And then there were four!
Only Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton can now win the 2010 Drivers' Championship after yesterday's Brazilian Grand Prix. Hamilton needs a victory in Abu Dhabi and a whole seasons' worth of bad luck to befall the other three contenders if he is going to take it, but both Webber and Vettel have a decent chance of overhauling Alonso in the fight for the title.
But the Brazilian Grand Prix did more than just narrow the points gap between the top three – providing us with a grandstand finish in the Middle East. It also tested the resolve and principles of the newly crowned constructors' champions. It was a test that Red Bull passed with flying colours and, for that reason, the person who should now win the title is Mark Webber.
Whether the Hindu and Buddhist concept of karma can be applied directly to motorsport is probably a matter for great theological debate but, for the purposes of this argument, let us assume that it can. If the sum of a person's actions affects their future fate, then a Red Bull driver is more deserving of the title than Fernando Alonso. Allow me to elaborateâ€¦
For over half of the race distance at Interlagos, the team from Milton Keynes had the constructors' title in the bag – barring any reliability problems. Vettel led from Webber, Alonso was a distant third, and this was how the race finished. As it stands, Webber is eight points behind Alonso in the championship standings and Vettel is a further seven points behind his teammate.
From his view from the pit wall, team principal Christian Horner will have undoubtedly realised that, if he were to send some coded message to Vettel, telling him to let Webber past, then not only would Red Bull still be crowned constructors' champions, but they would be appreciably closer to the drivers title. If the finishing order had been Webber, Vettel and then Alonso, the Ferrari driver would now have just one more point than Webber, and the Aussie's task in Abu Dhabi would be much more straightforward.
Moreover, Sebastian Vettel, and to a lesser extent Mark Webber, don't exactly have engine mileage to spare. Vettel lost one in Korea, and could have done without being pushed so hard by Webber for the entire race at Interlagos. The gap to Alonso for most of the race was such that, if the switch had been carried out, and the order to hold station could have been given, the drivers could conserve the Renault units for Abu Dhabi, thus giving them a better chance of stopping Alonso.
But Horner didn't send the order – and neither did Dietrich Mateschitz, owner of the energy-drinks company that gives the team its name. The team let their drivers' race, and didn't give preference to either man. Speaking on the BBC after yesterday's race Horner made his position clear. “It would have been wrong to switch them (Vettel and Webber) today. We've backed them both equally all year and it would have been wrong to artificially take one driver out of this championship.”
Would it have been wrong? Would the watching public have understood? As it is Vettel needs Alonso to finish lower than fifth in Abu Dhabi to have any hope of winning the title. A win for Mark Webber doesn't guarantee the title – but it would if the switch had taken place. Besides, gifting Webber seven extra points at the expense of his teammate would just be giving Ferrari a taste of their own medicine after the now famous “Fernando is faster than you” message in Germany.
Refusal to manipulate the result may well cost Red Bull the drivers' championship, but the fact that they didn't give into the temptation, sacrifice their sporting integrity for a better chance at glory, should be applauded. They now have the moral high ground. If Alonso does win the title, it may well be by less than seven points – the number that he gained by passing Massa at Hockenheim – and thus, in the eyes of some F1 fans, his third title will be forever tainted.
And there are other karmic reasons as to why others are more deserving of the title than Alonso. His arrival at Ferrari has had an adverse effect on Felipe Massa, which could partially account for his lack of form in 2010. Alonso was demanding favourable treatment from as early as the Australian Grand Prix – the second race of the season – and has sulked, cried foul and whinged whenever things haven't gone his way. This may be a result of his Latin temperament, but at times, especially when he felt wronged by the safety car deployment and Hamilton's penalty at the European Grand Prix, his whining has been undignified and unbecoming of a world champion.
Alonso is a fantastic driver – some say the most talented on the grid – but at times in his career his win-at-all-costs mentality and the demands from his team for favourable treatment have blighted our appraisal of him, and diminish his greatness.
The Spaniard also somehow manages to leave a trail of destruction wherever he goes, but nothing sticks to him (hence the nickname Teflonso which he has acquired from some sections of the media). Since his last championship win in 2006 we have had spygate, crashgate and the team orders scandal. All somehow indirectly involved Alonso, and in some cases benefited him. He has escaped from all without punishment though, whilst his team at the time (McLaren, Renault and then Ferrari) suffered the consequences.
So whilst Alonso is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with, and probably still favourite with the bookmakers for the title, he may not be the favourite champion amongst the wider public (apart from in Spain and Italy of course). For their off-track behaviour, and their sporting approach to the championship battle, one of the Red Bull drivers is surely more deserving.
So why Webber over Vettel? Both have made mistakes on track – Webber ran into the back of Heikki Kovalainen in Valencia and then crashed out in Korea, whilst Vettel caused the upset in Turkey and t-boned Jenson Button in Belgium – but mistakes have been a feature in this title race.
There are rumours that Vettel did have a touch of 'the Alonsos' early on in the season, when he expected some preferential treatment over Webber. In recent races, however, Vettel has accepted the team's equality policy, and done his talking on the track. Superb races in Japan, Korea (until his engine went) and yesterday in Brazil have shown that he is unbeatable on his day. He has also ironed out some of the mistakes which lost him the title last season and is improving all the time.
The German has youth on his side, years of Adrian Newey-designed masterpieces ahead of him, amazing talent, and will almost certainly be champion one day.
Mark Webber though, may never get such a good opportunity to grab the ultimate prize in motorsport. Barring the two mistakes mentioned earlier, the Aussie has been excellent this season, taking some mighty race wins and some important podiums. This season isn't his last chance at glory – he has a contract with Red Bull for 2011 – but this year may well mark his best chance.
It is hard to argue against him being the most deserving. The straight-talking Australian is a decent bloke, tells things how it is, and demands only an equal crack at the title compared to his teammate. He has fought his way into the best car on the F1 grid, and overcome many hurdles, not least a broken leg at the beginning of last season, to get into this position.
Webber did not have the luxury of Red Bull nurturing that Vettel enjoys. He did this the hard way. He hasn't moaned – at least not publicly – that the team didn't gift him the win in Interlagos. He may have had differences of opinion with the team management over the season, in particular with Helmut Marko, but it is refreshing that a driver can speak out for sporting fairness. Webber also knows how lucky he is to have such a dominant car, something he was quick to point out as he celebrated Red Bull's constructors' title yesterday evening.
So Webber is the person I would like to see take the title on Sunday. It will be a triumph of hard work and determination, and a victory for sporting fairness and integrity. It will also be the crowning achievement of the career for one of the down-to-earth men of the F1 world.
Of course, the perceived 'nice men' of F1, who always play to the spirit as well as the letter of the law, don't always finish first. It requires a ruthless streak, sometimes even downright deviousness, to be one of the best in this sport. Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher realised this, and were both successful champions.
Karma counts for little in sport, especially in Formula 1. We can all name a perennial underachiever – those friendly, likeable drivers who spent careers dealing with an 'unlucky' tag. Fernando Alonso may become a three-time winner of the drivers' championship on Sunday, but I urge all to raise a can of taurine-based energy drink to a possible Webber championship between now and lights-out in Abu Dhabi.