While the identity of this year’s world champion is still unclear, one certainty that awaits us at Interlagos this Sunday is that history will be made.
With two titles apiece, and with both drivers being younger than Michael Schumacher was when he won his third championship in 2000, either Sebastian Vettel or Fernando Alonso will become the youngest three-time world champion in Formula One history this weekend.
Whilst both have impressed hugely over the course of the season, whether it be the raw speed of Vettel or the dogged determination of Alonso, there is still 71 laps of racing to go before we know the identity of the ninth person to join the exclusive club of triple world champions.
After winning the championship for the past two years, pre-season title favourite Vettel was expected to pick up where he left off in 2011, but a less competitive Red Bull and some erratic driving in the early part of the season meant that things did not quite go to plan for the German, a disappointing first three races leaving him in fifth place in the standings.
A win in Bahrain hinted towards a return to form, but a disappointing European season in which he failed to win showed the victory in Sakhir to be a false dawn. An alternator failure in Valencia while dominating the race cost Vettel almost certain victory, while a post-race penalty in Hockenheim for overtaking Jenson Button illegally dropped him from second to fifth and cost him further points. The highlight of the middle part of the season was his drive in Spa to come from 11th to finish second, but another alternator failure in Monza meant that as F1 left Europe, he was in fourth place in the championship and 39 points behind Alonso.
And that’s where everything changed. A vastly upgraded Red Bull arrived at Singapore, and with it Vettel’s fortunes changed significantly. He won in Marina Bay after inheriting the lead when Lewis Hamilton retired, and then took victory in the next three races, overturning the deficit to Alonso and giving him a 13 point lead in the championship with three races remaining.
Then came Abu Dhabi, and a disqualification from qualifying for having insufficient fuel in his car threatened to derail his title challenge. But Vettel produced a spirited recovery to come from last to third and limit the damage to his points lead to just three points. And despite losing out to Hamilton after a thrilling battle in Austin, a second place finish means he goes into this weekend’s season finale with a 13 point lead.
To be quite frank, Alonso has performed a miracle just to take the title battle down to the last race. With a car that started the season over a second off the pace, and in dry conditions has at no point been the quickest, it is remarkable that the Spaniard not only launched a title challenge, but has been able to sustain it until the final race.
A solid fifth place in Australia was a good start to the year given the circumstances, but a stunning win in the rain in Malaysia shocked everyone and reaffirmed his status as perhaps the most complete driver of his generation. Whilst he was unable to challenge for the podium for the remainder of the opening flyaways, Ferrari improved his car massively for the start of the European season, and some consistent drives kept him in contention.
And then Valencia happened, where after qualifying a disappointing 11th he produced arguably the drive of his career to fight his way through to second, before taking advantage of Vettel’s retirement to take a memorable victory in front of his home crowd and put him in the lead of the championship.
A third win came in Hockenheim, where he soaked up race long pressure from Vettel and Jenson Button to take the chequered flag, helping him take a 40 point lead into the summer break.
Alonso was lucky not to be hurt after being taken out by Romain Grosjean at the start in Spa, but two third places in Monza and Singapore kept him comfortably ahead in the standings. However, another first lap retirement in Suzuka coupled with a Vettel win left him with just a four point advantage, and he lost the points lead after the German won again in Korea.
Many a driver would have folded then, but Alonso has kept on fighting, and second places in India and Abu Dhabi followed by a third place in Austin has kept his title hopes very much alive going into the crucial final race.
Thirteen points and 71 laps separate both Vettel and Alonso from the ultimate prize. The odds heavily favour Vettel, but Formula One has a habit of producing surprises when you least expect it, and after a magnificent season in which unpredictability has been the name of the game it is impossible to call a winner.
Sebastian Vettel or Fernando Alonso. Who wins? Interlagos decides.