Ferrari’s Alonso left to rue F1 title loss

Fernando Alonso and Ferrari left Abu Dhabi wondering how a
Formula One title that appeared to be theirs for the taking somehow
slipped into the hands of Sebastian Vettel.

After his win in the dramatic Korean Grand Prix last month,
Alonso became the points leader and the momentum shifted away from
the Red Bulls, as neither Vettel nor teammate Mark Webber finished
that race.

A third-place finish behind the Red Bulls in Brazil kept Alonso
atop the drivers’ standings entering the final race Sunday. When
the Spaniard qualified third for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix —
two places ahead of his nearest rival, Webber — everything
seemed in place for Alonso’s third drivers’ championship.

But like much of the topsy-turvy Formula One season, with the
points leader changing almost by the month, the race didn’t go
according to script. Despite being favorites, the decisions by
Ferrari and Red Bull to change tires early cost Alonso and Webber
at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

While they were stuck behind traffic, Red Bull’s Vettel was
clear in front and went on to win the race and become the youngest
F1 champion — capping a historic season that for the first
time included four drivers fighting for the title in the last
race.

The 23-year-old German, who had not led the championship at any
stage until he received the checkered flag Sunday and was 15 points
back of Alonso coming into the final race, showed a maturity over
the final two races that some had thought was lacking when he made
costly errors in Belgium, Turkey and Hungary.

”It has been an incredible journey. To lead the championship
after the last race is unbelievable,” Vettel said. ”It’s been
extremely intense and a tough season mentally.”

Ferrari – which appeared on the rebound after a subpar season in
2009 – was left to rue the mistakes that cost them the title.

”There is great sadness at the moment, because to come so close
to our goal and to see it slip away for just a few points really
hurts,” Ferrari chief Stefano Domenicali said. ”This was probably
our worst race of the season.”

A pivotal moment in the race came on lap one, when seven-time
world champion Michael Schumacher spun. With his Mercedes
motionless and facing the wrong way, it was hit by the Force India
of Vitantonio Liuzzi, with the car climbing up Schumacher’s
Mercedes and the wheel narrowly missing the German driver’s
head.

The pair walked away unscathed, but that brought out the safety
car. Several cars, including Renault Vitaly Petrov, took advantage
of the situation to pit and change tires while all the main drivers
stayed out.

Webber was the first of the title contenders to change tires,
coming in on lap 11. Ferrari, assuming Alonso only had to finish
close to the Australian to win the title, brought in the Spaniard
four laps later to mirror Webber’s strategy.

However, that instead put both of them behind Mercedes’ Nico
Rosberg, and Vitaly Petrov, whose Renault they ended up trailing
for the rest of the race. All the time, Vettel plus the McLaren
pair of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button got further away.

Alonso repeatedly tried to pass the rookie Petrov, the first
Russian to race in F1. He almost clipped Petrov during a failed
attempt on lap 24 and then twice more went off the track as his
aggressive driving almost got the best of him.

As the two crossed the finish line, Alonso angrily shook his
fists at Petrov. But afterward, Alonso appeared ready to move
on.

”Renault was quick on the top speed. It was a frustrating race
behind him,” he said. ”This is a sport. This is motor racing.
Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Congratulations to Red Bull
and Sebastian. But next year, we will try again.”

The 29-year-old Spaniard refused to blame the team’s pit
strategy for his failure. He ended up four points behind Vettel,
followed by Webber 14 points back.

”After the race, it is always very easy to see the best
strategy,” Alonso said. ”If we didn’t stop, Webber probably would
have overtaken us. If we stopped we cover from Webber but let
Petrov and Rosberg in front, so it was a very difficult call.”

But his teammate Felipe Massa was not so kind, telling reporters
”the race was not good” and that ”it was not a great strategy to
stop so soon.”

That was echoed by Domenicali, who admitted the team made
several mistakes during the race.

”Wrong strategy for three reasons,” he said. ”We marked a
rival with two cars, we were unduly concerned about the wear rate
of the soft tires, and we did not take into consideration the
difficulty of getting past other cars on the track.”

In the end, it was Red Bull that was celebrating after adding
the drivers’ championship to the constructors’ title it had already
won.

Delirious team members hugged and celebrated in the pits,
yelling ”Weltmeister” – German for world champion – on the team
radio. Queen’s ”We Are The Champions” blared on the radio.

The team’s jubilation and Vettel’s tears on the podium were as
much in relief as triumph. Red Bull had the best car throughout the
season, but the trading of wins between Vettel and Webber, and some
occasional mistakes, had put the drivers’ championship in
jeopardy.

”It’s an unbelievable outcome,” team chief Christian Horner
said. ”He’s stuck with it through this year, he’s had some tough
times and he’s had his issues with reliability here and there, but
he’s never lost his focus. He’s the youngest ever Formula One world
champion and a very deserving world champion.”

AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire contributed to this
report.

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