FEATURE BY CHRISTIAN KLIEN
With just one race to go the championship could not have been set up any better. It's been a long season with a lot of back-to-back races, a lot of them fly-aways outside of Europe, which is tough on everyone involved in the sport, especially the mechanics.
Last weekend Formula One returned to the United States for the first time in five years. The US is an important market for Formula One, and I must say I was impressed with what I saw of the Circuit of the Americas. It reminded me a lot of Istanbul; very modern but with a lot of challenging corners and undulation. It looked a real driver's circuit and one I hope I have the good fortune to race on in the future.
Because it was so new there wasn't a lot of grip, but I wonder if perhaps Hermann Tilke chose a surface that was deliberately slippery. I know Hermann well, and know he likes to use the same mixture for the tarmac for all his circuits but using local stones, which creates different grip levels.
Perhaps the American stones are smoother and give less grip, which isn't necessarily a bad thing - many of the best Formula One races are in wet and slippery conditions, and the US Grand Prix was one of the best races I've seen all year.
Of course one of the big talking points over the weekend was Ferrari choosing to penalise Felipe Massa to help Fernando Alonso. With Alonso fighting for the championship and Massa having lost a lot of points earlier in the season it was something the team really had to do, especially since Ferrari didn't have the pace of Red Bull. I think it was a clever move and in the end it paid off. Alonso got a fantastic start and was perhaps a little lucky to be on the podium, but it kept the championship alive, and that was the important thing for him and the team.
It was also good to see Lewis Hamilton win at last. He retired from the lead in both Singapore and Abu Dhabi with mechanical problems so it was good that he finally got the win. If Hamilton hadn't had those reliability problems it probably would have helped Alonso in the championship because Vettel wouldn't have scored quite as many points, reducing the advantage he was able to build with that phenomenal run of wins.
But Alonso is driving brilliantly, better than I ever remember seeing him drive. He's got such a cool head in the car and can absorb so much pressure, and I think that could be important in Brazil this weekend. The Ferrari hasn't been the fastest car all year but Alonso's been pushing the team, like Michael Schumacher used to, and that's been important.
It's something I don't think Vettel is able to do. Vettel is an amazing qualifier and usually if he gets pole he will go on to win, but I think he gets more flustered in the car than Alonso. I also don't think he's as good in traffic, which could be important this weekend.
I think the Red Bull has been the best car for a lot of the season, along with the McLaren, so on balance you have to say that Alonso has got more out of his package than Vettel. I dread to think what Fernando could do in a Red Bull; nobody would see him!
Even so Vettel has to start as favourite for the championship this weekend. The Interlagos circuit is fast and bumpy, so a car that can ride the bumps but is still stiff enough to corner well is important, and I think that suits the Red Bull more than the Ferrari.
There are a lot of long high speed sections out of corners, like up the hill on to the start/finish straight, so traction and corner exits are critical for a fast lap. There's a lot of time to be made or lost in the infield section too, where it's important to ride the kerbs to get the best lap time.
People talk about the fact it's an anti-clockwise circuit and how that is physically tough on drivers, but it's more the sheer number of left hand corners that's taxing. If the circuit had more right hand corners than left it would still hurt the driver's neck, so I don't think that causes too much of an issue. Plus all the drivers are incredibly fit, so they will be up for the challenge.
The weather suggests rain, which will make it interesting. I think this is Alonso's only hope because if it's a dry race I don't think he can stay with Vettel. But, if it's wet, Alonso's such a calm, experienced driver, and Ferrari has been good with strategy for much of the year, that I think he could just pip Vettel to the post. Whatever happens it's been a fantastic year and whoever does win the championship will have earned it.