Title advantage has swung Vettel’s way as F1 heads to India

Sebastian Vettel’s recent domination notwithstanding the 2012 Formula 1 season has been one of the most competitive in recent memory and while it is likely that the German will be in prime position to claim a fourth consecutive victory at this weekend’s Indian Grand Prix there is still a lot of life left in the championship battle.

This weekend is a stop gap in the development war as a result of the difficultly of getting new aerodynamic parts to India but as a result the race will have a huge impact on the title fight. Red Bull should be able to maintain their advantage from recent races but with only four rounds remaining in the season there is now no margin for error as the sport heads towards the conclusion of a thrilling campaign.

The Buddh International Circuit

The lap opens with right hander that feeds directly into an ever opening left hander that will be little more than acceleration zone for drivers throughout the race but turn four, a hairpin, could lead to problems at the start of the race with drivers jockeying for position before the long back straight that should see speeds in excess of 205 mp/h. It is here that one of the DRS zones will be deployed during Sunday’s race and should provide a great overtaking opportunity.

The middle sector of the lap sees drivers tackle a series of chicanes which lead into one another in a manner similar to a giant bus stop. The final sector starts just before turn ten which looks set to be the most challenging of the circuit. The corner is very open on the way in before gradually tightening on the exit. The challenge for drivers will be to take the first part of the corner as wide as possible so that they can straighten the exit of the corner and keep their speed as fast as possible before entering another fast chicane.

Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi echoed the thoughts of much of the grid by saying he was looking forward to racing in India again but wants to see how the track has developed in the last year:

“I am keen to see what the circuit will be like when we arrive there for the second time,” said the Japanese driver. “Last year everything was new and the surface was very dusty. The track lay out as such should probably mean our performance will be average, which means we should be able to score points there. It is a bit similar to the Korean circuit, which might have something to do with the fact the same designer did it at about the same time.”

Ferrari need to bounce back before it’s too late

Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso is only six points behind Vettel but having suffered in recent races with two crashes and poor performance it is clear that the momentum behind Vettel is far more than a six point championship advantage. Since Red Bull introduced a major upgrade at the Singapore Grand Prix the team has found tremendous performance advantage.

The Double DRS that was utilised with this major upgrade has provided the team with a significant advantage in qualifying trim but, as ever with an Adrian Newey designed car, it is the overall packaging of multiple new parts that has been the catalyst for the Milton Keynes squad’s revival.

Ferrari have not won since the mid summer German Grand Prix and Alonso’s title challenge was founded on maximising on circumstances and then being ultra consistent. His wins in Malaysia and Germany, as well as finishing second at Silverstone, were all aided by wet weather. In Malaysia the Spaniard claimed a superb wet weather victory in what was at the time a poor car.

Ferrari were quickly able to develop their car into a genuinely fast machine, as shown by Alonso’s front row start in Barcelona and his speed at numerous other mid season races. But the nagging doubts have remained about his team’s ability. Since Germany they have struggled for pace and Alonso has been going to a gun fight with only a handful of bullets.

He managed to claim podiums and strong points finishes when the car wasn’t capable of winning but when McLaren released a major upgrade after the summer break the writing was on the wall for Ferrari. They needed to find performance otherwise Alonso would be battling for fifth instead of third and his title lead could be evaporated.

As it transpired Alonso’s retirements in Belgium and Japan have been far more damaging to his title hopes than being hamstrung by his car. In Spa he was an innocent victim of Romain Grosjean but at Suzuka he was the architect of his own downfall with his first corner crash completely his own fault.

When this was coupled with Vettel’s dominance the momentum of the championship fight switched to the German and suddenly Ferrari are scrambling looking for speed. The team’s wind tunnels problems have been well documented throughout the season but it shows again just how difficult it will be for Fernando to win the title. If the team cannot develop new parts effecilvey there is little doubt that a third title will be handed to Vettel at the end of the season.

Vettel guns for four in a row

Alonso’s recent problems have given Vettel the ascendancy in the title fight but it would be very unfair to characterise his rise to the top of the standings as fortuitous. Vettel has been faultless throughout the last three races and has been a worthy winner of each with a combination of his trademark speed and consistency.

After retiring in Italy with his second alternator failure of the year it seemed as though Vettel was out of championship contention but winning in Singapore, Japan and Korea have vaulted him to the title lead. It will also make him very wary of being overconfident of winning the title. He has seen just how quickly the momentum can shift in F1 this year and he will be eager to capitalise on his cars speed again this weekend.

Most teams will have the same configurations as they had at Korea, Indian customs are notoriously difficult to navigate with new parts, so Red Bull should have the advantage this weekend but with McLaren and Ferrari planning new parts for the last three races of the season it is clear that the dye is far from cast on the title fight.

Ironically what Vettel has to fear most in the remaining races is the speed of the McLarens. The team’s Technical Director, Paddy Lowe, admitted they would develop the car to the end of the season and Lewis Hamilton will be motivated to leave the squad by winning races. The Woking squad may be out of championship contention but they will play a key role in the outcome of the title fight.

McLaren will either cost Vettel points or offer a potential buffer to Alonso and allow him to cushion his championship advantage. If the McLaren is a match for the Red Bull in the remaining races it is crucial for Vettel that he continues to win races.

The Drivers’ Championship advantage has swung to Red Bull but momentum is a strange thing in the sport and Vettel will need to continue pressing home his advantage otherwise the resilient Alonso could easily be the sports latest triple champion rather than Vettel.

There’s no place like home….

With ongoing legal issues coming sharply to the fore in the last fortnight this is a pivotal race for Force India team principal Vijay Mallya.

The Indian entrepreneur has been told to expect a hostile reception from his local Kingfisher Airways employees and numerous protests are planned. It will surely be a distraction for Mallya and the team and, in terms of their racing hopes, it could not have come at a worse time.

The team is seventh in the Constructors’ Championship, 27 points behind Sauber, and looks unable to break into the top six before the end of the season. According to paddock rumours they have already failed to match performance clauses in Nico Hulkenberg’s contract and the German looks likely to leave the team for Sauber at the end of the year.

Losing the highly rated former GP2 champion would be a big blow for Force India and would leave the team with Paul di Resta and possibly a second driver whose main function is to add padding to the teams bank account for 2013.

Ahead of this weekend’s race though Hulkenberg has deflected attention from his options for next season to focusing on his current employers chances of having a strong finish to the season:

“I know there is lots of talk about my future but at this point I don’t want to make a comment on the speculation,” said an understandably evasive Hulkenberg when asked about his future. “I’ll just focus on this weekend, which is the most important thing.”

The team were always likely to  be at the centre of attention this weekend but with the threat of industrial action hanging over the paddock it is likely that Mallya and Force India will rarely be off screen until the paddock leaves Delhi.

Setup challenges facing the teams this weekend

The Indian track instantly became a favourite with the drivers following last year’s inaugural race. The fast corners and long straights are interspersed with slower, technical sections that provide a real challenge for teams in trying to find the best balance possible. Sauber’s Giampaolo Dall’Ara commented about this difficulties before the teams arrived in India:

“The race track has similar characteristics to the one in South Korea. It has a first sector with long straights and slow speed corners, then there is the mainly high speed second sector, and a short third sector with some low speed corners,” said the Italian.

“Maybe the main difference is that the track in India has some slopes while the track in Korea is flat, and in India there are some bumps as well. The temperatures are expected to be higher, but also the tyres are harder – the compounds will be hard and soft, and I expect the hard one to be a challenge on this type of track. An interesting aspect compared to most of the other races this year is the fact there will be two DRS sections with two detection zones, which should normally help overtaking”.

William’s Mark Gillan also discussed the setup difficulties of this track:

“On the back of a disappointing result in Korea the team have worked extremely hard to address the balance inconsistencies that affected both cars,” said the Englishman. “We believe that we have found a solution and look forward to testing and optimising around the updated car. The weather forecast in Delhi is good with predicted dry running throughout the weekend in reasonably high track temperatures and, as ever, the aim is to keep both the Pirelli hard and soft tyres within their optimal working window throughout the weekend.”

Weather for this weekend

Clear skies and high temperatures are expected throughout the weekend which play into the strengths of the Red Bull drivers once again with Ferrari likely to have to resort to a rain dance on Sunday if they are to have the potential speed to challenge the reigning champions.

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