Vettel storms India, Alonso must attack
Either Alonso or Vettel is likely to become a three-time champion this year, and whoever does that -- and enters the rarified triple champion league occupied by immortals such as Ayrton Senna -- may well be crowned the leading driver of this generation, feels Raja Sen.
Felipe Massa might have a curb named after him at the Buddh International Circuit, but it is Sebastian Vettel who really seems to like the circuit on the outskirts of Delhi.
The Red Bull driver has been fearsome in his dominance all weekend, topping all three practice sessions and breasting the qualifying ribbon with such ease that Fernando Alonso, this year's finest performer, must surely be feeling the heat.
So strong was the German's Red Bull package that even without making it in time for a timed lap -- something all his rivals benefited from -- Vettel topped the timesheets, .044 seconds ahead of teammate Mark Webber.
The grid, as a result, looks strikingly formational: The Red Bulls right up front, then the McLarens of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, followed by the Ferraris of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa. Kimi Raikkonen starts his Lotus in seventh, surely hoping for an awfully messy first corner pile-up.
Image: Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel celebrates
Photographs: Mark Thompson/Getty Images
The championship contenders stack up
Because here's where the championship contenders stack up: Vettel, the leader at 215 points, the head of the field; Alonso (209 points) starting fifth, Raikkonen (167 points) all the way back in seventh place.
Raikkonen, the only contender to have not won a race all season, can surely now see the hourglass running out with only four Sundays remaining.
He needs to win, and he needs some major catastrophe to befall both Vettel and Alonso. It's a long shot, but knowing that particular Finn, he won't call it quits anytime before a very overweight lady bursts into song.
Back to the top two, the duel that will define Sunday's drama.
The grid is Vettel, Webber, Hamilton, Button, Alonso, Massa. Red Bull will want Vettel to fly off the tracks at the start, with Webber slowing the pack behind him instead of pushing the German.
It's a safe, smart strategy but Webber can't afford to go too slow, since both McLarens are looking strong on longer runs, and will be ready to leapfrog the Australian immediately. (It must here be noted that the constructor's championship is wide open, and while Red Bull, at 367 points, have a bit of a cushion, the trophy is by no means a cert.)
Image: Ferrari Formula One driver Fernando Alonso
Photographs: Miguel Vidal/Reuters
Every team will be hunting for a one-two
Every team will be hunting for a one-two, and McLaren will be looking to shove their noses up Webber's exhaust as soon as the five red lights go out.
Behind the McLarens, Alonso and Massa will look to make early and consistent progress up the ranks, and Fernando will have to yank all the rabbits he can out of his top hat.
This is a race where he needs to close the gap to Sebastian, ideally get ahead of one of the McLarens at the start of the race, catch Webber at the stops and then apply pressure on the German, hoping he makes a mistake instead of galloping his way to a third successive World Championship.
A lot of pressure will be on the three number-two drivers, or, if you'd like to be nicer, the three non-contenders for the title.
Image: Kimi Raikkonen during a practice session
Photographs: Buddh International Circuit
The stakes are higher than most years
Between Mark Webber, Jenson Button and Felipe Massa, Button looks the most comfortable on the circuit, doing well even in single runs; Webber seems to have the fastest-car, at least when it comes to a flying-lap; and Felipe, well, isn't looking great at all.
They will all surely be used strategically at this race, and it's crucial to their respective teams (and teammates) that they deliver exactly what is asked. Not less and (vitally, as one must perhaps remind the defiant Webber) not more.
The stakes are higher than most years. Either Alonso or Vettel is likely to become a three-time champion this year, and whoever does that -- and enters the rarified triple champion league occupied by immortals such as Ayrton Senna -- may well be crowned the leading driver of this generation.
Unless the other guy wins in 2013, that is.
Image: McLaren's Jenson Button (left) with teammate Lewis Hamilton
Photographs: Samsul Said/Reuters