Newly crowned Drivers Champion, Sebastian Vettel, helped Red Bull secure their second consecutive Constructor’s trophy with a victory in Yeongam last Sunday.
On a grey, overcast afternoon in Yeongam, the 24-year-old took a first lap lead from poleman Lewis Hamilton, ensuring any remaining action happened in his mirrors.
With a level of calm worthy of a champion, Vettel drove peerlessly into the distance, untroubled and untouchable.
Why Hang Around?
The move was certainly decisive. Despite a good start, Vettel could not overcome Hamilton in the first turn, instead picking the McLaren pilot off as the pair approached the longing turn four.
It was clean, decisive and effectively won Vettel the race. Indeed had the German pilot not made the move early on, he may never have been able to capitalise as the race aged.
Hamilton’s higher top speed would have easily seen off any Red Bull led challenges on Yeongam’s longing straights – DRS or no DRS. Once demoted, Hamilton would spend several laps lingering in the background, but within fifteen laps, the gap was stretching beyond five seconds.
Hamilton wasn’t the sole McLaren to lose out on the opening lap – Jenson Button also fell backwards, albeit in a more dramatic fashion.
Despite a good start initially, Button lost 3rd to Ferrari’s Felipe Massa at the third corner, becoming 6th place as both Mark Webber (Red Bull) and Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) pushed their way past.
Webber, meanwhile, would not be content with 4th place – noticing a gap, the Australian somehow found grip around the outside of Massa and Alonso into turn five, giving the Renault-powered machine the inside line into the following bend.
As the sextet circulated over the start / finish line for the first time, Vettel led from Hamilton, Webber, Massa and Alonso, with Button several car lengths adrift.
The front running pack would quickly split into two. With Hamilton just about keeping sight of Vettel, Webber fell away as the intentions of those from behind became clear. Indeed, as Button closed back up to Alonso in 5th, Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg latched onto the tail of the battle.
A solid qualifying performance for Rosberg, led to an equally solid race start for the Mercedes man. Lining up 7th on the grid, Rosberg held position in what is quickly becoming Mercedes’ very own limbo.
Quicker than the Renault’s and their contemporaries, but not as fast as the leading three teams, means the turquoise and silver cars often find themselves fighting for… 7th; however front wing updates had seen the Brackley-based team claw some of the gap to the leaders.
Stopping in their Tracks
Come the first stops, there was little fanfare in the Red Bull and McLaren garages, with Webber (lap 14), Hamilton (lap 15) and Vettel (lap 16) being serviced with little fuss, yet behind Webber the face of the group was to change drastically.
Button led Rosberg into the pits as they stopped on lap thirteen, yet it was Mercedes who turned their man over quickest; however it would be nothing. As Rosberg exited the pit lane, the Mercedes pilot stumbled, running wide, letting Button back through.
Rosberg used the DRS zone to claim the position back, only to lose the place again to the McLaren the following lap around, lining the pair up in 4th and 5th.
Both Ferrari’s stayed out a short while longer, with Massa stopping first (lap 14) and Alonso coming one tour later. Emerging from their respective tyre changes, both Massa and Alonso dropped to 8th and 12th, some distance behind the Button / Rosberg battle.
There would be further punishment for Alonso – exiting from the pits, the Spaniard found himself in the midst of a battle between Michael Schumacher (Mercedes) and Vitaly Petrov (Renault) for 9th place.
It was a frustrating time for Alonso. Feeling he was stronger than Massa in the opening stint, the Spaniard was not allowed to swap positions with his teammate, dropping Alonso into a precarious midpack position.
As the yet to stop midfielders fell toward the pits, the Scuderia machines climbed steadily back up the order; however before Alonso could latch onto the rear of Massa, he would still need to negotiate the Mercedes and Renault dogfight.
The Silver Arrows March
Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher’s start was somewhat more assured. Starting from the outside of the sixth row, the veteran jumped two spots on the opening tour, climbing to 9th five laps in with a pass on Force India’s Paul di Resta, allowing Schumacher the space to catch Vitaly Petrov’s Renault.
Following their stops on lap 14, Schumacher would take Petrov in the pits after the pair stopped on lap fourteen, although that action would soon count for little.
Soon split by Alonso on lap 16, Petrov DRS’d his way past the Ferrari – and into the back of Schumacher. Such was Petrov’s excess speed; the Renault pilot crumpled the back of the Mercedes, destroying its rear wing in the process.
The Renault, too, was damaged beyond repair, with Petrov’s front left suspension taking the brunt of the blow. In the melee, Alonso narrowly avoided being speared by the Renault man, surviving to live another day.
Such was the scale of the destruction; the safety car would be instantly deployed. With the field neutralised, those who had run long in the opening stint benefited from the slowed field. Petrov, meanwhile, garnered a grid penalty for the next race for his troubles.
One of those beneficiaries was Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari. Starting 11th, the Spaniard drove a steady early pace, maintaining his super-soft tyres ably, although Alguersuari would lose a place to Adrian Sutil off the line.
Swift moves on Sutil and his fellow Force India pilot, Paul di Resta would bring the Toro Rosso racer into the top ten, before climbing as high as 3rd while those around him stopped for tyres.
Taking his first tyre change under safety car would drop Alguersuari into 8th, just behind the lucky / luckless (take your pick) Alonso.
Further down the order, Sebastien Buemi suffered a less than stellar opening tour of the Grand Prix. Lining up 13th, the Toro Rosso man was stabbed in the rear by Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi while filtering through the opening corner, dropping the Swiss pilot to 17th.
Buemi would quickly realign the positions – moves on Lotus’ Heikki Kovalainen (lap 1), Rubens Barrichello and Pastor Maldonado (both Williams, laps 3 and 4) brought the Toro Rosso man to 14th, before retaking Kobayashi for 13th seven laps in.
The Swiss man would reach 9th before he made his first stop on lap fourteen, emerging on the soft Pirelli rubber in 12th place. This was becoming a good day for the little Italian squad.
Like Mercedes, the Force India pairing found themselves in something of a doldrums at Yeongam.
Indeed, after starting 9th (di Resta) and 10th (Sutil), there was little either could do to climb up the order; such is the Force India inferiority to the top four squads at the moment.
Lumbered with fast degrading rubber, di Resta struggled in the initial stages, while Sutil’s almost apathetic opening stint was governed by difficult softs. Their stops, five laps apart, saw both take on new sets of super-softs, leaving the duo exactly where they started in 9th and 10th.
In this instance, the Force India’s had little to worry about from either of the Sauber or Williams entries. Even Bruno Senna in the second Renault was a very distant threat – if one could even call him that. Starting 15th, Senna struggled from the off, not helped by a poor start, dropping the Brazilian to 19th.
The Renault man spent several laps in 18th trailing Sergio Perez, following a pass on Kovalainen (lap 4), although the pair were still ready to deliver action, swapping places twice from turn one through to the exit of turn three eleven laps in.
One tour later, the Brazilian came close to wiping the pair, as he outbraked himself in turn one. Irrespective of the fight, this was becoming a day to forget for Senna.
Admittedly, for Perez, the Korean Grand Prix was not proving a positive endeavour. Lacking tyre temperature, the Mexican was a mere extra, playing uncertain storyline outside the top ten.
Following the long battle with Senna, Perez stayed out until the safety car – his late stop propelling the Mexican up to 13th ahead of teammate Kobayashi. Strategy for the Japanese pilot proved to be less patient, moving from softs to super-soft rubber after only ten tours.
It was a case of status quo for Kobayashi – after an opening stint trapped in 14th, the next stage of the race would prove to be no better.
The Rise and Fall
Williams, too, were suffering in Yeongam; although Maldonado’s early run gave the impression the situation was otherwise poised.
A long opening stint left the Venezuelan 11th, just behind the Force India’s – apposition solidified due in part to a safety car stop. For all his worth, Maldonado’s early race runs in 2011 have been commendable and Korea was no different.
Starting 16th, the rookie ran 15th behind Buemi early on until both eventually pitted. Going two laps longer gave Maldonado the advantage over Buemi for 11th and 12th places; however it was all for nothing. A minor pitlane violation garnered Maldonado a drive through penalty, dropping the Williams pilot to 21st on lap 22.
Come the 28th tour, Maldonado had risen to 17th, only for his for engine to expire three laps later.
Meanwhile, Barrichello could do little with his FW33. From 18th on the grid, the Brazilian veteran ran as high as 15th (!) following his decision to change to softs ten laps in. It was as much as he could manage – the 2011 Williams machine once again proved uncooperative in race trim.
Lotus continue to improve ever so slightly as they approach the end of their second year back in Formula 1.
Once again Kovalainen was leading the green and yellow charge, running 17th come the end of his first stint, where the Finn consistently ran laptimes to match the Williams’ and Sauber’s.
Kovalainen’s Lotus teammate, Jarno Trulli, was having a slightly more difficult day – a faulty DRS left the veteran shy when close to Kovalainen in the early running.
Neither Lotus had much to worry about from the HRT / Virgin Racing grouping. As per usual, the foursome ran at the rear of the order, with Vitantonio Liuzzi creating a bit of unnecessary excitement at HRT by losing his front wing on the second lap.
Running Away Under Green
It is unlikely Vettel knew much about the HRT / Virgin fight. He was far too busy running ahead of Hamilton once the safety car left the circuit at the start of lap 21.
If anything, Hamilton appeared to be unaware of Vettel’s launch – the German establishing a 1.2 second lead within a tour of restarting. Beyond that gap, Vettel was not exactly sailing off into the distance, but it was enough to keep Hamilton out of the DRS range – and both of them knew it.
For every time Hamilton closed the gap, Vettel responded immediately. The champion was in complete control.
Webber was not enjoying such an easy time. Closely trailed by Button, the Red Bull pilot felt the pressure from behind, as the McLaren racer ran wheel-to-wheel with Webber through the turn 4-5 sequence, before dropping back to 4th place.
Now free from Button’s grip, Webber closed in on Hamilton to fight for 2nd spot – Hamilton, distracted by Webber’s intentions, would quickly begin losing sight of Vettel.
Come lap 32, Vettel’s lead had grown to 2.6 seconds, expanding to over ten seconds following the completion of the second round of pitstops seven laps later.
Like Hamilton, Rosberg was also facing a rear guard attack, this time by a pair of Ferrari’s. With the Scuderia duo pressing, Rosberg began locking up his front Pirelli’s, eventually giving Massa and Alonso the space to take 5th and 6th on lap 27.
His tyres shot, the Mercedes man took an early final stop at the beginning of lap 28 to change to the soft compound rubber, emerging 14th behind Senna’s lethargic looking Renault.
Senna also came close to losing out badly following the safety car period. Barrichello and Kobayashi quickly passed the Brazilian as soon as the race restarted; however the Sauber racer clipped Senna’s rear in the process, damaging his front wing.
Kobayashi battled on for an extra two laps, but it was clear the lack of downforce was harming his race, leaving Sauber no choice but to pit the Japanese driver on the 25th lap, dropping him to 21st.
Unchallenged to the Flag
Sebastian Vettel, however, left all the battles a long way behind. A smooth final stop on lap 34, dropped him to a comfortable 2nd as Alonso ran long, yet as soon as the Ferrari removed itself from the front running action, the World Champion sailed on.
Vettel no longer needed to push it too hard, but on the final lap, the German set the fastest lap – just because he could.
On the other hand, Mark Webber was left rueing a missed opportunity. Running under the rear wing of Lewis Hamilton for the second half of the race, it was clear the Red Bull did not have the top end speed to make the pass on circuit.
Even through the DRS zone, Hamilton maintained a narrow gap over the Australian, despite Webber having full use of the DRS. A mistake by Hamilton after they exited the pits together on lap 34 could not allow Webber enough of an advantage to finalise the move.
Webber did surge by Hamilton once – at turn one with eight laps remaining; however it was shortlived, as Hamilton simply drove by Webber on the following straight.
The Red Bull racer wasn’t leaving at just that. On numerous occasions, Webber attempted to use he RB7’s better traction to force his way by Hamilton’s MP4-26, but the 2008 World Champion wasn’t having any of it.
One can only theorise that had Vettel not made that first lap lunge by Hamilton, the Englishman may have been in a better position to win…
The frantic battle for 2nd was enough to bring Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso back into the mix in the final few laps.
Despite a difficult early part to his second stint on super-softs, Button’s Pirelli’s came back to him, allowing the former champion to catch Webber’s tail, yet Button would also struggle to get close to overtake.
Noting the futility of his surge, Button found himself in a fight of his own, as Alonso drew to the rear of the McLaren – but just like the Hamilton / Webber battle, Alonso simply could not get close enough to overtake the McLaren.
Just Not Enough
Felipe Massa was the big loser in the top six. After running ahead of Alonso for much of the race, the Brazilian fell behind his teammate after the final stops.
Indeed, Massa pitting on lap 34 gave the Spaniard three laps in free air before he made his final tyre change – despite being on fresher rubber, Massa could not garner the pace to overcome Alonso, allowing the Spaniard to chase the fight for 2nd place.
From that point on, Massa – unable to match Alonso – fell ten seconds behind his teammate, knowing full well that he faced no threat from behind.
Nico Rosberg could not say the same. Following his early second stop, Rosberg had the task of trying to make the soft Pirelli’s last twenty-eight laps – sadly for the Mercedes, it was not to be. With degradation proving high, Rosberg began to lose time to the charging Jaime Alguersuari during the final tours.
On fresher tyres and eyeing further points, Alguersuari drew to within two seconds of the Mercedes in the final fifteen laps; for a time Rosberg proved resilient.
Yet as Rosberg stripped his Pirelli’s of grip, Alguersuari closed in, taking 7th on the penultimate lap as they rushed down the long straight into turn three. Such was Alguersuari’s momentum, the Toro Rosso driver ran wide, allowing Rosberg back through; however the Spaniard made sure of the overtake on the final tour – this time Rosberg had no chance.
Sebastien Buemi continued his charge in the other Toro Rosso. The Swiss pilot made a quick improvement from his 12th position just after the safety car, due to a move on Maldonado’s Williams.
Buemi ran a twenty-two lap second stint on the soft Pirelli’s, finally pitting at the end of the 36th tour from 8th place. He would emerge in 10th, taking the struggling tyre shot Paul di Resta with five laps remaining.
On the Outside Looking In
For Adrian Sutil in the other Force India, there was little he could do hold onto a points paying place.
The German – potentially coming to the end of his time with the squad – did climb to 8th as those around him pitted, but the extra laps on ageing Pirelli’s was enough to drop Sutil to 11th.
Sutil ended the day with a twenty-two second lead over Williams’ man Rubens Barrichello. After passing Senna for 13th, the Williams driver made the best of his position, while the Renault driver tussled with Kobayashi.
Barrichello’s 31st lap stop dropped him to 16th behind the Lotus’, Senna and Perez; however a culmination of late stops and a 50th lap re-pass on the Renault was enough to give the Williams driver 12th.
Bruno Senna assumed 13th for Renault, a long way adrift of Barrichello, but only two seconds ahead of the impressive Heikki Kovalainen. The Lotus driver had spent the second-half of the race shadowing the midfield cars, beating both Sauber’s to the chequered flag to come home 14th.
Indeed, Kovalainen even fought with the Force India pairing in the mid-part of the race amidst the tangling of strategy, showing that while Lotus is not with the midpack, yet, the team are closing.
Kamui Kobayashi led the Swiss team to the flag in 15th, despite his extra stop early in the race. Moves on the newer teams brought Kobayashi up to 16th assuming an extra position when teammate Perez stopped with one lap remaining.
Sergio Perez could not penetrate the top ten in the second half of the race, but the Mexican damaged his tyres as he tried. Demoted to 16th following a late, late stop for super-soft tyres, Perez finished a mere three-tenths adrift of Kobayashi.
Jarno Trulli took 17th position ahead the Virgin Racing’s Timo Glock (18th) and HRT’s Daniel Ricciardo (19th).
Both beat their respective teammates Jerome d’Ambrosio (Virgin 20th) and Vitantonio Liuzzi (HRT, 21st) once again, as the fight for 10th in the Constructor’s Championship rages on.
At the other end of the scale, the Constructor’s title was realistically won long ago, even if it were only confirmed at Yeongam and although Red Bull only needed a few points to be certain of it, the Anglo-Austrian squad nailed it with a certain victory.
Next up, New Delhi and the unknown treasures it may bring as Formula 1 enters yet another territory for the first time.
Race Rating: 2.5 out of 5
2011 Korean Grand Prix (Rd 16,, Yeongam; 55 laps) Pos Driver Team Time 1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h30:01.994 2. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 12.019 3. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 12.477 4. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 14.694 5. Alonso Ferrari + 15.689 6. Massa Ferrari + 25.133 7. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 49.538 8. Rosberg Mercedes + 54.053 9. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1:02.762 10. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 1:08.602 11. Sutil Force India-Mercedes + 1:11.229 12. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 1:33.068 13. Senna Renault + 1 lap 14. Kovalainen Lotus-Renault + 1 lap 15. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 1 lap 16. Perez Sauber-Ferrari + 1 lap 17. Trulli Lotus-Renault + 1 lap 18. Glock Virgin-Cosworth + 1 lap 19. Ricciardo HRT-Cosworth + 1 lap 20. D'Ambrosio Virgin-Cosworth + 1 lap 21. Liuzzi HRT-Cosworth + 3 laps Fastest lap: Vettel, 1:39.605 Not classified/retirements: Driver Team On lap Maldonado Williams-Cosworth 31 Petrov Renault 17 Schumacher Mercedes 16 World Championship standings, (Round 16: Drivers) 1. Vettel 349 2. Button 222 3. Alonso 212 4. Webber 209 5. Hamilton 196 6. Massa 98 7. Rosberg 67 8. Schumacher 60 9. Petrov 36 10. Heidfeld 34 11. Sutil 28 12. Kobayashi 27 13. Alguersuari 22 14. Di Resta 21 15. Buemi 15 16. Perez 13 17. Barrichello 4 18. Senna 2 19. Maldonado 1 World Championship standings, (Round 16: Constructors) 1. Red Bull-Renault 558 2. McLaren-Mercedes 418 3. Ferrari 310 4. Mercedes 127 5. Renault 72 6. Force India-Mercedes 49 7. Sauber-Ferrari 40 8. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 37 9. Williams-Cosworth 5