Saturday was a tough day for Jenson Button both on and off the track. He struggled to match the pace of his team-mate Lewis Hamilton during qualifying and could only manage 11th place on the grid. Later on, as he left the circuit in a car with his father, manager and trainer, around 6 men armed with baseball bats and machine guns ran towards them. Their armoured vehicle was being driven by a highly-trained police driver and Button later described him as a ‘legend’ for his quick avoidance reactions to the dangerous situation. The driver forced his way through traffic and sped them away from the scene, but a team of mechanics held up at traffic lights further behind were less lucky and had their valuables stolen. Violent crimes such as carjacking are common in Brazil’s big cities, and it is unsurprising that expensive cars fresh from the Formula 1 circuit should be a key target. However, with stepped-up security the rest of the race weekend was untroubled by outside incidents and everyone concentrated on the racing at hand.
It was perhaps the most riveting qualifying session of the year. Usually the drivers are separated by tiny margins, often less than a tenth of a second. But in Sao Paolo the pole-sitter was quicker by more than a whole second – and to everyone’s surprise it was Nico Hulkenberg, the Williams rookie. The track was damp from earlier showers but the Williams team perfectly timed a risky move onto dry tyres, and all the other teams followed shortly afterwards. There was a tense last-minute scramble to improve flying-laps but ultimately it was ‘The Hulk’ who out-performed the top drivers as he clinched pole on the penultimate lap and then improved his time once again with a 1:14.470. Sebastian Vettel, whose time of 1:15.519 secured him 2nd place, spoke of his surprise: “First I thought I had missed pole by 0.1 seconds but then I saw there was another digit and that it was a four instead of a five.” The front-runners in the championship were full of congratulations for the young German’s first pole position; Mark Webber, who gained 3rd position, said “Nico made the rest of us look average today”. The result was just what Hulkenberg needed, with his position at Williams uncertain and hopes of only a respectable points haul, four of the five title contenders were forced to line up behind the young German.
Sebastian Vettel – 1st
Showing dominance from the get-go, Vettel made the perfect start from second on the grid, hugged the inside line and managed to pass Hulkenberg into the first corner. After that move he never looked back and controlled the pace throughout, proving he’s got the outright speed in the car and can ‘turn the screw’ when needed. In passing a train of 8 back markers at a crucial point in the race he showed resilience and calmness – traits once not associated with the fiery young German.
Mark Webber – 2nd
Webber couldn’t consistently match Vettel’s pace and had to settle for hovering some 3 seconds behind him for much of the race. His best opportunity to catch his younger team-mate came when the Red Bulls lapped the group of slower cars midway through the race, but ultimately Webber came off worse and lost valuable time. With overheating front tyres and an ever-looming threat of engine failure, Webber had to drive more cautiously but luckily didn’t drop far enough back to be any real target for Fernando Alonso. To get his championship back on track, Webber really needed the 25 points that his team-mate took for winning the race, but chopping away at Alonso’s championship lead was the main objective, and a Red Bull one-two did just that.
Fernando Alonso- 3rd
Overall the championship leader drove a consistent race from start to finish. Lewis Hamilton’s error let Alonso through to take on Hulkenberg, but The Hulk struggled to fend off the Ferrari and conceded third place after a few laps. After the race, Alonso said “We lost too much ground in the first laps of the race trying to overtake Hamilton and Hulkenberg. Those 10-12 seconds were impossible to catch.” It was noticeable that the Ferrari could match the Red Bull’s pace, particularly during the post-safety car period where he managed to catch Mark Webber at a rate of 0.4 seconds a lap, but the margin with just 10 laps to go proved too much of an uphill struggle.
Lewis Hamilton- 4th
When Hamilton ran wide and lost a place to Alonso it must have given him a double dose of deja vu – not only having done the same thing during the last race in Korea, but it happened on the corner where in 2007 he lost a place to then team-mate Alonso (in the race where he lost out on the title). Hamilton was held up by Hulkenberg and lost considerable time. In trying to catch Alonso again Hamilton thrashed the life out of two sets of tyres, and with reduced grip 4th place was the best he could manage. He is still technically able to win the championship, but admitted that he will need a “miracle”. He will need to win the final race and the front runners will have to score minimal points for him to secure the title.
Jenson Button- 5th
Button seemed relatively unfazed by the incident the previous night and drove well to get up to 5th place. A well-timed pit stop saw him make up a lot of ground after his poor qualifying, but the McLarens were simply not competitive enough to contend with the front-runners. The scene of his 2009 title triumph became the place where he left contention for the 2010 championship, and now has just one more race with the number ‘1’ title on his car. However, Button seemed philosophical about losing the title, saying “I won’t be the reigning world champion next year, but I’ll always be world champion”.
For the first time in history, four drivers go into the last race still able to be champion. Compared to the other spectacles we’ve been spoiled with this season Brazil was not the most exciting race, despite the great scenes of celebration as the Red Bull team secured the Constructors’ World Championship title for the very first time. After winning the Monaco Grand Prix earlier this year, Mark Webber said “People forget – three or four years ago, we were the laughing stock”. Red Bull has certainly come a long way since it rose from the ashes of Jaguar Racing in 2005 and has only been a serious contender in the sport since last year. In 2009, the newly-signed Sebastian Vettel claimed both the first pole position and the first wins for the team, with Mark Webber’s first grand prix wins coming later in the season.
2010 has been a difficult year for the team with reliability problems and tension between the drivers costing them many points, but ultimately Adrian Newey’s superbly designed RB6s have made them easily the fastest on the track. With the team title now secured, attention turns to the drivers’ title – and there may be some difficult decisions to make.
Alonso failed to secure the championship in Brazil but still leads Mark Webber by 8 points. Most experts are predicting that the race in Abu Dhabi will end in the same order as it did today – and if this happens then Alonso wins the championship. But if the Red Bulls are reversed, then Webber will win. This means that Vettel is likely to be put in a position where he cannot win the championship himself, but has the power to hand it to his rival team-mate. Most would see this as the right thing to do, but for Vettel it will be a bitter pill to swallow.
However, in such an unpredictable championship anything could happen, and having four different potential champions makes the possibilities tantalising. Overtaking is difficult in Abu Dhabi and the pressure to get a good position during qualifying will be immense. But whatever the starting grid, it is likely that the title for one of the most exciting seasons in Formula 1 history will not be known until the last corner.
Fiona Crosby and Ketan Patel