Wow! How good was the Korean Grand Prix? Action and intrigue, politics and crucial slip-ups all combined to make this – in the opinions of many – one of the most exciting races of the year.
Fernando Alonso took this third win in four races to continue his extraordinary title comeback, while the first double-DNF to Red Bull saw Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel lose valuable ground in the championship race.
Lewis Hamilton gave his title chances a significant boost with a solid drive to second place, but a poor run to 12th has effectively ended his McLaren team-mate Jenson Button’s title defence aspirations.
With heavy rain having soaked the new Yeongyam circuit for much of the day, there were understandable concerns that the newly-laid track surface – which still hadn’t fully cured – would make racing conditions treacherous for the 24-car grid.
Indeed, as soon as the pit lane opened for cars to form on the grid, both Timo Glock and Felipe Massa had spins en route to forming up on the dummy grid, and race officials elected to delay the scheduled start by ten minutes.
In moderate rain, the grid got underway behind the Safety Car, and with drivers complaining about the lack of visibility and standing water on certain sections of the track, the red flag was duly unfurled after just four laps.
Wet weather can be political
With the race having officially run a minimum of two full laps – admittedly at a snail’s pace – the sporting rules dictated that a minimum of half-points would be awarded if the event had to be abandoned entirely.
Such a prospect would suit the championship-leading Red Bulls quite fine, and both Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber were particularly vocal about their concerns over the team radios, which were also accessible to the race officials themselves.
A half-points’ race finishing in the current order would have seen the Red Bulls heading a 1-2 into the penultimate race in Brazil, and the lower finishing positions for the McLaren pair (in particular) would almost certainly knock them out of the title race.
Not surprisingly, both Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button were a little keener to get the race underway, knowing full well that the MP4-24 was a stronger prospect on the wetter track than its chief rivals.
The policy of delayed starts – or safety car starts – wet conditions has dated back to the 1994 Japanese Grand Prix, where the race was suspended and later restarted in appalling conditions, far worse than what was seen in Korea.
But the greater access and broadcasting of pit-to-driver radios has allowed drivers – for after all, they’re perhaps the best judges of their own safety – to maybe dictate terms a little too much.
We have seen races started (in the past) in much worse conditions than what was seen at Korea, but it could be contended that the relative championship ambitions of the top-five drivers was clouding their judgement (pun intended).
Balancing this with the understanding that a rain-shortened race on the sport’s maiden visit to Korea would be highly embarrassing – and factoring in the ever-fading light – the officials eventually decided to get the race underway after almost an hour’s delay, with cars following the Safety Car for a further 13 laps until it finally peeled off into the pit lane.
Vettel and Mercedes imperious in the wet, while Webber’s mistake costs him dear
Vettel shot off into the lead and immediately built a 2.8-second cushion over Webber by the end of an action-packed opening lap, while the Mercedes GP pairing of Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher each pulled off neat overtaking moves as they found the slippery conditions better suited their cars.
The wet Korean track gave glimpses to the Michael Schumacher of old. He finished an excellent fourth.
Schumacher’s pass on Robert Kubica into Turn 1 was a great sign of the seven-time World Champion’s outstanding reputation as a ‘rain master’, diving up the inside of the Pole under braking. Minutes later, he pulls another top-drawer move on Jenson Button at Turn 3. Similarly, Rosberg pulled a good move on Hamilton to take fourth into Turn 3.
A fourth-placed finish for Schumacher equalled the finishes he had achieved at Spain and Turkey, and the German showed great touch on the damp surface, driving sensibly when he realised that he didn’t quite have the pace to challenge those in front of him.
The next lap at speed saw the first twist in the championship struggle, when Mark Webber ran slightly wide at the right-hander heading into the ‘city’ section of the lap, losing traction on the Astroturf positioned after the exit kerbing and spinning into the opposite wall, breaking his left-rear suspension. He rebounded off the cement and drifted backwards, only for Rosberg to collect him as he tried to squeeze through an ever-diminishing gap at the inside of the following left-hander. It was a sizeable impact that saw both drivers retire, and left Webber’s hopes of maintaining his 14-point championship lead entirely at the behest of the sporting rules.
The politics of the 75% race distance rule; murkier suggestions about Vettel’s call for bad light…
With Webber now out of the reckoning, a race stoppage before 75% of the race distance had been completed would still assure him of a fractional lead (just 1.5 points) in the Drivers’ Championship over Vettel and a five-point lead over Alonso.
The crucial 75% race distance marker was the end of lap 42, but with the rules dictating that the race classification would be counted back by two laps at the point of stoppage, that effectively rendered this a 44-lap race.
With more Safety Car interruptions expected and the wet conditions not seeming to ease coupled with fading light still being a possible prospect, it seemed that the race would almost certainly be flagged at the end of the 44th lap.
But there was still plenty of racing to go, and Jenson Button made what would turn out to be a costly tactical blunder by pitting during racing conditions, as hit wet tyres had worn down too much. The pit stop dropped him well down the field on the way to a lowly twelfth-placed finish, and when the next Safety Car interruption occurred – courtesy of Sébastien Buemi clobbering Timo Glock at Turn 3 – this handed the frontrunners the opportunity to pit with minimal penalty.
Alonso had a slow pit stop that moved Hamilton into second place, but the Briton’s position was short-lived as he ran wide on the restart at Turn 1 and handed the place back to Alonso.
Meanwhile, Vettel continued his mighty march up front, continuing his Schumacher-like reputation for wet-weather driving, but not able to pull away to the same extent as he’d managed in the first phase of the race.
And as the race hit the 42-lap mark and with the Red Bull outfit well aware that a race stoppage at the end of lap 44 would hand Vettel a 25-point boost to his Drivers’ Championship collection, the call on the radio was not surprisingly one for bad light.
Knowing that such a communication could influence a race stoppage, the chasing Alonso and Hamilton quickly responded that the light was fine…
And as lap 45 started, Vettel suddenly slowed along the pit straight, with the tell-tale puffs of smoke from the read of his car indicating he was to be cruelly robbed of victory by a Renault engine failure. The German coasted to a halt along the back straight and was out, handing the lead to Alonso, who headed Hamilton and Felipe Massa.
Now we love a good conspiracy and bit of subterfuge at Richard’s F1, and the timing of Vettel’s bad light cries with his blown engine was too much of a coincidence for us. Perhaps knowing that his engine was about to go pop, what better way to get the race stopped than to claim poor visibility?
Furthermore, quite why Vettel didn’t attempt to influence a race stoppage with his engine malady by positioning – or dare we suggest, crashing – his car to force a stoppage, is another question that won’t be answered. Perhaps he was mindful of the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix…
Alonso’s win continues his remarkable championship recovery; Red Bull’s qualifying pace counts for nothing if they can’t finish
The race continued in ever-fading light, and Alonso tip-toed home to cap off a remarkable hot streak in the second half of the season.
Mid-season at the British Grand Prix, Alonso had suggested – and created much mirth in the press for doing so – that he could seriously challenge for the championship. At that point, Fernando sat on 98 points (47 behind championship leader Hamilton) and looked like he had an impossible mountain to climb.
But on the back of three race wins in the last four rounds, the Spaniard has amassed 133 points, while the likes of Webber (92), Vettel (85), Hamilton (65) and Button (56) have amassed considerably less in the same period.
Contrastingly, Red Bull must be wondering how on earth they have managed to lose so much ground in spite of clearly having the quickest car in the field on single-lap pace.
Vettel’s statistics make telling reading: in the nine events in which he has started from pole, he has only converted these into two victories (Valencia and Japan). Granted, Sebastian has not been helped by mechanical issues – losing certain wins in Bahrain and Australia – but he hasn’t helped his cause with costly mistakes in Turkey, Hungary and Belgium.
Cynics have lately accused Webber of adopting a more conservative approach – an understandable accusation to a driver leading the championship in the closing stages – and his first DNF since Valencia could not have come at a worse time. Whereas Webber had proven to be the better driver in the team with his racecraft earlier this year, it has been Vettel who has had the upper hand in the last four rounds.
And with two rounds to go, the championship race sees Webber trailing by 11 points and Vettel behind by 25. Is the team going to sacrifice the less-likely prospects of Vettel in favour of Webber?
And elsewhere in the field…
A commendable effort from Lewis Hamilton, who manhandled his McLaren around the 5-kilometre circuit for 55 laps while his MP4-24 tried to chew its way through its front tyres. Despite suffering considerable understeer, he brought the car home intact, giving himself a crucial 18 points and positioning himself 21 points behind Alonso in the championship battle.
Felipe Massa had a quiet race to third – just his fifth podium finish of the season – but it was an assured performer from a driver not exactly renowned for his ability on a damp track.
Behind the impressive Schumacher – whose efforts we covered earlier – Robert Kubica finished a solid fifth after his poor qualifying effort yesterday, passing both Williams drivers as their tyres went off in the closing stages of the race.
By contrast to Kubica, his Renault team-mate Vitaly Petrov had another incident-filled race, which culminated in a heavy crash into the pit lane entry barriers when he lost the back end of his car on the 39th lap. It was a considerable impact and it’s highly likely his R30 chassis is a write-off after swiping the cement, and one must certainly wonder how much longer the team’s management is going to be prepared to put up with his propensity for crashing. It’s all well and good to bring a significant amount of Russian money into the squad, but not if it’s all going to the team’s repair bill.
Liuzzi finally has a decent race, while Sutil has a shocker
Right behind Kubica and in one of the surprise results of the race was Vitantonio Liuzzi, who achieved his best finish of the season, equalling his career-best finish with Toro Rosso three years ago in China. It was a sensible and mature piece of driving for the Italian, and it couldn’t have been better timed at a crucial point in the season where he has been dogged by rumours that he won’t have a drive next year.
But when the wet weather happens, there’s usually another driver whom you’d expect to be in the reckoning: Adrian Sutil. The young German has almost always shown great feel on a slippery track, but his talent deserted him during the race with what can best be described as an error-ridden effort. Clearly struggling with brake problems, he was frequently seen running wide as he attempted another failed passing move on a competitor.
One move saw Adrian skate wide into the Turn 4 gravel after a failed move on Kobayashi, and Adrian cheekily used a piece of escape road – a shortcut part of the track between Turns 4 and 6 to rejoin, but gained several places relative to if he’d rejoined in a more conventional manner. Curiously, no penalty was forthcoming for that breach of the rules…
Sutil’s race came to its predictable end with a rash attempt at re-passing Kobayashi on lap 46. Having outbraked the Japanese driver into Turn 3 only to slide wide, he had a drag race with Kamui down the straight and into Turn 4, and then decided to send on up the inside as Kamui blocked the inside line. Sutil duly lost control and clipped Kobayashi, but only hard enough to damage his own suspension, while Kamui was able to continue to a well-earned eighth-placed finish.
Sutil’s antics were certainly not lost on the stewards, who quite rightly issued him with a five-place grid penalty (to be taken at the next round in Brazil) for his many and varied incidents with much of the field.
More points for Sauber and Williams
For the second race in a row, Sauber managed to get both cars into the points, with Nick Heidfeld shadowing Kamui home in ninth place. The German had a generally clean race, and with back-to-back points’ finishes he has managed to score as many points as Pedro de la Rosa picked up all season before being replaced by the veteran driver. Heidfeld has done well to settle in so quickly and pick up points, and this will be a nice coda to his decade-long career should he prove unsuccessful in landing a drive next year.
Another team to get both cars in the points was Williams, with both Rubens Barrichello and Nico Hülkenberg – both acknowledged wet-weather drivers in their own right – showing flashes of speed on the damp track. Their pace faded along with the grip of their tyres late in the race, and they found themselves passed by Kubica and Liuzzi in the closing laps. Hülkenberg would pick up a late puncture as if to compound his misfortune, but the newly-found grip saw him close up on the back of tenth-placed Jaime Alguersuari and pass the Toro Rosso on the final lap.
Alguersuari’s team-mate, Sébastien Buem, was another to incur the wrath of the stewards after the race, with the Swiss driver having an incident-filled race of his own. Having already tipped Heikki Kovalainen into a spin early in the race, Buemi tried a rash move on Timo Glock’s Virgin on the 30th lap, only to ram the Virgin out of the race, and put himself out of the reckoning as well.
Button out of the title hunt, while it’s still on between the rookie teams
After a horror qualifying session, Jenson Button should have been a driver to benefit from the wet conditions, but his apparent inability to set up a car or work around its handling imbalances came to the fore again, with another off-the-pace race that has all but knocked him out of championship contention. Facing a 42-point gap to championship-leader Alonso with a maximum 50 points up for grabs, it will take nothing short of a miracle to secure back-to-back championships, and Jenson will now find himself playing second-fiddle to team-mate Hamilton.
At the other end of the championship classification, Heikki Kovalainen finished 13th, and best of the rookie team runners (despite a pit lane speeding penalty), while Jarno Trulli – who had generally had Heikki’s measure this weekend – retired early on after some off-roading and yet another hydraulics failure. With Renault engines (apparently) and Red Bull’s rear end in the works for 2011, one guesses the end of their maiden season can’t come soon enough, whatever the outfit might be called next year…
And Hispania Racing achieved its best finish of a difficult rookie season, with Bruno Senna finishing 14th, one spot ahead of Sakon Yamamoto.
Virgin Racing achieved another double-DNF from its drivers, with Lucas di Grassi pre-empting Glock’s elimination with a self-inflicted crash into the barriers. Emerging from a wrecked Virgin under a collapsed Bridgestone hoarding is hardly a great advertisement for the level of grip offered by the tyres this weekend!
The battle for the all-important tenth in the Constructors’ Championship is still very much open between the three rookie outfits. Lotus’ best race finish of 12th (Kovalainen, Japan) is only fractionally ahead of HRT (with three 14th placed finished) and Virgin Racing, which sits last on countback. An eleventh-placed result for any of the three squads will ensure the tenth place (and a big slice of the TV revenue pie) goes to the lucky recipient.
But all eyes will be on the battle at the front in Brazil…