If, as many expect, Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel win the 2012 Formula One World Championship, much of it will be due to the team’s ability to handle pressure. From being unfancied outsiders at the mid-point of the season, Vettel’s late season Red Bull charge has knocked Fernando Alonso and Ferrari off the championship’s top spot.
However, if Ferrari win, it should be put down to Fernando Alonso’s continuing resilience. As the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix gave us one of the most drama-filled races of the season, Alonso again beat the odds after starting from sixth, claiming second place and keeping his title hopes alive.
Now with just two races remaining, the pressure on both teams is reaching its maximum and errors are slipping in. A battle of resilience as much as pace will swing the title balance.
In Abu Dhabi, Red Bull came close to blowing it. During qualifying, Lewis Hamilton found new pace to claim pole position for McLaren, but the Red Bulls were running him close while the Ferraris were again struggling. Then right at the end of the session, Vettel stopped at the side of the track.
Fall in fuel pressure
The German had been ordered to pull over because team engineers detected a fall in fuel pressure. Worse still, in post-qualifying scrutiny, the officials were only able to extract 850ml of the required one litre fuel sample from the car. As a result Vettel’s qualifying times were annulled.
There may be parallels here with Lewis Hamilton’s exclusion from qualifying in Spain in May. In Hamilton’s case, a refuelling error had simply seen too little fuel put into his car.
Last Saturday, initially the Renault engineers suspected a fuel system failure and ordered Vettel to stop the car because they did not want to risk a seized fuel pump damaging the engine. However, subsequent investigations by the team indicated that a calibration problem with the fuelling equipment, putting insufficient fuel into the car, is the most likely culprit.
Whatever the reason, the result was that Vettel had to start last. Even in adversity though, the Red Bull Racing team showed its strength and ability to innovate. After this incident, the team pulled the car out of parc-ferme and completely changed its set-up for the race.
Pushed to the last
The move meant that Vettel would start from the pit lane, even further behind the rest of the field. However, crucially the team changed the car’s gear ratios to allow extra speed down the straights with the DRS wing deployed and they also changed the car’s suspension set-up for pure speed, even if it meant he would need to use a two-pit stop strategy, compared to a single-stop strategy for the other front-runners.
The gamble also relied on, as team manager Christian Horner later described it, “Sebastian driving 55 qualifying laps”. Vettel duly delivered with the ultimate comeback drive to finish third. While his progress was aided by two safety car periods during the incident-packed race, his spectacular performance proved Vettel a true racer.
Meanwhile, as pace-setter Hamilton was sidelined at half-distance, ironically by a fuel pressure problem, Kimi Raikkonen gave the Lotus name their first Formula One victory since Ayrton Senna in Detroit in 1987. The Finn thus became the eighth driver to win a race this season, ending Vettel’s four-in-a-row winning streak which began in Singapore in September.
Vettel now heads into the final two races of the year with a slender 10-point lead. With 25 points for a win, so long as Alonso finishes in the top four at the inaugural race in Austin, US — even if Vettel were to win — the championship battle will go down to the 20th and final race of the season.
That comes in the edgy, unpredictable surroundings of Sao Paolo, Brazil. It can’t get much better than this!
Steve Slater is an F1 race commentator on STAR Sports