Last weekend Sebastian Vettel took a commanding win in the Korean Grand Prix to take the lead for the first time in the 2012 world championship. In so doing he delivered a strong statement of intent towards the trophy he already holds, as he bids to become the first F1 driver since Alberto Ascari to win three consecutive titles.
Questions abound, though, over whether he can do it, and if so, what the future holds. Is the Red Bull driver now a dead cert for 2012 glory? Can Alonso’s consistency trump him? And what of 2013/2014? Is there anything to the rumour of a Maranello seat?
The answers to 2012 are relatively straightforward. Barring mechanical mishap, the Red Bull seems now to be the fastest car on a consistent basis and should take the honours. This has not been the case all season, and the Milton Keynes outfit have more of a reputation for producing fragility with their flair than do, say, Ferrari. But flair it is, of late. Whatever double diffuser business has been bolted on to the back of that car is working its Newey magic, even if the man himself denied in Japan that his squad were using any innovation.
What of Vettel? He can crack under pressure, say the doubters. He has an uneasy rapprochement with Mark Webber, the gritty Australian only ever a race weekend away from presenting the German with a real headache. And that Vettel penchant for collecting the trinkets of pole, fastest lap and race win could one day be his undoing. But not really. He has the scent of victory in those nostrils and, like a dog on a hunt, is uncatchable when he is in imperious mood. He is usually faster than Webber, often enough for the inverse to be remarkable, and the same is true of Vettel mistakes. Once in a Red Bull moon.
Can Alonso spoil the party? Alas, probably not. The Asturian had his best chance blown when his consistency failed – thanks mainly to Grosjean’s bonkers attack in Spa and Raikkonen’s unwitting nerf in Japan. Two ‘nul points’ for the Ferrari man effectively put the kibosh on the championship, because the car isn’t quick enough. Despite the miracles of which Alonso is capable, this looks a stretch.
So let’s say Vettel wins the title this year – 2012 sewn up, history and a record made, and the comparisons to Schumacher ever louder and more hysterical. What then for Seb? Only to do what the great man did, and the same thing as has been fanfare surrounding Lewis Hamilton. Go elsewhere. Take an underperforming team, and take them to the top. Make yourself not just the best in the best car, but the best across the board. Engrave your name, rather than just writing it, in this era when we see a plethora of talented scribes.
Where would that be? No names spring to mind, except the main one. The big one. The Prancing Horse. Some days ago the BBC reported that Vettel and Ferrari have some kind of pre-agreement for 2014; a story which has conspicuously not been picked up and run with by the other main F1 news outlets. (It did cause a ruckus on the blogosphere, and what James Allen rather meanly refers to as the ‘cut and paste’ websites – you don’t mean us, I hope, James.) And then we had a protracted denial and non-denial, until we have nothing concrete whatsoever to go on. And that is why we must speculate.
The motivation on Vettel’s side seems clear, then, but what about Maranello itself? Could it absorb a man so demonstrably capable as Vettel? And alongside Alonso? Unthinkable, really, that a man who has only just carved out a niche (in a team in which he is comfortable and has a realistic shot at the title) would allow that blissful privacy to be invaded thus. Maybe Alonso’s self-confidence has grown since 2007 when he freaked at Hamilton’s speed in the same machinery. But Vettel or Massa disrupting his wholehearted effort at winning his long overdue third title? It’s a no-brainer for Alonso. Keep that Brazilian on, please, Mr di Montezemolo.
And Luca himself only utters some undecipherable dross about roosters and henhouses, and the Horse Whisperer only denies that Vettel will never come to Ferrari, and we are still in the dark. It doesn’t make any sense for a lot of people in Ferrari, specifically Alonso, and perhaps also more tellingly for the marque itself. Best chance of glory in years and your drivers are fighting over it? Doesn’t sound like them, does it? And yet, and yet. Could they co-operate? Best man win, and all that? Stranger things have happened, and there are whispers that Ecclestone wants to see it.
All conjecture aside, the only thing of which we can be sure is that Vettel is proving himself to reside in a very small class at the pinnacle of motorsport. A class in which there is only, on current form, one other man. How mouth-watering to see them in equal machinery! But the chance would be a fine thing…