With a quintet in contention, Whitmarsh is predicting the outcome will be known only in the final grand prix of the seaon in the UAE.
McLaren chief sees title race going 'all the way to Abu Dhabi'
It is not so many years since the Italian Grand Prix - traditionally the final European race of the year - signalled that the Formula One campaign was drawing to an imminent conclusion. But no more. The recent addition of events in Singapore, Abu Dhabi and, this year, South Korea means that another 1,500 racing kilometres follow in the slipstream of Monza - and it is emerging as one of the most compelling world championships in the 61-season history of the series.
So much so that Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principal, is predicting that, with five races remaining, the title will not be decided until the final grand prix of the season here in the UAE in two months' time. "It's going to be a race all the way to Abu Dhabi," he said. It is difficult to draw direct parallels between different eras - and there has been many a dramatic showdown in the past - but it is unusual for five drivers from three different teams to be so closely implicated in the title fight at this stage of a season.
Mark Webber (Red Bull-Renault) leads the points standings, but Lewis Hamilton (McLaren-Mercedes), Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), Jenson Button (McLaren) and Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) remain within close striking distance. Bygone highlights? Mexico 1964 stands out, because three British drivers - Graham Hill (BRM), Jim Clark (Lotus) and John Surtees (Ferrari) - had a chance of taking the title in the seasonal finale.
Clark was leading, and on course to score his second successive championship, when his engine failed on the final lap. At that point, Lorenzo Bandini, the second Ferrari driver, slowed down and allowed Surtees to move up into second place, which was enough to give him the title by a point. Earlier in the afternoon, Bandini had knocked Hill off the track and out of contention. Some of this might sound familiar ...
In the 1986 Australian GP, Nigel Mansell (Williams Honda) was cruising to third place - and the title - until he suffered a puncture 19 laps from the end of the race. That handed the advantage to his teammate Nelson Piquet, but the Brazilian had to make an unscheduled tyre stop and outsider Alain Prost (McLaren) came through to scoop the main prize. There was last-minute drama in Brazil two years ago, too, when Felipe Massa scored a dominant victory for Ferrari.
That would have made him champion, had Hamilton (McLaren) not overtaken Timo Glock (Toyota) to pilfer an extra point at the last corner, about 12 seconds from the season's final chequered flag. It is impossible to predict what might happen between now and the Abu Dhabi finale on November 14, but Whitmarsh does not see the delicate power balance altering any time soon. "Pundits claim we are weak here or strong there, but I don't know how they can work it out - they obviously understand more than I do," he said.
"At Monza, Ferrari had marginally the quickest race car, ours wasn't bad and the Red Bull was a bit behind, but in Singapore all three positions could be very different. "This is an epic world championship - potentially one of the best in F1 history." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org