The naysayers dismiss Formula One racing as elitist. They say the same handful of teams win every year and nobody else has a chance. Maybe once upon a time, but with teams like Brawn GP and Red Bull Racing climbing out of nowhere to compete for victories and world championship standings, who could say it's still the case today?
Of course when one team rises, others must fall. While teams like Ferrari and McLaren are still veritable forces to be reckoned with, others have fallen by the wayside – arguably none more emphatically than Williams. The team of Damon Hill, Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna; the team with nine constructors' titles to its name and seven drivers' championships; the team that once struck fear into the hearts of all challengers has long since fallen off its perch.
It's all the more surprising, then, when the team's young talent Nico Hulkenberg knocked the others off theirs this weekend in Brazil by taking pole position in qualifying on Saturday. Would he be able to defend the lead at such a vaunted circuit against such a formidable field of title-seeking adversaries? Follow the jump to find out.
[Images: Mark Thompson/Getty | Ricardo Mazalan, Silvia Izquierdo, Andre Penner/AP Photo]
Although Hulkenberg managed to set a final lap time over a second faster than anyone else, lined up beside and behind him were the usual suspects: Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber for Red Bull in second and third; Lewis Hamilton for McLaren in fourth; and championship frontrunner Fernando Alonso in fifth. Local hero (and Nico's elder wingman) Rubens Barrichello qualified a respectable sixth, followed by Robert Kubica (Renault), Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), Felipe Massa (another Brazilian driving for Ferrari) and Vitaly Petrov (Renault). Jenson Button lead the rest of the field, all but completely kissing his chances of defending his championship goodbye.
Nico's wildly impressive showing in qualifying, however, appeared to have evaporated by Sunday morning. Both Vettel and Webber squeezed past him in the opening lap, a position to which Hulkenberg would have to get re-acclimated over the course of the race distance, ultimately finishing in what would otherwise have been a respectable eighth place had he not set the bar so high in qualifying.
The real race, however, came down to the championship front-runners, this penultimate round acting as a turning point in both title standings. With the pair of Red Bulls stretching out onto the opening track ahead of them, Alonso passed Hamilton for fourth place on the second lap, the McLaren driver making the same mistake which Hulkenberg did to let the Red Bulls by. Schumacher managed a smooth pass on Button for ninth position on the following lap, while Alonso got stuck for seven laps before finally making it past Hulkenberg for third.
With the opening laps behind them, Vettel remained in the lead, followed by Webber, Alonso, Hulkenberg, Hamilton, Kubica, Barrichello, Massa, Schumacher and Button. HRT's Christian Klien trailed three laps down having started late from pit lane, while the remaining back-markers filled in the ranks between.
Evidently feeling immensely insecure in his McLaren, Hamilton was overheard on the radio repeatedly inquiring what was malfunctioning, his team reassuring him that everything was in order and urging him to push on.
The first round of pit stops came before quickly, Button leading the pack into the boxes from tenth place to re-emerge 18th. Massa followed and rejoined just ahead of Button, only to lose position to the defending champ shortly after. Apparently struck with a botched tire-swap, Massa was forced back into the pits again – along with Hulkenberg, Kubica, Heidfeld and others – to fall further down to an unrecoverable 23rd place.
The vital pit stops, however, came past the 20-lap mark. With Hulkenberg out of the way, Hamilton pitted from fourth to re-emerge sixth, followed by Schumacher from sixth to re-emerge ninth. Alonso crucially pitted from third place, but thanks to superlative racecraft on Ferrari's part got back out onto the track without losing position. Vettel headed in next from the lead, swapping places with Webber until he pitted as well and the order was restored.
With most of the drivers having completed their mandatory tire-swaps – to the hold-out exceptions of Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi, Force India's Adrian Sutil and Virgin's Lucas di Grassi – the top running order looked set by lap 28: Vettel remained in the lead, followed by Webber, Alonso and Hamilton. Mercedes GP's Schumacher and Rosberg were running fifth and sixth respectively, Kobayashi artificially in seventh while Button and Massa languished in 10th and 20th positions, respectively.
By lap 33 Webber was whittling down what had seemed like an unassailable lead on Vettel's part as the Red Bull rivals closed ranks. Barrichello caused a stir when he collided with Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari, but managed to make it back around his home-track on a puncture to pit lane for a tire and nosecone swap and rejoined the race.
Whatever gaps were opened by then, however, were closed again on lap 51 when Force India's Tonio Liuzzi crashed near the pit wall, sending the safety car out to close the field back together. Only by then every car from eighth place down had already been lapped, causing a real mess of a procession. A number of cars scrambled back into the pits – Massa included, for the third time – and the safety car was recalled again on lap 55 to let the race get back under way.
The same top four – Vettel, Webber, Alonso and Hamilton – still lead the densely-packed field. Massa and Buemi had an inconsequential run-in as the two joined Heidfeld, Sutil, Kobayashi and Alguersuari in a heated battle for tenth place and the remaining championship point.
Ultimately the Red Bulls prevailed, Webber never managing to close in on his team-mate and the two took yet another spectacular 1-2 finish for their team and cinched the constructors' championship in the process, the resulting lead proving unassailable by the lagging Mercedes and Ferrari teams with only one race left to go.
As for the drivers' championship, that still remains open. The points gained by Vettel and Webber helped them close in on Alonso, but with the two-time world champion joining them on the podium in Brazil, it was far from enough to lock up those standings as well. Alonso now leads with 246 points to Webber's 238 and Vettel's 231. A quick calculation shows that if Alonso wins the final round coming up in Abu Dhabi, the championship will be his. If Webber wins and Alonso comes second, Alonso will still be crowned champion for the third time in his career. If Vettel wins in Abu Dhabi, Alonso will need only repeat today's results with a third-place finish to claim the title.
The day's remaining points incidentally went to Hamilton (4th), Button (5th), Rosberg (6th), Schumacher (7th), Hulkenberg (8th), Kubica (9th) and Kobayashi (10th) – none of whom stand a chance at the title this season as we depart for the closing round at Yas Island in the Persian Gulf, the constructors' championship locked up and the drivers' championship hanging in the balance with three pilots in the running. How far we've come from the days of oligarchy in Formula One.