SAO PAuLO // The Formula One world championship situation is little clearer after the rain-hit qualifying session at the Brazilian Grand Prix yesterday.
Fernando Alonso could still secure the title in today's race at the Interlagos track, after qualifying fifth, but in all likelihood the final act of the championship chase will take place in Abu Dhabi next weekend as the sport prepares for its first back-to-back races in opposing hemispheres.
Many thrilling chapters have been written in the 61-season history of F1, but 2010 is a match for any - simply because so many drivers have been involved in the championship pursuit for so long.
This was a season of great anticipation for what lay ahead, partly because of the driver line-up (with the defending champion Jenson Button switching to McLaren-Mercedes, alongside Lewis Hamilton, and Alonso reunited with a potentially winning car after signing for Ferrari), and partly because of the revised regulations, which banned refuelling stops, forced a tactical rethink and obliged teams to think more carefully about race management.
Alonso led the standings after the first two events, but returned to the top only in the wake of his fifth and most recent victory, two weeks ago in South Korea.
He leads Mark Webber (Red Bull-Renault) by 11 points, Hamilton (McLaren-Mercedes) by 21, Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull-Renault) by 25 and Button (McLaren) by 42. It is possible that all five could still be in contention next weekend in Abu Dhabi but more likely that one or two will tumble from contention today.
Button has qualified only 11th and must finish at least second to maintain any chance of a successful title defence. Even that will not be enough if Alonso or Webber win. No matter where Button finishes, however, his title hopes will be over if Alonso finishes anywhere in the top six.
In that situation, the Englishman almost certainly will be asked to play a supporting role to his teammate Hamilton in Abu Dhabi, assuming the latter remains in contention.
The Red Bulls have looked very strong so far at Interlagos, but the Ferraris tend to be closer in racing trim than they are in qualifying. Also, Alonso starts with momentum behind him: he has won three of the past four races and four of the past seven. If the Spaniard triumphs again this weekend, Webber must finish fourth to retain a slim title chance and the other three contenders will be eliminated. If Alonso finishes second, Webber must be eighth or higher to remain in contention, while Hamilton would have to finish in the top four and Vettel would have no option but to win.
If Alonso takes third, Webber needs to finish in the top 10, Hamilton in the top four and Vettel requires a podium. If Alonso finishes lower than third, the title will definitely remain open until Abu Dhabi.
The equation is almost as complex as the sport itself.