For the fourth time in the past six seasons, the Formula One World Driver’s Championship will come down to the final race. It is also the third time in that period that the championship destiny will be decided at the Brazilian Grand Prix, perhaps the most unpredictable race on the calendar.
There could not be a greater contrast with the shining new Circuit of the Americas which hosted last weekend’s United States Grand Prix. The Interlagos track is proof that the chaos theory can be applied to Formula One.
This is the track where they have to dismantle the grandstands each year, to prevent them from being stolen. Advertising hoardings have fallen onto the start straight, stray dogs have sprinted across the asphalt, at one race two safety cars collided!
There was even a Brazilian Grand Prix when the winner’s trophy was given to the wrong driver. The race in 2003 was stopped by red flags when Fernando Alonso’s Renault had a massive accident after hitting the debris from Mark Webber’s car.
Kimi Raikkonen was told he’d won. As he celebrated on the podium, Giancarlo Fisichella was in the pitlane surveying his burned-out Jordan, which had caught fire on his slowing down lap.
It was only later that it was realised that Fisichella had actually been leading at the time the race was stopped. The Italian driver was eventually handed the trophy two weeks later!
This edgy environment will not help the composure of either of the championship contenders this weekend. Sebastian Vettel arrives in Sao Paolo with a slender thirteen point lead after finishing second to Lewis Hamilton in the American race, while Alonso delivered another gritty performance to finish third and ensure his championship challenge came down to the final round.
To become champion Vettel only needs to finish fourth or better, even if Fernando Alonso were to win. However, Alonso knows from painful experience that you can lead into the final race, but not be crowned champion. He has twice seen the title slip from his grasp. In 2010 he started the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi as the points leader, only for the Ferrari team to call him into the pits at the wrong time. The strategic error dropped him to seventh place, handing the title to race-winner Vettel.
In 2007, Alonso and Lewis Hamilton were feuding team-mates at McLaren, but still 1-2 in the championship.
They headed into the final race at Interlagos with a seven point lead over Ferrari driver Raikkonen. A second place for Alonso or sixth for Lewis Hamilton would have made them champions.
However Felipe Massa sacrificed a certain victory to allow team-mate Raikkonen to head a one-two for Ferrari. Alonso finished third and Raikkonen became world champion.
Ironically, the closest fought championship final in Formula One history saw Alonso’s now Ferrari team-mate Massa fail in his bid for the championship. In 2008, championship leader Lewis Hamilton needed fifth place for the title.
However Brazilian home hero Massa’s charging performance and victory took him just one point short of the champions’ crown. Massa briefly thought he had claimed the title, Hamilton gained his required fifth place only on the very last corner of the last lap of the last race of the season.
Adding to the pressures Sebastian Vettel this weekend is the spectre of a potential reliability issue for Red Bull, after Mark Webber’s car was sidelined by their third alternator failure of the season in Texas.
There is little doubt that the Red Bull car has greater pace than the Ferrari, but even Red Bull designer Adrian Newey has referred to the recurring fault as their “ticking time bomb”.
Vettel may only need to finish fourth to be champion, but first he needs to finish. If he doesn’t, Alonso’s and Ferrari’s last-round luck might just change.
Steve Slater is an F1 race commentator on STAR Sports