Race To 2009 Title a Thriller For F-1 Kings of Pep Button, Webber, and Vettel
With a huge 26-point deficit to his team-mate and championship leader Jenson Button, two drivers in clearly faster cars above him in the standings and himself admitting "five per cent" of his mind is on retirement, Rubens Barrichello's hopes of taking the 2009 title look extremely slim.
This leaves just three realistic contenders: championship leader Jenson Button in his Brawn, or the hard-chasing Red Bull duo of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel.
Button currently has what is at first glance a comfortable cushion of an 18.5 point gap to his nearest rival Webber, and is 23 in front of Vettel. However, recent races in Britain, Germany and particularly Hungary have magnified the progress of Red Bull and also what seems to be the slow demise of Brawn. This means, with seven races still to go, that absolutely everything is still to play for.
After showing that their car is faster than Brawn's even in warm conditions, highlighted in Hungary with Webber's third place, Red Bull now go into every Grand Prix as hot favourites. It is just a case of which driver you tip to win, and quite often this is proving too tricky to call for anybody.
At Silverstone, it was the young German Vettel who was untouchable, and two weeks later at the Nurburgring Webber gave him a taste of his own medicine at his home circuit, running away a clear winner despite a drive-through penalty. Both of them have their days where they are just a class apart but there is nothing to choose between them.
With the apparent deadlocked ability of the two drivers, it is impossible for the Red Bull team to back one over the other, particularly as they are only 4.5 points apart in the championship. The team are sticking to their guns and allowing the pair to fight, and for that, Red Bull deserve their due.
Could it cost them in the long run? Possibly, but lessons will be learned from McLaren's actions in 2007 where they clearly favoured Lewis Hamilton over Fernando Alonso and in turn, the bad atmosphere in the team practically handed the title to Kimi Raikkonen and bitter rivals Ferrari.
Similar actions from Red Bull could lead to a similar outcome, but it is definitely a better option to let the drivers fight it out, give them equal status and let the best man win. Even if that best man turns out to be Button.
And nobody could deny the Englishman of his title where he to claim it, because he has completely flattened all opposition in the first part of the season. And now that his Brawn team are on their knees, he continues to grind out results in the lower reaches of the points.
This dogged spirit may just see Button hang on to his lead. Even though he does not have the greatest car, he has the master tactician Ross Brawn at his side, a very close group of mechanics, and a lead that looks comfortable on paper, as well as the probable full backing of the team now that Red Bull are closing so quickly and Barrichello has been cast adrift.
It was Vettel who was being touted as the main contender after his dominant display in the wash-out Chinese Grand Prix. It is certain that the 21-year-old German certainly has the capability to dominate a race weekend, and in the wet in particular he looks at ease compared to his rivals.
But we have also seen the side of Vettel, for example in Australia, when he tangled with Robert Kubica, that reminds us that he is still very young and very much on a steep learning curve. Is 2009 a season too soon for the man reckoned to be "the next Michael Schumacher"? Possibly, but it won't stop him taking the fight all the way.
Only Mark Webber's maiden win in Germany really put him on the map to be a serious title contender. But the fact of the matter is, the experienced Australian was never out of the running at all. Despite being outqualified on most occasions by Vettel, his points tally showed he was clearly keeping him honest. And Webber is now the man in the groove.
The first win will have done wonders for his confidence and self-belief, and it was everything he deserved after many seasons of horrid luck and a terrible accident whilst cycling, where he broke his leg.
The total points from the last 4 races show that the drivers in contention have scored the following points: Button in his limping Brawn has amassed just 19 points, Vettel has managed 24 and Webber 32.
These figures clearly convey Webber as the form man, and there can be no arguments with the numbers. After many people's beliefs that it would be Webber having to apply the pressure to Vettel, it is in fact Vettel who must step up his game if he is to stay close enough to Webber.
Will it be the early-season dominance of Button that holds on to take the title? Will the revitalised Webber claw back the gap and steal it from Button, as he looks like doing? Or will young Vettel shock the world once more by overturning the pair of them?
Only time will tell, but the fact of the matter is that we have a potentially thrilling finale to the season. For the sake of all neutral fans, including myself, we will hopefully have a third successive season of the title going right to the wire.
It is doubtful it can get any more dramatic than Brazil 2008, where Felipe Massa was left heartbroken after a flawless drive and Lewis Hamilton had hung on by the skin of his teeth to claim the title for himself and McLaren.
If at least two of these drivers stay within distance of each other until the final race of the season, then Abu Dhabi is set for a fantastic welcome to Formula One.
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