Sebastian Vettel won the Korean Grand Prix from pole position, beating Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean to the flag.
It was Vettel’s 34th win, his 8th of the season and the fifth win in six races. Like the same stage last year it is a strong run of form, which looks set to bring him the championship again. He now has 272 points to Fernando Alonso’s 195, while Kimi Raikkonen moved ahead of Lewis Hamilton for third in the championship.
It is likely Vettel will clinch in either India or Abu Dhabi, unless he wins and Alonso doesn’t finish in Japan.
“I’m loving what I’m doing at the moment,” said Vettel. “It was good to have the safety car come out the first time, we were a couple of corners away from the pit lane entry. Kimi and Romain were very competitive, they were a little better on their tyres.”
But this race could have got away from him, as the tyres were marginal and Lotus was shaping up to challenge him in the closing laps, using its better tyre life. The second safety car put paid to that, giving Vettel and easier run to the finish.
It was a day when tyres were again the talking point, after the spat between Fernando Alonso and Pirelli’s Paul Hembery yesterday. There was a spectacular failure for Sergio Perez, which brought out the first of two safety cars. The limitation was the right front tyre, which grained for most of the competitors. Mark Webber backed up Alonso’s criticisms of Pirelli with some strong words after the race.
The second safety car was deployed for Mark Webber’s car burning on the side of the track. There was a serious breach of process in Race Control, with a fire truck sent out by a local fire chief, before the safety car had been deployed. This is likely to lead to heavy sanction for the local organisers. Vettel did the right thing and brought the field down to a slower pace as they saw the amazing sight of a fire truck trundling down the road.
The outstanding driver of the day was Nico Hulkenberg, who held off Lewis Hamilton to finish fourth in the Sauber, having kept Alonso behind him for the whole race.
The race really came alive in the closing stages after the second safety car, with some fantastic racing between Hulkenberg, Hamilton and Alonso.
At the start, Vettel got away cleanly and untroubled, while Grosjean passed Hamilton for second place into Turn 3. There was chaos behind them there, with five abreast on the approach to the corner, including both Ferraris. Massa spun on the corner apex, almost clouting his team mate, while Hulkenberg grabbed fifth place ahead of the Spaniard. Rosberg held fourth.
Behind them there were some excellent starts for Ricciardo, the only man who started on the medium compound tyres and Maldonado who went from 18th to 9th.
Button damaged his front wing in the Turn 3 melee and had to pit on lap 5 for a new one. He also took on medium tyres and was soon the fastest man on the track, showing that the medium tyre was the best race tyre. Other drivers reacted to this, including Di Resta who pitted on lap 8 with the idea of getting ahead of Perez.
Hamilton and Alonso both pitted on lap 10. Lotus reacted to Hamilton’s early stop and pitted Grosjean. He came out just ahead of Hamilton and managed to hold him off as the medium tyres came up to temperature.
Webber led briefly before stopping on lap 13. Ricciardo on his medium tyres ran fourth on lap 13, at which point the top three cars were covered by just four seconds.
Alonso stayed behind Hulkenberg into the second stint, a far cry from the battle he wanted to have with the championship leader who was 18 seconds up the road.
The cooler temperatures meant that the right front tyres were graining and this made teams think in terms of stopping three times. Drivers needed to either look after the tyres or commit to three stops. Chunks of rubber could be seen coming off the tyres and there were marbles everywhere off line.
Grosjean in the Lotus held onto the leader Vettel in the second stint, with only four seconds the gap. The long wheelbase car is easier on its tyres and this was an important factor in Yeongam.
Ricciardo pitted on lap 18, well short of what teams had imagined possible on the medium tyre. This told the other teams that a three stop was the way to go. Ricciardo rejoined in 13th place.
In the second stint the top three, Vettel, Grosjean and Hamilton were separated by six seconds with Rosberg 13 seconds behind his team mate. Hulkenberg held Alonso behind him despite a severe tyre graining phase.
Raikkonen was a man on the move, another text book performance from the Finn after a disappointing qualifying session. He pitted on lap 26 trying an undercut and it got him in front of Hulkenberg, Grosjean and Alonso. Hamilton was losing plenty of time in this phase, staying out despite lapping three to four seconds per lap to the leaders. He pitted and retained his fourth place, as the gap to the cars behind was so large. Rosberg’s front wing failed when passing his team mate and that dropped him down to 8th.
The safety car came out on lap 32 following a right front tyre failure for Sergio Perez in the McLaren, who had done 21 laps on a set of mediums.
Raikkonen moved up to third place, while Red Bull pitted Webber for a third time due to a puncture. He went onto supersofts, as they didn’t have any more mediums.
At the restart on lap 36, Vettel had both Lotus cars behind him. Grosjean and Vettel on tyres of the same age. Sutil lost control of his car and smashed into Webber, damaging the oil radiator and the Red Bull caught fire. The response from the marshals was pathetic, leaving the car burning for a long time. This brought out the safety car.
Meanwhile Raikkonen had passed Grosjean for second place, so he lined up behind Vettel. Hulkenberg was fourth, Hamilton fifth, Alonso sixth and Button seventh.
The second safety car really helped Vettel; where he would have been marginal on the tyres for a final stint of 19 laps and Raikkonen would have challenged him for the win in the closing laps given Lotus’ better action on the tyres. With the safety car intervention it meant that he had only 14 racing laps to the end.
At the restart, Hamilton and Alonso battled, but Hamilton held the fifth place. Hamilton set about Hulkenberg for the fourth place he had lost due to staying out too long on the tyres earlier.
The German did a brilliant job to hold him behind, but on lap 48 Hamilton passed into Turn 1, Hulkenberg repassed him and then Alonso and Hamilton battled. The race came had come alive in the final stages.
Vettel set a new fastest lap of the race with two laps to go and got a telling off from his engineer.
Grosjean was frustrated to be held behind Raikkonen in the final stages as his tyres were fresher. It came about because he made a mistake which allowed Raikkonen to pass him.
KOREAN GRAND PRIX, 55 laps
1. Vettel Red Bull 1h43:13.701
2. Raikkonen Lotus + 4.200
3. Grosjean Lotus + 4.900
4. Hulkenberg Sauber + 24.100
5. Hamilton Mercedes + 25.200
6. Alonso Ferrari + 26.100
7. Rosberg Mercedes + 26.600
8. Button McLaren + 32.200
9. Massa Ferrari + 34.300
10. Perez McLaren + 35.100
11. Gutierrez Sauber + 35.900
12. Bottas Williams + 47.000
13. Maldonado Williams + 50.000
14. Pic Caterham + 1:03.500
15. van der Garde Caterham + 1:04.500
16. Bianchi Marussia + 1:07.900
17. Chilton Marussia + 1:12.900
18. Vergne Toro Rosso + 2 laps
19. Ricciardo Toro Rosso + 3 laps
20. Sutil Force India + 5 laps