BY: Maurice Hamilton
Finally in Korea on Sunday, Red Bull did what everyone had feared since the start of the season in March; they had a perfect weekend. Front of grid lock-out; fastest lap, lead every lap and a one-two finish. And Sebastian Vettel moved back to the top of the championship, having been there for two weeks after his win in Bahrain.
Since that race at the end of April, Lewis Hamilton led briefly but it was Fernando Alonso whose consistency allowed the Ferrari driver to hold sway at the head of the points table. On Sunday, Alonso did the best he could by finishing third, but a disastrous race for Hamilton more or less ended the McLaren driverâ€™s tilt at the title.
Reflecting on Vettel moving six points clear, Alonso said: â€œThere are four races and 100 points left; weâ€™ve still got a good chance to win the championship. A few races ago, everyone was saying McLaren were favourites for the rest of the season. And look how things have turned out.â€
Indeed. This was arguably the worst race of the season for McLaren. Having messed up a lap in Q2 and then been caught by yellow flags on his last run, Jenson Button had started from 11th. All was not lost because the failure to reach Q3 allowed Button to start on the Soft tyre, the harder of the two available. There would be a decided advantage here as the top 10 were forced to look after their Supersofts during the early heavy-fuel laps. It looked even better for Button when he made a good start.
But it all went wrong at the third corner when Kamui Kobayashi, under pressure to impress after the news that he will be dropped by Sauber, got his braking completely wrong and took out not only Button but also Nico Rosberg during another very mediocre weekend for Mercedes. A drive-through for Kobayashi and unreserved apologies were little compensation for McLaren, whose focus switched to Hamilton in fourth.That should have been third but Hamilton could do little about Alonso who, like Vettel, made the most of having the inside line to the first corner to get ahead of Webber (on pole) and Hamilton respectively.
Hamilton hung on to the Ferrari through the first stop but, on lap 19, the McLaren was in obvious trouble as a resurgent Felipe Massa got by and Kimi Raikkonen closed in. On lap 26, way ahead of schedule, Hamilton was back for more tyres and into damage limitation as he struggled home 10th after stopping three times. The rear anti-roll bar had broken, a failure as rare as the faulty shock-absorber that affected Hamiltonâ€™s race two weeks before in Japan. This was an arrow through the heart for a team as meticulous as McLaren.
Ferrari, meanwhile, continued to have reliability if not out-and-out pace. Alonso, for all his opportunism, has been starting with one hand behind his back by not having qualified in the top four since his pole position in Germany in July. He stayed within five seconds of Webber, saving his tyres in the hope of an attack in the last seven laps as Red Bull, with increasing urgency, implored Vettel to watch his right-front tyre. Vettel would later say he had everything under control as he set his fastest lap on the last of the 55 that made up this 16th round of the World Championship. But the Red Bull engineers and management looked tense until the moment the chequered flag fell at the end of a fairly processional race.
It sums up this second half of the season to say that Vettel has led every lap from the moment Hamilton rolled to a halt with gearbox trouble in Singapore on 23 September. But Vettel is under no illusions as the scene shifts to India. â€œItâ€™s going to be tough,â€ said the reigning World Champion. â€œAll we can do is focus on ourselves.â€
On recent evidence, as Red Bull relentlessly continue to refine the RB8 into another great all-round car, that will be more than enough.
1. Sebastian Vettel – 215 points
2. Fernando Alonso – 209
3. Kimi Raikkonen – 167
4. Lewis Hamilton – 153
5. Mark Webber – 152
6. Jenson Button – 131
7. Nico Rosberg – 93
8. Romain Grosjean – 88
1. Red Bull-Renault – 367
2. Ferrari – 290
3. McLaren-Mercedes – 284
4. Lotus-Renault – 255
5. Mercedes – 136
6. Sauber-Ferrari – 116
7. Force India-Mercedes – 89
8. Williams-Renault – 58