Wednesday 29 January 2020

Number crunchers on standby for title duel

David Kennedy

Fernando Alonso will try hard but Sebastian Vettel holds all the aces today, writes David Kennedy

If there were a trophy for tenacity then surely Fernando Alonso would be the undisputed recipient. He goes into today's Brazilian Grand Prix with a 13-point deficit and the odds stacked firmly against him winning a third world championship. But he will travel with hope in his heart right up until that chequered flag is waved. At least he hopes he gets that far in the race.

Let's revisit past titles. Brazil often provides the stage for great races in the crowning of a champion. Maybe the spirit of Senna doesn't just linger around the S-bend named in his honour.

Alonso can draw strength from the memory of his second title bid in 2006 when he beat Michael Schumacher in Sao Paulo having qualified fourth and finished second.

Back then Alonso went into the race with a 10-point lead and Schumacher would have had to win the race and Alonso not to score for the German to have won an eighth title. Not dissimilar to the odds facing Alonso today. If the Spaniard fails to pull it off this afternoon, as Schumacher did back then, could this be Alonso's last stab at a title? Six years ago, the now 31-year-old, probably felt invincible. Today that invincibility belongs to Sebastian Vettel.

Fast forward to 2008 when we saw Massa and Ferrari come so close to taking the title, again in Brazil. Lewis Hamilton, in his McLaren, needed a fifth place to clinch it and he did it, albeit just seconds from the end.

In 2009, Jenson Button started a lowly 14th on the grid and finished fifth for Brawn GP, now Mercedes. That was enough to give him the title.

Change of venue and Abu Dhabi in 2010. Alonso only had to finish fourth to win the title, but his team let him down badly. Vettel became the youngest ever world champion and a new star was born.

The following year he won a second title and today he could make it a hat-trick. The genial German makes it look as easy as 1-2-3, which is why the underdog, Alonso, is garnering the popular vote.

Alonso just has to glance at the record books of the last six races in Brazil to see that Red Bull won in the last three while Ferrari took the spoils in the others. On those occasions it was Felipe Massa (twice) and Kimi Raikkonen who won with the famous Italian marque.

The Autodrome José Carlos Pace is unusual in that it is anti-clockwise. There are several different changes in elevation and it's very bumpy. It's an eclectic mix of high-speed corners, fast straights, and slow hairpins. It's a high downforce track which should favour Red Bull and McLaren.

Mark Webber has made this race his own. He won it last year, finished second the previous year and won again in 2009. But if Webber or Massa find themselves in commanding positions they may have to relinquish their place to facilitate their team-mates in the battle of the calculator. The interlopers are Hamilton – who took pole position for today's race – and Raikkonen; either of these could emerge race victor as the main protagonists' internecine title battle plays out.

Last weekend in Austin, Texas – incidentally a resounding success – Massa got a taste of Ferrari team orders when he was forced to swap seventh place in qualifying for 11th, so that Alonso, who had qualified ninth, could start one place ahead, and, significantly, on the clean side of the track.

Ferrari engineered that cunning feat by breaking the seal on Massa's gearbox thus forcing his demotion. At this stage they'd do anything that's within the regulations to facilitate their goal. I suppose having had his Ferrari contract renewed for another year means that Massa has to take it on the chin, but that's what team-mates are for when a title is at stake.

Vettel lines up in fourth today, Alonso in eighth after a disastrous qualifying. Vettel only has to finish in the top four to secure the crown, the same as Alonso needed in 2010, when seventh was all he could manage.

The Spaniard will be praying to the 'alternator God' for the failure again of that weak link in the Red Bull armoury. The team is thought to be running a different spec to avoid any more disastrous retirements, but that in itself is risky. If that or something else causes Vettel's exit today and Alonso finishes third, then Alonso is champion.

Today is Michael Schumacher's second valedictory in seven years. Don't expect any heroics from the four-time winner at this race, he'll be playing it safe, happy to leave in one piece after an F1 career that has spanned 21 years. He was honoured in 2006 in Brazil when he first retired; back then Pele presented him with a trophy. Today he will be honoured again.

It will take some going to match or beat Schumacher's seven world titles, 91 wins, 155 podiums, 77 fastest laps in 307 races. But today, his fellow countryman, Sebastian Vettel, may well be on his way to emulating his childhood hero if he wins his third title in a row. He'd still have two more to go to match Schumacher's straight run of five, which were achieved between 2000-2004.

In 2006, Alonso won his second title by 13 points from Schumacher. Vettel starts the race with a 13-point lead today. But rain could prove an unlucky bedfellow for Vettel and a dream chance for Alonso.

Back in 2009 Alonso started 17th on the grid and he still finished third. That's the sort of possibility this circuit offers up. The last race of the season will soon deliver a new world champion. Whoever you support, whatever the outcome, enjoy the drama.

Brazilian Grand Prix,

BBC 1, 3.0pm/ Setanta Ireland, 3.55

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