Phoney war between drivers during calm before storm in Abu Dhabi
Before we got here this week Yas Marina Circuit was hit by a powerful sandstorm, which bent the trees backwards and dumped tonnes of sand on the track. This being Abu Dhabi they have a machine for sucking up the sand, so the racing will not be affected.
I’ve been at plenty of championship showdowns over the years. There is nothing like being here to look the contenders in the eye and see how they are coping with the pressure.
There have been some stormy ones, I recall Jerez 1997 for example and ten years later the acrimony at McLaren in the final race. But today we had a phoney war between the contenders in the press conference. Perhaps it is because this is not a duel for the title, but a battle between four contenders (albeit one with a slim chance) seems to diffuse the tension. None of the drivers was giving anything away. Webber was subdued, not about to hand any more hand grenade quotes to journalists. Vettel was relaxed and bouncy, he has nothing to lose and he’s enjoying “teasing” the media about whether he will let Webber through if the points dictate it.
This is the fourth time in six seasons that Alonso has been in the showdown, driving three different chassis, which tells its own story. He’s got the head for this, but he’s behaving in a very reserved way so far.
Everyone is talking about the possible permutations on Sunday, with most insiders expecting Sebastian Vettel to be out front waiting to see what kind of line up is behind him. In press briefings with drivers and with team principals, every scenario under the sun has been discussed, but until they go out ot qualify on Saturday no-one really knows.
My hunch is that Vettel will get pole and control the race and that the battle between Webber and Alonso for second place on the grid and into the first corner will decide the championship. Webber has struggled to match Vettel for pace since Monza, albeit some times he’s been only a tenth off in qualifying. He needs to raise his game and go out and take it this weekend, otherwise Alonso will have him.
The last two years’ champions, Hamilton and Button, have needed a fifth place to clinch. Ironically that is the result Vettel wants for Alonso this year, as it would allow him to keep his race lead and take the title.
Many feel that the championship has one more twist in store for it; a reliability issue, perhaps another engine failure for one of the contenders. Let’s hope not.
Red Bull confirmed today that Vettel’s failure in Korea, which dealt a body blow to his chances, was caused by a con-rod problem. The engine had done 1600km. Webber’s engine in Brazil had a radiator issue which caused it to run hot and the team won’t risk that engine this weekend. Alonso is on race three with the engine which won Monza and finished third in Brazil.
Meanwhile a group of us sat on the rooftop of the Red Bull hospitality this evening as darkness fell, talking tactics with Red Bull boss Christian Horner, who said that if the points dictate it he cannot imagine Vettel not letting Webber through, however he underlined that it would be “a gesture by the driver, not an instruction from the team.”
It would be a supreme irony if this season, which has been all about teammate rivalries and expectations, should end with Vettel handing the title to Webber. But we will have to see.
I also took in a visit to Michael Schumacher, who was pouring over the balance sheet of his season. A misfiring comeback, in many ways, the season has not turned out the way he or any of us expected.
He said he was not happy with some things this season, but was happy that he’d been able to get more out of the car recently not because of development, because they stopped that some time ago, but simply by learning more about it. He compared the way he feels today, “Really very good” with the end of 2006 when he retired, “Completely empty and overloaded.” He will be back next year, he said, because “I’m having fun.”
Further down the pit lane, the team currently known as Lotus threw in a curved ball by announcing that next year they will race in black and gold, the hugely evocative colours of Lotus at the time of the John Player Special sponsorship. For anyone 35 or over this is the car of their childhood.
Tony Fernandes is thinking on his feet as it looks increasingly likely that he will not be able to call his team Lotus next year due to licencing issues with Group Lotus, who are lining up to sponsor the Renault F1 team. Whether unwittingly or not, Fernandes’ move will irritate Renault F1 owner Gerard Lopez as I’m reliably informed by a French colleague that Lopez’ favourite toy as a child was his JPS Lotus and that it gave him a life long love of the brand..
Ferrari announced that Jules Bianchi will be the test driver, but stopped short of saying “reserve” driver, the spare man role at races currently carried out by Giancarlo Fisichella.