ABU DHABI // Try a numbers game. Four drivers, separated by 24 points, after 18 races, taking to the track at Yas Marina Circuit this evening intent on securing the right to have the No 1 position on the front of his car next year.
Who will win?
The mathematical permutations have been exhausted this week. What we do know is that when the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix gets under way this evening it is Sebastian Vettel, the Red Bull-Renault driver, who will lead from the front.
The 23-year-old German is vying to become the youngest world champion in Formula One history and did his chances no harm with a stellar performance in yesterday's twilight qualifying session.
Vettel outpaced Lewis Hamilton, the McLaren-Mercedes driver who can also theoretically win the drivers' championship, by just 0.031secs to claim his 10th pole position of the season. Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, the championship leader, finished third-fastest. Vettel's teammate, Mark Webber - Alonso's closest rival in the standings - finished fifth behind 2009 champion Jenson Button.
Ahead of a season-ending race dominated by numbers and figures, Vettel looked to statistics once again to provide a stark reminder of how consistent his performances have been this season.
"I had some kind of statistic the other day in front of me; poles per season some drivers have done," Vettel said. "Guys like [Ayrton] Senna, [Alain] Prost, Michael [Schumacher], they're all up there."
Seven drivers have reached double figures for poles, with Nigel Mansell, the Briton, holding the record, having finished the fastest in 14 qualifying sessions in his 1992 championship-winning season with Williams. "With 10 poles, I'm not at the top, so maybe we can work on that next year," Vettel joked. "Ten poles in qualifying in one season is a great effort and shows how good our car is."
Vettel won the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last year, capitalising on Hamilton's retirement from the race after the Englishman had dominated practice and qualifying. "I like this track," Vettel said yesterday. "Last year, we had a very good experience here, the car was fantastic, and I think the race car is even stronger."
Much of the talk before qualifying had been about whether Vettel would be ordered by his team to relinquish a potential lead, so that Webber could benefit and secure the title for Red Bull. However, with the German needing to beat Alonso by 15 points and his Australian teammate trailing in fifth, it could now be Webber who can help Vettel. Not that - if you believe the party line - such scenarios are being considered by either of the drivers.
"All I can say is that I want to do my best, try and do 100 per cent and then see what happens," Vettel said. "If I win the race, it will be great, but we don't know until then, do we? It was very tight."
Alonso remains in the strongest position. The Spaniard knows that as long as he finishes above Webber and inside the top four he will win his third championship.
"I will try to make a good start and, if I can, I will attack, but if not, then I may have to defend.
"It is always the case that you cannot win the title in the first corner, but you can lose it."
Hamilton has played down his title chances, but was "delighted" with his performance in qualifying and warned his three peers there is more pressure on them.
"I don't have to be cautious at all in the race," he said. "Perhaps they need to think about that."
One thing is certain: Hamilton, like the other three title-challengers chasing the No 1 car, is not in Abu Dhabi simply to make up the numbers. Come 7 tonight and the game will be over.
Vettel is in familiar territory
Red Bull-Renault’s Sebastian Vettel will have started on pole position 10 times this season but the German has only twice completed wire-to-wire victories (in Valencia and in Japan).
Abu Dhabi GP qualifying results:
1 Vettel, Red Bull 1m39.394s
2 Hamilton, McLaren 1.39.425
3 Alonso, Ferrari 1.39.792
4 Button, McLaren 1.39.823
5 Webber, Red Bull 1.39.925
6 Massa, Ferrari 1.40.202
7 Barrichello, Williams 1.40.203
8 Schumacher, Mercedes 1.40.516
9 Rosberg, Mercedes 1.40.589
10 Petrov, Renault 1.40.901
11 Kubica, Renault 1.40.780
12 Kobayashi, BMW 1.40.783
13 Sutil, Force India 1.40.914
14 Heidfeld, BMW 1.41.113
15 Hulkenburg, Williams 1.41.418
16 Luizzi, Force India 1.41.642
17 Alguersuari, Toro Rosso 1.41.738
18 Buemi, Toro Rosso 1.41.824
19 Trulli, Cosworth 1.43.516
20 Kovalainen, Cosworth 1.43.712
21 Glock, Virgin 1.44.095
22 Di Grassi, Virgin 1.44.510
23 Senna, HRT 1.45.085
24 Klien HRT 1.45.296
Fernando Alonso, Spain 246 pts
Mark Webber, Australia 238
Sebastian Vettel, Germany 231
Lewis Hamilton, Great Britain 222
Jenson Button, Great Britain 199
Felipe Massa, Brazil 143
Nico Rosberg, Germany 130
Robert Kubica, Poland 126
Michael Schumacher, Germany 72
Rubens Barrichello, Brazil 47
Adrian Sutil, Germany 47
Kamui Kobayashi, Japan 32
Nico Hulkenberg, Germany 22
Vitantonio Liuzzi, Italy 21
Vitaly Petrov, Russia 19
Sebastien Buemi, Switzerland 8
Pedro de la Rosa, Spain 6
Nick Heidfeld, Germany 6
Jaime Alguersuari, Spain 3
Timo Glock, Germany 0
Jarno Trulli, Italy 0
Heikki Kovalainen, Finland 0
Luca di Grassi, Brazil 0
Bruno Senna, Brazil 0
Christian Klien, Austria 0
Red Bull-Renault 469 pts
Mercedes GP 202
Force India-Mercedes 68
BMW Sauber-Ferrari 44
Scuderia Toro Rosso-Ferrari 11