Will Gray

Gray Matter: Is it time for tactics?

Will Gray

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The title
battle is now on the home straight - and with Ferrari now fully behind Fernando
Alonso's push for the drivers' title their rivals are set to face some
difficult decisions at Suzuka.

The
Japanese circuit rewards efficient downforce, which puts Red Bull in prime
position to take full advantage of their well-developed blown diffuser package,
but Ferrari are back in form and McLaren have mainly faltered in recent races
through mistakes and bad luck.

Just one
victory, 25 points, separates Mark Webber in first place from Jenson Button in
fifth and 100 points are still up for grabs in the remaining four rounds,
although that will be reduced to 75 if Korea fails to run.

Given the
murmurings from the Far East the safest bet for the title contenders could be
to play out their strategy based on the latter. That makes team decisions even
more crucial, and when the FIA admitted they could not punish Ferrari's team
orders incident in Germany the door was effectively opened for anyone to play
that game.

For Ferrari
things are simple.

They have
set out their stall with Alonso firmly up front and Felipe Massa playing the
supporting role. In that role, the Brazilian has been told he must "shave
points off the rivals" - by scoring as highly as possible and not, of course,
by attempting to knock them off the track!

Things are
much tighter at McLaren, and theirs is a tough call.

Despite
Jenson Button taking the early victories, this season has really shown Lewis
Hamilton to be more in tune with the car and more capable of getting it to the
front. Button has scored consistently and made few mistakes, but Hamilton has
scored podiums more regularly, with one more win and one more second place.

The last
two DNFs for Hamilton have allowed Button to make up 30 points on his team-mate
and now, while Hamilton sits 20 points behind Webber, Button is just five
points further back.

Hamilton's
pre-race approach suggests he will "hold nothing back" in pursuit of a strong
result - but Button's more considered take was that "there's no room for
mistakes" in the final races.

Hamilton's
all-out-attack approach has cost him dear recently but if it does work here, he
could bring back the advantage he needs to get the team to play in his favour.
Equally, if it fails the balance could sway Button's way. Either way, it's so
close now that McLaren's tough decisions are more likely to come after Japan.

So it is at
Red Bull where things are on the edge.

Webber has
a 21-point advantage over his Red Bull team-mate Sebastian Vettel but he only
leads the title race by 11 points from the in-form Alonso.

With such a
slender advantage - if Alonso won, Webber would lose the championship lead if
he finished lower than third - Red Bull cannot really take the strategy where
Webber aims to simply avoid mistakes and finish races or they risk losing
everything to Ferrari.

That may be
the case for the team, but for Webber alone Suzuka presents a different battle
- which is why an element of caution could be a better approach for him this
weekend.

The title
race is so tight that losing the lead at this stage may not be such a disaster
as there is still time to get it back - but positioning himself ahead of Vettel
this weekend is vital to move closer to securing the team's full support for
the title run-in.

Red Bull
already openly discussed their position on team tactics when they took the very
early decision to favour Vettel at Silverstone, giving him the only new front
wing available because he had scored more points than Webber at the time.

Back then,
Vettel was just 12 points ahead. Right now, Webber already has a greater
advantage than that, but he is not receiving any favours yet. Surely though,
any further advantage over Vettel would force Red Bull to make the call...

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