Vettel stays clear of Mokpo madness: Korean GP review

By on Sunday, October 6, 2013
Red Bull/Getty Images

Red Bull/Getty Images

Sebastian Vettel controls the Korean Grand Prix to record his eighth win of the season, ahead of the Lotus drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean in a race featuring close battles and bizarre moments.

To borrow a much maligned football analogy, it would be fair to say that the Korean Grand Prix was a race of two halves. Sebastian Vettel pulled out a gap and was in control of proceedings during the first half. But while that was also the case in the second half, he was overshadowed by an exploding tyre, an errant fire truck and a fellow German driving out of his skin.

The statistics regarding Vettel can be reeled off for Formula 1 fans to admire. He’s led 209 of the last 213 racing laps, has won eight races this season and could win his fourth world title at an age where Alain Prost had yet to record a single win. Vettel has owned the Yeongam circuit ever since it joined the calendar and only an engine failure in 2010 has denied him total domination at this part of the world.

The 2011 and 2012 races both featured a lead change on the first lap. There were no such issues in 2013 as Vettel stormed away from pole and was comfortably clear of the battling Lewis Hamilton and Romain Grosjean. The Lotus driver usurped Hamilton on the run to turn three and defended his position on the next straight. Nico Rosberg retained fourth place but all hell broke loose behind, courtesy of outgoing Ferrari driver Felipe Massa.

Massa decided to take the inside line into turn three but a lack of grip and over exuberance resulted in the Ferrari pirouetting under braking, narrowly missing the sister car of Fernando Alonso. Then it was a game of fortune behind: Nico Hülkenberg grabbed fifth place, Mark Webber and Paul di Resta cut the corner in avoidance, while Esteban Gutiérrez – who had made a cracking getaway from eighth place – was forced wide and all his hard work was undone. Even less fortunate were Jenson Button and Adrian Sutil, who both sustained front wing damage. Both drivers elected to pit.

Red Bull/Getty Images

Red Bull/Getty Images

Others also took advantage of the situation: Daniel Ricciardo, the only driver to start the race on prime tyres, found himself in seventh while Pastor Maldonado rocketed up to ninth, having started from eighteenth on the grid. The effect of Massa’s spin trickled all the way to the back of the pack, as Giedo van der Garde swerved in avoidance and forced Jules Bianchi off track. The Dutch racer was handed a drive through penalty. “I really don’t think I’d pushed any other cars out on purpose,” he said.

Hamilton attacked Grosjean following the first round of stops but the Mercedes driver soon slipped back and found himself in the clutches of team-mate Rosberg. Hamilton, losing seconds per lap on worn tyres, was passed by Rosberg on the run down to turn three but the German’s entire front nose section collapsed. Rosberg toured back to the pits as the front wing dragged along the ground, sending sparks flying. To compound matters, it slowed the progress of the ailing Hamilton and meant that the Brit had to complete another lap on battered tyres. Hamilton’s description of the state of the tyres required a bleeper from the TV director.

“I couldn't believe what happened with the wing: I was on course for a podium finish after overtaking Lewis and two seconds later, the front wing just broke,” said Rosberg.

An early second stop for Räikkönen elevated him above the Hülkenberg-led group and the Finn gained two more places courtesy of Mercedes’s woes.

Lotus F1 Team

Lotus F1 Team

Sergio Pérez had been enduring yet another so-so race in the midfield when he locked up heavily into the first corner. On acceleration onto the long straight, his front right tyre let go, scattering debris across the track. Webber, who had got himself into podium contention, picked up a puncture in the debris and was forced into the pits, dropping back into the midfield.

“That is how it is. The drivers aren't super important - it is what other people want,” said Webber. “The tyres are wearing a lot and they also explode a bit - but that is for Pirelli to sort out. Pirelli will put the puncture of Perez down to a lock-up but the reason the drivers are locking up is because there's no tread left.”

Alonso also joined in the debate following qualifying, prompting a response from Pirelli’s Paul Hembery, a comment for which the Brit later apologised.

“These are tyres that won't last a lap, but as we said yesterday, we have zero problems with the performance. It's us who haven't adapted to these 2012 tyres. It's up to us Ferrari, or the drivers, to improve,” said Alonso after the race.

“The tyre marbles are there, and when it rains they have to stop the races, and then Perez has a blowout... So we know the tyres are on the limit in terms of quality.”

Vettel reacted to the safety car and made his second stop and, finally, Bernd Maylander pulled the Mercedes into the pit lane five laps later for the restart. Grosjean made a small error at the final corner, allowing Räikkönen the run on the Frenchman into the first corner.

Red Bull/Getty Images

Red Bull/Getty Images

“It was my mistake, it’s not the end of the world,” said Grosjean, although a few frustrated messages were sent to the pit wall from their driver.

It was fitting that Grosjean climbed onto the podium, 40 years to the day since French racer Francois Cevert was killed at Watkins Glen.

Webber’s task of gaining places was already going to be a challenging proposition: his puncture happened just after he switched onto his last set of fresh mediums. Red Bull therefore had no choice but to put the Australian on a set of options that were unlikely to make the distance. But such issues were deemed redundant when Sutil erred under braking for turn three and walloped Webber.

For the second successive race, Webber’s car caught fire – this time, courtesy of the contact from Sutil - and his Red Bull met a smoky and charred end. A slightly worrying aspect was the length of time it took for marshals to arrive and extinguish the fire. Formula 1 safety has come a long way over the past decade, but fire and smoke is – and always will be – a potent and dangerous mix.

“It was somewhat frustrating to see our car on fire for what seemed to be an age,” said team Principal Christian Horner.

But if the slow marshals were a worry, what happened next would have been comical if it wasn’t so downright dangerous. As the camera panned towards turn two on the following lap, a Jeep was hurtling down towards the scene of Webber’s barbecued Red Bull, with race leading Vettel rapidly catching he vehicle.

The safety car was immediately deployed, but the fire vehicle should never have been released onto the circuit prior to the neutralisation of the race.

Webber's burnt Red Bull

Webber's burnt Red Bull

Hülkenberg excelled himself even further and got ahead of Hamilton at the restart. The Sauber driver then resisted huge pressure and used strong traction and straight line speed to his advantage, retaining his position in spite of his rivals having DRS.

Hamilton had a few attempts at passing Hülkenberg but was also focused on defending from Alonso. The champions scrapped for a few corners and the position was eventually settled in Hamilton’s favour, not that it placated the Brit.

“It's strange you know?" Hamilton said. "Me and Fernando in fifth and sixth at the end having our own little race, yet we are of a higher calibre than that. We should be further ahead fighting with the world champions at the front and with Sebastian.”

Rosberg recovered from his wonky nose to finish in seventh place, ahead of the McLaren of Button. Massa collected a couple of points while Pérez – who forced Paul di Resta off track early on – came home in tenth. Gutiérrez came within eight tenths of a second of claiming his first point but the wait for a rookie scorer this season drags on.

A fabulous battle involving four Latin American drivers mid-race was somehow completed without one of them ending up in the wall but it was Maldonado who ended up as the big loser. He slipped down to thirteenth place, behind team-mate Valtteri Bottas, as the Venezuelan’s strong first lap was ultimately wasted. Charles Pic finished in fourteenth place, while Van der Garde recovered from his penalty to come in fifteenth, ahead of the Marussia duo of Bianchi and Max Chilton. The Brit was a little unlucky to lose out behind the safety car.

Neither Toro Rosso driver finished the race distance as both Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne complained of the car pulling to one side under braking. Ricciardo was on course for a couple of points but Vergne was running outside of the top 10.

Sutil’s miserable race also involved a drive through penalty for pit lane speeding and he retired the car with five laps remaining. His team-mate, Paul di Resta, endured yet another woeful race as he crashed out after losing the back end of the car at turn 12. It was the fourth consecutive accident-related retirement for di Resta and the third that was entirely of his own doing.

Red Bull/Getty Images

Red Bull/Getty Images

The result leaves Vettel with a 77 point advantage heading to Suzuka, his favourite circuit, next weekend. Vettel has secured the last four pole positions in Japan and only lost out in the race in 2011 when Red Bull merely focused on securing the title. It’s mathematically possible for the German to clinch the crown at Suzuka – he’ll do it if he wins with Alonso ninth or lower – but a more likely location is India. Not that the champion-in-waiting is overly concerned.

“I don't really care,” he said about when he’d like to win the title. “I look forward to Japan because it is one of the nicest tracks of the season.”

If Vettel was entered as a Constructor, he’d only be 12 points down on Ferrari, Red Bull’s nearest rival in that particular championship. Dominance in sport is rarely positive, but it’s difficult not to admire a team and driver performing at the top of their game.

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