders to the maximum degree. I only leave Lewis out of my reckoning because his is only a mathematical chance of gaining the necessary points on Sunday. Whatever he does he must rely on disaster striking all three of his rivals. A very unlikely possibility.
I had one of the most unpleasant road trips of my life yesterday. Unexpected snow on the Col de Balme and the Forclaz left me struggling to keep a grip-less BMW 3 series on the road. Hard compound summer tyres have virtually no grip in this situation. Getting up the mountains was tough, but coming back down them was lethally dangerous without winter tyres. The dynamic stability control had to be switched off as it was fighting me, and the ABS was equally unhelpful and could not be disabled without delving into the electrics and pulling the fuse. Which is hard to do as you skate sideways downhill unable to slow the car much or at all. On one occasion I had to take a full line through a blind corner and simply hope that nobody was coming the other way. I seemed to have even less grip than Jensen Button’s McLaren has enjoyed recently (and Jensen must be wondering why his own car has plumbed such depths of poor set-up just at the time his team-mate has needed a clear run in the races). Later, torrential night-time rain on the Belgian motorways, with the spray hanging in the air between the trees which line them, was an illustration of the appalling visibility the F1 drivers experience when it is wet. And some say that rain is forecast in Abu Dhabi this Sunday. I thought that my drive from the Alps to the Eurotunnel was a bit too much of an adventure for one day. Three men will start this weekend anticipating that their long journey around the Yas Marina will be even more testing. On Sunday evening one of them will have the consolation of knowing that it was well worth the danger and the stress.
PS: I had intended to post some thoughts on the technical aspects of this season’s cars. But how could I do that on the eve of such a dramatic weekend? Next time. Oh, and did I forget to say that I had the pleasure of watching the first Grand Prix of the year in the media room of a top McLaren executive? I was shocked by the raw hatred of Alonso that was expressed during the race (although the spontaneous outburst was immediately and rather unconvincingly withdrawn). So Ferrari are racing a Red Bull team intent on winning because they are tough competitors and a McLaren team perhaps intent on spoiling their slim chance of victory out of sheer malice.