Sebastian Vettel won the Korean Grand Prix and took the lead of the world championship.
He had to survive some late race drama as the team warned him that the right front tyre could let go at any time, the tyre was down to the cord.
It was the Vettel’s second Korean GP win, his fourth of 2012 and his third victory in a row this year, the real gamechanger result which gives him and Red Bull the initiative with four races to go, as he took the championship lead by six points.
Things can change quickly: Five races ago, after the Hungarian Grand Prix, Vettel was 42 points behind Alonso, but the momentum of the Red Bull team at the moment looks hard to stop. Alonso finished 14 seconds behind Vettel today, an average of 0.25 secs per lap off the Red Bull pace.
It was the 25th victory of his F1 career in just 97 race starts, putting him equal with Jim Clark and Niki Lauda. It was the second occasion in three races where he has won despite not starting on pole position.
“Very pleased. I’m very happy. We had a good start and a good launch, so I was able to get by,” said Vettel. ” It was quite tight in the first stint, but the second stint was more comfortable.
“The championship has gone up and down. We have to focus on ourselves, we need to have our best possible results and we go from there.”
Red Bull also increased its lead in the Constructors’ Championship to 77 points with Mark Webber finishing in second place, having started the race from pole position.
Fernando Alonso wasn’t able to compete with the Red Bulls today and had to settle for third place, with Ferrari ordering his team mate Felipe Massa, who was faster than Alonso here, to “back off” in the second half of the race and he came in fourth.
Ferrari moved ahead of McLaren into second place in the Constructors’ Championship thanks to the recent strong results of Massa.
McLaren had a terrible day with Jenson Button eliminated at the start and Lewis Hamilton scoring just a single point in 10th place.
For the second race in a row Hamilton had a car which wasn’t balanced properly and struggled for pace, due to a problem with the rear anti-roll bar breaking (the same problem Alonso had in qualifying in Monza).
A problem with a damper was identified in Japan, so this is a disappointing pattern for McLaren. Hamilton was forced into a three stop strategy.
As the cars went off on the formation lap, Button, the two Saubers, Di Resta, Vergne and De La Rosa had all decided to start on the prime soft tyre, aiming for a longer first stint.
At the start Vettel managed to get a better getaway and starting on the inside, he was able to get ahead of Webber into the lead by Turn 1, while Alonso jumped Hamilton for third, maintaining his impeccable start record this year.
Behind them Button was hit by Kobayashi, who steamed up the inside of him, smashing his right front suspension, “Idiot” said Button on the radio. Rosberg was involved in that incident too, puncturing the radiator. Perez made up three places at the start.
On the opening lap, Vettel led from Webber, with Alonso third, Hamilton fourth, Massa fifth, Raikkonen sixth, Hulkenberg seventh, Grosjean eighth, Perez ninth and Schumacher 10th.
In the first five laps, the pace of the top four was similar, but after six laps the Red Bull’s started to lap 0.5s a lap faster.
The gap opened out to Alonso, to 3.5 seconds by lap 10 as the Red Bulls began to stretch their legs.
Vettel pulled the gap out to Webber as they approached the first stops; Hamilton was the first of the leaders to come in on lap 14, with Hulkenberg and Grosjean also pitting. Hamilton came out behind Perez who was on the harder tyre.
Vettel and Alonso pitted on lap 16, Alonso coming out just ahead of Perez, who attacked him on the first straight, Hamilton managed to pass him and a lap later so did Massa.
Vettel’s pace at the start of the second stint was very strong and he increased the lead over Webber, while Alonso and Hamilton closed up slightly.
Perez ran long, battling Raikkonen for sixth prior to his first stop.
On lap 18, Hamilton radioed in that the second set of tyres were not going to last long, as his pace dropped into the 1m 46s, whereas the cars in front were in the 1m 44s.
His pace dropped off and it meant that Massa passed him on lap 20 for fourth place, while Raikkonen attacked him three laps later. The pair had a great battle for a few laps.
Hamilton pitted on lap 26, only 12 laps after the first stop. This put him out of joint strategy wise. There was a slight delay on the right front and he rejoined ahead of Ricciardo. This released Raikkonen into fifth place.
Grosjean had followed Hulkenberg for the whole race, even pitting together on lap 14, but towards the end of the second stint Grosjean started to attack.
The Frenchman pitted early on lap 31, to try to undercut the German.
Webber pitted for the second time on lap 32, the first of the front runners once again.
Alonso came in two laps later, with Vettel pitting on lap 35 from the lead.
Webber closed the gap up to Vettel through the second stops while Alonso rejoined 4.5 seconds behind the second Red Bull. Team mate Massa was able to comfortably stay with his team mate.
Massa closed up to the back of Alonso, who lost some time in traffic, but Massa was told by his engineer Rob Smedley to “back off” from the Spaniard and to sit a second or two behind him, to preserve the tyres.
Massa believed that he could get ahead of Webber if released, but Ferrari were thinking about maximising points for Alonso with Vettel set to take the championship lead off him for the first time.
Meanwhile Hamilton was forced onto a three stop strategy, but didn’t have the pace you would expect from that strategy. Grosjean and Hulkenberg caught him on lap 40 and as Grosjean tried to pass, he went off track, allowing Hulkenberg to pass the pair of them for 6th place with a brilliant move.
It was another very strong drive for Hulkenberg, who split the two Lotus cars in sixth place.
Hamilton pitted again on lap 43 for a 12 lap sprint on supersofts. He rejoined in 10th place, behind Vergne in the Toro Rosso.
Red Bull were concerned in the closing stages about wear on the front tyres, the right front in particular, with both Vettel and Webber repeatedly told to take care.
Vettel was told that the tyre could be “right down to the cord” and was told several times to be very careful when loading it up under braking for the big stops.
KOREAN GRAND PRIX, Yeongam, 55 laps
1. Vettel Red Bull 1h36:28.651
2. Webber Red Bull + 8.200
3. Alonso Ferrari + 13.900
4. Massa Ferrari + 20.100
5. Raikkonen Lotus + 36.700
6. Hulkenberg Force India + 45.300
7. Grosjean Lotus + 54.800
8. Vergne Toro Rosso + 1:09.500
9. Ricciardo Toro Rosso + 1:11.700
10. Hamilton McLaren + 1:19.600
11. Perez Sauber + 1:20.000
12. Di Resta Force India + 1:24.400
13. Schumacher Mercedes + 1:29.200
14. Maldonado Williams + 1:34.900
15. Senna Williams + 1:36.900
16. Petrov Caterham + 1 lap
17. Kovalainen Caterham + 1 lap
18. Glock Marussia + 1 lap
19. Pic Marussia + 2 laps
20. Karthikeyan HRT + 2 laps
1. Vettel 215
2. Alonso 209
3. Raikkonen 167
4. Hamilton 153
5. Webber 152
6. Button 131
7. Rosberg 93
8. Grosjean 88
9. Massa 81
10. Perez 66
1. Red Bull-Renault 367
2. Ferrari 290
3. McLaren-Mercedes 284
4. Lotus-Renault 255
5. Mercedes 136
6. Sauber-Ferrari 116
7. Force India-Mercedes 89
8. Williams-Renault 58
9. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 21