Fernando Alonso or Sebastian Vetttel - Who deserves to be World Champion the most?
Sky Sports F1's Mark Hughes assesses their seasons
By Mark Hughes. Last Updated: 22/11/12 8:08am
There's a general consensus in the paddock that no matter who clinches the title this coming weekend, Sebastian Vettel or Fernando Alonso would be a fully deserving World Champion. But can their performances be split?
Underlying the controversy in Austin caused by Ferrari's decision to sacrifice the grid position of Felipe Massa in order to improve that of the title-contending Alonso is the fact that this team revolves around Alonso. That's the way Alonso demands it and that's the way Ferrari prefer it. Indeed it's only because of Alonso's unambiguous position in the team that he has been able to put together a title campaign in a car that has lagged badly behind in the development war in the season's second half. Had he been sharing points with an equally-billed, equally-matched team-mate, it would not have worked.
Alonso assumes leadership of a team and his relentlessly brilliant performances back that up. But in 2007, his attempts to do exactly that at McLaren backfired spectacularly. Martin Whitmarsh made reference to this when giving his reaction to Ferrari's tactical grid penalty, saying: "Teams and team principals can decide how they run their own programmes. It was tough but it's very clear they are very focussed on Fernando. It worked for them. It was in not [focussing only on Alonso] that meant he left us."
They are the two extremes of approach in the spectrum. Red Bull sits somewhere in the middle, with a team that emotionally is very much built around Sebastian Vettel, but in which Mark Webber gets materially the same equipment and opportunity. But Webber's poor reliability record ever since winning Silverstone - together with how Vettel has got more from the RB8's increased competitiveness since Singapore - has ensured an unambiguous title-chasing focus on Vettel. Seb has made himself the number one here, with only a little bit of help from the team, and with a team-mate that for most of the season has been more competitive than has Alonso's.
McLaren traditionally operates a much more egalitarian policy between its drivers. If there is close to parity in their performance, they are invariably given equal opportunity. But it was a policy that lost them not only the services of Alonso but also the 2007 World Championship.
On the other hand, Alonso has frequently carried a less competitive car to great results. But it's important not to see the relative speeds of Red Bull to Ferrari only from the current perspective. For much of the season - from Spain to Germany plus Monza - the Ferrari was a fully competitive car and the Red Bull was nowhere near its current form, Valencia excepted.
Alonso squeezed an unlikely victory at Malaysia from the Ferrari in the early season when it was uncompetitive, but in the wet conditions of that day it was one of the few cars - along with the Sauber and Williams - able to generate tyre heat and so in those specific circumstances was actually very competitive. But drives such as that to fifth place in Australia in a car that had no right to be that far up stake just as much claim to Alonso's credentials as Malaysia or Valencia.
Vettel's drive to second at Melbourne was equally outstanding in a car that was at that time not working well, imbalanced and skitterish under braking. He was similarly superb in his passing-fest to second at Spa. He was less impressive than his team-mate at Monaco and Silverstone, but that can happen with a team-mate as quick as combative as Webber. At Austin last weekend Alonso was consistently slower than Massa and the grid penalty trick only worked because Massa had out-qualified him. No disgrace in that once in a while, especially now that Massa from Suzuka-onwards has begun to look much more like the pre-accident version.
The common perception seems to be that Alonso has transcended his car all year whereas Vettel has merely benefitted from the fastest car. In both cases, that's an over-simplification. Both are brilliantly fast, both have raced fantastically (recall Vettel's pass on Nico Rosberg round the outside of Blanchimont, Alonso's opening lap and restart at Valencia).
Alonso crashed out in Japan - other than that he has been error-free
What about errors? Vettel had an unnecessary incident with Karthikeyan in Malaysia, failed to slow for yellows at Barcelona, passed Button outside the track limits at Hockenheim, did not drive to the new rules of etiquette in racing Alonso at Monza's Curve Grande and got in the way of Alonso's qualifying lap at Suzuka. Alonso got himself tangled trying and failing to make a move on Maldonado that Vettel later succeeded in making on Raikkonen. One might argue that Alonso trying to intimidate Raikkonen aside at the start in Suzuka was ill-advised for someone in his points position. But other than that, he's been error-free.
If push came to shove, then perhaps it would be the slightly greater number of Vettel lapses - almost all seemingly under red mist conditions, under the influence of emotion - that make Alonso's case marginally stronger. But we're talking hair's width.