Sebastian Vettel edged irresistably towards his fourth consecutive world title by winning his fourth consecutive Grand Prix on Sunday. Victory in Korea means if the Red Bull driver scores maximum points again in Japan next weekend then he will be World Champion if Fernando Alonso finishes ninth or lower.
You have to say the chances of that happening are slim thanks to Alonso consistently finishing on the podium. Sixth place in Korea was a disappointment but it shows that even when the Ferrari is off the pace, Alonso will carry it to places it has no right to be. By Alonso’s standards, this was a mediocre race.
The challenge to Red Bull this time came from Lotus as Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean finished second and third, just under five seconds behind the leader. Vettel was the first to admit that had a Safety Car period not helped him out to allow a timely tyre change, the ability of the Lotus to run longer on its tyres could have caused problems.
Red Bull were not alone in having difficulty keeping the right-front Pirelli alive, particularly through the fast, twisting middle sector of the Yeongam track. This is what accounted for a drop in in performance from Mercedes despite Lewis Hamilton sharing the front row with Vettel’s pole position Red Bull.
That said, Hamilton lost second place to Grosjean when the Frenchman pulled off a very neat piece of outbraking into Turn 3, the sort of move that, 12 months ago, would have probably seen Grosjean lock up and cause an incident. But the Grosjean we saw at the weekend was mature and fast. Indeed he would have finished second but for a slight mistake which allowed the opportunist Raikkonen to take the place not long after a second Safety Car caused by Mark Webber’s Red Bull catching fire.
As the saying goes, if Webber did not have bad luck, he would have no luck at all. Third fastest in qualifying became 13th on the grid because of a 10-place penalty for an indiscretion when he crossed the track after the Singapore Grand Prix had finished. Webber made good progress, only to pick up a puncture on debris and then have Adrian Sutil get his braking all wrong and slam into the side of the Red Bull, the impact causing Webber’s hot KERS unit to burst into flames.
The debris picked up earlier by Webber had been caused by Sergio Perez heavily locking his right-front wheel and, almost immediately, having the tyre delaminate as he accelerated down the back straight, rubber and smashed carbon fibre flying in all directions.
This happened in Sector 1, the fastest part of track and one where Hamilton and Mercedes were losing out. For the final 10 laps, Hamilton was all over Nico Hulkenberg but could do nothing about the fourth-place Sauber as the German calmly used excellent traction to pull away from the Mercedes at the very point where Hamilton wanted to get close enough to activate his DRS and overtake. It was a timely and mature drive from Hulkenberg just as Lotus are rumoured to be considering him as a replacement for the departing Raikkonen.
Hamilton’s fifth place ended a disappointing race for Mercedes, Nico Rosberg having retired from what he felt would have been a podium finish but for an unusual failure of a lug, holding the nose section, causing the front wings to drag on the ground and threaten to go beneath the wheels.
In a race full of incident – Felipe Massa spun on the first lap and came within a few centimetres of hitting Alonso in the other Ferrari; the chief fire marshal took it upon himself to send a fire truck on track just as the race was restarting following the Webber incident – Vettel managed once more to make it look easy even though it was anything but. If he fails to clinch the title next weekend, there’s four more races in which to play out the certain formality.
Meanwhile, the fight in the ‘Non-Vettel Grand Prix’ remains as intense and fascinating as ever.