"Everything can change in a New York minute." It's a good thing Don Henley wrote his hit song twenty years before this weekend's Brazilian Grand Prix. Because "in an Interlagos minute" just doesn't have the same ring to it. But it does go to show how quickly fortunes can be reversed over the course of a race distance. Especially when the championship is on the line.
With two races to go, the F1 circus rolled in to Sao Paulo with Jenson Button – winner of six grands prix this season – leading his Brawn GP team-mate, hometown hero and chief rival Rubens Barrichello 85 to 71, with Red Bull challenger Sebastian Vettel – fresh from victory in Japan – trailing with 69 points. The most likely scenarios placed Button clinching the title right here at the penultimate championship round, if not at the final race in Abu Dhabi two weeks from now.
But the heavens seemed to have a different plan when torrential downpours put a hamper on Saturday's qualifying session. Once the rain stopped, yesterday's proved to be the longest qualifying session in Formula One history, and the order came out all messed up. Instead of placing up at the front of the grid, Button and Vettel found themselves way down the pecking order in 14th and 16th positions. In their place, their respective wingmen Barrichello and Webber started 1st and 2nd on the grid, with half a field's worth of back-markers separating them. Follow the jump to read how the race unfolded.
With the stage set, it looked like Barrichello would mount a challenge and possibly even take the lead in the title fight. But once the lights flashed green on a dry track between the lakes in Sao Paulo, all bets were off.
The opening lap turned into pure unmitigated pandemonium as the world's elite racing drivers appeared to have mistaken the race for a game of bumper cars. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen did what he does best and charged up the field off the line from fifth place on the starting grid nearly up to second, only to collide with the back of a defending Mark Webber's Red Bull. McLaren number two Heikki Kovalainen then bounced off Vettel and straight into Ferrari's struggling Giancarlo Fisichella. Jarno Trulli then steered his Toyota wide through the second turn, came back on track and hit Adrian Sutil's Force India, pushing him into Fernando Alonso's Renault and taking all three out of the race. A furious Trulli confronted Sutil trackside, but that wasn't nearly the end of the drama.
With the yellow flag deployed just one lap in, the Twin Finns – Kovalainen and Raikkonen – entered the pit lane to repair damage incurred from their respective first-lap collisions. Heikki, however, left the McLaren pit prematurely with the fuel hose still attached, dragging it behind him. Kimi pulled out straight into his countryman's spraying fuel, which ignited over the Ferrari in a flash fire. Fortunately no one was hurt, and both continued their race, however the marshals were still investigating the incident at race's end to determine fault.
Once all the debris was cleared and the green flag waved again, Button and Vettel – both eager to catch up with their front-running team-mates and take hold of the title – charged up the field. Surprisingly however, it was the pair of Toyota-powered Japanese drivers who put up the biggest fight to the title contenders on their way up.
Williams' Kazuki Nakajima held back Vettel for several laps. But more impressive was Kamui Kobayashi, filling in at Toyota for an injured Timo Glock, who managed an impressive ninth-place qualification and proceeded to keep Button at bay for about a third of the full race distance until the championship-leading Brit managed to squeeze by. The remarkable performance on Kobayashi's part – on his grand prix debut and his first time on the Interlagos track, no less – will surely play a part when Toyota settles its line-up for next year.
Finally clear of Kobayashi on lap 24, Button proceeded to work his way up the field. Unfortunately his team-mate, poised for a pivotal checkered flag, didn't fare quite as well. By race's end, Button had leapt up to fifth place, scoring a fatal blow in the form of four points for his title aspirations, while a series of unfortunate pit stops drove Barrichello down to eighth across the finish line for just one point.
Ahead of both, Mark Webber sailed to a smooth and well-earned victory, his second this season and of his career. Robert Kubica, now confirmed to fill Fernando Alonso's seat next year at the embattled Renault team, carried off a strong performance for BMW Sauber in its second-to-last race, taking the second step on the podium. Defending champion Lewis Hamilton rounded out the podium with a strong third-place finish.
Despite scoring the top result of the three title hopefuls and leapfrogging Barrichello in the standings, Sebastian Vettel's fourth-place finish was not enough to keep him in contention for the championship. One race from the end of a remarkably embattled season and nine years since joining the circus, Jenson Button was crowned world champion with an unassailable fifteen point lead over Vettel and seventeen points over Barrichello. Further entrenching his well-earned reputation as the finest sportsman and the classiest driver in the field, Rubens pulled up alongside his team-mate to offer his applause in the middle of the cool-down lap.
Of course Button had to be crowned below the podium, but that didn't stop him from celebrating. Nor did it deter the rest of the Brawn GP team, which likewise locked in the constructors' championship with a rock-solid 25.5-point lead in the standings ahead of Red Bull.
In the midst of all the chaos, both Williams drivers Nakajima and Rosberg joined Sutil, Trulli and Alonso on the sidelines, as did BMW's Nick Heidfeld, before the race was done, leaving only fourteen of the twenty drivers who started the race to cross the finish line. Behind Webber, Kubica, Hamilton, Vettel and Button came Kimi Raikkonen in 6th and Toro Rosso's rookie Sebastian Buemi (tying his best result so far) in 7th ahead of Barrichello in 8th. Kovalainen, Kobayashi, Fisichella, Liuzzi (Force India), Grosjean (Renault) and Alguersuari (STR) completed the finishing order.
All of which goes to show how much context counts for, and how quickly it can change, in the fast-paced world of Formula One racing. If this were any other race, a 1-4 finish would have been an outstanding result. But for Red Bull, it wasn't enough to put the cap on its strongest season yet. Locked in for second in the constructors' championship, Vettel and Red Bull will surely be fighting to keep his narrow second-place lead over Barrichello in the drivers' standings when the circus rolls in to the new Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi for the first time for the season finale in two weeks. The others will be fighting for table scraps. But Button and Brawn will already be celebrating.