Sebastian Vettel’s fourth consecutive race victory has all but guaranteed his fourth consecutive world championship title.
The Red Bull driver dominated in Korea as he did in Singapore two weeks earlier – leading every lap from pole position and setting fastest lap.
Lotus emerged as Red Bull’s closest rivals but while a mid-race Safety Car period helped Kimi Raikkonen rise from ninth to second it extinguished Romain Grosjean’s hopes of getting on terms with Vettel.
The configuration of the first sector in Korea puts the pole sitter in a uniquely vulnerable position. The long stretch from turn two to the slow turn three gives the chasing field the opportunity to sit in the slipstream and pounce.
Vettel was alert to the threat and got away superbly from pole position. Second-placed Lewis Hamilton moved more sluggishly from the dirty side of the track and was too preoccupied with third-placed Grosjean to make a move on the Red Bull.
While Vettel’s start went according to plan the same could not be said for Ferrari whose drivers came alarmingly close to colliding. Felipe Massa had a run down the inside of Fernando Alonso at turn three but lost control of his car and arrived at the corner sideways. Only Alonso’s rapid reaction avoided a crash – and did so by a few millimetres.
“I decided to go down the inside to try and brake later,” Massa explained. “Unfortunately, some of the cars were slower and in order to avoid driving into one of the Mercedes, I was forced to move over to the right, ending up in a spin.”
Alonso was charitable towards his soon-to-be ex-team mate: “What happened to Felipe at the third corner was not a problem for me,” he said, “there were a lot of us there at that point and someone must have touched him.”
Though no one had hit Massa, Alonso’s evasive action forced a quick-starting Esteban Gutierrez to swerve left, damaging Jenson Button’s front wing. While Massa’s mistake cost those drivers dearly, others capitalised. Kimi Raikkonen hugged the inside of turn three and picked up several places; Pastor Maldonado saw the field open up before him and gained a total of nine.
Button plugged away in spite of his broken front wing but had to pit for a replacement after four laps. “It wasn’t really causing me that much of a problem,” said the McLaren driver, “but it was really hurting the tyre temperatures so I had to come in”. Adrian Sutil had to do the same.
Grosjean gets ahead of Hamilton
By the end of lap one Vettel had opened up a two-second lead over Grosjean, who had successfully passed Hamilton at turn three and resisted the Mercedes driver’s counter-attack. But in short order they and most of their pursuers were in the pits.
Daniel Ricciardo aside, the entire field had started the race on Pirelli’s super-soft compound. The fast left-handers in sector two were dishing out their usual punishment to the front-right tyres.
Massa was in as early as lap six following his first-lap escapade. The next time by Force India spied an opportunity to get Paul di Resta ahead of Sergio Perez and brought him in.
Meanwhile Raikkonen had demoted Ricciardo and on lap eight did the same to Alonso on the run to turn three. The Ferrari driver came in at the end of that lap. The next time by Hamilton pitted, trying to ‘undercut’ Grosjean to get back into second place.
It nearly worked: Grosjean had to defend firmly from Hamilton after his pit stop on lap 10. That forced Vettel to respond with his pit stop but he felt he could have stayed out “another two or three laps”.
The Red Bull had treated its super-soft tyres so well that Mark Webber – who normally doesn’t get the same life from his tyres that his team mate does – was able to stay out until lap 12. Seven laps later Ricciardo was the last driver to make his first pit stop and put on another set of mediums.
Tyre drama for Perez
The more durable tyre compound was better news for some than others. The Force India drivers were having a dreadful time: Di Resta failed in his efforts to get ahead of Perez then complained he couldn’t get his tyres to switch on.
Sutil was far more blunt, punctuating his description of the VJM06’s lack of pace with expletives. Di Resta delivered the final verdict on his car’s vexatious handling when he spun into a barrier on lap 24.
Graining was the chief problem on the low-grip surface. Some, like Button, found their tyres cleaned up, allowing them to press on. When Hamilton’s lap times began to rise on lap 22 Mercedes thought they were looking at the same phenomenon.
But they weren’t. “The right-front was just destroyed all of a sudden at one point,” Hamilton explained afterwards. “There was no graining, it was just dead.”
Vettel said afterwards the characteristics of the graining process could be deceptive. “Once the tyre does come back, inside the cockpit at least you have the feeling that the car is alive again, the car is alive but actually the tyre is dead.”
“There is no more rubber to grain so the tyre is more or less worn. So it’s quite tricky because if you have a big lock-up that could mean that it’s the end of the race. You have to come into the pits because you have a massive flat spot.”
At the start of lap 31 Perez had just such a flat spot at turn one. But he didn’t make it anywhere near reaching the pits before his stressed right-front tyre exploded. With the straight approaching turn three littered with debris the Safety Car was immediately summoned.
Safety Car setback for Grosjean
“I saw the safety car coming out so we pitted immediately,” said Vettel, which was bad news for the pursuing Grosjean. Lotus intended to bring his pit stop forwards by five laps in the hope of putting Red Bull under pressure in the final stint but the Safety Car let their rivals off the hook.
“It seems that every time there will be a battle with Seb, there’s a Safety Car,” rued Grosjean afterwards. “Same as Germany unfortunately.”
Mercedes had suffered a double setback in their efforts to catch Red Bull a few laps earlier. Hamilton’s worsening tyre problems allowed Rosberg to take up to 2.5 seconds per lap out of him. On lap 29 he drew alongside his team mate as they headed to turn three.
But at that very moment an upper right mounting pin in Rosberg’s front nose failed and the wing collapsed onto the floor, producing a spectacular shower of sparks. Rosberg was only partly aware of the extent of the problem and had to ask his engineer how hard to push as he headed for the pits.
Rosberg remained ahead of his struggling team mate, who had been due to come in on that lap. With the team unsure how long Rosberg’s front wing change would take, sending Hamilton around to do another lap was a prudent move, though it infuriated their driver.
More bad luck for Webber
If Hamilton had been unlucky, it was nothing compared to Webber’s misfortune. He was coming out of the pits on lap 31 just as Perez was locking up his front tyre at turn one. While Raikkonen passed the McLaren before its tyre failed, Webber was the first driver on the scene and had to dodge the debris.
That punctured his last race-worthy set of medium tyres, sending him back to the pits for a set of super-softs. He expressed doubts over whether they’d last until the end of the race, but it proved academic. Moments after the restart Sutil lost control of his Force India under braking at turn three and backed into the Red Bull, damaging the rear of the car and setting Webber’s RB9 ablaze for the second race in a row.
“I don’t know what he’s done in a previous life because that was just wretched luck today,” said a disbelieving Christian Horner after the race.
“He would have been on the podium today but unfortunately the puncture he picked up from the debris from Perez, so that gave him an immediate deflation. And then Sutil obviously lost it well before the corner and Mark is a complete innocent victim there.”
Raikkonen pounces on Grosjean
While the marshals were taking their time to extinguish the blazing RB9, Grosjean paid the price for running wide in turn 15. Raikkonen, who’d benefitted from pitting before the Safety Car to take third, dived down the inside of his team mate at turn one.
“I think he moved three times on the left,” said Raikkonen, though he wasn’t to be deterred from taking the position. “I had heard there will be yellow flags at the end of the straight so I knew he’s not going to pass me back with the DRS.”
Grosjean, however, had not got the same message, nor realised that the DRS was still disabled because it was only the second lap after the restart. He was infuriated to find himself immediately locked into third place.
Up ahead, Vettel was amazed to discover a car had appeared ahead of him. But it wasn’t a rival: a fire truck had appeared on the circuit despite no Safety Car being present. “This is quite bizarre,” said Rob Smedley to Massa, “there was a car on the track, no message.”
Race control scrambled to neutralise the race and it was fortunate for all concerned that Vettel and the pack were able to see the vehicle. After a second Safety Car hiatus the race resumed once more, with concern over whose tyres would make it to the end of the race eased considerably by the nine laps spent under caution.
While Raikkonen went after Vettel an unhappy Grosjean was soon remonstrating at length with his team, insisting Raikkonen was holding him up. “I am stuck behind Kimi. I cannot do anything in sector two,” he told race engineer Ayao Komatsu.
After the race Grosjean said “I was quicker today but then we have rules not to fight”. But during the race Komatsu told him plainly “if we want to do anything you need to overtake him”, indicating there was no ‘hold position’-type instruction.
As with Mercedes in Malaysia, Grosjean’s objections were strenuous enough for the team principal to get involved. “Romain, keep racing like it is,” said Eric Boullier firmly, later saying his driver had been “begging” for the team to order Raikkonen to move aside.
Hulkenberg holds on
Hulkenberg was revelling in the much improved Sauber after the team had reintroduced a new wing which had been discarded earlier in the season, but was working much better thanks to their Hungarian Grand Prix upgrades and the revised tyres, which suit them better.
“We shouldn’t be in front of these cars but we have one or two strong points: great traction, great top speed,” said Hulkenberg afterwards. Hamilton was astonished by how quickly the Sauber got out of turn one: “The traction he had was incredible.”
At one point Hamilton got past into turn one but the Sauber pulled out of the corner so well Hulkenberg was back ahead before the DRS zone. Hamilton then found himself having to fight back Alonso, giving Hulkenberg much-needed respite.
“It looks very good for us”
Last year Vettel had spent the final laps being urgently reminded by his team to look after his wilting right-front tyre. They were concerned about it again this time, Guillaume Rocquelin warning him “the front-right is still opening up – like it was last year”.
“I’m aware of the right-front,” Vettel told him – and reeled off the fastest lap on the 53rd tour. Even so it seemed he hadn’t taxed himself too much – he collected the race win despite his drinks button not working. “I’m surprised you needed it given the way you were managing the pace,” said Horner on he cool-down lap.
The Lotus drivers followed him home ahead of Hulkenberg in a very worthy fourth, who single-handedly moved Sauber ahead of Toro Rosso in the constructors’ championship. Hamilton was fifth ahead of Alonso, who had Rosberg pressuring him at the chequered flag.
The Mercedes driver passed Button with three laps to go as his medium tyres began to fade under the strain of a 33-lap final stint.
Ricciardo had to end the race on super-soft tyres and was doing a fine job keeping the likes of Massa and Perez behind. But three laps from home a brake problem put him out.
Vettel’s fourth win in a row means he could wrap up the title at the next race in Japan with four rounds to spare – just like he did two years ago. But he’s unwilling to let the strong possibility of a fourth world championship itself become a distraction:
“I’m trying not to think about it to be honest,” he said afterwards. “I’m trying to focus more on the present I think we obviously had the incredible chance, I think two years ago, to do so. We did it but I think there are still a lot of points to get, even though it looks very good for us.”
2013 Korean Grand Prix
Images © Red Bull/Getty, Sauber, Korean GP/Sutton