Sunday 14 October 2012

Korean GP Report: Seb scales the summit

There's usually something reassuring about something that doesn't change. And for Red Bull right now it must be especially so.

Today's Korean Grand Prix was almost entirely like last year's: Sebastian Vettel (atypically) qualifying second, but seizing the front pretty much immediately then controlling things from there, leading all the way to win and never looking under any sort of threat. Indeed, for Red Bull it's much more broadly becoming just like 2011; right now its is the car to beat everywhere, particularly in Seb's hands. The German's now not been headed in a race since Lewis Hamilton's gearbox failed in Singapore close to a month ago, and he's claimed three wins on the spin in a year in which previously no one had even got two in a row.

No one got near to Sebastian Vettel today
Credit: Ryan Bayona / CC
Even better for Seb he's now scaled the summit of the drivers' table, six points clear after being 44 behind table-topper Fernando Alonso in Germany. Just like in previous years, currently it looks like the Bulls are timing the title charge to perfection. As Bob Dylan once said, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

In the end the only race in Korea was between Seb and his Pirelli tyres. As he stroked his RB8 around at the front as he liked, his engineer Rocky's radio contact got more and more pained as the race progressed, urging Seb that his tyres could go pop at any moment in a fashion that went far beyond healthy paranoia. Seb showed exactly what he thought of that by setting his fastest lap on the last tour (perhaps working on the premise that the quicker the race finished the less time there'd be for his tyres to fail). But by all accounts it was a genuine concern on the pit wall. Yet Seb got the better of that fight, as he did almost all fights in Korea.

Pole-man Mark Webber was cleared off the line by Seb (once again, the 'second phase' of the launch being something of an Achilles' heel for him) which left Webbo little choice but to follow his team mate's increasingly distant exhaust fumes throughout to finish second. For all of his qualifying smash and grab, it was a reminder that Seb had the edge on Mark on pace just about all weekend.

Third place was the best Fernando Alonso could do, and
Ferrari needs to find something to save his championship
Credit: Morio / CC
Alonso pedalled hard in the Bulls' wake. He did toy with Webber from time to time, but Webber always seemed capable of reacting to his threat. Third place was therefore the best Alonso could do. He's lost the title lead, though at least not by as much as he might have. On the upside for him and his team, the Ferrari isn't far off the Red Bull, indeed it was clearly its closest challenger in the last two races, and in Melbourne all in Maranello would likely have bitten most of your arm off had you then offered them the situation we have now. But it can't be denied that the Scuderia needs to find something if it wants the championship this year. Rest assured that team will not stand still.

Another bonus for Ferrari is that if it can improve the wheels it looks a lot like it'll have two drivers in the front-running mix. Felipe Massa, having followed a very good race in Suzuka with an equally good one in Korea, seems to have gone a long way to recapturing his old form. He even had to be warned off the back of Fernando for a time by his engineer Rob Smedley, before following Alonso home fourth.

But for McLaren it mostly went to pot today. Many anticipated strong race pace from the Woking cars, but if it was there we hardly got to see it. First off Jenson Button, particularly strong in longer runs on Friday and with greater strategy flexibility, didn't last beyond the third corner having been harpooned by Kamui Kobayashi, who as far as I could tell declined to brake for turn three (talk about hero to zero after last week in Japan). It was punished only by a drive through, which seemed incongruous compared with some of the retribution Romain Grosjean has been receiving recently. And at the same time rumours that Kamui won't be seen in a Sauber next year also seem to have grown from 'strong' to 'virtual certainty'.

And Lewis Hamilton ran close to Alonso before sinking back with a rear anti-roll bar failure, that hampered his pace as well as necessitated an extra tyre change and thus Lewis could only salvage one point for P10. More widely Lewis has declared his title chances as effectively gone for this year. Being as he is 62 points adrift with only 100 available it's hard to argue. Still, Kimi Raikkonen was 17 behind with 20 available in 2007 prior to winning the thing, so perhaps we shouldn't confuse the impossible with the improbable.

The drivers' championship for the moment indeed looks like a two-horse race at most. Kimi, in third place in the table, did what he's been doing for most of the season by making the best of things and bringing home points, this time for fifth place. But it still leaves him 58 adrift. If Kimi is up for a championship fight, it seems rather that the E20 isn't.

Nico Hulkenberg - on the move in more ways than one
Credit: Morio / CC
And worthy shout outs both to Nico Hulkenberg and to Toro Rosso. The Hulk has grown more incredible as the season has progressed, and a quick and combative drive in Korea (wherein he spent the most part battling with Romain Grosjean - who was on his best behaviour today), including a double pass on Grosjean and Hamilton, was rewarded with sixth place. Post-race it's being reported that Hulk's move to Sauber for next year is as good as a done deal; on recent evidence a move even further up the grid wouldn't have been unworthy. And Toro Rosso celebrated a double points finish with Jean-Eric Vergne eighth and Daniel Ricciardo ninth. The year for the Faenza lot has been a trying one, and the big bosses at Red Bull had their say, initiating a technical reshuffle mid-season to coincide with a a factory upgrade. At that point Ricciardo admitted that the team wouldn't score points in 2012's remainder without attrition; they didn't particularly rely on that today and it's now the third points haul in three races for Ricciardo. Things are looking up again for that team.

But things are especially looking up for the Red Bull A team. For various reasons, it's been a somewhat bitty and frustrating season for the Bulls by their haughty standards, but things seem to be coming together for that team at the vital moment. Ferrari needs to change the game, and will no doubt be donating every waking hour to just that. Without a game changer it's getting close to impossible to see how Seb and his team can be beaten to the title punch this year.

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