Sebastian Vettel is one of four drivers with a shot at the Formula One drivers' championship in Abu Dhabi. But not even victory on Sunday would guarantee success, in a season the young German might have dominated.
Vettel needs a win, and some luck, to finish as number one
23-year-old Sebastian Vettel could become Formula 1's youngest ever world champion in Abu Dhabi this weekend, but the odds are rather stacked against him. Although Vettel surely has a long, successful career ahead of him, he may later come to rue the 2010 championship as "the one that got away."
"Obviously I have good memories from Abu Dhabi," Vettel, who won the season finale last year, told reporters. "I will be hoping to get another good result this year, but let's see. There's everything still to play for in the drivers' championship."
Four drivers have a shot at the title, yet only championship leader Fernando Alonso is master of his own destiny. For the Ferrari lead driver, second place or higher on Sunday guarantees him the championship, regardless of what his rivals do.
Then things start getting complicated.
Vettel's Red Bull team mate Mark Webber is second, and there are still a number of permutations by which he could end up victorious. The most likely, though, is if the Australian wins on Sunday, and Alonso finishes third or lower.
Alonso (r.), Webber (l.), and Vettel are the most likely candidates
Fourth-placed Lewis Hamilton is only mathematically in the hunt. McLaren's 2008 champion needs to win the race - which is unlikely enough in itself, going on recent form - and then hope major misfortunes befall every other title contender.
As far as Vettel's concerned, his fifteen-point disadvantage against Fernando Alonso is the biggest headache. There's every chance the German could win Sunday's race, and in so doing he would leapfrog his team mate Webber in second place. But Vettel would also need Alonso to finish no higher than fifth if he is to be crowned champion. Realistically, that means Vettel needs Alonso to retire - in the last eight races, the Spanish double world champion has finished in the top three seven times, and retired once.
The closest one-sided season ever?
"The target is clear," Vettel said in Abu Dhabi, adding that all he can really do is win and then hope for the best. "The speed has been there all season, and it was not the easiest season for myself. We are still in the hunt and we will try our best."
On paper, 2010 has proved one of the closest and most exciting F1 seasons of all time, but it really could have been a tedious walkover. Sadly for Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, it's the non-points-paying statistics that tell the true story of their dominance. Between them, the Red Bull duo have led over 60 percent of the racing laps this season - and both have led roughly three times more laps than their rivals Hamilton and Alonso. Although ultimately unimportant, this is probably a better reflection of the relative speed of the drivers and cars than the current points tally - and there are other such indicators.
"So far, Red Bull have taken 14 pole positions in 18 races, which is absolutely unbelievable," the editor of motorsport-total.com, Christian Nimmervoll told Deutsche Welle. "So the pace of the car was by far the fastest of the whole field."
The Red Bull car has consistently been the class of the 2010 field
Red Bull wrapped up the teams' title at the last race in Brazil, but the drivers' championship may yet elude them. Nimmervoll says the team partly struggled to convert their one-lap qualifying speed into superiority over race distances, but that Red Bull's biggest problem has been a combination of reliability woes, driver errors, and tactical mistakes.
"Yes, you could argue they should have wrapped it up already, and if we are talking about one specific driver, then I think Sebastian Vettel has been extremely unlucky this year. He lost at least three races that I can remember where he was leading and then he either dropped back or retired from the race altogether with problems that weren't his own fault."
Bahrain, Korea, Melbourne and Singapore are all examples where Vettel's car let him down; in China and Canada, poor strategic decisions spoiled the German's chances of a good race; and in Turkey and Silverstone, Vettel made his own life difficult by fighting tooth and nail with his team mate Webber, and coming off second best.
"Team," but not "mates"
The relationship between Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull has always been frosty, but this year - with a title on the line - it's deteriorated noticeably. Things first came to a head at the Turkish Grand Prix, where the duo collided while leading the race, and then proceeded to blame each other for the incident.
Their smiles say one thing, their body language another
A dispute over the allocation of parts at the British Grand Prix, where Webber felt he was getting the short straw, again revealed the tensions behind the scenes, and telling body language and the occasional veiled snipe in the press have kept the pot bubbling ever since.
"With lots of things to do, there are better things to spend more energy on that what happens on Sunday," Vettel told reporters when asked about the prospect of yielding to let his team mate win a title. "We have had some occasions where we got close and it didn't go too good, so the main target is not to repeat that. And the rest, we will see."
If Vettel wins Sunday's race, with Webber second and Alonso third, then the Ferrari driver would win the championship. However, if Vettel were to cede first place to his team mate, Webber would be crowned champion.
"We can't control what our rivals do, but for both of (our drivers), the objective is to win," Red Bull team principle Christian Horner said when asked about the prospect of team orders in the race. "Ultimately, if one of them can't do that, and if he's in a position to help the other - whilst that would be his choice – I would expect that both drivers recognize that they drive for a great team and are big team players. I've got no doubt that they would do the right thing to help their team mate."
Should either Vettel or Webber sacrifice their own race to help the other triumph, it's probably safe to say they would be doing so as a show of loyalty to their employer, not their team mate.
Author: Mark Hallam
Editor: Andreas Illmer