It never seemed like a foregone conclusion that Alonso would run away with the 2012 title, at any stage. Equipped with a lesser than favorable Ferrari engine, the Spaniard has driven the wheels off his car to remain on top, somehow, also gaining from the inconsistency of his rivals below.
At the Suzuka circuit in Japan over the weekend, with a lead of 29 points over Vettel, starting 6th on the grid- he was always going to play catch up through the race. In a way, as the red lights went off and they came around the first bend, Alonso’s misery was cut short. In seconds, he spun out- and the first lap of the race was going to be completed without the Championship leader. It was the wrong Ferrari that profited from the tangle, and Massa found himself in second place. One could sense that there was nobody happier on the circuit than Vettel, who suddenly found himself in an unfamiliar position of cutting down the lead to single digits if he just kept his head.
And that he did, finishing his first pole-to-flag race of the season, and winning his second in a row. This is the boy the world was astonished to see last year- flawless, cool and an air of invincibility around him.
Vettel was still not the most important story on the day, though, with his teammate Webber- who looked better than the rest in qualifying- falling victim to ‘first lap nutcase’ Roman Grosjean once again. His chances were wrecked as soon as he found himself ahead of Grosjean on the bend, and that was that. A clip from behind, and Webber was out of the Championship race altogether (now in 5th place with 134 points) with Grosjean finding himself on the receiving end of another tirade from his fellow drivers, as well as a 10-second penalty that effectively killed his own race.
But it was Kamui Kobayashi, the great home hope, who not only qualified 3rd (the highest a Japanese driver has qualified at Suzuka) but also completed a spectacular race to finish in the same position- much to the delight of the success-starved crowd. The weekend was near-perfect for most fans, with Vettel now just 4 points behind a fast-fading Alonso, and Raikkonen and Hamilton locked in their own battle for 3rd and 4th. As indicated, the smallest of errors- technical or human or Grosjean related- can throw the standings in disarray- because it has reached that point of the season.
Many Indian F1 fans will be licking their lips, knowing that the next race in Korea could bring up a new Championship leader- with Vettel in red hot form at the business end of the season. With Red Bull leading the constructors standings too, it’s all down to how Fernando Alonso and his team can soak up the pressure- because there is no more waiting and watching, and hoping for good fortune. Massa could play an important role after this confidence-boosting 2nd place finish, and must prove his worth as the no. 2 in his team.
By the time this merry brigade heads into Noida, unlike last year, there will be no outright favorite running away with a title that was destined to be his. There will be 2 contenders- going head to head- with 4 titles between them, and both of them looking for a title that will elevate them to the echelons of the great Senna. While Alonso represented a generation that took over from Schumacher, Vettel is now the face of a generation that is on the brink of another half-decade of dominance.
One way or the other, it will surely be the last time Michael Schumacher will be seen in a race car- and that could very well be reason enough to tune in, and zone out.