YEONGAM, South Korea (AP) — Sebastian Vettel heads into the weekend with a chance to repeat his 2011 feat of clinching the Formula One title in Japan with four races to spare — and join Michael Schumacher and Juan-Manuel Fangio as the only men to win four championships in a row.
To clinch the title at Suzuka, the German needs to win and have nearest rival Fernando Alonso finish worse than eighth.
The first part of the equation looks likely: The Red Bull driver has won the past four races, leading after every lap in each of them.
The second part is less likely with Alonso consistently finishing high up in the points, even if the Ferrari ace was an uncompetitive sixth in last weekend's Korean Grand Prix.
"Vettel is a very long way off in terms of points, but above all in performance terms, and we cannot expect miracles between now and the end of the championship," was Alonso's frank assessment of Ferrari's title chances after Korea. "Second place in the constructors' championship is probably a more realistic target, but one thing's certain, we are not giving up now and we will give it our best shot right to the very end."
Vettel's latter half of the season has been every bit as dominant as 2011, and it would be a fitting historical parallel if he again seals the championship in Japan with four races up his sleeve. Only Schumacher in 2002 (six) and Nigel Mansell in 1992 (five) had more races to spare in clinching a title.
Asked about his opportunity to seal it in Japan, Vettel said: "We had the incredible chance, two years ago, to do so. We did it, but there are still a lot of points to get, even though it looks very good for us.
"The car is working ... it's on the edge, to be honest, more so than you would probably think from the outside," Vettel said.
The only edginess apparent to observers is how the Red Bull manages its wearing tires in the closing stages of the race, but that is true of all teams this season on the Pirelli rubber.
Romain Grosjean, who stayed on Vettel's tail through the first half of the grand prix in Korea when so many others have watched the German drive away into the distance, said he and teammate Kimi Raikkonen would have challenged the Red Bull in the closing stages if not for the two safety-car periods that allowed the German to nurse his tires for a few laps.
"It seems that every time there will be a battle with Seb, there's a safety car coming," Grosjean said. "The last stints would have been pretty epic without the safety car ... it would have been close."
Lotus looms as the main challenger to Red Bull this weekend, having shown improved form in Korea — its first race with a new, longer-wheelbase car.
With all teams now turning their resources toward designing their radically different 2014 cars with V6 turbo engines, and with only a one-week break between Korea and Japan, the pecking order of teams at Suzuka is likely to be very similar to that seen at Yeongam.