Race for the championship goes to the final bend
Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso face a last-race-of-the-season title-decider in Brazil next weekend as Formula One put itself back on the map in America.
After a five-year absence, a sell-out 120,000 crowd at the all-new $250million Circuit of The Americas were treated to a thrilling advert for the sport, resulting in the best possible conclusion to the year.
On the occasion of his 100th grands prix, Vettel was forced to settle for second behind the brilliant Lewis Hamilton, who conjured the 21st win of his career. Crucially, with Alonso third, it means there is now a 13-point gap between the Spaniard and Vettel heading to the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos next week.
Assessing the denouement to the campaign, which goes to the wire for the 27th time in F1 history, Vettel said: “The car is working well and good enough to fight for the win.
“We’ve been quick in Brazil the last couple of years, and I have extended my lead in the championship, so we are in a good position.”
In a Ferrari nowhere near on the pace of Hamilton or Vettel, Alonso finished 40 seconds adrift of the frontrunning duo, but happy to still be in with a shout of the title.
“Our championship is alive thanks to the first laps, finishing in the first three or four positions, after which the race becomes easier,” said Alonso.
“Today we knew there was a good chance to overtake people at the first corner, so this podium is like a victory for us.
“Losing three points to Sebastian was not in our thoughts last night or on Friday night, so we’re very happy to have a very good Sunday.
“It’s now great to be going to Brazil still in with a chance of winning this championship.”
All the talk immediately before the race, however, had centred on a seemingly controversial move from Ferrari in deciding to break a seal on the gearbox of Felipe Massa’s car.
In doing so, it immediately incurred a five-place grid penalty for the Brazilian, dropping him from sixth to 11th.
More importantly it promoted Alonso on to the clean side of the grid from eighth to seventh, giving him better traction at the start as the dirty side had been described by Massa as potentially like starting “in the wet”.
It was a clever tactical move from Ferrari which they blatantly said was done because “the interests of the team come before anything else”.
It sparked a fierce debate in the paddock as Ferrari had effectively found a loophole in the regulations to aid their own cause and keep Alonso in the championship hunt.
It proved crucial because emerging out of the signature uphill turn one Alonso had gained three places to climb to fourth behind a Red Bull one-two. His cause was aided further when Mark Webber, who had fallen to third after being passed by Hamilton on lap six, suffered an alternator failure 11 laps later.
Beyond that, it came down to a straight fight between Hamilton and Vettel, the former finally holding sway on lap 42 as he scythed his way past the 25-year-old German at the end of the long DRS straight.
Hamilton, who won the last race on US soil in 2007 at Indianapolis, said: “I’m so happy, the fans have been amazing. It’s been one of the best, if not the best, grands prix we’ve had all year. For me and my team this is so special.”
The consolation for Red Bull is that they are constructors’ champions for a third successive year, although the team barely celebrated that fact.
Massa was a fine fourth, followed by Jenson Button after starting 12th in his McLaren, then Lotus duo Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean.