F1 Brazilian GP: We Are The (Constructors’) Champion

The Brazilian Grand Prix has a history of crowning champions. Since 2005, the World Drivers’ Champion had clinched his crown at the Interlagos Circuit in Sao Paulo. All eyes were on Fernando Alonso as he tried to claim his third championship. However, a third place finish leaves the championship open for the final race of the season. However, Red Bull Racing clinched the World Constructors’ Championship thanks to a one-two finish led by Sebastian Vettel who scored his fourth win of the season.

It was an unlikely pole sitter that led the field away today. Williams’ Nico Hulkenberg scored his first career pole and the team’s first in over five years. Their last was the 2005 European Grand Prix and was scored by Nick Heidfeld while the team was still Williams-BMW. It was also the first pole for Cosworth since the 1999 French Grand Prix. However, their run up front didn’t last long. Vettel passed the rookie into the first turn and never looked back.

Down the back straight, Webber was all over the back of Hulkenberg and pressured him into a mistake in Turn 4 to get to second place. Behind that, Alonso forced Lewis Hamilton into a mistake to take fourth place. From there, Alonso spent a couple of laps trying to force his way by Hulkenberg while losing up to a second-and-a-half per lap. On Lap 6, he was finally able to make a move stick as the pair ran side-by-side from Turn 4 to Turn 6 before Alonso picked up third place for good.

As for the other championship contenders, Hamilton finished in fourth place after getting by Hulkenberg on the exchange of pitstops. The Brit had complained about a lack of grip all race which prevented him from being able to do much about Alonso and Hulkenberg while they were in close quarters. Jenson Button qualified 11th and was basically out of the running for the race win and the championship before the lights went out. He managed to get up to 5th by race’s end thanks to pit strategy. As he has tried a few times this year, Button switched to hard tires early, pushed hard with fresh rubber and then held onto his worn tires for longer than anyone else. No one uses the aerodynamic turbulence of F1 cars to prevent passes better than Button.

There was only one real impediment to Vettel’s march to victory. There was a chance that he’d be challenged for lead after a safety car in the last third of the race. Vitantonio Liuzzi caused the field to be bunched when he ran wide in the second turn, which is the right-hander in the Senna S, ripped off the left-front corner and parked it at the side of the road. However, with lapped cars providing a bumper between Vettel and Webber, the Aussie never had a chance to challenge for the lead. Say what you will about the frequency of full-course cautions and safety car periods in NASCAR, at least they reset the field so the leaders run nose to tail.

Nevertheless, the Red Bull Racing team was able to clinch their first ever Constructors’ Title. They were the most dominant team all season. The bad luck that befell them along the way wasn’t going to be enough to prevent the team from winning the crown. However, we could still end up with a case of winning the battle but losing the war if they don’t also take the World Drivers’ Championship.

The Red Bull one-two and McLaren struggles have reduced the title race to effectively three drivers.

  1. Fernando Alonso 246 Pts.
  2. Mark Webber 238 Pts. (-8)
  3. SebastianVettel 231 Pts. (-15)
  4. Lewis Hamilton 222 Pts. (-24)

With only one race remaining in the season, only four drivers are still mathematically able to win the title. Jenson Button was eliminated from contention after this race but really didn’t have a chance. Hamilton finds himself in a similar position heading into Abu Dhabi. He needs to win and the three drivers ahead of him to finish out of the points.

So now we come to championship permutations. Alonso only needs to finish 2nd to win regardless of how Webber finishes. One point brought up during the Brazilian race broadcast is that if Vettel and Webber finish 1-2 next week as they did in last year’s Abu Dhabi GP, then Alonso could finish 3rd and win the title. However, Alonso could finish 4th and still win. If Alonso were to finish 5th in that scenario, he would lose the title to Vettel as the German would have more 4th place finishes than Alonso. Yes, the tiebreaker would have to go that far. As for Webber’s chances to win the title, the easiest way for him to win would be to put Vettel between him and Alonso. A Vettel win eliminates the Aussie so he can’t let that happen under any circumstances. If Alonso finishes directly behind Webber, Mark won’t win the title either. It’ll take some effort and some luck for either Red Bull driver to take the title from Alonso.

•••

The big story of the weekend has to be the excitement of qualifying. It was wet during Q1 and Q2 and it looked as though the surprise of Saturday running was going to be Michael Schumacher who was in P5 at the end of the second segment of qualifying. But as the track dried out in Q3, it was Nico Hulkenberg’s Williams that came to life. He claimed pole position by over a second from Vettel in an absolutely spectacular performance. Some cynics might say that Hulkenberg’s well-timed final lap allowed him to top the time charts. However, his second-to-last lap, set before everyone’s final lap, was still good enough for pole. His 8th place race result may not have reflected his qualifying performance but Hulkenberg put in the best qualifying performance of the season.

•••

With all the complaints about team orders (and subsequent complaints about the complaints), it seems as though a Brazilian prosecutor was willing to step in and stop all the debate over the possibility of Felipe Massa helping Alonso in his title chase. Paulo Castilho told the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper that if Massa allowed Alonso to pass him or otherwise does anything to alter race results, he would be charged with fraud and could be imprisoned for up to six years. Brazil has laws on the books that protects spectator interest and ensures a fair competition. I think that law was likely created due to gambling rather than team orders in an F1 race. Still, when a prosecutor says that Massa would “leave Interlagos in handcuffs, if it happens!” (exclamation point and all) you should take notice. I wonder what would have happened if Red Bull decided to put Webber ahead of Vettel in the running yesterday.

•••

Speaking of fun of the legal, or illegal, variety, Jenson Button had a little unexpected and unwelcome extra curricular activities on his way back to his hotel after qualifying. His car was approached by a group of armed men while sitting in traffic and his driver barged his way by and into traffic to get away. Both McLaren drivers had police drivers and armored cars hired by the McLaren team for this weekend’s race. Button and his passengers, which included his father, manager and physio guy, were unharmed. They did have a rather large tail when they got to the hotel because several drivers were looking for insurance information after getting crashed into during the getaway.

It was also reported that a couple of Sauber engineers were mugged last night and had their briefcases stolen.

There’s some concern that this incident could spark calls to drop the race, or at least this track, from the calendar. Between these incidents and the fact that the facilities aren’t “up to modern F1 standards,” Bernie may look at somewhere else in South America to hold a championship race. I don’t mind the safety concerns but the complaints about the facilities kill me. F1 seems more concerned with luxury than racing now as evidenced by the new Tilke-dromes which have spectacular facilities for the teams and media but non-existent racing. Interlagos is one of the best race tracks on the current calendar but the facilities are on the well-worn side. Apparently, because media folks can’t watch the race on personal HD TVs in leather massage chairs while being served champagne and caviar, we should drop the Brazilian GP. I think F1 should revoke the credentials of any media member who says anything about the facilities at a track as a reason why a track should be on or off the calendar.

•••

Staying in the realm of legalities, the saga of the Lotus name just got a bit stranger and could become a lot more confusing. Sources say that a court in Malaysia has ruled against the current Lotus Racing team in their fight to be called Team Lotus starting next season. Team Lotus was the proper name of the racing team started by Colin Chapman. That means that Tony Fernandes’ Lotus Racing, the team name of Team 1Malaysia, will need a new name next season.

Just to confuse the hell out of everyone, there are rumours that the Lotus Group has bought or will buy the 25% share of Renault F1 still owned by the Renault motor company. That would mean that Renault would become Team Lotus. Then the would-be Team Lotus would become… something. It’ll be confusing when the commentators start referring to the 1Malaysia cars as the former Lotus cars passing the current Lotus cars. Of course, if Renault was to decide to buy into 1Malaysia while they’re on their way up the ladder, then things would just be even more confusing. It’s not that far-fetched a scenario because Renault’s chairman said in an interview this weekend that Renault is planning on being in F1 as a chassis technology partner or some corporate jargon like that. That also begs the question: If Renault becomes Lotus, whose F1 legacy are they laying claim to? Will they be adding to the Chapman or Brawn/Schumacher legacy? Just another reason why I hope this doesn’t go through. Too many headaches for the poor writers.

•••

The official 2011 F1 schedule was released last week. There was only one unexpected note on next season’s calendar. Along with the new Indian Grand Prix, the Chinese Grand Prix at the Shanghai International Circuit was placed on the schedule provisionally pending FIA approval of the track. India’s reason for being only provisionally scheduled is obvious because the circuit is still under construction.

The Shanghai Circuit is listed as provisional because of a safety concern and a driver comfort concern. The FIA believe that drainage at the track isn’t adequate and they’re worried about standing water. That’s an understandable, if slightly unfounded, concern. F1 seems to always get rain in China but drainage and standing water was never a major issue, at least not to the extent it was in Korea or even Japan two weeks earlier. But given how scared the drivers were of a couple of puddles, the FIA has to do something about it.

Their other concern was bumps in the circuit. That’s what I call a “driver comfort” concern. Bumps are a part of the course and a part of the challenge. I’ve never heard a NASCAR or World Rally driver refer to bumps as a safety concern. The bumps at a place like Daytona or any number of rally stages are just part of the character of the race track. If we needed more proof that today’s F1 drivers are increasingly overprotected and lack the testicular fortitude of their predecessors, this would be it.

•••

The next round of the 2010 FIA Formula One World Championship is also the last round of this season. Next week is the 2nd running of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina circuit. Unlike the inaugural event, this year’s race will see a World Champion win his title in the desert. We’ve already gone over some of the permutations but it still looks like this is Fernando Alonso’s title to lose unless the Red Bull boys pull some Ferrari-esque trickery to give one man the title ahead of the other.

As I mentioned above, Vettel won the first Abu Dhabi Grand Prix followed by Webber in second. Alonso finished 14th in the Renault. Like so many other tracks that F1 visits, the Yas Marina circuit is another Hermann Tilke track. Red Bull has been the strongest team on Tilke tracks this season and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be this time around. However, they don’t have the results to show for it. Alonso, on the other hand, has wins at the Tilke-designed or Tilke-renovated tracks in Bahrain, Korea and Hockenheim. Red Bull’s only Tilke track win came in Malaysia thanks to Vettel. However, there were strong performances at Korea and Turkey that were for naught.

It looks like qualifying will play a big role in this race. In the 18 races so far this season, Vettel has scored nine poles and Webber has started at the front of the grid five times. Alonso only has two poles to his credit this year. The best way to finish up front in Formula One is to start upfront and Red Bull definitely has the edge in that department.

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