In the Red Bull garage on Friday the mechanics, preparing for the two practice sessions, were busier than sailors in a storm, although a storm is the very last thing they want here on Sunday.
Energetic, frenetic work concentrates the mind, banishes the unthinkable. But when the tools are put down and when the engines fall silent the nagging, neurotic worries invade the psyche once again: Fernando Alonso could actually win the Formula One world championship.
"We're in the best possible position," says Red Bull's championship leader, Sebastian Vettel. "It's just one more race out of 20," says his team principal, Christian Horner. They are both trying to convince themselves as much as anybody else.
Nothing should go wrong for Red Bull at Interlagos, one of F1's most evocative arenas. Vettel has a lead of 13 points and has only to finish in the top four to make sure of his third title in succession. He also has the fastest car. And Red Bull have won the last three races here. But what if it rains? And what if their troublesome alternator blows one more, fatal time?
Most of all, though, they are up against Alonso. Every time Vettel looks round the Spaniard is there, patiently, painstakingly tracking his flustered quarry. "Fernando is the Terminator," said someone in the paddock on Friday, finding an altogether different image. "You can keep shooting him but he still keeps coming after you."
Alonso has been coming after people, and invariably passing them, ever since his brilliant career gathered a compelling momentum at Renault in 2003. Like Vettel he is a double world champion – whatever happens here we will have the youngest winner of three titles, replacing Ayrton Senna.
Red Bull know that, if Vettel fails to finish, Alonso needs only to get on the podium to seize the prize. They are worried about that alternator which has twice brought Vettel to a standstill and put paid to Mark Webber's race in Texas a week ago. They are trying a new one here – hardly the best time for experimentation.
The rain, which is forecast to fall on Sunday, and possibly in time for Saturday's qualifying session, is an even bigger worry, since it would play into Alonso's hands. Jenson Button, who won the 2009 title here with a series of dashing overtaking manoeuvres, says: "If it rains, Fernando's chances are very good. Every wet race he's done, he's been quick. That's because of him and also the car. And when it rains here, it rains. There are rivers. It's a very, very difficult circuit in the wet. Visibility is pretty poor.
"If it's dry, you would say that, if Sebastian qualifies well, it's pretty easy for the world championship. But if it's wet, it really does mix it up. Even if Sebastian is on the front row, he could be wiped out on Turn One in the wet because it's so, so tricky around here."
Alonso has not won a race – or even looked capable of winning a race – since the German Grand Prix in Hockenheim in July. He was second at Silverstone in the same month. Both times Alonso thrived in wet qualifying conditions. He also won in the rain in Malaysia in the second race of the season. It is not that Vettel cannot cope with wet conditions. He proved he could when he won in Monza four years ago. But the rain falls on Alonso and his scarlet chariot like a sprinkling of holy water.
If Alonso wants a reminder of what is possible he has only to go back two years, when Abu Dhabi staged the final race of the year. Then the position was reversed, with Vettel going to the Yas Marina circuit 15 points behind. Alonso needed only to come in the top four to win the title but Ferrari botched their stopping strategy and all but handed Vettel the title.
It is impossible to exaggerate the scar tissue that attached itself to the Maranello team after that result. Two years before that they had also been badly hurt. That was the time, at this circuit, when Lewis Hamilton won the title, overtaking Timo Glock to take fifth place on the last lap; in the Ferrari garage they had already started celebrating Massa's title.
Things like that tend to happen at Interlagos. It was here, in 2007, that Kimi Raikkonen, the third favourite for the championship, sneaked in ahead of Hamilton and Alonso to win his one world title. In 2003, amid heavy rain and much confusion, Giancarlo Fisichella won here.
On Thursday afternoon Hamilton, making one of his last appearances as a McLaren driver, took us through his fondest memories of 15 years being with the team. But there was sadness too. He should have won more titles, he said, pointing to 2007, 2010 and this year.
On Sunday a great sadness will fall on either Vettel or Alonso. For Vettel failure would be hard to take. But with unsettling memories of 2007 and 2010 defeat would barely be any easier for Alonso.
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