If Mark Webber does not win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix next weekend from team-mate Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull will not win the drivers' world championship to go with the constructors' title that they clinched at Interlagos.
Vettel took his fourth triumph of the season here in Brazil yesterday ahead of the Australian and arch-rival Fernando Alonso in a race that was the German's all the way. Alonso only came into contention to challenge Webber in the closing stages after a crash by Force India's Tonio Liuzzi on the 50th lap had brought out the safety car.
At the end Vettel was 4.2secs ahead of Webber, who was 2.5secs ahead of Alonso. So the Spaniard retained his championship points lead with 246 over Webber on 238 and Vettel on 231.
Had Red Bull elected to adopt team orders and let Webber win – something that the governing body allows when championships are at stake – Webber would have left Brazil with 245 points – just one point off the lead. For some that was confirmation of his suggestion that Vettel is the team's favoured driver – which generated an angry call from team owner Dietrich Mateschitz in Austria and was much denied by team principal, Christian Horner.
And it sets up a situation where, if the result is repeated next weekend, as is likely, Vettel and Webber will tie on 256, five behind Alonso.
"That's the way it is," Webber said of the current situation, "how they handled the points situation today. P1 would have been nice but it was not possible. But I'm still in the hunt and it's nice for me to come back after a poor race in Korea." He was, of course, choosing his words carefully, for his expression said it all.
So did Vettel's. "I think this was an incredible day," he beamed. "It was not an easy race to start with. I saw that Nico [surprise polesitter Hulkenberg] got too much wheelspin and used my momentum just to squeeze down inside. There was not too much space but it was just enough and that was key for me. After that I was able to control the race from there.
"This was an incredible effort from the team, and not an easy season. After Korea it was the right answer for all our people to come back here, all pull on one string, and get us a 1-2 and win the constructors' title with one race to go. That's fantastic. And we can still fight for the drivers' title. But we need to get rid of this guy!"
The latter was a reference to Alonso, whom Vettel must outscore by 16 points even if he wins in Abu Dhabi. "I don't wish anything bad on him but it would be nice to see some Ferrari smoke!" he laughed. "But seriously, I just have to focus on myself as I did here and try to see where he's finishing. In a week's time we'll know."
Webber looked philosophical, and revealed that his engine had been overheating to the point where he was instructed to reduce power settings to keep it running.
"I haven't spoken to the guys yet so I don't know why there was a problem," he said, "but I had to control the reliability and bring the car home. I got information from the team; the phone rang and they asked me to manage something. The safety car helped, but the lap after it went in the problem came back. The engine was right on the edge, apparently. But today is all about the team. You don't win the constructors' championship if you don't have a car that is very reliable. We've had a few lobs in the river along the way, but I'm really stoked for the guys back at the factory."
Fourth and fifth places spelled the effective end of the McLaren drivers' challenges. Lewis Hamilton drove a fighting race in a car that was only a match for the Red Bulls and Ferraris on the harder Bridgestone tyres and not in the crucial early stages on their supersoft rubber. He set the fastest lap on the 66th of the 71 laps, but the presence of lapped traffic between his McLaren and Alonso's Ferrari ruined his chances of moving up a place in the closing stages. Germany's Nick Heidfeld was later given a drive-through penalty in his Sauber for ignoring the McLarens in his mirrors.
Hamilton's fourth place leaves him mathematically a point short of ultimate exclusion, with 222 points to Alonso's 246 and a maximum of 25 available in Abu Dhabi. Nevertheless, it is still the first time that four drivers go to the last race with the chance of becoming champion.
Hamilton's team-mate, Jenson Button, the reigning champion for another week, is now out of the fight after finishing fifth and bringing his points tally to 199.
"We weren't quick enough here and we won't be quick enough in Abu Dhabi," Hamilton said. "Realistically, we need a miracle, but I'll keep trying, we have nothing to lose now.
"It was a tough race. The car was nowhere, I had no grip. I feel quite lucky to have finished where I finished. The car didn't feel like it did in practice, down the straights particularly. I didn't think the F-duct was working because I was struggling to overtake backmarkers and Fernando shot by on the straight. The team did a great job with the strategy, but you just can't win with a car that's not quick enough."
So if the same top three pertains with a lap to go in Abu Dhabi, will Vettel let Webber by, thus enabling him to beat Alonso by two points? That is a key question, and Vettel smiled at it. "In my case it's pretty straightforward," he offered. "I have to optimise the result, get everything out of myself and ideally repeat today, and then it depends where those two guys are. We have to judge according to the situation. I think both of us know how to act. We've had some moments we are not very proud of, and which we don't want to repeat..."
Webber, typically, was more succinct. "Long story short: it depends on the last lap..." But did he think it would have been more prudent - if less sporting – for Red Bull to ask Vettel to gift him yesterday's race?
"It would have helped but it's not in the team's policy. The team have always been on the sporting side, and that's how it is. I'm still in with a big chance, so I'll go there and do my best."
Who can win the title?
Fernando Alonso takes an eight-point lead into the final race in Abu Dhabi next weekend. The Spaniard can afford to finish second and still take the title if Mark Webber wins – or fourth if Sebastian Vettel does.
Lewis Hamilton could still win the title, but as he is now 24 points behind Alonso he would need the other three contenders to have a disastrous race. Jenson Button is now out of contention.
FIA Formula 1 Brazilian Grand Prix, Interlagos, Sao Paulo, Brazil (71 Laps):
1 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1hr 33mins 11.803secs
2 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:33:16.046
3 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:33:18.610
4 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:33:26.437; 5 J Button (GB) McLaren 1:33:27.396; 6 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:33:47.123; 7 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:33:55.259; 8 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams at 1 Lap; 9 R Kubica (Pol) Renault at 1 Lap; 10 K Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber at 1 Lap; 11 J Alguersuari (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso at 1 Lap; 12 A Sutil (Ger) Force India at 1 Lap; 13 S Buemi (Swit) Scuderia Toro Rosso at 1 Lap; 14 R Barrichello (Br) Williams at 1 Lap; 15 F Massa (Br) Ferrari at 1 Lap; 16 V Petrov (Rus) Renault at 1 Lap; 17 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber at 1 Lap; 18 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 at 2 Laps; 19 J Trulli (It) Lotus F1 at 2 Laps; 20 T Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing at 2 Laps; 21 B Senna (Br) HRT-F1 at 2 Laps; 22 C Klien (Aut) HRT-F1 at 6 Laps. Not Classified: 23 L di Grassi (Br) Virgin Racing 62 Laps completed; 24 V Liuzzi (It) Force India 49 Laps completed.
World Championship Standings: Drivers:
1 F Alonso 246pts
2 M Webber 238
3 S Vettel 231
4 L Hamilton 222; 5 J Button 199; 6 F Massa 143; 7 N Rosberg 130; 8 R Kubica 126; 9 M Schumacher 72; 10 R Barrichello 47; 11 A Sutil 47; 12 K Kobayashi 32; 13 N Hulkenberg 22; 14 V Liuzzi 21; 15 V Petrov 19; 16 S Buemi 8; 17 P de la Rosa (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso 6; 18 N Heidfeld 6; 19 J Alguersuari 3; 20 H Kovalainen 0; 21 J Trulli 0; 22 B Senna 0; 23 L di Grassi 0; 24 K Chandhok (India) HRT-F1 0; 25 T Glock 0; 26 S Yamamoto (Japan) HRT-F1 0; 27 C Klien (Aut) 0.
Manufacturers: 1 Red Bull 469pts; 2 McLaren 421; 3 Ferrari 389; 4 Mercedes GP 202; 5 Renault 145; 6 Williams 69; 7 Force India 68; 8 BMW Sauber 44; 9 Scuderia Toro Rosso 11; 10 Lotus F1 0; 11 Virgin Racing 0; 12 HRT-F1 0.