Questions for the 2013 Brazilian Grand Prix
Who else will bow out after Interlagos? Is rain the only thing that can stop Vettel? Can Perez land a parting blow? And...
By James Galloway, Pete Gill, William Esler, Mike Wise & Sky Bet's Jamie Casey. Last Updated: 21/11/13 11:19am
For who will Brazil mark the end of the F1 road?
The end to another year in F1 marks another round of fond farewells. Mark Webber, after 12 seasons, nine wins, one title near-miss and a treasure chest of straight-talking soundbites, retires to head to a new life with a roof in sportscars.
The V8 engine, seven years after succeeding its V10 predecessor, also heads for F1 retirement, while Cosworth bows out again having been another casualty of the sport's impending new turbo-charged era.
Those, though, are probably about the only three goodbyes we know for sure. When the paddock arrives at Interlagos for one final time in 2013 from Thursday, a whole host of names will still be in the dark as to whether or not they'll be back when the sport next convenes as the Jerez test in late January. Sadly no one keeps such records, but it's surely unprecedented that on the eve of the final race nine of the 22 seats on next season's grid - a whopping 40% - officially remain unfilled. While some as-yet-unconfirmed drivers you can be sure will be back next year - Romain Grosjean, the cash-heavy Pastor Maldonado, and, if logic prevails, Nico Hulkenberg - plenty other familiar faces definitely can't. Sergio Perez, Paul Di Resta, Adrian Sutil, Esteban Gutierrez, Giedo van der Garde, Max Chilton...the list goes on.
Normally, when a driver's future is on the line a strong result at the end of the season could make him indispensable, but in a budget-driven market even a stellar Brazilian GP might not be enough for some of the names facing the axe. In an era of harsh realities, these could be the cruellest cuts of all.
How will Pastor Maldonado say farewell?
And on the subject of farewells, just how will Pastor Maldonado take his leave from Williams?
The relationship between team and driver has been frosty for some time, but it plunged into a veritable ice age last week when Maldonado effectively accused the team of sabotaging his car. Pastor has toned down his remarks since, but fallen short of offering the team an apology. Given that his outburst was made in the smokey heat of a crushing qualifying defeat and he's had plenty of time for clear-headed reconsideration since, the failure to deliver an apology is arguably as lame as the original outburst.
If an amicable departure thus seems unfeasible, it can at least to be dignified. The team kept their decorum in public last week and that's unlikely to falter in Brazil. If they didn't respond in Austin, they won't seven days later. All of which leaves Maldonado in the awkward position of racing for a team he has deliberately disenfranchised himself from whilst still needing its support and equipment to prove an important point or two.
In an interview made prior to Valtteri Bottas' points-scoring finish on Sunday, Maldonado declared he was driving better than ever and continued to assert he had given more to Williams than they had to him. But following Bottas' career-best run to eighth, Maldonado now follows his team-mate in the Drivers' Championship. The points involved may not sound like much - four for the Finn, one for the Venezuelan - but they don't add up to vindication of Maldonado's self-applause and insistence "I have been doing a fantastic job this year", let alone an endorsement of his claim to be given a promotion up the grid with Lotus.
Money matters most in that particular contest, but unless he's to follow a slur with a stain on his CV listing a head-to-head defeat to a rookie, Maldonado needs a big result in Brazil.
Can a 2013 first rain on Sebastian Vettel's parade?
Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull have been several classes apart since the summer break, steamrollering their way to a record run of wins. The nature of their success has been metronomic: qualify on the front row, push hard in the early laps to establish a comfortable lead, and then depending on that particular weekend's tyre-wear challenges, either manage the gap behind to the chequered flag or push on in unmatched bursts of speed.
There has been the odd random variable thrown into the mix every now to keep them on their toes, a Safety Car or, as was famously the case in Korea, an errant fire truck, but in general both driver and team have been able to operate in relative serenity.
Of course, there is one curveball that hasn't been thrown into the mix during that time, or indeed unusually at any point of the whole 18-race campaign to date: a proper bona-fide wet race. The last time F1 went through a season without a rain-affected race was nine years ago, with 1987 the previous occasion before that, and funnily, or coincidentally, enough 2004 was the season that Michael Schumacher achieved his record haul of 13 wins in a calendar year, a mark Vettel is aiming to match this weekend, along with Alberto Ascari's 60-year benchmark of nine GP wins on the spin.
Rain is currently forecast in the Sao Paulo region throughout the three-day meeting from Friday, although rather like Malaysia, such forecasts pre-GP week are habitual, and sometimes misleading. Despite Interlagos's reputation for producing chaotic wet, races, only two of the last nine grands prix there have actually required drivers to run on wet tyres - although the two instances, 2008 and 2012, produced probably the most thrilling title deciders of all time. Indeed, when it does rain at the tricky anti-clockwise venue, be it in qualifying or the race, there is invariably drama and unpredictability. After what non-Red Bull fans might describe as a monotonous run of events since August, F1 2013 could arguably do with such a crazy send-off.
Who will finish on top in their qualifying head-to-heads?
Ahead of this weekend's Brazilian GP, the intra-team scores in qualifying are:
Red Bull: Vettel 16-2 Webber
Ferrari: Alonso 10-8 Massa
McLaren: Button 9-9 Perez
Lotus: Raikkonen 11-6 Grosjean
Mercedes: Rosberg 7-11 Hamilton
Sauber: Hulkenberg 17-1 Gutierrez
Force India - Di Resta 11-7 Sutil
Williams: Maldonado 7-11 Bottas
Toro Rosso: Vergne 4-14 Ricciardo
Caterham: Pic 10-8 Van der Garde
Marussia: Bianchi 16-2 Chilton
That means of the 11 team-by-team fights, the overall outcome is still to be decided at just one team with Jenson Button and Sergio Perez locked on nine qualifying victories each at McLaren. With the Mexican losing his spot at the team next season, he will be eager to prove a point and finish ahead of his World Champion team-mate this weekend.
Currently the most one-sided battle is at Sauber with the impressive Nico Hulkenberg dominating rookie Esteban Gutierrez 17-1, with Jules Bianchi and Sebastian Vettel tied for second-spot with 16-2 advantages over Max Chilton and Mark Webber respectively.
Can Marussia hold on to tenth place?
Forget Mercedes v Ferrari, the real battle this weekend lies down at the back of the grid, with Marussia zealously guarding their tenth place in the Constructors' Championship from Caterham. Both teams know all-too-well the knife edge that this race can create; the drama of Vitaly Petrov passing Charles Pic six laps from home 12 months ago might not have been played out centre stage, but try telling the players that none of this matters.
A question worth asking is for whom it matters most? Purely in financial terms, the answer has to be Marussia, who will no longer receive the estimated $10million payment that 2010's start-up teams were previously guaranteed if they finished outside the top ten and will therefore emerge potless if last year's scenario repeats itself. Caterham are already guaranteed prize money owing to their past success - if that's the right way to describe the failure to earn a World Championship point since the team's inception - but rest assured they'll be throwing everything they've got at Interlagos.
They'll also have an eye trained on the skies above Sao Paulo. It's incredible to think that every race so far this season has been bone dry except for the very early laps of the Malaysian GP, where Jules Bianchi claimed the all-important 13th place that Marussia are defending. The early forecast for the Brazilian GP is that the chance of rain will decrease as the weekend progresses, which is what the Banbury team will be hoping for.
Having also agreed financial terms with Bernie Ecclestone recently, the signs are that Marussia's financial straitjacket is easing - but only slightly. Every little helps, as someone once said.
Will Grosjean finally grab the attention of the punters?
People have been queuing up to effectively buy money through lumping wagers on Vettel ever since the depth of Red Bull's superiority became apparent. He's 4/11 to make it nine wins on the bounce in Brazil and, having led from start to finish in five of his eight consecutive wins, he's also 1/4 to be the lap-one leader and 4/5 to produce the fastest lap. Basically, the German is odds-on to dominate again.
However, punters have been missing out on better value with Romain Grosjean. The Frenchman has scored points in nine of the last ten races, including podiums in Korea, Japan, India and the U.S. For the first time this season, he's third favourite in the race odds with Sky Bet, behind the two Red Bulls of course. At 11/1, he's not expected to stop Vettel's winning streak, but he stands a better chance than Lewis Hamilton (14/1) and Fernando Alonso (25/1).
The bookmakers are also giving him a better chance of another podium finish (1/1) ahead of the big guns, while he can be backed to start from the front row at 7/2 and lead lap one at 12/1. The best value has been evaporating with every result of late, though, as Grosjean could have been backed for a podium finish at around 9/2 before Korea. Meanwhile, one Sky Bet customer stands to win over a grand if Vettel does indeed win in Interlagos, having heavily backed the German to win the last five races at 7/1 last month.