Wednesday 10 November 2010

Abu Dhabi Preview: It all comes down to this

It's what Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson calls 'squeaky bum time'. At the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix this weekend everything will be decided, after 19 races and several thousands of miles on the track (and no doubt tens of thousands of air miles). If things go wrong there will be no other chances. I'm glad my own involvement won't extend beyond spectating.

Four drivers travel to Abu Dhabi with a chance of the drivers' championship: Fernando Alonso (246 points), Mark Webber (238), Sebastian Vettel (231) and Lewis Hamilton (222). The mathematics of resolving the championship are never-ending. Of the more likely outcomes, Alonso needs to finish in the top two to guarantee the championship for himself. A Webber victory with Alonso in third place or lower will win the title for the Australian. Vettel winning the race will only result in the championship if Alonso finishes fifth or lower.

Lewis Hamilton's chances, 24 points behind with 25 on offer, are mathematical only it has to be said. Realistically he needs all three other championship contenders to either not finish or be seriously delayed.

What are the chances of Alonso getting that position in the top two he needs? It's certainly the most straightforward means of guaranteeing the championship for himself, keeping things in his own hands. The Red Bulls have been quickest virtually everywhere this season, and it's tempting to assume that a trouble free run for both Bulls will lock Alonso out of the top two. However, there are at least two potential flaws to this assumption. One is that the Red Bulls' ability to convert their pace advantage into a one-two finish this season is hardly unblemished: 14 poles for the team in 19 races and only four one-two finishes demonstrate this. The other consideration is that the Abu Dhabi circuit may not necessarily suit the Red Bulls to the same extent as Suzuka and Interlagos. Yes, such is the quality of the Red Bull machine that it'll never be far away from the front, but the Abu Dhabi circuit has few fast corners on which the magnificent design can show its true worth, and is instead dominated tight bends and, worse for the Bulls, two long straights.

While the Red Bulls bagged a one-two there last year, Lewis Hamilton beat them in qualifying by fully six tenths of a second, and probably would have won easily had he not been hobbled by a brake problem come race day. While Fernando Alonso has admitted that he and Ferrari will need a 'perfect weekend' to finish in the top two, this suggests that he believes that getting among the Red Bulls is at least doable (as an aside, in last year's Abu Dhabi race Alonso, in a Renault, qualified in 16th place and finished in 14th - how things change!), and sometimes Alonso can pull out enough of a personal performance to make up the pace gap to the Bulls.

Further, the Ferrari's main strengths are in acceleration and braking, shown this year in their strong performances at tracks such as Bahrain and Hockenheim, and these zones are plentiful at Abu Dhabi.

Nevertheless, the Red Bulls will probably still be the car to beat this weekend, and a one-two for them can deny Alonso his third championship, but only for definite if Webber is ahead (if Vettel wins then a fourth place is enough for Alonso). A big problem with this is that Vettel has been the Red Bull pace-setter pretty much constantly since the Spa race in August. He looks like he's relishing fighting from behind, and there's no reason to think he'll relent this weekend.

So, what will happen if a driver swap is required by the Bull pilots in Abu Dhabi? To an extent the team are hoist on their own petard, Christian Horner has been one of the most vocal and consistent critics of the Ferraris' driver swap in Hockenheim, and refused to enact something similar last weekend in Brazil, even though that narrowed down the team's options for winning the drivers' title this weekend. Also, while team orders will likely be more understandable (and tolerated by the powers that be) in the last race of the season with the championship at stake, the Red Bull drinks company boss Dietrich Mateschitz waded in this week to insist that he'd rather that the team lost the drivers' championship than 'manipulate things like Ferrari'.

Still, this leaves open the possibility of the swap being undertaken as a 'driver decision' for the good of the team, either genuinely or cosmetically. Indeed, most of Horner's words on the subject have hinted at this being the case. 'It's not down to us to put team orders' he commented after the Brazil race, 'If they're (the drivers) in that situation I've every confidence that they will do the best thing for the company'.

So, would Seb ultimately choose to let his team mate past if the situation asked for it? You'd think he would ordinarily, he has a long-term relationship ahead of him with the Red Bull team to consider and Jonathan Noble of Autosport said that he has it on good authority there has already been an occasion earlier this season wherein Vettel compromised his own situation to do the 'right thing' for the team and for Webber. Plus, Seb ain't stupid. So, Alonso cannot rely on the Red Bull cars failing to get themselves into their optimum order.

However, there are the conspiracy theorists. Rumours about Webber's relationship with Vettel, and with the Red Bull team (or at least parts of it) have circulated for most of the season, not helped by the high profile events at Turkey and Silverstone. Mark Webber's comments about his relationship with the team prior to the Brazil race only added grist to a very long-running mill. Many have gone so far as to suggest that some of the higher echelons of the Red Bull team and company would rather Alonso won the championship than Webber (see for example the latest Sidepodcast). While I am not party to the inner-workings of the Webber-Vettel or the Webber-Red Bull relationship, I'd be astonished if the Red Bull team did anything to compromise one of its drivers winning the title if that was the best opportunity the team had of winning it. These opportunities don't come along every day, and Red Bull have never won a drivers' title before.

As mentioned in passing above though, Lewis Hamilton was comfortably fastest in Abu Dhabi last year, raising the possibility of him and maybe also his team mate acting as a spoiler in the championship battle this weekend. If they are on the pace of the Bulls and Alonso where they end up among the championship front runners could be crucial. If they lock out the front row it'll help Alonso no end. If they get between the Red Bulls and Alonso it could cost Alonso the title. Still, as Lewis has been frank about, the McLaren has consistently been off the ultimate pace in recent weeks, so I'd be surprised if either McLaren got among the 'big three' apart from mistakes or unreliability giving them an opportunity.

Also, in case you're wondering why the preview article has been delivered early, I'm actually off-limits with work for most of Friday and Saturday (not very conveniently!). So the preview comes early, without the benefit of watching practice and the like, thus multiplying the probability of egg on my face.


  1. Dietrich Mateschitz's comments saying that he'd rather that the team lost the drivers' championship than 'manipulate things like Ferrari' were very interesting. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, is that not simply the mating call of the loser?

  2. Some have been so cynical as to suggest that Mateschitz's sentiments owe less to sporting integrity and more to him wanting to screw Mark Webber's title chances. I of course could never be so cynical.

  3. I have heard it said that they might have been a bit keener on team orders had it been Vettel who was the Red Bull driver who was ahead in the championship for most of the season. You might think that, I couldn't possibly comment.