Last race decider – again
Here we are again. A championship decider showdown in Interlagos once again. 2007,08 and 09 were the last 3 times the title was decided here because in 2010 the final race was in Abu Dhabi and in 2011 we had Sebastian and Red Bull doing a Michael and Ferrari impression and running away with the titles long before the seasons finale.
Interlagos is like Spa, a place where the weather is highly erratic. Unlike Spa, it is often much more violent and staccato in the way it can punctuate a session and be done in a very short while. A good example of this was qualifying yesterday when before the session it when very dark – rained – and by the end of the session bright sunshine was re-instated.
For all Vetell’s words of assurance that the approach to this weekend is the same as any other, I’m not buying it. Alonso has clearly had nothing to lose for a while and his driving has demonstrated this. We all expected levels of grip for the race Austin to be similar to ice racing, and many expected a huge turn 1 incident with the cars also running on cold tyres. Yet Alonso chose to go around the outside, the most dangerous place to bring there were cars sliding everywhere.
I know from people in the team that this has been the message to them all week, yet I believe that it simply isn’t possible to deliver. I know 3 sets of ‘defensive’ rear wings were sent to Sao Paulo with a design feature to create dirty air behind the car and make the life of others trying to overtake more difficult. The continued likelihood of rain has rendered these pointless as you need dry conditions for them to work properly – the effect of a car sliding on a slippery track is far more damaging than dirty air to hamper a flat out opponent in the dry.
Vettel claimed yesterday, he was not interested in just trying to finish 4th – which gives him the title whatever happens to Alonso – and states he wants to win the race. Fine words Seb and we should expect him to say nothing else. I suspect this is a reaction to the alternator failure of Webber’s in Austin because of course if Vettel’s car breaks there is indeed nothing he can do about it.
In the face of such a possible failure, the Red Bull front of ‘business as usual’ is a good attitude to have, because if it does happen nothing Red Bull can do in advance will mitigate it and so why change anything. Yet the reason I’m not buying this as something which has translated into qualifying and will similarly translate into Red Bull and Vettel’s race is simple. Vettel’s lead is significant but not totally conclusive.
Whilst F1 is a consuming passion of mine, I have been brought up on Cricket, Rugby and ‘proper’ Football (Soccer for US readers). If I have a British pound for every time I’d seen a team with a lead demonstrably affected by the psychology of their ‘state in the game’ I would be relaxing somewhere warm, drinking exotic cocktails and being waited on hand and foot.
Every week in the English premier league you see teams trying to ‘hold onto’ a slim advantage or ‘settle for a draw’ and in that moment, they change what they’ve been doing previously – usually with damaging consequences. It is often most easily seen with defenders merely dropping deeper a couple of extra yards to cover the chance of a quick striker breaking through their line.
If you ask the players after the game whether they made a conscious effort to do this, they will tell you they did not. I hear things like, “they started pushing on to us” or “I was worried about the pace of XYX”. The more defensive tendency is instinctive and most managers can see it happening on the touch-line and you see them urging their team not to behave that way.
A significant change already
Red Bull and Sebastian have already changed their game plan for a race weekend. Vettel was set to do 2 runs in qualifying 3 and made a mistake at turn 4, running wide and ruining his quick lap. He pitted immediately and had time for one more effort on new Medium tyres.
We all know the result, P4. The commentators on the channel I was watching were praising Vettel’s awesome ability to deliver the quickest lap in one attempt – as he has done so often before. Yet following qualifying, Vettel admitted he had played it safe to ensure he had a decent starting position, rather than go for a pole or 10th (after an off) strategy.
This is a huge departure from the Red Bull and Vettel psyche and if carried into the race will make things difficult for Sebastian. Of course the ‘dirty’ side of the grid is not as pronounced in Sao Paulo as in Austin but there is the usual difference just the same. Safety car start apart, this pitches Massa starting on the ‘clean’ side as Vettel’s most likely opponent into turn 1.
The idea that in the wet Vettel will be as comfortable in wheel to wheel combat with Massa, a racy Hulkenberg, either of the flying McLarens or even later in the race with Saubers who perform wet weather miracles – is hard to believe. This is why everyone says its Vettel’s to lose which means to win the WDC merely requires no mistakes from Vettel (or car failures).
The defender dropping a little deeper has the same safety first attitude and in the heat of combat Vettel will think similarly, because that is the percentage way to play the situation.
The most experienced team in F1 just entering their 7th decade of premier single seater racing demonstrated this mentality is unavoidable in 2010. Ferrari and Alonso with a 15 point lead in the final Abu Dhabi showdown ‘played it safe’ choosing to cover Webber’s pit stop and we all know how the race and title played out.
Eddie Jordan is predicting a ‘Spanish winner of the WDC’ and as much as this would be an exciting prospect for the neutrals. I suspect the pace of the McLaren’s and both drivers have decent wet weather racecraft which decreases Alonso’s chance of winning the race – as Vettel did in 2010 – also reduces the chance of Eddie’s prediction greatly, and of course in 2010 it was a 3 way fight for the title which distracted Ferrari’s strategy.
It is Vettel’s to lose. The Sao Paulo webcam I just viewed shows its raining already. The Renault alternator could fail and I could see Alonso finishing 3rd, but probably no better. So the balance of probability is still for me just in favour of a German WDC winner in 7 hours time, but ‘business as usual’ for Vettel and Red Bull it is certainly not.