As Sebastian Vettel slides past the Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne on the run down to Turn 4, the yellow flag indicators can clearly be seen showing on his dashboard, either side of the timing screen. This would seem to suggest that the pass is illegal, which could result in a penalty for the German. (Video | YouTube)

This is the moment which could ruin Sebastian Vettel’s hat-trick of Formula 1 Drivers’ World Championship crowns.

On the run out of Curva do Sol down to Descide do Lago, the long back straight on the Interlagos circuit which formed the DRS zone in Sunday’s season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix, Vettel clearly passed the Toro Rosso of Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne fully under yellow-flag conditions on lap 4.

Having presumably taken plenty of time to analyse their claim, Ferrari are now close to lodging an official complaint with the FIA, who are as yet undecided on whether to even review the incident.

For those who are interested, the BBC’s news article on the storm has a concise video of the Vergne incident, or the anoraks amongst you can watch YouTube user celicaninja‘s thorough analysis of both the Vergne pass and two other Vettel passes which were questioned after the race but which he proves were legitimate. (I did, it’s well worth it.)

Ferrari’s complaint will centre around the Vergne incident and argue that passing under yellow flags is an offense usually punished by a drive-through penalty, the retroactive application of which usually comes in the form of a 20-second time penalty.

That penalty, as you’ve probably worked out, would drop Vettel two places to 8th (less than a second behind, ironically, Vergne) and hand the championship to Alonso by a single point.

Vettel celebrated his sensational hat-trick of titles with technical mastermind Adrian Newey and team director Christian Horner. (Image | Bettor)

This, though, is F1, so there are plenty of dramas to work into the story.

Firstly, the mysterious ‘hidden marshall post’ on the inside of the track at the exit of the Curva do Sol. It can’t be seen on Vettel’s in-car footage and as such isn’t brought to the attention of celicaninja, but as the BBC point out the green flag had been showing at that station the previous lap. If that was still the case on lap 4, then the German’s manoeuvre is perfectly legal.

If that doesn’t come to Red Bull’s rescue, then Old Father Time might do. The FIA’s laws state that any matter pertaining to the Formula 1 World Championships must be dealt with by November 30th of that year. That’s Friday, then.

As far as I’m concerned, whatever the outcome of this furore, it risks casting a long and deeply unwelcome shadow over a pulsating season in the sport.

The 2012 season has seen some of the most intense and entertaining racing most Formula 1 fans have seen for at least twenty years. We’ve had six different constructors winning races, which is a modern-era record, and but for Sergio Perez’ last-gasp zeal getting the better of him in Malaysia or Nico Hulkenburg‘s untimely slide at the weekend, that number could have been even higher. Eight different drivers took race wins as it was, another record.

Innumerable intriguing subplots have run throughout the campaign. The return of the Iceman, Kimi Raikkonen, has surprised everyone – including me – as his consistency and unflappability allowed him to maintain a title challenge in an unfancied but overachieveing Lotus until two races from the end. Fans watched with amazement and mild bemusement as Pastor Maldonado and Romain Grosjean jostled for position as F1’s most crash-happy pilot. The newest addition to the calendar, Austin, is the best track to have been brought into F1 since Sepang.

Vettel and Alonso, meanwhile, have been sensational. Alonso was given a poor car by Ferrari at the start of the season, one which for a while lacked the outright pace of Lotus or Mercedes, never mind the frontrunning McLarens and Red Bulls.

But the indefatigable Spaniard has wrung every last drop from his car, his team and himself in building a 39-point lead by the end of the Monza GP and battling grimly on as he watched Vettel overturn it. Championship or no championship, this season has to go down as one of Alonso’s finest.

In many other seasons in F1’s recent history, nobody could have held a candle to the form Fernando Alonso has been in this season, and should Vettel be penalised the Spaniard would be a worthy champion in his own right. (Image | Reuters)

Sebastian himself was no less remarkable, though. His car was not a vintage Red Bull for the first two-thirds of the season, but a difficult, inconsistent and at times seemingly cumbersome machine.

Between his wins in Bahrain and Singapore, the German managed just two podiums in nine races as he fell further and further off the pace, embroiled in the chasing pack behind Alonso with Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber.

But his comeback in the Asian rounds was sublime. A quartet of wins in Singapore, Japan, Korea and India vaulted him to the top of the leaderboard, erased Alonso’s advantage and set the stage for a staggering fight-back podium finish in Abu Dhabi.

Let us not forget, either, what an enthralling race the Brazilian GP was at the weekend. It had everything that brings out the best in the sport – a late-season title chase, changeable weather conditions, some stellar performances from drivers either preparing to switch teams or auditioning for new contracts.

There was overtaking, there were crashes, there were more slides and wobbles than I care to recount, and there was the constant threat of the track either drying out or being hit by a typical Brazilian deluge, changing the whole contest again.

It made for unmissable viewing and sets the sport up very nicely for 2013, a season in which much is set to change again. It would somehow feel a colossal shame, then, if, after all we’ve been through in the last month or so as the season wound to its conclusion, the 2012 Formula 1 World Championship actually ends on Friday, in a Geneva video laboratory.

One other thing, while I’m here: for everyone who is raining hatred on Andrew Benson, the BBC scribe who broke the story? People said much the same about Eddie Jordan when he ‘revealed’ that Lewis Hamilton had agreed to join Mercedes a couple months ago. Just sayin’.

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