Well didn’t we start this weekend well? A good showing from champion leader Mark Webber during free practise; then teammate Sebastian Vettel blasted the field away with an impressive ninth pole position of the season. It all looked like par for the course; a successive Red Bull lock out at the front leading towards the inevitable one – two on the podium. The sun was shining and the track was up to temperature; but a 6am alarm call showed only one thing. Rain. Rain on a new track. Rain on a new track that was damn slippery already.
McLaren definitely have the advantage in the wet; and even with a seventh position on the grid, the weather gave Jensen Button a much needed boost for his title chances. With great instincts and the ability to pull off some remarkable overtaking; we all expected something spectacular from the defending champion. But this wasn’t to be his race; even Hamilton struggled to make an impression. This race belonged to Vettel, until…well. I’ll explain later.
And as ever the single Ferrari driver still in it, Fernando Alonso, was breathing down the leading pair’s necks. The burning red thorn in the energy drinks side; with all the momentum he needs to become the worlds best for the third time. Felipe Massa was apparently there to support Alonso; but with his current form as it is, it’s doubtful he’ll manage to steal the points required for Ferrari’s constructor’s championship attempt.
Right; the contenders are dealt with. So what about the rest of the field? Robert Kubica from the Renault garage made some serious ground in practise; managing a 2nd, 4th and 1st respectively, but with a disappointing qualifying he languished back in 8th. His teammate Vitaly Petrov hanging back in 15th; surely time is running out for the Russian? The rest of the field was pretty much as expected; with the Lotus of Jarno Trulli edging out the Timo Glock from Virgin; surely securing a seat for next year. Not a bad performance; but eyes were on Nico Rosberg and a stellar fifth place on the grid.
Previous issues with the circuit seemed to have faded away as the track rubbered in nicely over free practise and qualifying. But with a stubborn rain cloud hanging over the freshly laid asphalt; the weekend was reset to zero, new track and no data.
First question was on the new rubber; intermediate or extremes?
Never mind; Charlie Whiting made the decision for them, we were starting the inaugural Korean Grand Prix under the guidance of the safety car. Martin Brundle was already reminiscing about racing in his day; perhaps taking an opportunity to remind the eager but tired listeners, nonetheless, they didn’t have safety cars back then and they would be racing by now…and they wouldn’t have complained about it. Making up for it now are we?
So we start.
And we stop.
Lining up for the second time; we lay in wait for the FIA to give the nod to get this going once and for all. And here we go again…after 17 tortuous laps behind the safety car. Up at 05:30 and the race is barely underway at 08:00…ah the joys of motor racing!
Exhaling finally; the race gets underway and the drivers stomp on the accelerator and send a wall of spray up into the atmosphere, where they hoped it would stay perhaps? If it had been dry we would be wrapping up by now; hopefully with the standings the same, leaving us with the same five contenders going into Brazil. But no. It’s wet.
And Mark Webber has just spun off.
Not content with throwing the championship into disarray he collected Nico Rosberg as he careered back over the track. A massive shame as Rosberg has pulled off a beautiful manoeuvre around Lewis Hamilton; leaving no doubt that he’ll have a seat next year. Safety car out again so the battered remains of a Red Bull and Mercedes can be swept up.
Now before anyone starts quoting Gerhard Berger (slightly biased as he’s mates with the Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz, who has essentially molded the team around Vettel), and accusing Webber of trying to take out Alonso or Hamilton, look at it from a driver’s perspective. If there’s a moment where you think you can save it; you save it right? But as soon as that glimmer of hope burns through the wall of water it dissolves as quick as his 14 point lead. He skids across and dumps it in the swamp.
Right; heart rate still abnormally high we plough on with the rest of the race. Vettel out in front. Good for Red Bull constructors cup; but he has no help from a teammate when faced with Alonso who is on unbelievable form (winning four out of the last seven races). Even with a slow start to the season; Fernando Alonso is certainly looking like the two-time world champion from past seasons.
But forget that; Hamilton has now been overtaken by Michael Schumacher! On lap 27 and brave with the braking the old charge overtakes the new blood; Hamilton’s race is not going as planned, despite the bravado he displayed behind the long safety car, the wet surface is not suiting him.
It seems to be a race of two halves; Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton vs. the departed Webber, disappearing Massa and Button who has just left the pits under heavy traffic. And we thought the race would never happen…but no matter Alonso and Hamilton pit and the Italian team fluffed up with a wayward wheel nut. Hamilton leaves in second. Sebastien Buemi from Toro Rosso out in lap 32.
Lap 35 – disaster for McLaren. Hamilton lets Alonso pass him after a dodgy moment on the track, but he manages to keep Massa under control and limit the damage to 3rd. However it just gets painful for the defending world champ; Button is down in 12th and is just overtaken by Adrian Sutil from Force India and looks to be finishing the race in 15th.
Trailing after the safety car has led the drivers to be thinking about their tires about ten laps before the end. Ten laps? Oh right, we’re over halfway so full points will be awarded. If the race had stopped with less than 75% distance travelled (42 laps here), we would have had half points; Webber would still be out in front. Never mind.
Vitaly Petrov leaves his car on the side of the track and walks down the dark pit lane; his seat has to be in trouble now. Imagine a Massa and Kubica team…focus. Back to the race and the light is disappearing fast; we already had sunset and the automatic light pings on in the commentary box. What will Charlie Whiting have to say?
Lap 45 – Vettel can’t see the braking zone into turn one; but Hamilton must be eating his carrots as he can see all that is (freshly) laid out in front of him.
And with the calculations being made about the new standings; a sick engine noise reverberates off the asphalt. A plume of smoke billows out of Vettel’s car and twisted metallic remains of his beleaguered Renault engine cascades down the track. Alonso takes his chance and passes him, then Hamilton. And it’s all over for Red Bull. A one-two lock out limps out of Korea as a double DNF.
And with a maturity that we haven’t seen this year from the young Red Bull driver; he performs a spectacular piece of parking and extinguishes his car. And hopes for a title this year?
Lap 55 – Not how anyone imagined it when we started this morning. Alonso takes the inaugural Korean GP, followed by Hamilton, then Massa. A euphoric Spaniard whooped and hollered down the pit straight as he celebrated winning a tough and traumatic race. Hamilton echoed his sentiments in a far more subdued fashion, merely thanking his team for a great performance. Somehow a thank you to the Red Bulls might have been more fitting.
As the Spanish national anthem blares proudly over the celebratory Ferrari team; it becomes clear that decisions have to be made. Teams surely have to pick drivers; the Italians made their choice and selected Alonso as their best choice, look where they are now. But let’s not forget that coded message in Germany…
So what to do now?
With Jenson Button now 42 points adrift of the new leader Alonso; it is clear (during a post race interview, even he had to agree it was out of his grasp) that he doesn’t have a chance and must support teammate Lewis. But the hardest decision lies in the lap of Christian Horner; the team principal of Red Bull. Does he pick Webber and capitalise on his 11 point gap; or does he pick Vettel who has been consistently faster albeit with numerous reliability issues?
We shall see in Brazil!