SUZUKA, Japan (Reuters) - At the end of a week in which he has been accused of sending Formula One fans to sleep, Sebastian Vettel can put the championship to bed on Sunday.
If the Japanese Grand Prix pans out the same as last year’s race, the 26-year-old Red Bull driver will be enjoying sweet dreams as the youngest quadruple world champion - and only the third four-in-a-row winner - with four races to spare.
“I‘m trying not to think about it, to be honest,” the German, who will be chasing a fifth successive race win and fourth pole in a row, told reporters in South Korea last weekend.
He will need exceptional mind control for that to happen.
Vettel stands on the brink of joining three of the all-time greats - Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher - in the record books as the only drivers to have won four or more titles in the 63-year history of the sport.
The championship leader enjoys a 77 point lead over Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and will wrap up the title if he wins at Suzuka and the Spaniard fails to finish in the top eight.
There is every chance of that happening, even if Alonso has finished eighth or higher in all but one of the 14 races so far this year.
“We are not thinking about the championship. If the moon and stars align and he (Vettel) wins the race and Fernando is ninth or below, then theoretically he can win the championship,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner told reporters after last weekend’s victory, showing he knew exactly what was required.
“Our approach in Suzuka will be the same as in our other races this year and we will go there to get the best out of ourselves and the championship will tend to take care of itself,” Horner added.
“So long as we win it, I don’t care where we win it and I think the chances of us winning it in Suzuka are low. When does Fernando Alonso ever not finish a race?”.
The answer came back immediately: At Suzuka last year.
Vettel won that race from pole position, leading all the way and setting the fastest lap, while Alonso retired after spinning off into the gravel at the first corner only seconds after the start.
The Spaniard, whose fighting spirit is reflected by the Samurai swordsman tattooed on his back, has already recognised that it will take a comeback or slump of America’s Cup proportions to deny Vettel a fourth crown.
He and his team both know that is not going to happen, even if Vettel’s Australian team mate Mark Webber has retired from the last two races with his car’s engine in flames.
“Of course we need to be realistic, we know that it is almost impossible to win the title,” Ferrari principal Stefano Domenicali said after what he described as a very painful weekend in South Korea, with Alonso finishing sixth.
Alonso agreed: “We cannot expect miracles between now and the end of the championship. Second place in the Constructors’ championship is probably a more realistic target,” he said.
“But one thing’s certain, we are not giving up now and we will give it our best shot right to the very end.”
Suzuka is a favourite circuit for all drivers, ranking up with Spa as a real challenge that sorts the men from the boys as they come up against the fearsome 310kph 130R corner.
It is no surprise that world champions have won 17 of the last 18 races at the fast figure-of-eight circuit and Vettel three of the last four. He did not win in 2011, when he finished third, but the title more than made up for that.
“I think it is the best track in the world, to be honest,” said the German, who has been on pole for the past four years and has a considerable local fan base.
The boos heard elsewhere when Vettel has appeared on the podium are unlikely to be repeated in Japan, where fans fill the stands even when nothing is happening on the track and stay for hours afterwards.
“The fans are crazy - completely crazy in a positive way,” said Vettel. “(We) get massive support there, big fans of motorsport, passionate about Formula One and I think they enjoy the whole weekend.”
Editing by John O'Brien