LONDON (Reuters) - The knockout blow in the Formula One title battle has yet to be thrown but the moment is fast approaching and Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel is landing the big psychological hits.
Sunday’s floodlit Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was a standout chance for Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso to recapture the lead in the drivers’ standings with two races to go but, even if he beat Vettel for the first time in six races, it remained an opportunity missed.
Vettel is 10 points clear of the Spaniard and can win his third title in a row at the new Austin track in Texas next week. The pressure now is on Alonso to stop him.
The manner in which Vettel surged from last of all, starting in the pit lane, to finish third and one place behind his sole title rival was a perfect example of damage limitation and determination.
It was also supremely demoralising for Ferrari.
“To anyone that doubted he’s a racer, I think he showed world class,” said team principal Christian Horner. “To go from pit lane to podium was phenomenal.”
Austin will be Vettel’s 100th race and his Red Bull team look likely to celebrate their third constructors’ crown in a row in what is the parent company’s biggest market for sales of their energy drink.
Alonso, one of the mentally toughest of opponents, tried to stay optimistic when he told reporters that he would go to bed “thinking the glass is half full rather than half empty” but Sunday’s outcome must have hurt.
The Ferrari driver can draw strength from the knowledge that he will become the triple champion if he wins the last two races, wherever Vettel finishes.
The Spaniard has shown great consistency, with 11 podium finishes in 18 races, but whatever he does it is not quite enough. He has not won since Germany in June and the Ferrari is not as quick as the Red Bull, something Vettel is rubbing in even when he cannot win.
“It was entirely predictable that starting sixth on the grid, he (Alonso) was going to be on the podium,” said Horner.
“I had already mentally got an image of him taking between 15 and 25 points out of us...to limit that damage to only three and finish behind him is a remarkable recovery, a great drive by Sebastian.”
McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh, whose driver Lewis Hamilton started on pole and then retired while leading due to a fuel pump problem, saw it slightly differently.
I think he was fairly lucky this weekend one way or another,” he said of Vettel, who benefited from two safety car periods and the retirement of quick drivers who might have held him up.
Alonso has spoken of his determination, his years of experience, the Samurai-like fighting spirit and confidence that he will still be the one collecting the prize at the end but, as Horner noted at the weekend, talk is cheap.
The Spaniard will need to call on all of his calm and resilience now, knowing that one mistake or retirement in Austin could end his hopes immediately and make the final race in Brazil redundant.
Vettel, whose run of four wins in a row and 205 successive laps led came to an end, showed he could take whatever was thrown at him.
“Being under pressure is one of his key strengths and assets. We’ve seen it time and time again with him. As he continues to evolve, continues to grow, he continues to improve,” added Horner.
After being sent to the back of the grid, and then the pitlane, for a fuel irregularity, Vettel prepared for the race by toying around with a drum kit in his room. He told Horner he would see him on the podium later.
Asked with Alonso alongside whether he had expected to be on the podium, Vettel replied: ”Yes I did, to be honest with you.
“It was a obviously a chance to (mess) it up and we didn’t do that,” he added. (Editing by Alison Wildey)