x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Brazilian Grand Prix: Sao Paulo is a far cry from Abu Dhabi

These two cities could not be more different from each other, but an F1 title clash too similar to that of 2010 is likely, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Michael Schumacher, centre, the seven-time world champion, will be competing in his last ever Formula One race. He is flanked by Sebastian Vettel, left, and Fernando Alonso, both two-time world champions. Orlando Kissner / AFP
Michael Schumacher, centre, the seven-time world champion, will be competing in his last ever Formula One race. He is flanked by Sebastian Vettel, left, and Fernando Alonso, both two-time world champions. Orlando Kissner / AFP

It is here, on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city, that a 20-race season spanning eight months, 19 countries, five continents and 11 time zones culminates on Sunday.

And it is here, for the fourth time in Interlagos's history, that the circuit's season-ending race will decide the destination of the world championship.

The last time an F1 season approached its final race with the title still unclaimed was in 2010, when Fernando Alonso arrived in Abu Dhabi 15 points clear of Sebastian Vettel and looking to claim a third world championship.

This weekend, Vettel arrives for the season finale with a 13-point advantage over Alonso and eyeing a third drivers' title. The situations are similar, yet the surroundings could hardly be more different.

Almost 12,000km separate Abu Dhabi and Sao Paulo, but at times the distance feels like galaxies. The UAE capital – coastal, conservative, comfortable – is in almost direct juxtaposition to this edgy, granite metropolis capable of captivating and intimidating simultaneously.

Interlagos is as renowned for its dangers off track as it is the driving on it. Ever since Jenson Button's car was ambushed by men with machine guns in 2010, the drivers come and go in armoured vehicles, often with personal motorcades, while team staff are advised to change into plain clothes.

A casual walk from the Yas Viceroy over the bridge to the Yas Marina paddock this is not.

Yet when Vettel and Alonso pass through the security gates this morning ahead of free practice, the threat of violence and robbery will be the last thing on their minds.

There is a world championship to be won and while Red Bull Racing's reigning champion may appear to already have one hand on the trophy, both men remember the events of two years ago only too well.

Alonso arrived in the UAE with a clear advantage and finished the afternoon with his head buried in his hands. Vettel, third in the standings ahead of the race, was the rank outsider, but he won and, as Alonso finished seventh, claimed his first of two successive drivers' titles.

"These are different circumstances from Abu Dhabi," said Alonso, when asked if he can take belief from the painful memories of 2010.

"It was a little bit more difficult to pass then and maybe the [new] rules were introduced because of that race. Now, even if you find yourself at the back of the grid, you're still able to recover positions as we saw in Abu Dhabi this year."

Three weeks ago Vettel climbed through the field to finish third at Yas, despite starting the race last.

The result prevented Alonso, who finished second, from reining in his rival in the standings and will be cited as the season's key moment should the 25 year old fulfil expectations and close out the championship this weekend.

"We're very happy in the position that we are in," Vettel said. "Two years back, we would have loved to have been in Fernando's position. If you could choose, I think it's clear, but in sport anything can happen.

"The weekend starts [today] and not on Sunday, so we have to go step by step and try to do everything to ensure that we get the maximum result."

Alonso's best chance appears to be in the hands of the gods. Ferrari's biggest failing this season has been qualifying, where their fastest driver's average starting position has been sixth. The 31 year old expects to qualify between sixth and ninth tomorrow, but it all could change should the heavens open.

A torrential downpour greeted much of the F1 fraternity who arrived here from Austin, Texas on Tuesday and downpours are predicted for over the weekend.

Vettel conceded that while "historically we've been very quick here ... we know also it's a place where a lot of things can happen".

The last time a qualifying session was hit by rain was in Germany in July, where Alonso took pole and converted it into a victory the following day.

The Spaniard has not led a lap of this championship since, however, and even if he wins on Sunday, the title will go to his rival at Red Bull so long as Vettel finishes in the top four.

"This is a sport and anything can happen until the chequered flag," Alonso said. "We will try to do the best race we can and cross the line on the podium, which gives us more than 13 points. Then we see where Sebastian crosses the line.

"If we win, we will be very happy, but we know that we need some strange combination of results."

Such a combination occurred two years ago, but as everyone who shuffles out of Interlagos incognito each night knows only too well, this is not Abu Dhabi. This is Brazil. And this is the end of the line.


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