Is this how the World Championship ends, not with a bang but with a wimper?

October 9, 2009

Twenty points left to play for and the leader of the title standings with a 14 point head start.  Never before has such a shoo-in seemed quite so parlously placed.  Jenson Button’s position is even stronger still, when you consider that he has won the most races of the 2009 season and cannot be overhauled on that count.  This leaves Rubens Barrichello and Sebastian Vettel needing to overtake his points tally – a tie will not be enough.  So, Rubens Barrichello needs 15 points and Sebastian Vettel 17.  With 20 remaining on the table.  It speaks volumes for the strangeness of the 2009 season that it is perhaps Vettel who looks like the champion-in-waiting following his blitz of the Japanese Grand Prix.  Today, Toto Roche’s Flag takes a look at what each man needs to do and how likely they are to do it.

Sebastian Vettel (69 points)

In needing 17 points with two races remaining, Vettel is looking to emulate Kimi Räikkönen, who pulled back that exact deficit to win the 2007 title.  The elephant in the room for Vettel, however, is his engine situation.  Vettel has now used all eight of his 2009 engine allocation, at least 3 of which are in a bucket somewhere in Milton Keynes, having lunched themselves in exotic locations around the world.  The question is, does Red Bull have enough good horsepower remaining to give him the best chance of chasing up the steep hill of Interlagos’ pit straight and securing top honours?  Taking a ten-place grid penalty for a ninth powerplant would surely signal the end of Vettel’s ambitions, as finishing lower than second place in Brazil would put him out of the fight for this season.  As such, I imagine they’ll be throwing caution to the wind.  It’ll be win or bust, or win or blow your engine, in São Paulo.

What Vettel needs to do:

Put simply, to outscore Jenson Button by 17 points in the final two races, Vettel needs a win and a second place at the bare minimum.  Even then he’ll be dependent on Button’s results.  In Brazil, he needs to outscore Jenson Button by 7 points, which means finishing second at the very lowest.  Vettel will be simplifying the challenge and chasing after two wins.  With the field so close, Interlagos thought to be a circuit better suited to Brawn and his engine worries, Vettel is still very much the outsider.  However, I have a sneaking feeling that, if the title chase goes down to a last race decider (for what would be the fourth consecutive season) it will be Vettel, rather than Barrichello, still in the hunt.

Rubens Barrichello (71 points)

Rubens Barrichello cannot win the championship before the last race in Abu Dhabi, which would be his 285th Grand Prix start.  This would see him comfortably overhaul Nigel Mansell’s record of 175 starts before a first world title.  What we’re looking at here, then, is the fairytale aspect which every good story needs.  Rubens needs 15 points on Jenson Button in the final races, which means he must finish at least 4th in Brazil (with some help from elsewhere) to keep the fight going.  To add to the fairytale aspect, then, it seems likely that Rubens will need to win his home Grand Prix if he wants to entertain decent prospects of his first World Championship.  Rubens Barrichello winning at Interlagos – the track where, as a child, he first glanced a racing car from over a wall – would be the biggest fairytale of them all, not least because of his indecently bad luck on home ground.  Next weekend’s event will be his 17th home race, his results in the previous sixteen are as follows:

1993 DNF (gearbox), 1994 4th, 1995 DNF (gearbox), 1996 DNF (spin), 1997 DNF (suspension), 1998 DNF (gearbox), 1999 DNF (engine), 2000 DNF (hydraulics), 2001 DNF (collision), 2002 DNF (hydraulics), 2003 DNF (fuel system), 2004 3rd, 2005 6th, 2006 7th, 2007 DNF (engine), 2008 15th

Raw statistics don’t always paint the most accurate picture, but these give, at the very least, a reasonable impression.  However, even these can’t fully describe the extent of Barrichello’s Interlagos curse… in 1999 he led the race on merit. He led again in 2000 and 2002, looking on course for a comfortable podium finish behind teammate Michael Schumacher (in a dominant and otherwise unfailingly reliable Ferrari).  In 2003 he started from pole, turned the fastest lap and was leading the  race easily when a fuel pick-up problem caused him to run out of juice.  He was on pole again in 2004 – a year when Ferrari won 15 out of the 18 races – but on race day his car couldn’t match the pace of Williams or McLaren.  It’s at times like this when you must be tempted to dig up your house’s foundations to make sure it’s not been built on a Native American settlement or the like.

If it was anyone else – taking into account the Brawn car’s likely pace at the track, taking into account the driver’s local knowledge and motivation – then Barrichello would be the comfortable pre-race favourite.  However, as much as I would love to see his luck finally change at home, I just can’t even picture what that would look like.

What Barrichello needs to do:

Rubens has to outscore Jenson Button by 5 points in São Paulo, which means he cannot finish any lower than 4th place.  He has said this week that he’s not interested in maths and contingencies, and will just be going for the win.  That’s all he can really do now.  Because whilst it must be said that his position is a little stronger than Vettel’s, he is in the same car as Jenson Button and his teammate has been regularly finishing right behind him.

Jenson Button (85 points)

Jenson Button won 6 out of the first seven races, you know.  Honestly, he did.  Four of them from pole position.  Two of them with fastest lap.  You must surely remember?

Since the Turkish Grand Prix, which was on June 7th, Jenson Button has only scored 24 points.  One-third of these came at one race, in Italy.  It’s fair to say, then,  that his championship chances are fairly heavily predicated on the 61 points he accrued before everything went to bits.

Duly, he’s come in for some frenzied criticism, most of it coming from anxious British journos, all secretly hoping for another home champion.  Some of it is probably well founded.  However, the beginning of his slide into mediocrity was to do with his car, rather than any issues relating to feeling the pressure: Rubens Barrichello did not finish ahead of his Brawn teammate until he won the 11th round in Valencia, emphasising the fact that the team’s problem was the team’s problem and not Jenson’s.  However, it is fair to say that since Rubens complicated the issue by his two excellent late-season wins, Button has looked a shadow of his former self.   Since Valencia in August, he’s only finished ahead of Barrichello once.  It’s almost comforting, the way British sportsmen always refuse the easy path.  Button’s two predecessors in his vaulnted position – Damon Hill and Lewis Hamilton – underwent similar wobbles.  For Hill, it was his starts.  During the summer of 1996, his inability to get himself cleanly off the line saw Jacques Villeneuve able to grab great handfuls of Damon’s points cushion at every race.  Hamilton, meanwhile, twice demonstrated a curious loss of judgement and composure, causing him to once just lose the title and once just win it.

Jenson’s problem is qualifying.  In the races, he is driving well.  However, with the entire field’s qualifying times usually covered by 1.5 seconds, he’s having to drive well mired in traffic with the flying wings and the wheels banging.  Martin Brundle has said that Button really needs a champion’s drive now, something commanding enough to demonstrate that the title being his was never in doubt.  Damon Hill did it at Suzuka in 1996 and Lewis Hamilton in Shanghai last year.  I honestly believe that if Button can secure the title in Brazil, the release of pressure will see him take a win of such dominance in Abu Dhabi, we’ll all wonder how anyone else could possibly have won a race in 2009.  Sadly, it currently seems that if the title will fall to him at Interlagos, it will most likely drop into his lap as his winning it any other way.

All of this said, the points never lie.  Button is 14 points ahead because he was an insuperable obstacle in the first races of the season.  No-one since has demonstrated the same mix of consistency and speed.  If he backs his way slowly into this thing, he’ll deserve it as much as anyone else.  Let’s be honest here: both Rubens Barrichello and Sebastian Vettel would love to be in the position of being able to stumble towards the title.  Whoever wins the World Championship always deserves it.  There’s no duffers there.

What Button needs to do:

Despite what he may be thinking, what people may be saying and the way that he may be driving, Button has the least pressure of the three contenders.  Put simply, Button will be in the hunt all the way to the end of the season.  In the worst-case scenario, he’ll arrive in Abu Dhabi for the finale with Rubens Barrichello needing to take five points on him.

To take Vettel out of the running, he needs to finish within 6 points of the German.  This means that if Vettel wins, Button has to finish 5th.  If Vettel is second, Button needs seventh.  If Vettel finishes lower than second, he is out of the race.

To take Barrichello out of the running, Button needs to finish within 4 points of him.  So, a Barrichello win would require 3rd.  Barrichello in second would need 5th, third would need 7th and fourth can be covered with 8th.  As I said before, Rubens cannot finish lower than 4th in Brazil if he wants to be World Champion in 2009.

If he manages to cover both of these contingencies – i.e. finishing within 4 points of Barrichello and six of Vettel – at the same time, he will be champion in Brazil.  If Button really wants to make things easy for himself, all he needs to do is finish in third place at Interlagos, which will put this thing for bed once and for all.

All Jenson Button needs is belief now.  Because winning the title from 15 or 17 points behind with two races left is pretty unbelievable.

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2 Responses to “Is this how the World Championship ends, not with a bang but with a wimper?”

  1. Joe Jeffries said

    I’ve got a horrible feeling that Button is going to mess it up royally. I’d love to see him win the title but it’s all set up perfectly for the chasing pack.

    Nice blog by the way 🙂

    Joe

  2. Alistair said

    I suspect that it will be maclaren, renault or even force india or toyota that win it for button, keeping vettel and rubens off the top spots.

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