It took a while – a long while in fact, but despite delay after delay after delay, the inaugural Korean Grand Prix eventually ran its course.
Eventually, after running for 2 hours and 48 minutes, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso crossed the chequered flag to take not only the race win, but the lead in the Championship following a race that completely turned the title battle on its head. As Saturday night seeped into Sunday morning, the rains fell over Yeongam and kept falling, leaving the track sodden as the race drew ever closer. Indeed, the conditions were such that virtually all of the Grand Prix’ sole support race was run under the safety car.
And that was how the race itself started.
While far from the wettest race in Formula 1 history, the unsettled tarmac wept oil onto its surface creating extremely treacherous conditions – even Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and Virgin’s Timo Glock had spins on the way to the grid. Thankfully, neither suffered any damage.
Initially, the race start was delayed by ten minutes as the rain became ever more persistent, before a decision to send them out behind the safety car was made.
It was short lived though. The field trundled behind the safety car for three laps in truly appalling conditions – the track surface having deteriorated to such a degree, that the red flag was brought and for the next 48 minutes, the cars sat motionless on the grid waiting for conditions to improve.
The race restarted at 4.05pm and already, worries of impending darkness began surface while the cars trundled around behind the safety car for a further fourteen laps. With little to lose, Bruno Senna pitted his Hispania – the wayward Spanish team having put his tyres on backwards before the original start. Lucas di Grassi also too two stops as the Brazilian rookie swapped from one set of warm wet tyres to another.
The tricky conditions caught out several drivers while they lapped at slow speed with Michael Schumacher (Mercedes), Vitantonio Liuzzi (Force India) and Sakon Yamamoto (Hispania) amongst those spinning.
It took nearly ninety minutes, but the green flags finally flew at the start of lap 18 as the Mercedes-powered safety pulled into the pits and in the blinding spray, the Mercedes pair were on the move. Within metres of the start / finish, Schumacher had moved passed Kubica into 8th place, while Nico Rosberg took the McLaren of Lewis Hamilton to move into the top four.
The title turns…
Sadly for Rosberg, his race would only last a further two tours. Exiting the off-camber turn 12 lap 20, Championship leader Mark Webber ran wide in his Red Bull, initiating a slow spin – as the Australian bounced kindly off the wall, his blue and red machine veered back onto the circuit. Moments later Alonso rounded the same bend, narrowly missing the stricken Webber; however Rosberg was not so lucky – as the silver Mercedes attempted to avoid the Red Bull, Rosberg ran out of road, to be taken out by Webber. In that brief moment, Rosberg’s chance of a good points score was destroyed, but it was more costly for Webber; his Championship challenge had in an instant been turned inside out.
A downbeat Webber admitted that he had made a mistake, saying:
“I got a wheel on the kerb on the exit of Turn 12 and it was a very slow motion moment off the back of it. Totally my mistake. Today isn’t my day. The wall obviously was close and did some damage and then I wrecked Nico’s race as well. It brings me back to them on points and we are all back together again so we go to the final two races.”
Rosberg would later reveal the problem presented by Webber’s spin:
“It was really difficult to judge which way Mark’s car would go and I took the decision to go left but he spun more and more that way and I just couldn’t avoid him. It’s a real shame as we could have had a great result today.”
Debris lined the section haphazardly, instantly bringing the safety car back on track – on this day safety car Bernd Maylander was finding himself in a constant action poise.
There was more action down the order before Maylander hit the track again – both Jarno Trulli and Senna spun entering the first turn and Adrian Sutil attempted the first of several bonzai moves in the race. Unlike Kobayashi at Suzuka two weeks earlier, these lunges were not quite coming off, signified by Sutil repeatedly taking to the run off area.
Meanwhile both Sauber’s, Sebastien Buemi (Toro Rosso), Vitaly Petrov (Renault) and the recovering Senna and Trulli pair all pit for new tyres – with the pace slowed, there is little lose as the early stoppers all moving over to intermediate tyres. It is quite apparent by now that the circuit, while not wet is certainly very slick.
Signals for the safety car to pit emerge and as the Korean Grand Prix picked up again on the 24th tour, Vettel still led from Alonso, Hamilton, Massa and Jenson Button (McLaren).
It’s not long before there was further incident. An unsighted Senna clashed with Trulli rounding turn 6, as the Italian attempted to force his way by the Hispania racer. The crash would see Trulli in the pits for a new front, although it came to nought – within three laps, his hydraulics system had once again given up and the Lotus driver was finished for the day.
One thing was for certain; out front Sebastian Vettel was not struggling. In fact, the 23-year-old was pulling away from the trailing pack and had put several seconds between himself and Alonso, with Hamilton over three seconds shy of the second-placed Spaniard.
Where one McLaren seemed relatively comfortable in 3rd, the second was having problems. In a car that had proven difficult all weekend, Button fell a long way behind the leaders and soon found himself behind the reinvigorated Michael Schumacher on lap 27, as the veteran out-braked his way into the top five.
Neither Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi nor Virgin Racing’s Lucas di Grassi were quite as solid in their attempts to pass. Mired in lower reaches, Kobayashi tried a move on Petrov for 15th, only to slide well off the road and loses position. Di Grassi’s off track slide, however, finished his race rather permanently – looking at a half open gap on the inside of Yamamoto, the Brazilian lost control of his Cosworth-powered entry, ploughing into some trackside advertising hoardings. It was a tough break for di Grassi who is coming under increasing pressure at Virgin and this accident will certainly not help him solidify a 2011 drive.
The leading Virgin car, as driven by Timo Glock had found its way up to 13th place, with the Lotus of Heikki Kovalainen following close behind – that became a startling 11th and 12th when both Button and Sutil pitted on lap 29 for intermediate tyres. It was a strategy that went severely awry for both cars as they emerged in 17th and 18th positions respectively and at the tail end of a long pack.
Williams’ Nico Hulkenberg also took time to pit for intermediates – a decision that brought into a battle with Renault’s Vitaly Petrov. The Russian had made progress up until this point, despite starting as far back as 20th position – his move on the emerging Hulkenberg was enough to take him into the top ten.
Yet another safety car
Button quickly fell into some luck though – within two laps Toro Rosso’s Sebastien Buemi clouted Kovalainen’s Lotus, while the reigning Champion also making a move by Nick Heidfeld’s Sauber.
This was not to be the last of the action for Buemi – having caught Timo Glock, the Swiss driver lost control of his Toro Rosso in a half-hearted move, slamming into the Virgin Racing machine as a result. Safety car.
It was a move that would garner Buemi a five-place grid penalty for the penultimate race at Interlagos in two weeks. Too damaged to continue, the race was ended instantly for the Toro Rosso, while Glock toured once more before pulling into the pits to retire.
Buemi was apologetic about the incident:
“I braked late and locked the front wheels, so I could not turn and ended up going straight on and hitting Timo. I am sorry for him.”
What cars remained used this opportunity to change tyres – it was a set of clean stops for all, except Alonso and Robert Kubica. With the pressure on, a lost wheelnut added precious seconds to Alonso’s stop, allowing Hamilton to sneak into 2nd position – as for Kubica, the Pole very nearly found himself spearing the side of Liuzzi’s Force India as he was about to be released. Holding him back for a brief moment saving Kubica from having an accident in the pits, but it would put the Renault behind the leading Williams of Rubens Barrichello, Petrov and Hulkenberg on track.
It turned out to be a relatively quick safety car period – by lap 35, the pack was go again and again Vettel got a great start as he sailed into the distance. Hamilton sailed off too, but only into the turn 1 run-off area – the McLaren man would see his 2nd position snatched from his by the lingering Alonso, although the Englishman did manage to hold off the second Ferrari of Felipe Massa (just).
Behind the front four, Michael Schumacher was having one of his strongest performances of the season. Following a good run to 6th at Suzuka two weeks ago, the seven-time World Champion had made his way up to 5th position; however with twenty laps remaining, the light began to fade around the Yeongam circuit. From here on in, the condition for Schumacher and everyone else would only deteriorate.
After Schumacher, were the Williams pair of Rubens Barrichello (6th) and Nico Hulkenberg (8th) as they sandwiched Vitaly Petrov (7th). Petrov’s Renault team mate was 9th in front of Kobayashi (10th).
Outside the top ten, the battle to try and get the last point intensified, with Button and Sutil in the middle of the group; however it was Vitantonio Liuzzi that made the necessary early move.
The under pressure Italian made his way under Kobayashi to steal 10th place from the Japanese driver – as the neat pass was unveiled, the following bunch found themselves squeezed with button taking to the escape road to avoid an accident. It was to drop Button down to 15th as both Sutil and Jaime Alguersuari took advantage – this Korea adventure was becoming a nightmare for the 2009 Champion.
Sutil continued to take advantage of his pace in the pack, taking 12th from Heidfeld (lap 37). From here, Sutil’s race began to unravel somewhat as his brakes grew longer – difficulties in the braking area saw Sutil fall back behind Heidfeld (lap 38) and Alguersuari (lap 39), although the German would sneak back passed Alguersuari several laps later.
If Sutil thought he had problems, he had nothing on Heikki Kovalainen. Following a drive through penalty for speeding in the pitlane on lap 36, the Finn emerged with bubbling hydraulic issues unsettling his Lotus machine, although with only the two Hispania’s behind (and by quite a margin), Kovalainen stayed the course.
One driver that was not going to make the distance was Vitaly Petrov. With one-quarter of the race remaining, the young Russian lost control of his Renault mid-way through the final corner, ramming the barrier as a result.
Later, Petrov revealed that:
“This was my first experience of such extreme conditions in F1, and I think the FIA did a good job to let us run behind the Safety Car and understand the circuit before starting the race. The team had made a good call with the change to intermediate tyres, and I was in a strong position in P7 when I crashed.”
Petrov has on occasion impressed with his sheer speed; however so many accidents and unforced errors through the season have created doubts as to whether he will retain his seat for 2011. Another accident and more lost point is certainly not the way to endear one self to Renault team boss, Eric Boullier.
Who needs two Red Bulls when you can have none?
Gloom also descended upon the sky – with sunset fast approaching, race director Charlie Whiting announced the Grand Prix would only run for a further 25 minutes. Indeed Sebastian Vettel was most vocal over the team radio – the German was beginning to fall back toward Alonso, as he struggled to see his braking points in the poor light.
After the race, the young German recognised the difficult conditions on track:
“I had a medium visor on my helmet and it was getting very dark and it became very difficult to see the bumps on the track and the reference points for braking. So Turn 1, the first sector was quite bad in places, (corner’s) 11-12, and then the last sector was a bit darker.”
Unfortunately for Vettel, it would come to nothing – lap after lap, both Alonso and Hamilton reeled in the Red Bull driver and on lap 46, the true problem became apparent. As the leading Red Bull spluttered fearfully, its Renault engine ripped itself open with a fiery rage entering the first corner. Spitting shards of metal and carbon fibre across the track surface, Vettel finally pulled off the following straight as his Championship charger began to catch flames – once again, the face of the Championship turned and now Fernando Alonso was in the driving seat for the title.
Of his race retirement, Vettel said that:
“It’s obviously not a very nice moment but I think it was a very tricky and difficult race for all of us. To be on top of the field all the time, controlling the race and looking after my tyres, I think there is nothing that we could have done better. So all in all I think we did a more or less perfect job…”
Alonso, the villain of the Hockenheimring, now led the final part of this incredible race for Ferrari – 2nd place Lewis Hamilton had no answer. As the final laps ticked away, so did the McLaren man – Hamilton wary of his balding tyres, choosing to bring his car home safe; Alonso, gentler on his Bridgestone’s, had no such worries.
One driver still not content to take it easy was Adrian Sutil. Despite a number of off track excursions earlier in the race, the Force India driver attempted a dive bomb the inside of Kamui Kobayashi into the first turn for 9th place, only to slam into the side of the Sauber and into retirement.
Kobayashi, with his brick-house Sauber, escaped with minor damage and continued on, but for Sutil, it was one point lost – something that might become crucial in their fight for 6th in the Constructor’s Championship with Williams. The stewards were in no doubt as to who was at fault and slapped Sutil with a five-place grid penalty for Brazil.
The German would tell of the troubles in his machine:
“I was just struggling with my brakes all the time. I had so much brake force that I always locked up and it was hard to drive consistently. There were a lot of times I was off the circuit, or locked up, and then got past a driver and went off the road.”
As for Button, Sutil’s retirement brought the reigning Champion up to 12th place, but it simply wasn’t going to be enough. It was a race encapsulated by a spin at turn 16 with three laps remaining.
Nico Hulkenberg also suffered a spin at the entry of turn 16, but for a very different reason. Lingering debris sliced open, leaving the Williams machine with a slow puncture – with three laps to the flag, Hulkenberg took to the pits for a new set of tyres.
Indeed, it was a poor end to the race for Williams as a whole. With Hulkenberg’s problem’s still fresh, Barrichello spun of his destroyed and aged tyres, elevating Robert Kubica and Vitantonio Liuzzi to 5th and 6th respectively. Whereas, it was another decent run for Kubica and quite representative of his skill, this was a big race for Liuzzi with the Italian well in the points places on a day when his team mate struggled.
Keeping your head
Absolutely none of this mattered to Fernando Alonso. When Mark Webber crashed, he kept his cool. When a pit error cost him 2nd, he kept his cool. When Vettel blew his engine, he kept his cool and when his tyres should have been destroyed, he kept everything together to claim the inaugural Korean Grand Prix in near darkness. It also gives the Spaniard an 11 point lead with two races to spare.
Post-race, Alonso was straight forward about the result:
“We have been doing well in the last seven races but the last two we cannot forget we need to be on the podium and at least fighting for the victory. One result for one race does not change the picture of the championship. There are still four contenders, five, so we knew before coming here that every race is important to finish.”
Lewis Hamilton’s 2nd place keeps his title hopes alive, albeit 21 points behind, but when considering the conditions, it was a sterling drive from the 25-year-old.
A pragmatic Hamilton later revealed that:
“…today we picked up some good points. It could have been better but if you look at the last four races we didn’t pick up such good points. We will keep pushing and as you saw today anything can happen, we didn’t expect two Red Bulls to go out but that is how close this championship is.”
Felipe Massa brought his Ferrari home in the final podium position having driven cautious, but good race. Considering the conditions, Massa was happy to take a podium:
“At the end definitely was very, very dark so even having strong lights it was very difficult to see in front. It was a good race, very difficult, with tricky conditions in the beginning and visibility was almost zero. (…) I am very happy for this position, for me for the team and Fernando did a very good job.”
Michael Schumacher brought his Mercedes home to finish 4th ahead of Renault’s Robert Kubica in 5th place. The Pole may rue the time lost in the pits under the safety, but today there simply wasn’t enough to claw back Schumacher.
“It was a long, difficult race – and a race of two halves,” said Kubica. He added “…the first part was very tricky for me, because I had big problems warming up the tyres. I had no grip at all and couldn’t push – I was just concentrating on keeping the car on the track. For the second half, though, I think it was very good.’
A very good result for Liuzzi (6th), just ahead of Barrichello (7th); however there were also big smiles at Sauber, with both cars claiming point scores – Kobayashi took 8th place ahead of Heidfeld (9th). The second Williams of Nico Hulkenberg scored the final point with a late move on Jaime Alguersuari’s Toro Rosso (11th), but it could have been so much more were it not for that late puncture.
Alguersuari admitted that it had been a tough race, as:
“…throughout the race, I lacked speed down the long straights and that is why it was hard to move back up the order, then at the end, when I had finally managed to get into the points, I could do nothing against Hulkenberg, who was faster in a straight line and was on new tyres.”
Jenson Button did finish, albeit in a distant 12th place. Although the reigning Champion can still mathematically claim a second title this year, he is 42 points adrift with 50 remaining, making another success virtually impossible.
A very disappointed Button later told the BBC:
“I just didn’t have any grip, I was so slow. “I was pretty much the slowest person on the circuit. I was struggling with locking fronts, I couldn’t not lock them so when I hit the brakes we locked up. Every time I braked for the corner I went straight on, because I couldn’t stop the car, even though I was dialing backwards and backwards on the brake bias.”
Button had been using new suspension parts for the race, that never operated properly in the difficult conditions.
Heikki Kovalainen took another 13th place for Lotus and there was joy at Hispania Racing, as Bruno Senna and Sakon Yamamoto managed 14th and 15th respectively – it is yet another result that puts them further away from Virgin Racing in the Constructor’s championship.
Realistically, this race was a shambles – as witnessed at the start, but it was eventually completed, even if no one could see where they were going and while the amenities looked far from perfect, the circuit itself looks like a very nice design for racing.
On his current form, it’s looking very good for Alonso, with both Hamilton and Vettel teetering and Webber falling ever so slightly behind.
……and so then there were four.
Race Rating: 3 out of 5
*All quotes courtesy of Autosport, the BBC and the team’s respective press releases.
Yeongam, Korean Grand Prix (Round 17, October 24th)
1 ALONSO Ferrari 55 laps
2 HAMILTON McLaren +14.9s
3 MASSA Ferrari +30.8s
4 SCHUMACHER Mercedes +39.6s
5 KUBICA Renault +47.7s
6 LIUZZI Force India +53.5s
7 BARRICHELLO Williams +69.2s
8 KOBAYASHI Sauber +77.8s
9 HEIDFELD Sauber +80.1s
10 HULKENBERG Williams +80.8s
11 ALGUERSUARI Toro Rosso +84.1s
12 BUTTON McLaren +89.9s
13 KOVALAINEN Lotus +1 lap
14 SENNA HRT +2 laps
15 YAMAMOTO HRT +2 laps
R. SUTIL Force India +9 laps
R. VETTEL Red Bull +10 laps
R. PETROV Renault +16 laps
R. GLOCK Virgin +24 laps
R. BUEMI Toro Rosso +25 laps
R. DI GRASSI Virgin +30 laps
R. TRULLI Lotus +30 laps
R. WEBBER Red Bull +37 laps
R. ROSBERG Mercedes +37 laps
|1. Fernando Alonso||Ferrari||231|
|2. Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing||220|
|3. Lewis Hamilton||McLaren||210|
|4. Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing||206|
|5. Jenson Button||McLaren||189|
|6. Felipe Massa||Ferrari||143|
|7. Robert Kubica||Renault||124|
|8. Nico Rosberg||Mercedes GP||122|
|9. Michael Schumacher||Mercedes GP||66|
|10. Rubens Barrichello||Williams||47|
|11. Adrian Sutil||Force India||47|
|12. Kamui Kobayashi||Sauber||31|
|13. Vitantonio Liuzzi||Force India||21|
|14. Vitaly Petrov||Renault||19|
|15. Nico Hulkenberg||Williams||18|
|16. Sebastien Buemi||Scuderia Toro Rosso||8|
|17. Pedro de la Rosa||Sauber||6|
|18. Nick Heidfeld||Sauber||6|
|19. Jaime Alguersuari||Scuderia Toro Rosso||3|
|1. Red Bull Racing||426|
|4. Mercedes GP||188|
|6. Force India||68|
|9. Scuderia Toro Rosso||11|