So it all comes down to Brazil, again…

Motorsports: FIA Formula One World Championship 2011, Grand Prix of AustraliaFormula 1 isn’t exactly new to the concept of a last-race showdown. Anyone that knows the sport will agree that the 2012 season will deserve the grandstand finish that this year’s racing has merited. Two of the sport’s finest drivers, two World Championships each, both looking to become the youngest triple World Champion in history.

Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel are two of F1’s supposed “Big Three”, along with Lewis Hamilton (whom without reliability problems throughout the season, would almost certainly have been in this battle, too).

Vettel is gunning for his third consecutive title, but this situation will be new to him. This is the first time he will be leading the Championship going into the last race of the season (without having won it beforehand, by a mile…) so it’ll be interesting to see how he handles the different kind of pressure. The points situation has been played out many times already, but here it is anyway, in case you missed it:
Vettel: 273 Points
Alonso: 260 Points

This is almost the exact polar opposite situation to 2010, in which Alonso was leading by 15 points going into the final race at Abu Dhabi, only for a strategic problem leaving him stranded behind the then Renault of Vitaly Petrov. Vettel sailed home to a comfortable, almost trademark win, and swiped the title from under the Spaniard’s nose. Who’s to say that that won’t happen again? The track at Interlagos is famous for providing changeable weather conditions, a fast layout and elevation changes that have caught out so many in the past. It’s even decided a Championship on the last corner of the last lap, so don’t go counting your metaphorical chickens too soon…

Some observers have rated Alonso’s consistency and his ability over the season to wrangle his car way beyond its limits as nothing short of staggering. His Ferrari was (now rather famously) 1.5 seconds off the pace in qualifying at the first race in Australia, but he still managed a podium out of it. At the next race in Malaysia, he showed his inherent calm under pressure from a flying Sergio Peréz to take the win in the wet. This relentless consistency has seen him at or around the top of the table all season, and many saying deservedly so. However, this hasn’t come without its problems. At Spa, Alonso was caught in the crossfire of Romain Grosjean testing whether a McLaren could fly into La Source. He was also dumped out of the race at the first corner in Japan, courtesy of a tussle between the sister Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen. Without those, needless to say he would’ve been far better off in the points tally.

The Red Bull of Vettel has had a mixed bag this season. He started the year in the third best car behind the McLaren and the then competitive Mercedes, and it’s safe to say that Vettel’s results reflected that speed early on. But he’s infamously meticulous with his team and he will push them as hard as he possibly can until they have a solid pace. This paid dividends when he had a pit-stop sized lead at the European Grand Prix in Valencia, only for an alternator failure to stop him in his tracks. Ironically, a charging Alonso came from 11th on the grid to take the 25 points there. The RB8 has been improving considerably every race, and they reaped the rewards under Vettel with four wins, a second and a third in the last six races, dropping just 17 points.

For Vettel to win the title, he needs to finish 4th or higher, regardless of where Alonso finishes. If he would be to finish 4th and Alonso won, he would win the title on account of having more race victories this season. So Alonso has to at least finish on the podium to stand any chance at all, a win would need Vettel to finish 5th or lower, a 2nd placed finish would need Vettel to finish 8th or lower, and a 3rd place would necessitate a 9th place finish or below for Vettel.

Unlike previous seasons, there are relatively few title permutations, so watching the race for the result should be relatively simple, for a change…

Alonso himself has said that he has “Nothing to lose”, and for a driver of his obvious pedigree, that is a pretty scary prospect for the rest of the grid. A Fernando Alonso on a mission is a driver that should strike fear into anyone that threatens to get in his way. Sunday will be the greatest test of Sebastian Vettel’s nerve as a driver, and of his overall character. Sceptics of his driving have said that he can only win from the front. Abu Dhabi would have disproved that wholly, to reach the podium from the pit lane is never easy, no matter how many strokes of luck you get.

So the stage is set for a weekend that will see one man placed among the all-time greats. If the rest of the season is anything to go by, prepare for a classic. I’m quite looking forward to this.

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