Friday, 22 October 2010

Korea Preview: Close call at the front, as one dog doesn't bark

Inspector Gregory: "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
Sherlock Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night time"
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

One dog in particular did not bark in Korea today. Contrary to common expectations, including by certain bloggers who should know better, the new track did indeed hold together. This bodes well, as on previous occasions of F1 circuits breaking up wear and tear had become apparent by this point of the weekend, and most cars did something like a race distance in the course of practice today.

Indeed, many drivers were pleasantly surprised by the Yeongam track and facility. While the surrounding scenery remains rather sparse (it's in effect to be a street circuit built in reverse, with surrounding buildings to be built after the circuit, rather than before hand) there have not been significant complaints, and there have been many plaudits. Schumi commented that 'I must say the circuit is very demanding, very challenging, very good. I really like it', while Mark Webber admitted that 'I’m clutching at straws to criticise anything'.

Being F1 drivers they've found some things to complain about though, in part the pit exit which feeds cars out onto the racing line at low speeds, but especially the seemingly Interlagos-inspired pit entrance, which will likely require pitting cars to slow down on the racing line on the inside of a wall-lined blind corner. I suspect that'll be redesigned for next year. The odd kerb is also being re-profiled overnight. Nevertheless, given that this is the track's debut a lot more could have gone wrong.

As most of us wouldn't have held back had there been problems, we should be prepared to given the organisers credit where it's due. Further, organisers expect around 90,000-100,000 through the gate on Sunday. Impressive if true.

The track has been very low grip and dusty thus far (again perhaps understandable) though it is also gradually rubbering in. It's been fun however watching the cars get lairy during practice, and there have been many off-track excursions. Tyre degradation has also been a concern, with graining reported on both compounds throughout the field. This has the potential to introduce many Canada-style variables to qualifying and the race, and associated entertainment.

Form is generally hard to predict, and at the aggregate level there doesn't appear to be a huge amount to choose between the top teams. As expected, the early part on the lap with its long straights plays into McLaren hands (indeed, they're around 7-8kph quicker through the speed traps than the Red Bulls and Ferraris) but the rest of the lap is characterised by sequences of medium and high speed corners that suit the Red Bulls. Further, Ferrari look to be up there, and their 'halfway house' characteristics may play well at this circuit. Massa's also showing some willingness to help Alonso's championship bid, albeit through gritted teeth.

Broadly, the Red Bulls may have an edge, though nothing like on the scale they had in Suzuka. One thing that may be key is that the long straights are in the early part of the lap, which may be worth a place or two on the first lap of the race to the McLarens - in a tight battle this could well be vital. Indeed, if they get in front it's hard to see how anyone can pass them other than by pitstop strategy.

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