The relationship between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber has been one of this year's most gripping plotlines, and the final chapter will be written on Sunday afternoon. While falling short of the all-out war that raged between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in 1989, there is real friction between the two. Since Vettel's Brazilian Grand Prix victory, everyone has been wondering whether the young German will be willing to cede to Webber if required to give him the title.
Despite the confusing signals, have no doubt that he will, but not until the very last moment.
More interesting is what will happen if the pair end up together on track. Were Alonso to retire or drop back, there is a scenario whereby the two Red Bulls could find themselves in a winner-takes-all battle for first place. But if that happens, even if Alonso is out, they will know that a repeat of Istanbul could hand the title to the Spaniard, or even, if he wins the race and all three rivals fail to score, Lewis Hamilton! What's more, imagine what would happen if Vettel dropped behind Webber just as Alonso himself retired - then Seb would have given away the world championship!
Qualifying was a mixed bag for Alonso. On the one hand he was delighted to have split the Red Bulls, but on the other he wasn't expecting to find Hamilton's McLaren ahead of him. The two-time world champion has the simplest title equation of all. Win or finish second in the race, and he will be crowned. But from third on the grid he could find himself in a position whereby he is very vulnerable to changes of circumstance in the race.
Two years ago, Hamilton and McLaren came within 20 seconds of losing the title to Felipe Massa and Ferrari because they had been too conservative during the Brazilian Grand Prix and stayed 'on the bubble' of the fifth place that he needed. While Vettel has nothing to lose by going all out for victory and Webber knows he has to take risks to get ahead of the Spaniard and the McLarens, Alonso will have a metaphorical slide rule in his cockpit as the race evolves around him.
McLaren can be kingmaker
McLaren's drivers could play a role in the title outcome © Sutton
Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button start second and fourth respectively after McLaren's most competitive qualifying performance since Monza, with the 2008 champion quick to credit the team for making its latest-specification rear wing work effectively. That means that both are potentially pivotal in the championship fight.
Obviously, Hamilton has his own title aspirations, but he needs both Red Bulls and Alonso to hit trouble to take the title. From their starting positions, there's every chance that both Hamilton and Button will find themselves interspersed with the Red Bulls and Alonso. The most likely to benefit from the McLaren cavalry might just be Vettel, although all that could change once the red lights go out and things get mixed up!
Keep an eye on the McLarens during the race as they could play a central role in the ever-shifting points permutations.
With the top 10 qualifiers compelled to start on the tyres they used for their best Q3 laps, the front five rows of the grid will all get underway on option (super soft) rubber. On paper, the quickest way to complete 55 laps of the Yas Marina track would be to start on prime (medium) Bridgestones because the track will rubber in significantly as the race goes on, making the options faster and more durable in the closing stages.
On top of that, the track temperature will likely be lower once night falls mid-race, making warming up the harder compound more difficult if used for the second stint. All of this means that there will likely be a decent number of drivers starting the race on the primes and on a charge on options in the closing stages. Remember Kamui Kobayashi at Suzuka?
It's not all about the big guns
Few have eyes for anything other than the battle for the drivers' championship, but there are still a couple of intriguing battles down the order to keep an eye on. In the constructors' championship, in which a change of a single position can make a difference of millions of dollars, Williams is only one point ahead of Force India in the battle for sixth.
Virgin is still in contention for top 'new team' honours © LAT
Rubens Barrichello starts seventh after a great qualifying effort and with Adrian Sutil and Tonio Liuzzi 13th and 16th that puts Williams in the box seats. However, Force India has shown a knack for converting mediocre qualifying performances into points lately, giving the team hope of taking what would be an impressive top six constructors' position.
Sixth place in the drivers' championship remains up for grabs too, with Felipe Massa, Nico Rosberg and Robert Kubica fighting it out, while the Williams v Force India battle also has an impact on the individual standings, with Barrichello currently holding 10th on countback ahead of Sutil!
Further back, keep an eye on the new teams. Currently, Lotus has the all-important 10th place in the constructors' championship, but if a Virgin or an HRT can pick up an 11th place, with neither Jarno Trulli nor Heikki Kovalainen ahead, it will earn them new team glory.
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