It could be a script from one of those black and white cowboy westerns of the 1950s. The clean-cut young gun-slinger, complete with the good-guy reputation, squaring up to a tough Spanish hombre under the harsh Texan sun.

This weekend though it is for real, as the 2012 Formula One World Championship reaches its climax at the Circuit of Americas in Austin, Texas.

Clean-cut Vettel comes into the shoot-out with the sun at his back, at least in terms of carrying a ten-point advantage into the final two races of the season. His trigger-finger though will be edgy; the Red Bull team will be haunted by the qualifying bungle that relegated the German to last place for the race start in Abu Dhabi.

Although the team has understandably remained tight-lipped, a number of well-informed pundits have suggested that the team made a fundamental error when refuelling Vettel’s car.

Before each qualifying session, the car’s fuel consumption is carefully calculated and as each kilogramme of fuel slows lap speeds by around 0.04 of a second per lap, the absolute minimum of fuel is loaded on board.

It has been speculated that the team calculated this fuel consumption based on data from Mark Webber’s car, but the Australian’s driving style is more fuel efficient than the more throttle-heavy Vettel.

The difference is probably just 10g of fuel per lap, but it was enough to run Vettel’s tank dry and breach the rules requiring a one litre fuel sample to be taken from the car.

Hundredth GP start

Vettel’s recovery drive was perhaps one of the best of his career, which in the USA will mark his 100th GP start.

His charge through the field from 24th to an eventual third place certainly allayed those critics who have complained that he has only been able to race from the front of the grid. So saying, Vettel was lucky too.

He got away with only minor front wing damage after clipping the back of Bruno Senna’s Williams as he charged from 24th to 17th on the opening lap.

Then he wrecked the wing completely during the first safety car period, after mistiming a burst of power to warm his tyres he nearly tailgated Jean-Eric Vergne’s Toro Rosso and swerved into a marker board as he took avoiding action.

Luckily the trackside board was made only of expanded polystyrene and quick Red Bull pit work both changed the nose and put new soft-compound tyres to allow him to re-join at the back of the now bunched pack.

Vettel again scythed his way to the front of a drama-packed race, but he had to fight hard to find a way past Jenson Button for his place.

Button, despite fading tyres, defended superbly before Vettel prevailed with a spectacular move around the outside of Turn 11, to grab the final podium place with just three laps remaining.

Meanwhile Fernando Alonso’s performance was no less tenacious. Despite only qualifying sixth, the Spaniard’s opening lap passes on Button and Mark Webber were truly impressive, but it took him till Lap 21 to find a way past Pastor Maldonado’s Williams and there was no way he could match the pace of Lewis Hamilton or the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen which inherited victory when the race-leading McLaren suffered a fuel system failure.

The lack of Ferrari qualifying pace could again hobble Alonso in Texas this weekend. However the Spaniard’s ability to wrestle points-scoring race results from the Ferrari could still stand him in good stead and there is a clear feeling that whatever the odds, Alonso is going to take the challenge to the wire.

Even were Vettel to win at the Circuit of the Americas, fourth place or better would still allow Alonso to take the title battle to the hot, humid, often rain-soaked and frequently unpredictable environment of Sao Paolo.

What better location for a tough Spanish hombre to turn the tables in a final championship shoot-out?

Steve Slater is an F1 race commentator on STAR Sports

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