Fernando Alonso finally got to quantify in qualifying yesterday the scale of the mountain he has to climb if he is to beat Sebastian Vettel to the World Championship when a gripping Formula One season ends in Brazil this afternoon. And it was of Everest proportions.
As the McLarens of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button locked out the front row of the grid it was of scant consolation to the Spaniard that his title rival Vettel was only fourth, outpaced by his Red Bull team-mate, Mark Webber, because he himself had once again been blown away by his own team-mate, Felipe Massa. In a race he needs to dominate, Alonso found himself only eighth on the grid, though he was later promoted to seventh after a penalty for Williams' Pastor Maldonado.
Ever since Vettel took the points lead from him in Korea, Alonso has placed his hopes on an upgraded Ferrari for this race. But even taking into account that Ferrari are traditionally faster in the race than in qualifying, the prancing horse failed him yesterday.
The hour-long session unravelled slowly, with the expected rain arriving at 1.30pm and rendering the track slippery for the first 20-minute session. Hamilton dominated that comfortably with a time of 1min 15.075sec, wrestling back the advantage that Button had taken from him in the morning's final practice runs.
As the track dried and the sun filtered back for the second session, Vettel had pushed to the fore with 1:13.209, but Hamilton stayed close on 1:13.398, his confidence sky-high after last weekend's triumph in Austin.
Hamilton led the way initially in the final session, with 1:12.850, shadowed by Button on 1:12.980, but Vettel made a mistake and ran wide, only good enough for eighth in 1:13.903. A place in front was Alonso, who had struggled to clock 1:13.463 in a Ferrari that was no match for Massa's, which the Brazilian had circulated in 1:13.258. The final runs would be crucial.
Webber set the ball rolling with 1:12.581 to go fastest. But that lasted only as long as it took Hamilton to complete his best lap, which stopped the clocks in 1:12.458. Then, as Vettel managed 1:12.760, Button came roaring home in 1:12.513 to cement the superiority in single-lap trim that McLaren have demonstrated all weekend.
If Vettel was disappointed, Alonso was distraught. It wasn't just that Massa was fifth with 1:12.987, but that between the two Ferraris was an awkward customer in Nico Hulkenberg, who will be having his last race in the Force India before replacing Sergio Perez at Sauber next year.
Perhaps Ferrari will break another seal on Massa's gearbox, as they did in Texas last week, but that would still only move their prime contender up one more place. It's going to be a very difficult afternoon for the Spaniard, who needs a miracle if he is to be crowned a third time.
He will be champion if he wins and Vettel is fifth or lower; if he is second and Vettel is eighth or lower; or if he is third and Vettel is 10th or lower.
But if Vettel finishes even third behind the two McLarens, it's all over. And even if Alonso were to win, so long as Vettel finishes in the top four he will be the one being crowned for the third time.
The weather, however, could be the wild card, as it is set to be wet all day today. And as we saw back in the 2003 race, it can rain pretty seriously here.
"We'll see what we can do," Button said. "Our car works well in the dry and the long-run pace is good, but there's a massive chance of rain tomorrow. For us, starting from the front, hopefully it's going to be a very exciting race and of course I want to win. But I just hope that the rain level allows us to race, that's the important thing."
"It wasn't the qualifying that I wanted," Vettel admitted, "but we're not in bad shape."
"We know that we are not good in qualifying," Alonso said for the umpteenth time this season, "but now we must wait to see what the race brings."
Hamilton, meanwhile, just smiled. "It's going to be quite emotional driving my last race for the team that brought me into Formula One," he said, before his smile broadened.
"And yes, you'd better believe that I'll be going absolutely all out to win."