The front of the Korean grid was studded with Formula One Champions, all in equal measure fighting for victory or survival in the sport; but in the end, it was the red bulls and the black horses that dictated the show – and they did not leave any space for their competitors in their charge for the chequered flag.
After weeks of under-performance – or what it seemed like after the two previous seasons – Sebastian Vettel has pulled his weight to once again become a prominent contender for the Championship title; although the general consent is that it was the Red Bull mechanics who pulled their weight and finally gave the young German a winning car set-up. So, whilst Fernando Alonso might have got used to seeing his name on top of the classification, whether he was on a lower step of a Grand Prix podium or not finishing a race at all, it took a couple of winning runs for the Red Bull Champ to snatch the lead and leave the Spaniard grinding his teeth in second.
The qualifying results came as a bit of a surprise when it turned out it was actually Vettel’s team mate, Mark Webber, who proved to be faster in Q3 and it would be him starting from pole on the Yeongam circuit. ‘Seb’ was starting from the ‘dirty’ side of the track, and to make it more fun, he had Alonso just behind him, starting from 4. There were also Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa closing the front section – all of whom have experienced the sensation of being close to winning the title and loosing it in the final stages of the Championship. And virtually all of them determined not to let history repeat itself. Despite these not most convenient circumstances, after a short side by side fight just after the red lights Vettel shoot out ahead of Webber and easily developed a good enough gap to comfortably run in this position for the whole 55 laps and to claim a hat-trick victory; although there was a bit of a thrill in the works when slightly panicked team radio orders suggested he should keep it easy on the final stunts, as the front tyres were on the breaking point and could end the race for the leader any minute.
Webber finished second, which provided the Bulls with even more points towards the Constructors’ Championship – as if they hadn’t already been out of the competitors’ reach, currently 77 points ahead of Ferrari. Yes, Ferrari! Alonso’s finish in third might have stripped him of the leader title – now missing out by six points to Vettel – but it added valuable 15 points to the Prancing Horse’s tally; more significantly together with another brilliant race from Massa, whose miraculous come-back saw him finish in 4. – and secured him another season with his team, as it seems.
However, this joint effort could probably not be enough to secure Ferrari’s second position, now only 14 points ahead of McLaren, if it wasn’t for the latter’s disastrous afternoon in Korea. Although the first lap of the Yeongam race spared the front row – made up of veteran drivers after all – it was not as considerate of the rest of the grid, where Jenson Button was starting from 11.: in the chaos of the middle section after the start, the hero of the Japanese GP, Kamui Kobayashi, hit the Brit on his left, forcing him immediately out of the race . “I no longer have a realistic chance to win the world championship, so I’ll be enjoying myself over the final four races,” said Button on his way out of the paddock. “Scoring points for the team in the constructors’ world championship will be the most important priority, so I’ll be focusing on picking up as many as I possibly can.”
His team-mate Lewis Hamilton did not do much better, managing only one point for the team having finished 10. The race seemed to be a struggle from start to finish with the soon-to-be-Mercedes-driver complaining about gearbox, tyres and debris trapped in the front wing that visibly affected his speed and led to a change in their pit-stop strategy – from 2 to 3; as it turned out after the race, an anti-roll bar failure caused excessive tyre wear which scrapped his chances of fighting for podium from lap 18 when he was still in 4. position. And if that wasn’t enough, on the last few laps he picked up a strip of artificial grass from the side of the track which got stuck in the sidepods of his car. “I’m exhausted,” he told the Formula 1 website after the race. “In terms of winning the world championship, logic suggests that that’s probably it for me. Having said that, there are a lot of points still up for grabs, so I’ll keep pushing. Stranger things have happened, and I’ll never give up.”
The team principal, Martin Whitmarsh praised Hamilton for his fight in Korea for the single Championship point; but it’s difficult to establish how the rest of the McLaren feel about the driver, who apart from officially announcing his move to Mercedes has not spoken to his team about the transfer – and the Twitter gaffedid certainly not score him points with Button.
Talking about Mercedes, they also didn’t impress, with Michael Schumacher finishing quietly in 13. and Nico Rosberg scoring another DNF (did not finish) after the same contact with Kobayashi that eliminated Button – and after 17 laps also the Japanese driver himself.
But although all of the above would wish to forget the Korean weekend, there are some drivers who mention it with a smile. This was a full-on red bull Grand Prix, as apart from the one-two podium, there were also the two Toro Rosso team-mates: Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo who took advantage of Hamilton’ struggles to finish 8. and 9. consecutively, for the second time this season. Lotus can also consider this a successful weekend (although the technical director James Allison called it “ultimately unspectacular”) with both of their drivers scoring points and without any drama from Romain Grosjean – whilst Kimi Raikkonen continues to be the only non-DNF driver of the season and hangs on to his 3. place in the Championship.
It seems that the second part of the season has given some drivers the confidence – and some teams the technical ability – to start scoring precious points: either towards the team’s benefit or to contribute to a personal best. After all, there are still a few seats in the 2013 season that await to be confirmed.