Sebastian Vettel once more proved his dominance over the 2013 Formula 1 season by winning his fourth race in a row – in Korea. But apart from his faultless lead from start to finish, there was a whole lot of action taking place behind his backside. With its unexpected successes and failures, blow-outs and break-throughs, fire and cool, the Yeongam circuit has served arguably the most exciting grand prix this year.
While Vettel was claiming the chequered flag at the Korean Grand Prix and therefore extending his lead over Fernando Alonso in the driver’s championship to 77 points, Mark Webber could only watch from the sidelines how yet another one of his few remaining races went on without him claiming a long-awaited win. The Yeongam fortunes could not have panned out differently for the two Red Bull drivers: it seemed child’s play for the three-time world champion to lead the circus faultlessly throughout the 55 laps after claiming a similarly easy pole on Saturday; in the meantime, the afternoon was a streak of bad luck for his Australian team-mate, who was not given to cross the finish line once more, after the final-lap engine failure in Singapore. Following a 10-place grid penalty for collecting three official reprimands this season, Webber had his work cut out since before his race even begun, having to start from 13. place. He was gradually making his way up the grid as the afternoon progressed – up until he happened to be the first witness of Sergio Perez’s spectacular tyre blow out – having just excited the pits and gaining up speed to the Mexican. The privilege of first row seat meant that the Aussie was also the first one to pick up the McLaren’s debris, which resulted in an instantaneous puncture, and the need for another pitstop.
If that wasn’t enough, Adrian Sutil’s lock up on lap 36 spun his Force India against the traffic – and right into Webber and his Red Bull’s oil radiator. There was no question about the Aussie staying in the competition when huge flames burst out of the back of his car, rendering a significant chunk of the machine unusable for the Japanese Grand Prix, only a week away.
The fire – a rare sight in Formula 1 nowadays – created some confusion on the circuit, when a silver track control car was spotted ahead of the race leader on the following lap… with the safety car trailing behind. For the short period it took to arrive at the flaming Red Bull, the smart fire engine controlled the pace under the yellow flags – but as the race resumed, Vettel sprung out ahead of his competitors for the third and last time that afternoon.
The second time he repeated the feat followed a safety car brought out by Perez’s puncture; the sight resonating of the extraordinary Silverstone blow-outs inflamed the reoccurring debate among the drivers about the safety of Pirelli rubber. Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso voiced his concerns about the durability of the tyres following a disappointing performance in the qualifying session; while Mark Webber blamed the compounds for contributing to his untimely exit from the grand prix. However, Perez’s case was proved to be a much different matter to the early season blow-outs: as the rubber was at the end of its lifeline after 21 laps, a heavy lock-up by the Mexican on lap 31 put a hole on the thread block of his front right tyre – resulting in a powerful puncture. Perez managed to get the tyre changed and continued regardless to finish 10. – adding to Jenson Button’s eight finish for another double-point scoring afternoon for McLaren.
But there were more sparks and scares on the Yeongam circuit when the two Mercedes were battling for position on lap 28. Nico Rosberg’s attempt to overtake his teammate might have finished dramatically for both when his nose and front-wing dropped to the floor when the car hit fresh air after exiting Lewis Hamilton’s slipstream [force created behind a fast-moving car which a close-placed rival can piggyback on to gain extra speed]. The sparks created by the carbon-fibre scratching over the tarmac was an evident call for Rosberg to come into the pits – just when Hamilton was scheduled to do the exact same thing. The problematic wing took a long time to replace for Mercedes’ mechanics, which resulted in Hamilton loosing pace on an old set of tyres.
It certainly wasn’t the greatest afternoon for the Brit, who ended the race fifth despite starting from the front row, just behind Vettel. He lost position on the first lap to Grosjean and then struggled against team-mate Rosberg, the second Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso tight on his heels – but his biggest challenge proved to be Nico Hulkenberg.
Sauber impressed that weekend by managing to qualify both of its drivers – including the rookie Esteban Gutierrez – into the top 10 – and that ahead of both Force Indias and McLarens. Although Gutierrez finished the race 11., Sauber still reached a milestone by claiming their highest finish this season with Hulkenberg’s fourth place.
The German’s car proved surprisingly quick against Hamilton’s Mercedes who fruitlessly tried to overtake him for several laps of the race; the Brit seemed to have achieved the goal on lap 48 – but then swapped places again with the determined Sauber driver. “Anyone has any suggestions?” Hamilton sought some help on the team radio, but it wasn’t coming. Hulkenberg did not crack under that pressure which was revealed via his own radio communication with the team – hoping not to slip on the track like on banana skins – and fended off his champion rival until the very end.
“I have had cars in the mirrors before, but today there were a lot and it was a bit annoying,” Hulkenberg said after the race.
Similarly nerve-wracking action was taking place further down the field, midway through the race when five drivers were fighting for the last point-scoring position. Pastor Maldonado was fending off an attack by Perez, when a wide move on a bend allowed Ferrari’s Felipe Massa to overtake both; and then closely following Esteban Gutierrez and team-mate Valtteri Bottas left the single Williams’ point-scorer this season at the end of that pack – and eventually outside the points once more.
For a sister team it was maybe to be expected Toro Rosso would share some of Red Bull’s fortunes in Korea – unfortunately, only the bad ones. Both of them ended the race off track in the final stages (still to be classified) – with Ricciardo having to put his early pitstop forward due to a dead pigeon in the cockpit…
Neither did Force India enjoy a pleasant afternoon – on lap 28 Paul di Resta hit a kerb and lost control over the car – the impact of hitting the wall forced the Brit out of yet another race. With a third DNF [did not finish] in four most recent races, di Resta’s brilliant form from the start of the season gradually becomes a very distant memory. As for his team-mate, Sutil – he continued fighting after crashing into Webber, just to withdraw in the final laps of the race.
And let us not forget the other two top points scorers who once again shone as the perfect team-mate pairing – or did they? Despite a somewhat disappointing ninth place in qualifying, Kimi Raikkonen did what he does best to make his way right up to the second step on the podium, closely followed by his team-mate; so close that the team urged Romain Grosjean to challenge the Finn, referring to the Frenchman as the faster one – possibly a sign of team-confidence in what might be their lead driver in 2014. But the podium set-up remained unchanged despite Grosjean’s plea for Raikkonen to hand him back the second spot he had lost due to a mistake earlier, as he had been ordered to do for the Finn in previous races.
So as the circus moves swiftly to Suzuka, many drivers will hope for better fortunes in their next race – but it would take a huge boast of bad luck for the championship leader to hand the 2013 title to one of his competitors – something Fernando Alonso strongly believes in.
“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,” Alonso said.
“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.”