On paper a fourth straight win for Sebastian Vettel is hardly the stuff to set the pulse racing, but in fact the Korean GP provided plenty of entertainment. The three time World Champion – now just a short step away from his fourth title – may have been ahead all the way, but he had to work hard to give himself some breathing space, and he didn’t have the advantage he enjoyed in Singapore a fortnight ago.
Behind him there was all sorts of drama, with two safety car periods doing a good job of livening things up by closing up the field and giving us some action down the order over the last part of the race. Inevitably tyres played a role as everyone struggled to keep them alive.
This was another faultless performance by Vettel, but it was telling afterwards that both Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso – who finished fifth and sixth – were in a downbeat mood as they reflected on a tough afternoon that brought them little reward. Red Bull is in a different league, was the message.
“It’s strange, you know,” said Hamilton. “Me and Fernando in fifth and sixth at the end, and having our own little race, we are of a higher calibre than that, we should be further ahead, and fighting with the World Champions at the front, and with Sebastian. I guess that just shows where the sport is today…”
Hamilton knew that his big change to make life difficult for Vettel was to get ahead on the first lap, but the German didn’t leave him any opportunity and successfully held on in front. Indeed Lewis found his hands full with Romain Grosjean, who dived down the inside to claim second place at Turn 3.
Meanwhile there was drama right behind as Felipe Massa spun as he tried to come down the inside and then tried to avoid Nico Rosberg – very nearly collecting Alonso. As everyone backed up Jenson Button hit the rear of Nico Hülkenberg. Button was forced to make a very early stop for a new front wing, as was Adrian Sutil, who was also involved in contact and pitted on the first lap.
As has become a familiar sight in recent races Vettel soon opened a gap on the pursuing Grosjean, with the gap going out from 2.1s to 2.6 by the second lap. Then it stabilised as he settled in and tried to save his super softs. Meanwhile in third, Hamilton stayed in touch with Grosjean, although he was unable to do anything about the Lotus driver.
Immediately after the first round of stops Vettel had a lead of around 2.7s, but on the medium tyres he began to pull away from Grosjean, who was in turn able to open a gap on Hamilton. The real action was further down the order, as sixth placed Hülkenberg held off a busy group that included Alonso, Kimi Räikkönen and Mark Webber, the latter having worked his way up from 13th on the grid.
Through those second stints more and more drivers complained about their tyres on the radio as they hit graining issues. Hamilton was particularly vocal as his lap times fell dramatically. One by one those trailing in Vettel’s wake had to come in and make their second stops, with only Grosjean staying out with the leader.
The complexion of the race changed when Sergio Pérez suffered a front tyre delamination on lap 30. With the tyre tread and pieces of bodywork on the back straight, the safety car came out. At the front Vettel and Grosjean both pitted, as did several drivers further back, while those who’d made a recent stop stayed out. An unlucky Webber was forced to make an extra stop after picking up a puncture on Pérez’s debris.
After nine laps under yellows the field was finally released again. However, the safety car was out almost immediately after Adrian Sutil spun and collected Webber. The Aussie had to pull off with his car on fire and very little attention being given to it by the marshals, and when a local course vehicle entered the track – seemingly without FIA authorisation – the safety car was sent out again.
In the middle of all that action Räikkönen jumped Grosjean, who made a mistake, to claim second place. At the restart it was thus Vettel-Räikkönen-Grosjean-Hülkenberg-Hamilton-Alonso in what had become a straight 15 lap sprint race to the flag, albeit with Vettel and Grosjean best placed in terms of the age of their tyres.
Inevitably frustrated that the first safety car had cost him a lead of over five seconds, Vettel did what he did post safety car in Singapore, drive absolutely flat out while posting a succession of fastest laps. This time he didn’t build up quite such a spectacular lead, but he was soon five seconds clear once again. Not surprisingly his engineer got on the radio to remind him to take it easy.
Grosjean meanwhile was reminded by his team that he was free to race Räikkönen, but despite his slight tyre advantage he couldn’t find a way past, and the Lotuses crossed the line together.
For many people the real hero of the race was Hülkenberg. After starting seventh he immediately got up to fifth, and from there he grabbed the opportunity to show the world what he can do. Helped by good traction and superior straightline speed he stayed just ahead of an increasingly frustrated Hamilton, who in turn had Alonso crawling all over him. Rosberg (delayed by an early nose failure) and Button were also right with them as this little group provided some great entertainment.
No surprise about the winner then, but this was far from the worst race we’ve seen this year. The bottom line is that Vettel can now win the championship as early as Suzuka next week – which will make the last four races a very long haul for everybody…