[Images: Mark Thompson, Paul Gilham, Clive Mason/Getty | Andy Wong, Mark Baker, Greg Baker/AP]
After rain devastated the qualifying sessions scheduled in Japan two weeks ago, qualifying on the new Korean circuit in Yeongam went off without a hitch on Saturday. Returning to their pole-dancing form, Red Bull pulled off an indomitable 1-2 qualification to seize the front row; Sebastian Vettel claimed pole position and championship leader Mark Webber lined up right beside him. Their chief rival, Fernando Alonso, landed his Ferrari in third beside McLaren's Lewis Hamilton in fourth, followed by Mercedes' Nico Rosberg (5th), Ferrari's Felipe Massa (6th), McLaren's defending champion Jenson Button (7th), Renault's Robert Kubica (8th), Mercedes' Michael Schumacher (9th) and Williams' Rubens Barrichello just ahead of his own teammate in 10th. The remaining midfielders and backmarkers followed from there.
Race organizers were not as fortunate with the weather on race day, however, as they had been in the run-up. Torrential downpours forced a ten-minute delay of the start, and once the grand prix did get underway, the procession followed for the opening laps behind the safety car. The Mercedes-Benz SLS turned out to have the only clear view of the track, the falling rain and the displaced water from the tires all but completely obscuring vision for the following drivers.
Alonso called it the worst conditions he'd ever driven in, and on lap 3 the red flag was waived to delay the race once again. The cars retook their positions on the grid, and the drivers were permitted to get out and walk around while the marshals waited for the weather to clear. That didn't happen for about another hour, when the race resumed with the safety car again leading the way.
This parade proceeded until lap 18, when the conditions finally cleared enough to withdraw the safety car and let the race begin in earnest. As soon as it did, Michael Schumacher demonstrated his superior rain-driving abilities in moving past Kubica for 8th place. With the cars still closely stacked together, a battle ensued between Schumacher, Button and Massa for P6, while up ahead an ambitious Rosberg squeezed past Hamilton for P4.
The first big shock of the day came on the following lap, when a small error sent Webber spinning in his Red Bull. Had it been at a wider corner, it might have been recoverable, but the championship leader hit the wall and was struck by Robserg's Mercedes as he bounced off. Both drivers were out of the race practically before it had even gotten underway, and the safety car was deployed once again.
With two hard-charging frontrunners out of the picture, Vettel remained in the lead, with a Ferrari-McLaren staggered order of Alonso/Hamilton/Massa/Button closing in behind. Schumacher followed in sixth ahead of Kubica, Hulkenberg, Barrichello and Sutil.
The safety car left the circuit again on lap 24 and the race resumed. Schumacher overtook a troubled Button for P5 on lap 27. Virgin's Lucas di Grassi spun into the wall for the day's third retirement, while back in the garage, Trulli climbed out of his malfunctioning Lotus to mark retirement number four.
Lap 29 saw Button pit from 6th, only to rejoin in 12th place in dense traffic. Hulkenberg followed a lap later from 8th, rejoining 10th only to lose another position to Renault's Vitaly Petrov heading into the first corner past the start/finish straight.
Another pair were off the wet track on lap 31 when Toro Rosso's Sebastien Buemi and Virgin's Timo Glock collided, an incident investigated by the officials but ultimately dismissed from any further action. The safety car deployed once again as Hamilton, Massa, Schimahcer, Kubica and several more dove into the pits. Vettel and Alonso stayed out on the clearing track.
Once the two leaders did
pit, Vettel retained his lead. A problematic tire gun forced Alonso to rejoin behind Hamilton in third. Massa was now in fourth, his old mentor Schumacher right behind in fifth, Barrichello in sixth, Petrov in seventh, Hulkenberg in eighth, Kubica in nineth and Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi in tenth while Jenson Button lagged behind in twelfth place behind Force India's Tonio Liuzzi.
By lap 35, with 20 to go, every driver still on the track had already pitted, the damaged cars were cleared, the safety car was withdrawn once again and racing got back under way. It wasn't long before Hamilton ran wide to allow Alonso to slip back into second position, Button doing the same a couple of laps later to drop even further to fourteenth place.
Lotus' Heikki Kovalainen was handed a drive-through penalty speeding in pit lane, and on lap 38 Kobayashi forced Force India's Sutil off the track to end the latter's race. In the final laps, Hamilton began closing in on Alonso as the two took turns (along with Vettel and Massa) setting fast laps as the rain came and went intermittently.
Vitaly Petrov lost control of his Renault on lap 41, but that was hardly the last – or the most surprising – retirement left in the race. On lap 46 Alonso passed Vettel for the lead. Hamilton squeezed by as well for second place as the Red Bull went up in a cloud of smoke. Just like that, the team that looked poised to claim the constructors' championship right then and there in Korea was out of the race entirely with two DNFs.
Instead, Fernando Alonso became the first driver to claim the checkered flag in Korea, and with it was elevated to the lead in the drivers' standings for the world championship.
Hamilton came in a solid second place, and Massa completed the Ferrari-dominated podium in third. Schumacher took an fourth place to match his best results so far this season. Kubica followed in fifth, Liuzzi in sixth, Barrichello in seventh, Kobayashi commendably in eighth, his wingman Heidfeld in ninth and Hulkenberg with the final point in tenth. Alguersuari, Button, Kovlainen, Senna and Yamamoto rounded out the finishing order, but were outside the points. Nine drivers failed to make it to the finish line.
Webber now trails Alonso with 220 points to the leader's 231. Hamilton's in third place with 210, Vettel in fourth with 206 and defending champion Button all but completely out of contention with 189. Red Bull still looks poised to seize the constructors' title with 426 combined points to McLaren's 399 and Ferrari's 374, but with two rounds left the titles are still up for grabs as we head halfway around the world in two weeks for the Brazilian Grand Prix, ahead of the subsequent season finale in Abu Dhabi. Stay tuned as it goes right down to the wire.