Sebastian Vettel is the new Formula 1 world champion. This weekend’s race in Abu Dhabi began with a number of possible scenarios that might have unfolded. The one which actually became a reality wasn’t the most likely one, but even so, when Red Bull’s Vettel crossed the finish line at the end of lap 55, there seemed to be a certain inevitability to the outcome. Vettel and his Red Bull had been the fastest driver-car combination for the balance of the season, and the fact that he’d never led in the points standings all season long not withstanding, the title had really been his to lose all along.
That said, on paper, either Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso or Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber looked to be the favorites on paper at this year’s final race. They were running first and second in the points, respectively, and both drivers had exhibited an ability to pull a rabbit out of the proverbial hat as needed during the course of the year.
But fortune didn’t favor either driver today, and to borrow from an old adage, in motor sports, luck is as important as talent and equipment. Today, Vettel had all three on his side. He not only needed to win today to stand a good chance of taking the title, he also needed his closest rivals, Alonso and Webber, to have a bit of misfortune, and in the final analysis, they obliged.
While both the Aussie and the Spaniard managed to stay out of harm’s way, and neither suffered any noticeable mechanical problems, they both fell victim to an early, unscheduled pit stop shuffle which occurred as a result of a deployment of the safety car on the first lap.
The safety car was brought out by a collision between Mercedes driver Michael Schumacher, and Force India’s Tonio Liuzzi. Schmacher had been balked by Rubens Barrichello, and his team mate, Nico Rosberg, had tried to take advantage of the situation by going around Schumi. They were squeezed together going into the first chicane, and Schumi spun on the exit. Suddenly, Schumi was facing oncoming traffic. Most of the cars managed to dodge him, but Liuzzi hit him head on, leaving his Force India perched on top of Schumi’s Mercedes, dangerously close to the German’s head.
Several cars made a bee-line for the pits during the safety car period, including Rosberg and Renault’s Vitaly Petrov. Though no one knew it yet, this might have been the decisive moment of the race, as the early pit stops for prime tires allowed both Rosberg and Petrov to stay on track for the remainder of the day, which enabled them to wait for the race to come their way, as other drivers made their pit stops on schedule. Both drivers ended up finishing ahead of Alonso.
The two position gap, i.e. the difference between fifth and seventh, meant a four point difference for Alonso – which was the same gap by which he ended up trailing Vettel in the points. Had Alonso finished fifth, however, Vettel still would have won the title based on actual race finishes (i.e. most wins, most seconds, most thirds, etc.), but had it not been for the early pit stop shuffle, it’s very possible that Alonso might have held on to fourth position, which is where he stood in the opening laps, having lost third slot to Button off the grid. A fourth place win would have secured him the 2010 driver’s crown.
As it was, his pace was likely slowed once he got stuck behind Petrov, after his pit stop. Abu Dhabi seems typical of many of Hermann Tilke’s new tracks: three distinct sectors, each favoring a different sort of set up. On paper, it looks as though there might be aat least a couple of decent overtaking points, but in reality there are none. Once Alonso was trailing Petrov, his title bid was essentially over. He was unable to pass the Russian.
In qualifying trim, Petrov had been more than a full second slower than Alonso, so it’s reasonable to suppose that Alonso lost several tenths per lap once he was stuck looking at Petrov’s diffuser. Such is the state of Formula 1 at tracks like these that unless one car is substantially quicker than another (by more than a second per lap, at any rate), overtaking is nearly impossible. Lewis Hamilton faced exactly the same situation when he was stuck behind the other Renault driver, Robert Kubica. He was unable to pass the Pole on track, and was forced to wait for Kubica to pit.
In any event, while one hates to dwell on what might have been, it’s worth noting that, had it not been for the safety car shuffle on lap one, not only wouldn’t Rosberg and Petrov gotten ahead of Alonso, but Alonso probably would have come out ahead of Kubica, as well, to take fourth slot, and the driver’s title along with it. Kubica finished 4.7 seconds ahead of Alonso on the road, and surely Alonso lost more time than that while he was mired behind Kubica’s team mate, Petrov.
As for the other main title contender, Mark Webber, his fate was essentially sealed in Saturday’s qualifying. He qualified fifth, and really needed a strong dose of luck on track to overhaul both Alonso and Vettel. He never seemed to have the pace when it counted, however, and he will probably go to sleep tonight thinking of the points he needlessly gave away earlier this year, most notably in his unforced errors, both in his collision with his team mate in Turkey, and his collision with a barrier in Korea. Those two mishaps alone cost him 21 points (admittedly, that’s assuming he could’ve held on to second place in Korea, which wasn’t exactly a certainty). Add that sum to his current total, and you end up with an Australian world champion.
But each one of the leading drivers in this year’s title chase could, as Sebastian Vettel noted in the post-race interviews, write a book on his own personal ups and downs during the course of the 2010 season. The points lead changed hands a record number of times, and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, the title was eventually won by the one driver still in contention who had never led in the points all year. The new points system seems to be a resounding success, much to the chagrin of the evil elf, Bernie Ecclestone, who keeps touting his gold-silver-bronze medal idea to anyone who will listen.
It is perhaps a final irony that it might have been this year’s comeback kid who was the eventual spoiler at Abu Dhabi, although other drivers, including Lewis Hamilton and Robert Kubica, had been suggested for this role. When Schumi first announced his comeback, he boldly claimed his would aim for an astounding eighth title. At season’s end, he finished a lowly ninth in the points. Along the way, once it became that his own title hopes for this season were unrealistic, he allowed that his own first choice for the new champion was his fellow countryman Sebastian Vettel (formerly known as “baby Schumi”). And it was Schumacher’s collision on lap one that brought out the safety car that in all likelihood dropped Fernando’s eventual finishing position from fourth to seventh, and allowed baby Schumi to become the new champion.
Another point worth noting: one of the most frequent topics of paddock punditry this year has been team orders. Ferrari clumsily violated the ban in Germany this year, and many suggested that Fernando Alonso would need to win the title by more than 7 points to avoid the charge that his champion’s laurels were tainted. As it turned out, that particular issue became a moot point.
But it was interesting to see how rival teams dealt with the subject. Both McLaren and Red Bull said they were against team orders in principle, although they thought their drivers might do the honorable thing, if the occasion arose. In other words, moving over to help a team mate is all right, as long as it’s the driver’s idea. This seems to be rather hypocritical to me, as it’s never a competitive driver’s idea to willingly move over for anyone.
In this regard, Red Bull’s team boss Christian Horner seemed content to hedge his bets. While he proclaimed that he was leaving driver sacrifice up to the drivers, he also on more than one occasion indicated that the team’s drivers were free to race until the very end. This could be read as simply, “We’re not going to force Sebastian to move over for Webber if he doesn’t want to.”
While Horner and tech head Adrian Newey have claimed frequently that Red Bull doesn’t confer number one status on either driver, it’s clear that their refusal to consider drafting Vettel as support driver for Webber’s title bid is in itself a confirmation of Vettel’s de facto status within the team. Had the shoe been on the other foot, with Vettel leading in points during the latter stages of the season, would they have been so insistent on driver parity? Next year, with Vettel as reigning champ, they will have more justification in making Vettel the focal point of the team from the outset. It will probably become more obvious to everyone concerned that, as McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh once said of the Red Bull squad, “This team’s heart beats for Vettel.”