F1: Round 18 – Interlagos, Brazil – November 7

For the last five seasons, Brazil has been the place where the Formula 1 titles have been decided. With the driver’s championship at least so close coming into this weekend, it seemed unlikely that any one of the top contenders could win the 2010 title this weekend, but there was every possibility that several of them could lose it and drop out.

After Nico Hulkenberg’s remarkable pole position performance on Saturday, it made the young German an unpredictable element on the front row of the grid. Would his presence cause mayhem, or would it play into the title rivals’ hands?

The worst-case scenario as far as the spectacle was concerned was that the two Red Bulls would quickly pass Hulkenberg and be able to use the Williams as a mobile chicane behind them while they disappeared into an unassailable lead. And unfortunately, that’s pretty much what happened.

Hulkenberg tried to sweep over to the inside line to stave off Sebastian Vettel off the line, but it was no good: Vettel was already alongside, and he took the optimal line into turn 1 and was away, leaving Hulkenberg to contend with Mark Webber instead. But the Williams was not strong in the opening corners, and when Hulkenberg ran wide into the entry to Decida do Lago Webber was quick to take advantage and pass him on the exit. The Red Bulls were away and that was the end of that.

Next up to take on Nico Hulkenberg was Fernando Alonso, but it took seven laps of sustained pressure before Hulkenberg finally failed to cover the inside line again through Decida do Lago and allowed Alonso to complete the move. Then it was Lewis Hamilton’s turn, and despite battling hard the Briton was unable to get past, his best opportunity coming on lap 10 when it looked like Hamilton had the edge going into turn 1 on the inside; but it looked like Hulkenberg was going to turn in on him, and rather than risk a race-ending collision Lewis backed off. Lewis was not a happy bunny the entire afternoon, complaining early on about having no grip, and then later also querying whether the F-Duct system was working as it was giving him zero advantage.

It was down to Hamilton’s team mate Jenson Button to spark the next shake-up in proceedings, when he decided to pit from 10th place on lap 11, much earlier than anyone was expecting. That freed him up from the crowded midfield pack and put him back out in clean air and on fresh rubber that allowed him to put in some fast laps; immediately, the rest of the midfield runners realised that their hand was being well and truly forced, and in they came much earlier than intended or really wanted, given the tyre wear at Interlagos.

Fortunes were mixed – Felipe Massa, second to pit, had a disaster when a wheel nut was cross threaded, forcing him to limp around a lap before returning to the pits for a new front right tyre. But for Button it worked like a dream, leaving him up in fifth place after all the other pit stops had cycled through, just behind Lewis Hamilton who had been kept out longer by McLaren after he was released by Hulkenberg pitting on lap 14. Hamilton stayed out till lap 20: any longer and Button’s pace would have cost Lewis fourth place, but instead the stop was timed to perfection.

But nothing was threatening the Red Bull domination up front, or Alonso’s third place. Nothing, that is, until Vitantonio Liuzzi hopelessly misjudged his exit from the Senna Esses on lap 54 and ran wide, catching the tyre barrier on the outside of the corner which ripped off the left hand side of the car. Liuzzi was fine, but the wreck was in a perilous situation, right where cars would sweep out wide and crash straight into the Force India. With no easy way of removing it quickly, as it was on a spur of land between the race track and the pit lane exit, the safety car was inevitable. Suddenly all those long gaps built up by the Red Bulls and by Alonso was gone.

By this time, Lewis Hamilton – who had finally been having a good, fast stint in the midsection of the race after all his complaints earlier in the afternoon – was back in dissatisfied mode again, most likely having pushed his tyres too far after the pit stop and burnt them out. So there wasn’t much surprise when Lewis opted to take advantage of the yellow flags to come into pit lane while the field was still getting gathered up by the safety car; more surprising was McLaren’s decision to bring in Jenson Button for fresh tyres a lap later. It seemed as though it must surely put Button at least well down the running order, but instead the drivers maintained their fourth and fifth classifications – it was just track position that suffered as they fell in among a clutter of lapped traffic.

At the restart, Sebastian Vettel got off to a perfect getaway, catching Mark Webber out behind lapped traffic. It was clear that Red Bull were not about to give any team orders, even though allowing Vettel to win over Webber was not the brightest move in trying to head off Alonso. If Webber wanted the win, he would have to forcibly take it off Vettel: but even if had been so inclined to risk everything, the car was suffering from overheating brakes and the team was issuing warnings from pit lane. Webber would have to settle for second place, a solid result for the Australian and yet still disappointing and frustrating as the dream of the world championship remained tantalising out of reach.

It was a poor day at Interlagos for the Brazilian contingent: Massa’s early pit stop disaster put him well down the running order, and he then tangled with the likes of Sebastien Buemi into turn 1 on lap 61, resulting in contact and shards of carbon fibre with Massa then running off the track to end up promptly ceding the place back to Buemi. Lucas Di Grassi pitted his Virgin on lap 45 for extensive repair works, and while he eventually returned to the fray he was now eight laps down and outside the classified finishers. Rubens Barrichello also had problems, clashing with Jaime Alguersuari on lap 36 that resulted in the Toro Rosso’s front wing piercing Barrichello’s front left tyre. Rubens limped back to the pits on the punctured wheel, ending up a remote 16th position. And Bruno Senna – who despite the family pedigree had never raced at Interlagos before this weekend in any category – was consigned to the usual HRT race of bringing up the rear, with only his team mate Christian Klein behind him on track after Klein’s car broke down on the warm-up lap and had to be recovered to the pits for repairs even a the race got underway, costing Klein some six laps.

Barrichello’s team mate, pole man Hulkenberg, eventually ended a rather disappointing eighth place, behind the two Mercedes drivers – Michael Schumacher frustratingly beaten by Nico Rosberg, despite Rosberg suffering a fraught and confused second stop under the safety car on lap 55 which required a quick return to pit lane next time around.

Behind Robert Kubica in ninth place, Kamui Kobayshi picked up the last point. The Sauber driver had been involved in several pivotal moments in the race, including making contact with Buemi into turn 1 on lap 56, but it was the moment when Jenson Button sliced past Kobayshi down the first corner of lap 31 that evoked memories of their battle here one year ago, when Button was fighting his way through the field to clinch the title and Kobayshi – a brash newcomer – was proving a huge problem for the world champion wannabe. This year by contrast it was the race that ended Button’s championship campaign, and even Kobayshi seemed relatively muted compared with his banzai style of recent Grand Prixs.

At the front, the world championship is still wide open – between three drivers at least. Jenson Button is indeed now formally out of the running and while Lewis Hamilton is still mathematically in the running, in reality McLaren’s interest in the title fight is now over. Despite Red Bull’s success here in Brazil, the team’s decision not to prioritise Mark Webber on track means that Fernando Alonso remains in the lead in the points – and now only needs second place in Abu Dhabi to clinch the 2010 title.

At least one championship was still decided at Brazil: with their 1-2, Red Bull clinched the constructors’ title for 2010, a remarkable achievement for them to beat the likes of Ferrari and McLaren in just six years of existence since they rose out of the remains of the old Stewart GP and Jaguar teams and by no means something that should be overlooked. Given that the team has claimed 14 out of a possible 18 pole positions and won seven GPs this year, it is a title that no one can deny is thoroughly deserved.

Now all that remains is to know whether one of their two drivers will take the drivers’ championship as well. And if so – which one? We find out in just one week.

Race results

Pos  Driver       Team                 Time
 1.  Vettel       Red Bull-Renault     1:33:11.803
 2.  Webber       Red Bull-Renault     +     4.243
 3.  Alonso       Ferrari              +     6.807
 4.  Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes     +    14.634
 5.  Button       McLaren-Mercedes     +    15.593
 6.  Rosberg      Mercedes             +    35.300
 7.  Schumacher   Mercedes             +    43.400
 8.  Hulkenberg   Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
 9.  Kubica       Renault              +     1 lap
10.  Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
11.  Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +     1 lap
12.  Sutil        Force India-Mercedes +     1 lap
13.  Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +     1 lap
14.  Massa        Ferrari              +     1 lap
15.  Petrov       Renault              +     1 lap
16.  Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +     1 lap
17.  Heidfeld     Sauber-Ferrari       +     1 lap
18.  Kovalainen   Lotus-Cosworth       +    2 laps
19.  Trulli       Lotus-Cosworth       +    2 laps
20.  Glock        Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
21.  Senna        HRT-Cosworth         +    2 laps
22.  Klien        HRT-Cosworth         +    6 laps

Fastest lap: Hamilton, 1:13.851

Not classified/retirements:

Driver     Team                   On lap
Di Grassi  Virgin-Cosworth        63
Liuzzi     Force India-Mercedes   50

F1 world championship standings after round 18

Drivers:              Constructors:             
 1. Alonso      246   1. Red Bull-Renault     469
 2. Webber      238   2. McLaren-Mercedes     421
 3. Vettel      231   3. Ferrari              389
 4. Hamilton    222   4. Mercedes             202
 5. Button      199   5. Renault              145
 6. Massa       143   6. Williams-Cosworth     69
 7. Rosberg     130   7. Force India-Mercedes  68
 8. Kubica      126   8. Sauber-Ferrari        44
 9. Schumacher   72   9. Toro Rosso-Ferrari    11
10. Barrichello  47  
11. Sutil        47  
12. Kobayashi    32  
13. Hulkenberg   22  
14. Liuzzi       21  
15. Petrov       19  
16. Buemi         8  
17. De la Rosa    6  
18. Heidfeld      6  
19. Alguersuari   3  
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