Vettel and Alonso narrow Formula One chase to two-horse race
While Ferrari struggle to make their car perform, Red Bull know it's time to pull out all the stops and take the race home
It's taken three-quarters of the season, but at last there's a bit of clarity at the top of the drivers' championship. The events of last weekend have made the world title a two-horse race. Fernando Alonso arrives in South Korea under intense pressure from Sebastian Vettel. With the German winning in Japan and Alonso not finishing, there's just four points between them. In the race for one of them to be crowned a three-time world champion, Vettel holds all the cards.
Red Bull have the most precious commodity in any sport - momentum. Vettel has won the last two races and he won in Yeongam last year. The Red Bull is the fastest car on the track at the moment, helped by its "double-DRS" aerodynamic tweak. Compare that to Ferrari. The Italian team have struggled with performance all year, and yet Alonso has wrung some amazing results from the car with a combination of dogged determination, dazzling skill and the ability of all the other teams to fall over their shoelaces. Over 20 races, it's unlikely to be enough.
It would appear Red Bull have decided it's time to pull out all the stops, like an athlete kicking off the final bend. The team claim to have made progress in all areas of the car. Team boss Christian Horner certainly feels it's a two-horse race, predicting: "You can't rule out the others, but whoever does the best job over the next five races will ultimately prevail."
There's an undertone of calm confidence in the pronouncement suggesting his man Vettel will - like in previous years - time his run to perfection.
One man who hasn't been timing his runs to perfection, certainly on the first lap, is Romain Grosjean. Mark Webber characteristically put it rather more succinctly in Japan, calling the Frenchman "a first-lap nutcase" for causing yet another crash off the grid. The Australian was the victim at Suzuka, being hit from behind by the Lotus.
After serving a ban for causing a pile-up at Spa, you would have thought Grosjean might tread more carefully. He's now been involved in incidents at eight races, five of them in the first lap. It prompted Jenson Button to say he needed to "sort his s**t out". You can expect the paddock to be a lonely place in Korea for Grosjean. Even his team have been less than supportive, saying it's up to the driver to sort his problems out.
Grosjean is not a bad driver; you don't get to be the GP2 champion without being able to control your car or yourself. Yet even then he had a reputation as someone who was crash-prone. All drivers in F1 are mentally tough and Grosjean will have to be to get this ironed out without affecting his performance. In the meantime, watch the start this weekend like a hawk, and if he has another early misfortune, enjoy the paddock name-calling.
There is better news for two other drivers who have been under pressure this season. Vettel may have been delighted with his win at the weekend, but the two other men on the podium had as much to celebrate. Both Filipe Massa and Kamui Kobayashi were looking odds-on to lose their race seats for next season. Now life is looking much rosier.
It's been reported that Ferrari would hang on to Massa if he produced the goods in Japan. Second place after being 10th on the grid certainly fits the bill. A first podium in two years for the likeable Brazilian was certainly a relief and securing a drive in one of the biggest teams will give him a platform to relaunch his career next year.
As for Kobayashi, how about securing your first ever podium in front of your home fans as a statement of intent? "I don't think I will lose my job," he said afterwards, as the fans remained in their seats to celebrate. Let's hope Peter Sauber agrees. It would be a shame not to see his trademark daring overtaking manoeuvres next season.